Capturing the Holy Present: What Film Photography Taught Me About God

A man looking through a camera lens.
Photo by Samuel Bryngelsson on Unsplash

It started with a trip down a YouTube rabbit hole. I found myself neck-deep in 35 mm film camera instructional videos and before I knew it, I was on eBay placing a bid for a Minolta SRT 101, a 35 mm film camera from the 1960s. Now mind you, I am not a photographer. I can barely take a decent photo with my iPhone, let alone get a good shot on film. But lockdown had provided me with the luxury of time, and like everyone else, I was looking for ways to fill it. While I knew that film photography would be a great way to pass the time, I did not know that my new hobby would teach me something profound about God.

The problem of time

I am terrible at being present. I am simultaneously very nostalgic and preoccupied with anxiety about the future. This often happens when I am alone at home. I’ll be perfectly content until out of nowhere, some distant memory fills the silence, leaving me to obsess about what could have been or fretting about something out of my control.

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I know I am not the only one obsessed with time. So much of our lives are spent looking longingly at the past and fretting about what may come next. As a result, I struggle with being present and embracing the moment.  I have learned, through much trial and error, that if I can learn to be present, I can ease my mental stress and experience peace. To do that, I need to know how to be, to simply exist, to take a pause and breathe. In order to free myself from the oppressive grip of time, I need to embrace the present. 

Discovering the holy present

This is where my foray into photography comes into play. As I began to take photos around my neighborhood — the people passing by, the mom and pop shops now boarded up — I realized that photography is the act of capturing the present. As the shutter clicks, light sears an image into the negative. Time stands still. Each photo represents what the Scottish fantasist and preacher, George MacDonald, called “The Holy Present,” a state where one is fixed on the here and now. By embracing the holy present, we free ourselves from the trappings of nostalgia and fear of the future. 

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Power lines next to an above-ground subway car in New York City
A film photo by the author.

For me, the holy present is the moment when I focus my sole attention on God alone, the one who is eternally present. St. Thomas Aquinas writes that God is Ipsum Esse, being itself. God eternally is. He doesn’t long for the past or hope for the future; he is beyond time. He doesn’t deal in maybes or what could be. He simply is. Through prayer, God invites us to experience his holy present. When we turn our hearts toward contemplation, we fix our gaze on the eternal. 

A few years ago, after a bout of severe depression, I came across the work of Thomas Merton. Thomas Merton notes in his book, “Contemplative Prayer,” that “in the spiritual life there are no tricks and no shortcuts.” The path to peace is only found when we set our sights on God and God alone. I knew that if I was going to experience peace I would need to set aside time to pray. I wasn’t going to find peace by tapping my heels or picking up another self-help book, I was only going to find peace through prayer and dependence on my creator. Like taking a photo, prayer captures us and withdraws us from the flow of time into the presence of the eternal. When I focus my lens on an image and click the shutter, that moment is forever frozen in time. Something similar happens when we turn our hearts to prayer. When we quiet our hearts and fix our minds on God, we learn that we don’t need to do. We simply need to be. These moments of relief are brief encounters with the holy present and it is here we find peace and rest for our weary souls. 

Entering the holy present

But how does one enter into the holy present? When I prepare to take a photo, there are several steps involved. I need to set the ISO (the sensitivity of the film to light), read the light in the shot, and choose an aperture. Only then am I ready to capture a photo. Similarly, there are steps that we need to take to make ourselves available to the holy present. 

In this, Christ is our help and our example. Jesus was often found alone, away from the crowds in prayer. Jesus teaches us that solace and solitude prepare the heart for worship. We need regular habits of withdrawing and waiting. By cutting ourselves off from distraction, we force ourselves to be present. Distractions demand us to do. Silence and solace invite us to be

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I’ve been working to develop a rhythm of prayer that involves being still. Whenever I am tempted to give into nostalgia or succumb to anxiety, I slowly begin to pray the Lord’s prayer and force myself to be still in the presence of God. Photography has taught me the value of watching and waiting. The moment before a photo is taken, everything else fades into the background. When we practice silence and solitude, we make ourselves wholly present to what God is doing in the here and now.

Now, every time I hear the shutter click, I am reminded that I am not dominated by time. Every photo reminds me that it is possible to experience real peace in a chaotic world. While total withdrawal from the world is impossible, we can still share in God’s rest by making ourselves available to the holy present. Through prayer and aided by silence and solitude, Christ invites us into his rest. God wants to draw us into his presence, rid us of our distractions, and teach us what it means to be truly present.