Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Seen and Unseen, by the Rev. Peter J. Van Hook

I believe in God…the maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen. ~ The Nicene Creed

There is no reality beyond our perception of it.

It took me a long time to comprehend the depth of that little saying, but when I finally “got it”, it changed my life as a pastor. For years I had been confounded by the response of people, parishioners especially, to things I had said or done. (Sometimes peoples’ responses to things I have done or said is all too accurate, but that is another story.) Contemporary neuroscience has demonstrated that everything that goes through our senses is filtered and interpreted by our brains, which in turn have been formed by our experiences.

An example: the first Sunday of my tenure as Priest-in-Charge of St. Mary's Church I moved the Table from directly in front of the High Altar (where the Rev. Jessica Hatch had used it) to the center of the chancel (the area where the choir would be). I did not do this for serious liturgical reasons; I did it because it was a First Sunday and I wanted the children to stand with me at the Table during the Holy Communion! My intention was to move it back to its previous position.

Nobody said a word.

I thought this would at least raise some comments and questions (my perception). If anyone did consciously notice they did not say anything to me, and since I like the Table where it is it has stayed in its present position. (The same thing happened with the frontals [covers] on the Table, which I did not know existed until last Lent. They were not invisible: no one had shown me where they were stored.)

This is why the contemporary version of the Nicene Creed is important (and it is not just the “I believe…” vs. the “We believe…”). The traditional (Elizabethan) version states it “…maker…of all things visible and invisible.” The contemporary version states it as “…maker…of all that is, seen and unseen” (note the comma; it’s important). There is a significant and important difference between something being invisible and it being unseen. Invisible means that the thing is not available for us to perceive in any way, and it may exist, but we cannot know that. Unseen means that the thing exists but it is out of sight, hidden, or we have simply missed it. Our senses have filtered it out of our individual ability to see, hear, or touch it.

This is why we pray for people we do not see and perhaps have never met. We cannot know that they actually exist; we take it on the witness of others that they are. (Our friend Michelle Despain has not been seen in church in months, but I assure you that she is quite real!) The prologue of the Gospel according to John says that “no one has seen God; it is the Son who has made him known.” I have not seen God (at least that I know of), but I have perceived God at work in the people and world around me. I did not see the Resurrection of Jesus; I take it on the witness of the Apostles and others that they saw Jesus after he was crucified, a witness that has been passed down through generations of Christians until it got to me.

In other words, the Resurrection is not something invisible. It is, simply, something that for us is unseen. It is beyond our immediate perception. We have to listen, feel, and see carefully to discern it. Like everything else, we have to decide to discern it. That is not a trick of the mind. It is how reality works. We have to choose to see what is.
Peter +

A footnote: I recently made two other small changes in church. Again, no one has said anything to me about them. I do not know if they simply have not been perceived as changes, or if some have noticed them and not said anything. I try always to welcome comments and questions about our worship, because there may be things there, or things done, that I have not perceived myself. Remember: we’re in this together!
The authors of this blog welcome comments, reactions, and critiques.


  1. awesome post! except now I am going to go crazy trying to find the other two changes made at the church . . .

  2. Peter,
    I am happy to know that I am unseen and not invisible and that I DO ACTUALLY EXIST!! I also thank everyone at St. Mary's for their prayers. Please continue. I seem to be able to pop up something new to my doctors everyday. Keeps them busy and scratching their heads.