What’s the most famous painting in the world? The Mona Lisa, I suppose. I visited the Louvre not long ago and watched people clustering around Leonardo’s painting, all of them facing away from the picture, holding up smartphones for Insta-grabs of that half-smile next to their own unenigmatic grins.
Taking selfies is a way of evacuating the self from the immediate experience of the world. They are, in a real sense, un-selfies.
All right, so what’s the next most famous painting in the world? A contender must be Rembrandt’s The Night Watch. Part of what makes this picture extraordinary is the care Rembrandt takes with the unnoticeable. He’s recognised how the unnoticed is vital to how we perceive the world around us. What we don’t notice is as important as what we do. The noticed emerges from the unnoticed.
It’s this that intrigued French philosopher, Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961) about The Night Watch. Right in the centre of the picture, he noted, are the Captain, dressed in black, holding out his left hand, gesturing to his Lieutenant, dressed in yellow. Merleau-Ponty draws our attention to how the shadow of the Captain’s hand falls across the Lieutenant’s body.
We see that the hand pointing toward us in The Nightwatch is truly there only when we see that its shadow on the captain’s body presents it simultaneously in profile.Merleau-Ponty, Eye and Mind
He has the ranks and characters muddled here, but who cares? He goes on:
To see the object, it is necessary not to see the play of light and shadows around it.Merleau-Ponty, Eye and Mind
Merleau-Ponty’s point is that the very unnoticeable-ness of the shadow is a vital part of how we see things in the world. When I look down at my desk, I’m not generally alert to most of what’s in my field of vision: the shadows of pens and pencils on the bookshelf, the smear of reflected window in the curved surface of an old peanut butter jar, the mirroring of a lamp flex in my desk’s shiny top. I don’t notice them, but were they suddenly to vanish, my world would appear cartoonish, unfinished, lacking depth, unreal.
Unlike Stay Home, the government’s new directive, Stay Alert, has biblical precedents and theological implications.
But take care and watch yourselves closely, so as neither to forget the things that your eyes have seen nor to let them slip from your mind all the days of your life.Deuteronomy 4:9
‘Watch yourselves’ could sound like a license to take selfies. But it’s precisely the opposite; it’s a charge to remain alert. And underlying many of Jesus’ commandments in the gospels is this notion of alertness.
Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.Matthew 24:42-44
To be ready, to be awake and truly alert is a special sort of stance on the world. It’s not an adrenaline-fuelled fight or flight readiness; it’s not a hoovering up of information to be stored away; it’s more like an openness, an unconditional availability to the event of God’s grace in the world.
Today we are being asked to notice what previously would have passed without our being aware of it at all. The way we hold out our hands, grandly like the captain in Rembrandt’s picture, or less grandly to receive change at the checkout. The way we greet each other, console each other, the way we ask a friend to take a sip from our glass – ‘Does this taste off to you?’ The way we share a tub of popcorn, or the Peace. All these things, the habitually unnoticed background buzz of human intercourse, are suddenly brought into sharp focus. This is a blessing.
But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Quite the reverse. Often it’s easier to look the other way, to take a selfie, than to put ourselves – awake – in the midst of a demanding reality.
When was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison and did not take care of you?Matthew 25:44
We didn’t see you, Lord. We need to see, to turn back, awake, to face the world, alert, like Rembrandt. To see God’s grace behind everything, giving everything depth.
In a lecture given to the Societé française de philosophie in November 1946, Merleau-Ponty describes Christianity as ‘replacing the separated absolute by the absolute in men … God ceases to be an external object in order to mingle in human life.’ In the abstract language of twentieth century French philosophy, Merleau-Ponty is describing – in essence – what Paul expresses in the letter to the Philippians when he tells how God
Emptied himself,Philippians 2:7-8
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself,
and became obedient to the point of death –
even death on a cross.
The absolute chooses not to stand outside of creation, but to enter it. We must imitate Him, entering the world afresh, through love, and utterly awake. To be alert to the world is to be open to God’s presence all around us all the time.
God loves lerts. So be a lert.
And may He bless you all,
Across all of Brian Eno’s vast discography, this is a favourite. It’s from an album called Drums between Bells, a collaboration between Eno and the poet, Rick Holland. This is called The Real.
open us to the world,
draw us into the midst of things
turn us to face away from ourselves
and towards the reality of your presence
all around us all the time: the ground of our being
born among us,
humbly dying for us,
give us strength to follow you
the obedience always to serve you,
readiness to live our lives patterned on you,
our Saviour, our Redeemer: the source of our life
inspire us, impel us
to live always to your glory
alert to your grace in every encounter
attentive to your will in all our undertakings
awake to your rich providence in all that befalls us
that we might know you and love you: breath of our breath
A M E N