Heaven walks among us ordinarily muffled in such triple or tenfold disguises that the wisest are deceived and no one suspects the days to be gods. Yet we are often impressed with a conviction that if we were elsewhere in other company or employment or in no company, in turrets near the stars, or in caves underground, enlarged by science, or melted by music, or kindled by poetry, we should come into the conditions of sight & the universal cloud would roll up and disappear.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson
Sometimes the attributes people comment on and compliment in me are areas where I am aware I am deficient, so I work harder to make up for my lack. Such as I am not graceful, I am not observant, I am not good at removing myself from myself and fully listening to people, I am lazy. But I am aware of those weaknesses in my life, so I work harder on those areas. Do you find this true for you as well?
One of the areas I always work hard at is noticing the beauty in everyday life. It is so incredibly easy; all it takes is the pause to look and appreciate. My short breaks during my workdays give me just enough time to wander and take in whatever beauty is casually unfolding.
The woods behind World Vision’s buildings are small, like the last thought in the building plans, a green scribble in the architect’s empty squares between buildings and concrete. But they are just large enough to hold small ponds, holly and ferns and dewdrops and God’s miraculous, living art that needs no encouragement but space to be. Before the pond froze, there were frogs that flew for watery cover with a -zip- and a squeak of panic when I came to the pond’s edge. The water was clear enough for me to see straight through, to the moss and sunken branches and vibrant green on the bottom. If I stayed still and looked long enough, I could glimpse the frogs’ heads as they floated, but with the slightest move from me they disappeared deeper and further into the pond.
Once the pond froze, I could skip rocks and figure out just what size would break through the ice. And when the temperature rose the bare branches, dark silhouettes against the winter sky, filled with caught beads of winter rain that glistened. The sunlight, weak but still gold, and the remaining autumn leaves add a touch of warmth to the winter landscape.
I don’t have to tell you about the beauty in this world. You see it too in a million facets – in the glow and color of Christmas lights, in the vibrant colors of Divine and mortal art, in the smiles of every person, in the laughter with a loved one, in nature’s wild yet calm. Sometimes so instinctively felt and sometimes so forgotten, yet always so obvious when we lift our eyes and take in. For me, it takes a conscious pause to reflect on the wonder of what I am seeing.
In Anne Dillard’s book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (click for full chapter), she muses about seeing, and what blind people experience when their cataracts are removed and they see for the first time. She speaks about the bewilderment that comes with the new sight as the patient has to learn height and depth and size, formerly non-existent perceptions that now dawn and overwhelm. But when the person is able to move beyond the disorientation, there is wonder. “The newly sighted,” Dillard writes, “see the world as as a “dazzle of color-patches.”
A little girl visits a garden. “She is greatly astonished, and can scarcely be persuaded to answer, stands speechless in front of the tree, which she only names on taking hold of it, and then as ‘the tree with the lights in it.’” Some delight in their sight and give themselves over to the visual world. Of a patient just after her bandages were removed, her doctor writes, “The first things to attract her attention were her own hands; she looked at them very closely, moved them repeatedly to and fro, bent and stretched the fingers, and seemed greatly astonished at the sight.” …Finally, a twenty-two-old girl was dazzled by the world’s brightness and kept her eyes shut for two weeks. When at the end of that time she opened her eyes again, she did not recognize the objects, but, “the more she now directed her gaze upon everything about her, the more it could be seen how an expression of gratification and astonishment overspread her features; she repeatedly exclaimed: ‘Oh God! How beautiful!’”
I worked on this post in the airport waiting for my flight to board, feeling a bit like I was in school again as I became engrossed in trying to capture my thoughts in words and musing over Anne Dillard’s essay. So engrossed, in fact, that there was a “last call for Sarah Ulrich” to board the plane. I wrote this on the plane to Boise as well, the wing from my window seat gleaming from the eastward sun. We floated over mounds of clouds – one of my favorite views of one of my very favorite things. Though “floating” is not quite the right verb, more like “bucking.” The plane shook from the air turbulence and I felt like an unperturbed horse rider, letting my body loosen and sway with the movements so the jolts became somewhat relaxing. I am so sorry for those of you who do not like flying. Talk about a way to enjoy beauty, and wonder.
But back to Annie. Continuing on from what she had read in the observations of the cataract surgeons, Dillard writes:
I saw color-patches for weeks after I read this wonderful book. It was summer; the peaches were ripe in the valley orchards. When I woke in the morning, color-patches wrapped round my eyes, intricately, leaving not one unfilled spot. All day long I walked among shifting color-patches that parted before me like the Red Sea and closed again in silence, transfigured, wherever I looked back. Some patches swelled and loomed, while others vanished utterly, and dark marks flitted at random over the whole dazzling sweep. But I couldn’t sustain the illusion of flatness. I’ve been around for too long. Form is condemned to an eternal danse macabre with meaning: I couldn’t unpeach the peaches…Martin Buber tells this tale: “Rabbi Mendel once boasted to his teacher Rabbi Elimelekh that evenings he saw the angel who rolls away the light before the darkness, and mornings the angel who rolls away the darkness before the light. ‘Yes,’ said Rabbie Elimelekh, ‘in my youth I saw that too. Later on you don’t see these things any more.’”
Why didn’t someone hand those newly sighted people paints and brushes from the start, when they still didn’t know what anything was? Then maybe we all could see color-patches too, the world unraveled from reason, Eden before Adam gave names.
Giving names and raveling the world into reason can add to our appreciation, or it can lead to a loss of wonder. Especially in this day and age, when we can explain so many “hows” with our head knowledge, and in the midst of dissection forget about the “whys.”
Break from the instinctive labels of “trees” and “sunset,” “water” and “peach” and look as if for the first time. Marvel again in colors. In the miracles of the oddly shaped, two-legged breathing creatures that lumber and dance and chatter and smile all around you. In the miracle that you are, from your body to your mind to your soul.
Most of all, remember anew the One who made you.
Remember again the wonder of an eternal God choosing mortal clothing, for the sake of restoration. Consider afresh the undeserved, attentive grace of our God manifested in the large and small. Today, this Christmas, break outside of the labels and rote lessons and words that have worn ruts in your mind. Consider if you’ve placed God in a box. Personally, I know I can become so inundated with sermons and books and words that I become like one who looking, does not see, and hearing, does not comprehend.
Recall how precious that grace, the hour you first believed.
This time of the year there are voices clear and subtle, clamoring at you to buy and give and come and do… you may even have a lot of voices with good intention reminding you of “the reason for the season,” and to find peace and joy in the midst of the bustle. Humbly I add my voice to the later cause.
Take a moment, right now, to see God and His wonders again. Talk to Him about His love for you. Dwell on Him, in stillness and peace. Pull out a sheet of paper – even just a sticky note if that’s all that’s near. And give to Him whatever comes.
Close your eyes. Open your eyes. And maybe you will find… “It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance.” (Dillard)