Last May and June, our daughter Therese and two friends, all a year out of college, walked for over six hundred miles on the millennium-old pilgrimage route from southern France across the Pyrenees and the breadth of northern Spain to St. James Compostela. Therese did not take a single picture. When she got home, she had nothing to show us except the traces of multiple blisters on her feet.
But she had stories about her knees giving out, a stranger who cured her for the time being of a persistent pain. (Another veteran of the pilgrimage remembered two naked menthis Fellini-esque detail still unexplainedstanding beside the trail about a mile apart on a rainy day.) She talked about coming into the small villages along the route, her knees hurting, being too tired to explore the local scenery, and having to share a big room with European strangers who lacked a sense of privacy.
Through her stories ran the motif of fatigue, but also the growing satisfaction, the sense of coming into what was truly human for the first time. She talked about how she and her friends were the only ones who took the arduous walk seriously as a spiritual pilgrimage. The older travelers, mostly Germans, undertook it as a fitness challenge or a later-than-midlife adventure. On the whole, it seemed to her, everybody else wanted to take photographs.
Last May, while Therese was in Spain, I went on a shorter, much less arduous pilgrimage, to Skellig Michael off the coast of County Kerry. This tiny island had been home to a small community of monks who founded their monasterythe westernmost point in Christendom at the timein 588, during the darkest centuries of the Dark Ages. Here, perhaps, was an older solidity, a place “where prayer has been valid,” as T.S. Eliot put it in Little Gidding. Perhaps I would find that “the communication / Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.” But from the moment the boat to Skellig Michael left the pier behind, everyone but me took pictures.
What is it that puts me off about photographers? Anyone who’s ever been in charge of taking pictures at a Thanksgiving dinner or a children’s birthday party knows how abstracting it is. If you have to take the pictures, you can’t be there in the usual sense: you have to be always looking for shots, turning people toward the camera, eyeing the turkey or birthday cake for posterity. But the more you believe in what you’re doing, the more you also believe your presence justifies everything.
The photographers I’m talking about, the true believers, don’t seem absent from where they are, the way people do when their eyes pass over you as they talk on their cell phones. But as Nikon says on its website: “Choose a camera and you’ve taken the first step toward turning fleeting moments into precious memories.” What it says is accurate: the objective of most amateur photography is the conquest of time and distance. The photographs will eventually be the memories as the context drops away. Just go through your old photographs and see.
The great faculty of memory that St. Augustine celebrates in the Confessions has enhanced itself with literal accuracy and indentured itself to technology at the same time. Plato (and not just Plato) worried that even writing things down would supplant the living presence of the truth, but the photograph uncannily holds the present, only the present, this moment forever, while the world goes on.
A veiled Muslim woman once chased my wife through Istanbul trying to get back her stolen image. I understand the impulse. I find myself uncomfortably in the camp of Susan Sontag: “the camera is the ideal arm of consciousness in its acquisitive mood.”
It reminds me of what used to happen whenever one of our children received his or her First Communion with the other children. In the church, parents almost knocked each other down trying to photograph their little ones receiving the Host. Even when the priests asked people not to distract the children with their flashes, they did it anyway, as though the request made no sense to them. Without the picture, they seemed to be saying, what would be the point? At the time, their attitude looked to me like ignorance and arrogance, but I think now that there was a kind of desperation in it: the desire to turn sacraments that they could no longer experience or understand as such into . . . precious memories.
Last weekend, all these meditations were put to the test at the wedding of my daughter Ruth. My attitude toward photography had already wrecked one of the early plans, which was to have the photographer take pictures of the bride and groom and both families before the ceremony to expedite our arrival at the rehearsal afterward. The very idea of it bothered me. Deep tradition holds that the couple should not see each other on their wedding daynot until the wedding march begins, all heads turn, and the bride appears at the back of the church, shining on the threshold. Then the father with his proud, ambivalent smile takes his beautiful daughter through that short pilgrimage down the aisle toward her new life.
Yes, the wedding albums will be pored over for a few generations, but photographs are not the raison d’être; they are the record. For the same reason, my wife and I told the photographer not to take any photographs during the Mass itself.
At the rehearsal, I got an intimation of how this insistence had been understood. After all the bridesmaids had practiced their entrances and arrayed themselves near the altar, the wedding coordinator suddenly stepped back and put her hand on my arm. She asked me if I was superstitious about taking the walk down the aisle with my daughter before the actual wedding. I said no, and it took a few minutes to register what she meant: She thought I was superstitious about the bride and groom not seeing each other. True, weddings engage our natural susceptibility to omens, and of course I was mildly superstitious. But the custom struck me as more like fasting before Massa matter of abstaining from each other’s sight, a kind of purification, a way of heightening and dramatizing the difference of this moment, unforgettable in its feeling, from any other moment of one’s life.
