“Look for the tree.” I would tell friends and family when they first came to visit me in Philadelphia. “It’s the only one for blocks.”
In 2010, I moved to Philadelphia to serve as a full-time volunteer, leaving a full-time job behind to serve as a parish outreach minister in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia. The tree in front of our volunteer house was a point of reference. It was a marker, rising above the row homes and trash-strewn streets of the neighborhood. As it came into focus, it guided others to us, while also serving as a sign of what had been and a signal of what could be.
A few weeks ago, I sat in the campus ministry office where I now work looking at a picture of that tree projected on the wall. I was preparing a presentation for a group of students who would return early from break for an urban service immersion trip to the neighborhood. A 30-minute drive from our campus, it might as well have been a different world.
Projecting images of local sights, empty factories, vacant lots and street art on my office wall, I looked at a neighborhood in which I, like the tree in in front of my house, had set my roots. It is a place I love. A neighborhood full of stories and cast in contrast. The place where I found myself called to actively pursue a call to religious life.
Scrolling through pictures, I looked up to find one of the college’s housekeepers in my office. I greeted her and we made small talk as she emptied the trash cans in the office. “Wait a second,” she paused as she saw the pictures on the wall, “Is that Kensington?” I nodded.
“That’s my neighborhood!” she exclaimed with pride. We talked about our mutual love of the neighborhood and what it means to us. “I can’t imagine living anywhere else,” she added.
“Kensington is just one of those places,” I agreed, knowing from experience it had the power to capture hearts. “Is there anything you want me to tell the students about the neighborhood?”
She nodded slowly as she stopped to think. And then she offered a statement that has sat with me for weeks. “Yeah, tell them it’s beautiful. You just have to be a visionary to see it.”
You have to be a visionary. I made sure to tell the students. You have to be a visionary – to see the beauty, to hold the truth, to see in a way others don’t. And they did.
Yet, even after the trip was over, I couldn’t seem to shake that phrase.
You have to be a visionary.
That’s a statement bigger than one neighborhood. It’s a lesson for life; it’s a phrase that applies to our life as a church and our call as believers. We have to be visionary. We believe in what we cannot see and, through faith, we learn to see in ways unknown and unclear. In time, vision progresses. We cannot know what tomorrow holds, but we can learn to see the signs of the times and anticipate what may be to come.
I remember what I first saw on the streets of Kensington as a volunteer. In a place that looked to others like it was falling apart, doomed to failure, I learned to see with the eyes of my heart. Seeing in that way taught me that there is always more to be revealed. If you look deep enough, there is always beauty to be found, faith to be built and relationships to be fostered. Those lessons led me to a life committed to seeing in a new way as a vowed woman religious. I could see and feel God working in my life, and so I saw the necessity of becoming a visionary.
We all need to become visionary. It is our call and response as believers.
Visionaries deal in mystery and mysticism, most often in the opposite order. Karl Rahner famously wrote that, “The Christian of the future will be a mystic or will not exist at all.” Mysticism by Rahner’s estimation is foundationally “a genuine experience of God emerging from the very heart of our existence.” If we can vision from our most intimate experiences of God and live out of that pure love, the love we dedicate our lives to, we will find a home where mystery is not fear-filled but gives us the opportunity to see what may not be readily apparent.
This is what the visionary does. She sees what is already present but may not be apparent. The visionary understands the essence of our being and our call and from that looks forward to what might be. Almost like looking at the portions of a photo that are out of focus, the visionary looks into what is unclear and tries to make out the hints of images. She gazes into a depth of field, expanding her field of vision in the process.
Ultimately, what she sees is more unclear than clear. A formless future, though, is not cause for despair; it is grounds for hope. Hope that things will come into focus in due time. All we need to do for now is keep our eyes – spiritual, institutional, and personal – fixed on Jesus (Heb 12:2). That singular point of focus will guide us and as we see all things through that view, we can’t help but see what is closest to that focal point (Jesus) as the clearest vision in our sight of what should be. We do it together, discovering in mutuality, to, in Pope Francis’s words, “live the mysticism of encounter.”
As a young woman religious, I realize more and more that this type of visioning is being engrained in me. When I and many others speak about our discernment, the notion that “we knew what we were getting ourselves into” is thrown around. That phrase is both true and laughably untrue. I knew that I would most likely enter my congregation alone, and I knew that there would be an imbalance demographically within religious life, resulting at some point in a rapid decline in numbers. I knew these facts, yet I don’t know if I fully knew what I was getting myself into. How could I have? I failed to grasp the mystery of it all. I could see these things would happen, but the steps beyond those inevitabilities I couldn’t see. And to be honest, I still can’t.
The only option I have is to live the reality of this life and look forward guided by what God makes clear. That is a vision held in the grasps of God – deeply experienced and gloriously mysterious.
Just like the blind man in the eighth chapter of Mark’s Gospel, we come to see gradually. Our first vision may in fact look like trees, walking. Unclear we have to trust that clarity will come. Yet in the blur we see the rootedness of each person and the roots of our congregations and church. Our vision for the future draws from these roots and has the potential to continue growing towards the sky.
Perhaps it isn’t a bad thing to grow into our vision in this way. It helps us realize that, in fact, the vision isn’t ours; it’s God’s. We walk by faith, learning to see as God wants us to and thus, learning to live as we are authentically called to. Developing through encounter a vision of what has been, what is and what could be.
From there we can go out to the places in our world that seem unimaginably bleak. We can share hope and grow in vision both of being and of heart. There we will discover clarity that exists in what is unclear. And we will find that to be visionary we must be open to a vision far beyond our grasp. We must learn to see the trees and to be visionary enough to trust that they will reveal to us God’s forest.
[Colleen Gibson, SSJ, is a Sister of Saint Joseph of Philadelphia. Author of the blog Wandering in Wonder, she currently serves as assistant director of campus ministry at Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia.]