We are short of love. That much is certain. It seems that we do not have enough to give, and that we never receive enough. That should be enough to convince us that emotional outpourings are not always outpourings of love. The key is to be found elsewhere: as we have said, it consists in coming back to ourselves, ‘leading out’ and educating ourselves in order to learn, mature and give form and substance to our being. It consists in listening to ourselves rather than seeing – and alienating – ourselves through the gaze of the other. The age of the image gives rise to a deep unease: standards of beauty are forced upon us, appearance becomes oppressive and, whether we like it or not, our self-image is distorted and ‘mediatized’. This is a cruel age, and our unease is painful. The same is increasingly true of all societies, without exception.
It will be noted that the ancient spiritual traditions of both East and West systematically direct the human consciousness towards Nature. Nature is a school, and an initiation. The elements are there, they have surrounded us since childhood, and we are used to them. The awakening of spirituality consists in seeing them differently, in seeing in them signs, celebrations and songs, hymns and prayers to the cosmic order, universal archetypes, the gods or the One. That conversion in our gaze is a conversion of the heart, and marks the transition from the state of one who observes to that of one who loves. Our capacity for knowledge (connaissance), recognition (reconnaissance) and wonder comes from the depths of our subjectivity, from the ‘self’, our consciousness or our hearts. It means that we must distance ourselves from the ‘immediate’ gaze, for proximity, and often for meaning. The old and the familiar then become new. We see other things, things we had overlooked, failed to see or notice . . . or neglected altogether. The elements reveal themselves to us to the precise extent that we are revealed to ourselves, that we see more deeply into things, and that our gaze changes and becomes more intense. Our hearts becomes more understanding, our spiritual discernment grows, our imaginary horizons expand . . . and we feel more love. Whilst the age of frenetic progress and speed encourages us to escape boredom by constantly offering us something new and an ever-expanding range of ‘new products’ and blind consumerism, spiritualities, religions and philosophies ask us to look more closely at what is old, and to find something that is perpetually new within it because, to paraphrase Heraclitus, we never look at it twice in the same way. It is a question of finding something extraordinary in the most familiar and ordinary things: Nature, the sky, the elements, our environment and the people with whom we are most familiar. It is a matter of changing the way we see.
The most ancient traditions invite us to bring about this inner conversion, and it is the initial stage of all spiritual teachings. Traditional African spiritualities (which are too quickly and very inaccurately described as ‘animist’) and Amerindian spiritualities echo the teachings of Hinduism, Buddhism and the revelations of the monotheisms: the metaphysical exists within the physical, the extraordinary lies hidden in the ordinary, the sacred haunts the profane, and meaning lies hidden in the essence of the elements. In her Weavings (1988), Esther de Waal notes that, in our technological age, we are capable of seeing ‘more’ but actually see ‘less’. Surface area is inversely proportional to depth: the Celtic spiritual traditions, she points out, integrate God, the sacred and the extraordinary into the most ordinary aspects of daily life. The English poet William Blake had the same intuition and tried to revolutionize the way we see things when he wrote: ‘To see a world in a grain of sand / And a heaven in a wild flower / Hold infinity in the palm of your hand / And eternity in an hour’. The French poet Baudelaire experienced the same revelation. The Flowers of Evil already displayed his interest in vision, but it was between the publication of that collection and Petits Poèmes en Prose (Little Prose Poems) that he realized that the poet must seek to extract the extraordinary from the ordinary. The alchemist of the word, who ‘extracts the quintessence from all things’ and turns ‘mud’ into ‘gold’, must change the way he sees things. For anyone with an uncommon vision, Beauty lies in what is common. Rainer Maria Rilke repeats the same truths about the spirituality of art: learning to look is one way of learning to love. Or perhaps it is the other way around. Perhaps learning to love teaches us to see better. Or perhaps both are true at the same time and in contradictory fashion, with both a tension and a harmony between them. The French poet Eluard argued that we have to love in order to understand, but that truth does not exclude the possibility that we may have to understand in order to love. When it comes to love, Aristotle’s logic is probably incomplete or relative: two conflicting theses can be true at the same time, for the same person.
It is with this gaze from within that we should observe the women and men around us. We should learn to love, and learn to look; learn to look and learn to love. Going beyond appearances, roles and functions, and familiarizing ourselves with the inner horizons of those we love out of habit, or because our drives or a sudden flash of desire make us love them. We must rediscover the paths of wonderment, and try to find something original, extraordinary and new, not ‘in the depths of the unknown’ (Baudelaire) or in the ‘latest model’, but in what we know best and what is most naturally in front of our eyes. Transform the presence of beings into landscapes we have yet to discover, and the elements that constitute them into signs. Rather than multiplying things in a quantitative sense, make their qualities denser: this is the exact opposite of consumerism in love, as it is in friendship, and as it is in our relationship with technological progress. A different gaze at oneself a different gaze at you. Observe our mother, father, children and those around us with the particular attentiveness of the love that goes in search of the extraordinary miracle of presence, the gift of the heart and the singularity that is ‘you’. ‘Thank’ God, the cosmos, Nature and ‘the other’ who created us, in their mirror, with their presence and through their gaze. Look, love, thank . . . love, look, thank . . . thank, love, look . . . etc. Infinite combinations of love.
‘You’ are like no one else. My heart knows it, and my gaze proves it to you. As all hearts know, love needs proof. Learning to love those we love better is a constant spiritual exercise. Modern psychologies keep going back to the first truths that the world’s first spiritualities have already transmitted to us. ‘Love must be reinvented,’ said Rimbaud in his adolescent keenness and disappointment, but perhaps it just has to be rediscovered. Taking time, standing back, pondering, evaluating and setting out: love is like the spiritual quest because it is a quest for meaning and wellbeing. It is up to every one of us to discover the extraordinary that lies hidden in the heart of the all too ordinary presences in our daily lives. A character trait, an emotion, a smile, an expression, a look, a feeling, a wound, a silence or an absence: everything speaks to those who know how to listen. Listen without passing judgement, or rather judge that there is nothing on which to pass judgement. To judge is human, and to judge is to love. Suspending one’s judgement is a better way of loving . . . and to love, in spite of judgement, is truly to love.