The Christian Mystery, precisely as a mystery of redemption, demands that the believer learn to recognize that hidden within even the greatest of falls is the possibility to experience a transformative moment of grace. This is true most importantly, and most impressively, on the plane of human moral and spiritual action and decision making. It is also true on the much smaller, and humbler, stage of how one relates to the variety of failures and mistakes that make up so much of the experience of life.
All too often we run from our mistakes, reject them or simply seek to make a quick recovery and move on with whatever superficial learning a few instants of reflection might provide. The failed work is quickly set aside. And worse, all too often initial mistakes, initial failures discourage us and prevent us from moving forward along that particular path. I have been thinking of this of late while I have been taking time to go through what has become a very large archive of photos. While I am very pleased with a number of the shots in my collection, I am also conscious of how many of them are, bluntly put, failures – out of focus, improperly framed, over or under exposed – products of my own attempts to teach myself something of the serious photographer’s technique and trade, or simply the result of my own haste and lack of preparation and attentiveness.
The temptation to simply delete them is great. Sometimes, however, the failed photograph merits a second, or even a third, look. This is not simply because one wants to learn from his mistakes, but also because there just may well be something more than failure hidden in the details of the shot. This picture is an example of this, a badly overexposed shot when I had tried to take a hand-held extended exposure of a small cascade in Prospect Park, Brooklyn. I was just at the point of deleting the image which had been sitting in my archives for just over 2 years when I found my eye drawn to a bit of shadow between two bright fields of light and I found myself imaging what a careful cropping of the image might produce if the shot were converted to black and white in order to take advantage of the contrast. The result is hardly great art, but I do find it a rather engaging image and one that I am much happier having found hidden within my failure than I would have been should I have simply deleted it and moved on.
Much like this nearly deleted digital file, there is so much of life that can be lost simply by designating aspects of ourselves, people around us or experiences as failures and then assuming that within failure there is no room for grace. As a Christian and as a priest, failure in many ways is my business. Indeed, rather than cast aside his fallen creation, the Almighty reaches into the failure and tragedy of human sinfulness to redeem us. More wondrously still, however, our redemption is wrought through the folly, the glorious failure, of the Cross which wrests life away from the futility of the grave. This is the Mystery which claims us in Christ and the power of this same Mystery is what heals us in the sacraments. “O happy fault! O necessary sin of Adam,” wrote St. Augustine in words the Church repeats each year on the holiest of nights, “which won for us so great a Redeemer!” Darkness and light, are not simply elements that make for good photography and striking images. The light of grace that reaches with a curiously intense and often unexpected power into the darkness of failure is very much a matter of Divine artistry.