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Photography
Peter Shikli
2 May 2013


RedwoodsEver since I was a catechism-toting Catholic youngster, I was ordered to thank God for one thing or another. Prayers seemed to divide into things we asked for and things we were thankful for. Whether gospels or psalms, it seemed that saintly folk spent a fair amount of their time thanking God for just about everything.

So why does God have this insatiable appetite for gratitude? The conundrum is that I was also taught the evils of pride, of how the Pharisees helped the poor only so others would notice. I was taught the value of the selfless person who pursued acts of kindness without regard to earthly rewards.

The first question that kept coming around like a bad penny was, "If I am a good person by not seeking thanks, why does God, the definition of good, break this rule so often?"

The second question, decidedly more primitive, was "Why does God give a snot?" He clearly doesn't need our validation to go about his business. Whether we thank him or not, he continues his grand plan. I saw him even growing annoyed with the constant groveling.

For years, I swept such questions under the rug that I call the mystery of faith. That rug is embroidered with, "At your pay grade, you are not required to understand everything."

A backbreaking job, but somebody has to do itWith all that neatly tucked away, I took up photography, a field that I was sure had less to do with spirituality than apertures and f-stops. Mastering the technical challenges of all the camera settings certainly seemed daunting, along with all the options of Photoshop postprocessing, but with enough determination, the pieces eventually fell into place. Those things were designed by humans, after all, to be used by other humans.

The artsy side of photography, the composition of a great shot, the painting with light, now that was different. The pieces do not fall into place. It is not a destination and cannot be mastered as much as experienced. The photographer launches himself on a lifelong process of seeing instead of merely looking. He becomes a hunter of beauty and wonder, poking under every rock and behind every cloud.

I used to march head down on a trail, making good time toward the waterfall icon on my map. I would look up for a stunning mountain, even stop briefly for a deer interruption, but my mission was to cover the miles. Photography changed all that. I became the laggard, lost in the elegance of a pine cone, or leaning over my tripod observing a faraway eagle's nest.

In a classic quality vs. quantity tradeoff, my mileage dropped, yet every mile overflowed with grandeur. Exasperated fellow hikers assumed I was just tinkering with camera dials, but I was actually immersing in the splendor of the world around me, discovering that wonder, epiphanies, enchantment, and miracles had been hiding all that time under my busy feet.

Though people started admiring my pictures, which my ego was ever ready to welcome, I realized that the pictures were just my tourist trinkets from my voyages to a world where I could touch creation as never before. The realization was that my camera had always been a crutch to carry me where my feet alone could not; a passport to a faraway place that had always been inches away.

"We don't go fishing to catch fish," a friend of mine once told me. "The supermarket is the place for that. We go fishing to have an excuse to sit in a boat, to have a ready rationalization for spouses and friends who would otherwise not understand why we want to sit in the middle of nature's silent majesty. A nibble on my hook is often just the intermission."

Inspiration HappensWonder and discovery produced swirls of feelings, not least of which is gratitude to have lucked into such intimate contact with nature. I thanked a flower for unfolding its petals with just the right shading. Embarrassed at my attempts to communicate with inanimate objects, my gratitude eventually spilled over to whatever or whoever had been behind the non-stop miracles.

This compelled me to roll back the corner of my rug and dust off the questions about why God encouraged Christians to go around thanking him. It wasn't that he needed the attaboys. It wasn't about him at all. It was about us. It was the way to get us to slow down our short lives to uncover and appreciate the world around us. By stopping to thank God for the smile on a child's face, he makes sure we don't miss out on what is important.

More pieces started falling into place. The Great Spirit had invented a mental trick to help us drink more fully from the cup he placed before us. And there could be only one reason for his desire for us to value our existence more fully; he loved us in some curious way — yet another discovery to be thankful for.

Pulling it all together, I realized that the early Christians promoted thanking God because photography had yet to be invented.




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