Some years ago, a confrere of mine wrote a simple unpretentious poem which he dedicated to his 10-year-old niece after she had given him a tour of the rather humble prairie town in which she lived.
Entitled To Sheryl, My Niece, Aged 10, On Guiding Me Through the Town of Virden, it reads like this:
I wish someone like you
could have guided Adam through
his first fact-finding tour
or his Father’s store
much more than claimed
things as his own
or told us what they’re for.
We both know Adam’s handicap: he had no niece—
Nor patience, nor the peace
to wait for one.
But this he could have done:
Called upon his little girl
to come along
not set out alone
when his first call
– Jerome Harry Hellman, omi
These words echo Elizabeth Barrett Browning who once said that the earth is ablaze with the fire of God, but only those who see it take their shoes off—the rest sit around and pick blackberries!
Her words themselves echo God’s words to Moses at the burning bush: “Take your shoes off because the ground you are standing on is holy ground.”
Ordinary ground is holy. There is more than enough mystery, secret, marvel and miracle ablaze in ordinary reality. Unfortunately, most of the time we don’t see this because we stand before it trying to claim, name, number, psych out and render familiar . . .when our true task is, instead, to ponder and to wonder. This is an irreverence that fatigues the soul.
Irreverence lies at the root of all sin—and taking-for-granted lies at the root of all irreverence. We begin to take things for granted at the precise moment when we no longer approach life with eyes of a 10-year-old who can look at a small town and still see its rich secrets.
It’s then, when pondering and wondering are lost, that we become bored, cynical and restless with our lives and begin to feel that reality holds no secrets, that it is less than marvellous and worthwhile, that, as Margaret Atwood once put it, we’re stuck here in a country of thumbed streets and stale buildings, where there is nothing spectacular to see and the weather is ordinary—and where love occurs in its pure form only on the cheaper of the souvenirs!
At the root of boredom and cynicism lies the death of wonder. Familiarity deadens the soul. It also spawns our resentments.
True contemplatives, mystics and children never live the illusion of familiarity. That is why they are never bored, cynical and resentful. For them, there are no hick towns, godforsaken places, or ordinary marriage partners and ordinary children who can be taken for granted and rendered familiar.
For them, there is only holy ground, the extraordinary, miracle in ordinary life. They, in the words of G.K. Chesterton, “have learned to look at things familiar until these look unfamiliar again.”
Karl Rahner was once asked whether he believed in miracles.
“I don’t believe in them,” he replied, “I rely on them to get me through daily life!” There’s a secret wisdom worth contemplating.