This reflection is based on Matthew 13:24-43.
Last week I caught a film called “Finding Vivian Maier” on my flight to Toronto. It’s a fascinating documentary on an immensely gifted but secret photographer. She worked as a nanny during the day. Think Mary Poppins without her umbrella but armed instead with a Rolleiflex.
Her employers and the children she nannied all knew that she liked photography. After all, she carried her camera box everywhere and took the kids to every sort of place so that she could take pictures of anything that caught her eye. But none of them ever saw any of her work, much less harbored any suspicion that the pictures she was taking would one day take the world of street photography by storm.
When she died in 2009, she was alone, leaving behind boxes upon boxes of undeveloped negatives–a body of work accumulated over an entire lifetime, never seen by the public, and condemned to obscurity–until their accidental discovery by a young history writer named John Maloof. His research had nothing to do with photography or nannying, but thanks to his curiosity and intuition, a great photographer was discovered, and her work finally shared with the world.
I’ve been thinking of Vivian Maier because her story is an inspiration not just to every artist but to any person trying to create something even if it isn’t a work of art–which includes virtually anyone, really. Questions like “Am I good enough?” or “Will my work amount to anything or mean anything?” are familiar refrains to most people, perhaps except for that handful of self-confident geniuses. For the majority, who probably experience 90% pain from self-doubts and only 10% exhilaration and bliss during the creative process, the story of this strange nanny with the camera encourages us to “just do it”–just continue doing the work and make the choice to believe in ourselves.
In an age of camera phones, Instagram, and Snapchat, Vivian Maier’s story also reminds us of what must feel like an ancient form of photography: non-digital photography that actually uses negatives that require chemical development. It’s a form of photography where instant results, instant sharing with an instant audience, and instant feedback from them were simply not possible. In those days, photography involved a lot of waiting: waiting not only to see the results of one’s work, but also to find out other people’s opinion of your pictures.
Photography in its pre-digital form required much patience, but it also demanded a lot of faith–the faith to just keep taking pictures even if you have no idea if any of them will turn out to be any good, or even if a number of them will just be rubbish. Even these will form part of the learning and the growth, like the weeds in today’s parable, where the Lord invites us to let the weeds grow alongside the wheat.
Today’s parable (or series of parables, if you’ve heard the longer Gospel version) is all about patience and faith. Whether likened to the cultivation of wheat, the growth of the mustard seed, or the rising of the leaven, the Kingdom of God requires patient waiting and faith enough in ourselves to continue doing our share of the work even if we don’t see results or receive any encouragement, but most of all, faith in God–that He too is doing His work, though quietly, even secretly. And only in His time, not ours, will we see the results of our work and experience the exhilaration that comes from knowing that our work has meant something and has somehow made some kind of a difference.
From the portrait of the artist that emerges from the documentary on her, Vivian Maier probably had a stubborn patience about her work, as well as an equally stubborn faith in her photography. Indeed from the boxes of undeveloped negatives discovered by Maloof, Vivian never got to see most of her own work, not to mention receiving feedback for them, but she kept taking pictures anyway. Success came eventually although it certainly did not come during her time.
Today’s parables invite us to imitate Vivian Maier in her patience and in her faith. Whatever work we may be doing, we ought not to be discouraged when there are no immediate results, or when we don’t receive instant encouragement or consolation. Choose to continue believing in yourself and in your work. Most of all, continue to believe that our quiet God constantly labors behind the scenes, and will bless your work especially if you consecrate it to Him.