A ledgerstone at St. Mary’s, Chester



O Lord, make haste to help us.

– From The Evening Prayer, the Fourth Sunday of Lent

Seeing from faraway

“This part of optics, when well understood, shows us how we may make things a very long distance off appear as if placed very close, and large near things appear very small, and how we may make small things placed at a distance appear any size we want, so that it may be possible for us to read the smallest letters at incredible distances, or to count sand, or seed, or any sort of minute objects.”

-Robert Grosseteste ( 1175 – 1253)

I left my prescription glasses behind in Johannesburg. So for the first couple of days, England was blurry (and a sort of attendant anxiety from not being able to see properly) – until an optician fitted me with new ones.

I have only been away from South Africa for a week and matters near seem less blurry than matters faraway.

Or at least, at times: an intermittent aberration. A switch of focus.

This morning, the place I left behind is blurry. Even when I look in familiar places – at Daily Maverick articles on my mobile, Zapiro’s political cartoons, images of President Cyril Ramaphosa or the EFF in their red dungarees – things are somehow blurry at a distance.

It’s not a blurriness of insight, of interest, or a failure to engage. I daily flick through the plethora of news sites for word of my old country.

Its like a lens: adjust it to see things at a distance and the foreground goes out of focus. Adjust it to bring things close by into focus, and objects in the distance go out of focus.

This blurring is not altogether a bad thing. The depth of field of a camera lens permits a controlled focus for intimate portraits; extraneous detail is softened. It remains an essential part of the picture, but the emphasis has shifted. (The human eye is no different: peripheral vision has a different function to central vision.

The optician used a sophisticated imaging machine to photograph the retina of both my eyes. On the screen hovered two orange, planet-like orbs with dark canals spreading out from their poles – which turned out to be the optic nerve surrounded by blood vessels. The optician confirmed that both my eyes were healthy. Looking at the images on screen it occurred to me how we assume that seeing is all about the eyes, and of course in one sense this is accurate. But seeing is also how the brain reconstructs and processes the images which pass through the eye. When we feel we understand a concept, we may say I see. The seeing is inside us.

So what is the blurring within me, of deep concerns, hopes, fears, loves? 

From what I have read of and about exiles, refugees and emigrés, for many the focus of their lens remains on a point on the horizon, the place from which they came – the gaze of nostalgia, regret, or consolation and relief.

Nikos Papastergiadis writes of “…the pain of uprooting and the insight gained from ‘another way of seeing’” when analyzing John Berger’s writing. He argues that displacement, migration and exile are not merely economic, social or political facts, but “… an inner condition, central to the postmodern self.”¹

In a sense, distance may actually augment one’s vision: the face of distant loved ones in the bright circle of the lens has an intensity about it.

But outside the bright circle, all is dark.




1. Modernity as Exile: The Stranger in John Berger’s writing by Nikos Papastergiadis





The Third Sunday of Lent

Chester, England.

“Chester speaks at each footstep to the traveller of the fragility of human things and the ravages of time: but it speaks of them philosophically. This language of the stones has nothing in it sad and despairing; on the contrary, it bears to the most perturbed hearts a feeling of peace and soft melancholy.”

– French writer, politician- and amateur geologist Henri-François-Alphonse Esquiros (1812-1876)


What is a suitable hymn at this hour?

Yesterday I walked to the ruins of a 13th century church, and my dog chased squirrels there, leaping over old stones in the snow.

So what is a suitable hymn at the evening hour, Blessed God of compassion and mercy, now that the light fades and the pubs begin to fill, and last minute shoppers head home with a bargain?

I am neither here nor there

Thou art neither here nor there;

“God’s silence, the eerie stillness, is filled by the Word without words, by Him who is above all names, by Him who is all in all. And this silence is telling us that He is here.[1]

“The arrival of Lent alerts us that something is about to change. The short, somber days of winter give way to the colour and extended sunlight of spring…” [2]

Are we just fooling ourselves? is there change beyond the change of seasons, or is this the turning of some indifferent samsara wheel, a “cycle of aimless drifting, wandering … mundane existence”? [3]

Perhaps a suitable hymn is a A Song of Penitence, it being Lent, and that’s all good and well for the man or woman of faith, the man or woman who believes there is a God above or within who loves us, who sees us, who leans down to hear, for the man or woman seeking and finding the ashes of absolution, whose God like some winged Assyrian deity “… rides upon the cherubims, flying upon the wings of the wind”, a great King above all gods, a God in his dark and secret place, his pavilion surrounded by thick clouds and dark water. This great King above all gods (in whose hand are all the corners of the earth, in whose hand are lightning arrows and hail-stones, and coals of fire) – this great king one hopes will hold – dear God please hold! – in his hand also the children of Syria and Rohingya Province and elsewhere, the children of dust and blood and war-rubble, their suffering the work of governments in the West or the East, the North or the South, even though all the corners of the earth are in the hands of the Blessed God of compassion and mercy.

Are you “God of infinite distance and absolute closeness”, or the Deus absconditus – hidden, silent, even (to the immense relief of mocking atheists) – absent?

It is not the Cherubim that announce the break of day: A single small bird sings tentatively at my window.

will-you-hear-me? will-you-hear-me?

Yesterday, in the street, a shabby group of evangelists with a small drum and a poorly tuned banjo shouted about this Great God in whose hand are all the corners of the earth, and I accepted one of their little tracts out of pity. The chief evangelist among them – a sort of hybrid prophet/hobo – shouted about penitence, it being Lent and all, and there was spittle in his stubble, and I hardly understood his northern accent, but I got the general idea.

For a man proclaiming God’s Redeeming Love, his shouting was loveless.

Pity turns quickly to derision; a heart grows cold surrounded by thick clouds and dark water.

(And suddenly I miss the black Zionist Christians back in Jozi, their singing circles of freshly laundered blue and green and white, and lovingly embroidered stars and crosses, their drums, their wooden staffs, driving out demons, their baptisms in the spruit under a cloudless ultramarine sky.)

This Third Sunday in Lent, my joy is in the sweet small voice of a single bird.



[1] Karl Rahner

[2] Lenten Hours: The Art of Medieval Time By Griffin Oleynick

[3] Encyclopedia of Global Religion