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Breaking Open the Ordinary

By Sandy Prather


Close calls: many times we look but don’t really see


It was a close call. Our summer vacation road trip and we were travelling at 90 km per hour on a connector highway. Preparing to merge onto a freeway where the posted speed was 110 km, I shoulder checked, glanced into side- and rear-view mirrors and, one more time, the side-view mirror: all clear. I started my merge, taking one more quick shoulder check as I did so. There, zooming up in the lane I was about to enter, was a half-ton truck pulling a trailer. I twisted back into my lane as it passed us at about 130 km. Shaken, I exclaimed, “I didn’t even see him!” My passenger queried, a little excitedly, “How could you not see him? He’s huge!” “I didn’t see him because I wasn’t looking,” I replied.

I thought about that later. I had of course, been looking, but not at the right time. He was there, coming up fast, but it was only the second look, nearly not taken, that allowed me to see him. Silently, I gave thanks for such second looks, which let us see what isn’t apparent at first glance.

That relationship between looking and seeing is an interesting one. “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see,” Henry David Thoreau writes. Our assumption is that we look and see “reality” but sometimes it’s good to re-examine that, asking what precisely are we looking at and how does that determine what we are seeing? Sound confusing? A few examples might help.

One of my granddaughters turned 13 a few months ago. For about a year, she and her parents have been at loggerheads. I have had more than a few lengthy conversations with my daughter, her mother, about how terrible she and her husband are finding these teenaged years. I hear a litany of complaints: a consistently messy bedroom that never gets cleaned, lots of attitude toward her parents and siblings, moodiness, lack of communication, laziness, etc. The list goes on and on. Her mom looks and sees one thing, a daughter she fears she is losing, a child she can’t control.

Here’s one of the delightful tasks of grandparenting: helping the parents to take a second look. I look at my granddaughter and see not a wild teen, but a beautiful young girl on a threshold of adulthood, growing, maturing and testing her strength and her freedom. I remind my daughter of all the things she and her husband seem to be overlooking: this girl is a straight-A student, well-liked and respected by her teachers; she’s an excellent, high-achieving athlete, balancing school work while playing on several different competitive sports teams; she is a warm and supportive friend, an affectionate niece to numerous aunts, uncles and a loving, kind grandchild to both sets of grandparents. She’s bright, funny, articulate and a wonderful girl.

When I remind my daughter of all these things, when I point out what I see when I look at my granddaughter, my daughter always sighs and agrees, “I know she is all those things. I just don’t often see it!” And that’s true. She needs to take that second look.

A second example: I have a friend who recently underwent cancer treatments. Each time he came back from his chemotherapy treatments at the Cancer Institute, he was full of admiration and praise for what he had experienced there. It was, he said, a place full of caring, compassionate and kind people. It was, he said, what the kingdom of God might look like and he wished that all the world was as kind and gentle as that place. I marvelled at him. Where many people, patients and loved ones accompanying them, might see a cancer hospital as a place marked by pain and suffering, he saw grace and joy.

A final example: How do we “see” our church? People have looked at the Catholic Church and seen many things. Some look and see a rigid institution governed more by rules, laws and dogmatic teaching than by mercy and love. Others look and see only the scandals, abuses and coverups, a church intent on maintaining power. Some see a patriarchal and rich church, in love with pomp and ceremony, lacking sensitivity to women, the poor, the LGBT community and divorced and remarried Catholics. And, in truth, all those things are there to be seen.

But perhaps one of the great gifts of Pope Francis is that he is causing people to take a second look. From the very beginning of his papacy, his way of “being church” has caught people’s attention. They are looking again and seeing other things. The eschewing of pomp and ceremony; the rejection of the trappings of power and prestige; the simplicity of life; the reclaiming the gospel as a gospel of joy and mercy; the proclamation of a God of justice who stands by the side of the poor; the upholding of creation as sacred: these too are in and of the church. They too are there to be seen if we have the eyes, if we take the second look.

Eyes to see: Jesus talks about those. The second look . . . and the question, “What precisely are you looking at, and indeed, what do you need to see?”

Prather, BEd, MTh, is a teacher and facilitator in the areas of faith and spirituality. She was executive director at Star of the North Retreat Centre in St. Albert, Alta., for 21 years and resides in Sherwood Park with her husband, Bob. They are blessed with four children and 10 grandchildren.