Through a Mirror Dimly
By Maureen Watson
In 1895, Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen was surprised by what he saw. A screen on the opposite side of his lab began to glow. When he held something up between his experiment and the screen, he saw all the bones in his hand projected on the wall. Seven weeks later, Roentgen introduced the world to X-rays.
As a scientist, Roentgen was comfortable seeing something he didn’t expect. Are we? How can we keep learning to see?
I am a radiologist, a physician specializing in medical imaging, so Roentgen’s discovery matters to me. While my radiology sight is now second nature, I can remember when it wasn’t. During my medical residency, I learned to see in a new way.
Like a baby, I first had to learn what was supposed to be there. The instinct for “normal” develops through repetition. We develop a backdrop of what we expect to see and this foundation is essential. To train our sight further, we next learn to see what is present but shouldn’t be. For the infant this may be a stranger, for the radiology resident, a lung nodule. Later still we learn to see absences. A specific stage of cognitive development must be reached before a child remembers a hidden toy. A resident must also advance before he can see a dissolving rib edge or the loss of internal architecture in a bone.
Radiologists also develop new sight by stretching it. In one office, we had very old equipment. The greatest limitation was the lack of a monitor. Instead, a four-inch mirror on top of the X-ray tower was my “sight.” The real-time image was small, blurry, and green, and the angle had to be adjusted often to see. The final films were good, but they weren’t available until the exam was over. I learned to follow the shadows in my dim mirror, trusting that later I’d have enough clarity to make the diagnosis, which is my own image of “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” (1 Co 13:12)
Just as I learned to see the body through a new lens in my medical training, what if I gave the same attention to my soul? Through new eyes, I began to read scripture differently. My prayers changed. I found a spiritual director. Much of my new sight came from looking expectantly. When I expect that God is active, present, and good, my life looks different.
I am a spiritual director now. As I listen to others, I see many similar truths. Others also strive to see their lives through a new lens or from a different angle. They strain to see through a mirror dimly, looking for signs of God. And while they bring their natural gifts to the process, they are also aided by walking with another.
Unlike a medical residency director, a spiritual director doesn’t teach someone what to see. But she helps others develop their spiritual sight. We remember together that we can limit what God shows us if we’re only willing to see what we expect. Faith may mean picking up a new lens or looking from a different angle until we see the face of God taking shape.
As a radiologist, I learned to rely on my own instincts and experience, and many people live their whole lives that way. But in the life of faith, we can have more. The accompaniment of the Spirit is continuous, wise, and eternally given as a gift of God’s grace.
How can we, as people yearning to open ourselves to God, increase the range of our spiritual sight? The first step is to believe that there is more going on than we see.
What are you missing? Where might you see the shadow of God if you took the time and devoted the attention to training your eyes to expect to see him?
As I struggle to see my own bit of the world through a mirror dimly, I remember that there will be a time for clarity. I want to see those crisp, clear images that will help me understand. Still, I do what I can now, realizing that my sight is cloudy. For now, I navigate through a dim, green mirror in a shadowy room. So I listen for the Spirit to guide me.
And I learn to trust as I go forward. I pray that God will open my eyes and the eyes of those with whom I share the journey as we wait and struggle to see-in a mirror dimly.
Maureen is a graduate of Shalem’s Spiritual Guidance Program, Class of Winter 2007.