The next day, bride and groom adeptly avoided each other, even in the dangerous environs of the church itself. The hour came. Friends and relatives of both families gathered. The groomsmen processed in, the bridesmaids followed, the wedding march began, the moment arrived, and I walked Ruth down the aisle. Flashes from everywhere, smiles with lensesall the well-meaning friends and family. It would stop when the Mass began. I gave away my daughter, stepped to the pew, smiled at my wife, and watched Ruth and Jude mount the steps to the altar. Therese (no longer quite as footsore) stood beside her sister as maid of honor, with four of her other sisters in line behind her.
Then, ten or fifteen minutes into the Mass, just as Ruth and Jude were about to take their vows, I had the strange sensation that someone was kneeling next to me in the center aisle. Various whirrs and clicks, as thoughsomeone was actually taking pictures, unasked! From the other side of the pew also, in the side aisle, came intermittent flashes, unmistakably from a camera, and my wife and I were both suddenly steaming mad.
It’s difficult to explain this sense of breach and outrage to people for whom photography is an unquestioned good. Photographers like these do not see themselves as intruding upon the event, but as absenting themselves from it in order to bestow the gift of . . . precious memories (which always requires the foreboding ellipsis). They sacrifice their ordinary presence at the mere wedding to become a selfless, invisible recording eye, as though they occupied some interstitial space between the sacred, but still physical one of the church andwhat, exactly? The not-yet-embodied future? It strikes me that they think they are made angels by the camera, observers unobserved.
But there they were, still in their bodies, perfectly visible to everyone.
And who in the world were they? My wife told me later that she stopped the one on the side aisle by catching his eye, shaking her head, and fiercely mouthing the word No. Crestfallen, he retreated. The other one, however, a young woman, angled across the front of the church in front of the pulpit, went through the entrance to the sacristy, and emerged behind a carved wooden grate where she stationed herself for the next half-hour intermittently flashing away like an expert sniper at the bride and groom.
Joy, of course, overcame everything. We all gathered for pictures after the wedding and got to the reception later than planned, but it didn’t matter. Much later in the night, after the last guests had left and we were driving home, my wife told me that she’d found out who the photographers were. One was an old friend of Ruth’s she had asked long before to take pictures at her wedding, but in the rush of preparations, she had forgotten to set the boundaries she made clear for the official photographer. As for the woman, my wife described with a kind of wonder her religious calling and her personal beauty; she was glad that she hadn’t said anything to her, though the anger lingered in us both. Something had been changed, and a little more than images had been taken away. Instead of being in the form, we were being forced by their very presence to see it as an artifact, and the unity of our wills with the couple’s intentions was interrupted.
A wedding ought to have a feel of arrival in the sacrament, a pilgrimage just begun in the world’s body. I think of those monks on Skellig who survived on fish they caught in the mornings, or on gannet and puffin eggs they gathered from nests on the sheer cliffs. They grew a few things on the flat places of the island. Lacking a well or spring, they gathered rainwater in a cistern. Often pinched with hunger and cold, they survived and tried to exercise charity among their small brotherhood. I imagine that they prayed constantly.
In such a life, images did not interest them as they interest photographers. They followed St. Augustine: “I asked the earth; and it answered, I am not He; and whatsoever is therein made the same confession. I asked the sea and the deeps, and the creeping things that lived, and they replied, We are not your God, seek higher than we.”
And yet I imagine that things pressed forward, creaturely and beautiful, everywhere they turned, the admirers of their courage: birds, cliffs, mosses, wildflowers. For them, without the flattery of a world that admires their perceptiveness, each thing is, it “goes itself,” as Gerard Manley Hopkins puts it. They saw without having to say it that the puffin on her narrow perch participates in God’s primary act of existing. An efflorescence of lichens on the inaccessible cliffs is a sign pointing beyond itself, and each patch of grass, each crab or hake from the sea, has a sacramental bearing.
These monks would seek the God who does not appear, not the world that does. And yet the world would rise up before themso I imagineunbidden, in its reality. I find myself wanting to say their things: plate, cup, robe, psalter. They live in a truth that does not realize itself as a picture but as an act: to be.
So let it be with the sacraments. So let it be with my daughter’s wedding.
Glenn Arbery is d’Alzon Visiting Professor at Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts.