There is a theological principal called Via Negativa. Thomas Aquinas said you could describe God by describing what God is not. Artists can make powerful images by focusing on negative space: helping us to see between the lines as it were, revealing beauty we do not usually notice. Try coloring outside the lines in coloring book, leaving the image undisturbed; you might see something startlingly beautiful that you would not have noticed if you had just done things the usual way.
Today I picked up a small cross stitch project I have been avoiding for a long time. It was more than 60% complete, but it was hard to track my progress and know where to begin even when I looked at the chart.
So I picked up a highlighter and counted the stitches on the project, using the dark brown center of the flower as my landmark, and then highlighted the chart to mark the stitches I had already done. As I counted and highlighted, it become clearer as to what colors still needed to be added, and where stitches were missing. A pattern emerged: there was one main color missing, and a place where I had used the wrong color thread.
By marking out what I did not need to do, it become clearer where the new stitches belonged. Via negativa works in cross stitching, in theology, in art, and in many other areas of life.
We can be overwhelmed by choices: paint colors for the kitchen, type of car, school option for your children, to which charity you should donate, which healthy eating regime will be best for you, what to wear, or where to start with cleaning out the garage or the basement.
Sometimes it’s good to redirect our gaze and focus our attention on what we know won’t work for us and what does not appeal to us. When we know what we don’t want, then we can see more clearly what might work for us, and narrows down the options.
When you go for a walk in the dark, you bring a flashlight so you can light up the path and not trip over a root or rock and fall flat on your face. The light focuses our vision. It also limits our vision. When you turn off the flashlight, stand still and just look around, when your eyes adjust, you can see the things that were hidden by the beam.
Sometimes the best way to see the way ahead is to shift your focus. I overcame my mental block with the stitching project by shifting my focus for a while, using via negativa to make positive progress.
If we keep our head down, always looking out for the cracks in the sidewalk, we can wind up stunned from our collision with a light pole. If we always look around, then we can stumble over broken pavement or fall off the curb. Changing our perspective, deliberately choosing to look at what stuff we don’t need in our closet anymore and consciously walking around the block or down the hall of our apartment building, praying for each household as beloved of God, rather than noting them as part of the scenery of our life, can reveal to us new possibilities. With new possibilities, comes the hope for peace and beauty.
Today's Prayer is a poem by Wendell Berry: The Real Work It may be that when we no longer know what to do we have come our real work, and that when we no longer know which way to go we have come to our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.