“A man may go into the field and say his prayer and be aware of God, or, he may be in Church and be aware of God; but, if he is more aware of Him because he is in a quiet place, that is his own deficiency and not due to God, who is present in the same way in all things and places, and is willing to give Himself everywhere what is in Him. He knows God rightly who knows Him everywhere.” — Meister Eckhart (c. 1260 – c. 1328)
“This split between the faith which many profess and their daily lives deserves to be counted among the more serious errors of our age.” — Gaudium et Spes, 43
When I was a child, before the age of 12, I had a profound sense that everything around me was alive with a surplus of meaning; that everything, no matter what it was, contained a vast territory to be explored. Every day I knew when I woke up the world would without fail yield a fresh set of surprises I had somehow missed the day before. I guess it was simply the wonder every child is born with, and which most eventually seem to lose.
Over time the sphere of wonder I lived in grew smaller. What profound grief it brought me. I remember vividly one day in the late Fall, when I was eleven or twelve, crying as I looked at the steam rising off the pond near our house, and somehow I realized — as if I had eaten some forbidden fruit — that this mystical transaction was nothing more than H2O escaping its liquid form. Nothing more, as my multi-dimensional world had grown flat.
I recall the ways my schooling over time wore me down, evacuated from me that sense of meaning-surplus, dehydrated the plump fruits of wonder in my soul. I experienced school learning as amassing new information useful to certain tasks, memorizing cold data required for acceptable grades, checking lifeless boxes needful for my future career. School required orderly rows, uniform learning and stringent assessments. It imposed strictly controlled behavior on restless children. I felt straight-jacketed by the clock’s cold precision and an endless procession of artificial activities devoid of imaginative play.
Reality was, for me, outside in the cathedral of nature. I was blessed to grow up amid woods and fields and streams and ponds teeming with life; a world ordered by its solar and lunar rhythms, by wind and clouds and rain and snow; by migrations and molting, budding and blooming, birthing and dying. All of this world was filled with unplanned surprises and organic routines that seemed wholly in sync with my deepest self. No angular rows or neat stacks, but only brambly patches of blackberry, chaotic piles of leaves, butterflies that silently flashed their varied rainbows in uneven beats, or wasps that without warning stung fierce and deep. And then there was the ocean! When we’d set out into Narragansett Bay for a day and a night to set anchor, the sky would yawn its widest span and the generous sea filled my lungs with its salty yield. I could breathe so deep!
For me, God ceased to hide in the world outside, where even the lichen-covered rocks were alive. There His music far surpassed the droning tones of sleepy worshippers who, when I was small, seemed to fall into a trance as soon they settled into those overly orderly pews in church. I thought to myself once when I was four or five: “Wouldn’t God want everyone to step in the aisle and play, if He’s really here?” Though I didn’t have a rich vocabulary of faith then, I knew that what I found everywhere in the natural world spoke of reality as playful, wonderful, terribly unpredictable, sometimes fearful and wholly alive. Would not, I intuited, their origin be like that and want that from us? St. Augustine’s words capture this intuition:
And what is this God? I asked the earth, and it answered, “I am not he”; and everything in the earth made the same confession. I asked the sea and the deeps and the creeping things, and they replied, “We are not your God; seek above us.” I asked the fleeting winds, and the whole air with its inhabitants answered, “I am not God.” I asked the heavens, the sun, moon, and stars; and they answered, “Neither are we the God whom you seek.” And I replied to all these things which stand around the door of my flesh: “You have told me about my God, that you are not he. Tell me something about him.” And with a loud voice they all cried out, “He made us.”
As does Baruch 3:34-36:
Before him the stars at their posts shine and rejoice. When he calls them, they answer, “Here we are!” shining with joy for their Maker. Such is our God; no other is to be compared to him.
For those early years of life, I had inhabited a sacramental universe; a translucent universe in which the invisible God, like a child playing hide-and-seek, cannot long contain His excited giggles from those who seek Him. I knew its lexicon, its syntax and grammar, its meter and rhyme, its incense and icons. But as time passed, this world was stolen from me and the bread turned to stone.
Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. — Matthew 18:3
Then I came to faith and awoke to the new creation (cf., 2 Corinthians 5:17), created to be inhabited only by the childlike.
O Lord, grant me wonder and reveal in me your new creation hidden in bread and wine — a world indwelt by a heavenly God who made, and who was made, earth.