“Nature is, above all, profligate. Don’t believe them when they tell you how economical and thrifty nature is, whose leaves return to the soil. Wouldn’t it be cheaper to leave them on the tree in the first place? This deciduous business alone is a radical scheme, the brainchild of a deranged manic-depressive with limitless capital. Extravagance! Nature will try anything once.” — Annie Dillard
When I read this line in Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, I thought at once of a friend whom I admired greatly during the years I knew him when we lived near each other. There are three things about him that stand, for me, as a constant call to higher things. I aspire to all three of them, even if I seem to mostly salute them from afar (c.f. Hebrews 11:13).
1. He lives in the moment, all the time. When I’m with him, I suddenly feel unchained from preoccupations with times beyond the present. Regrets and preoccupations, worries and fantasies seem to vanish when we hang out together, as he is always so present to the here and now, drinking in our friendship, erupting with sudden joys over an unexpected flower, throwing himself into the weary world of a convenience store cashier who seemed (to him) to need a word of encouragement — and leaving her with a smile. His attention to the present seems to me almost naive, impossible, especially as he himself lives a life bound up in a thousand cares. And he’s old enough to know better. Yet…
2. He is unexpectedly generous. We were walking together once after buying sandwiches, looking for an open park bench to sit on. He saw a homeless man asleep on a bench, went over to him, awakened him and asked him if he was hungry. He was. He gave the drowsy man half of his sandwich and asked if we could sit and have lunch with him. We did. He saw the man was hungry for communion. It was extraordinary. The “homeless man” was actually Stephen, and we believed only half of what he said. But it didn’t matter. My reckless friend had uncovered a hidden communion by breaking the hard crust of indifference. Of my indifference, as he was himself obviously oblivious to indifference. I recognized Him in the breaking of this bread, discovered only in that fleeting moment.
3. His love for God is disarmingly free. When he speaks of God, there’s no plastic or oppressive piety or Pollyanna approaches to God’s “place” in the world. He weaves his faith into everything, he loves Jesus, but not simply as another “topic” to wax on about. For him God is not this or that, here or there. Faith for him is not so much what is seen, faith is vision itself, how he sees the world. To offer an image my colleague Dr. Chris Baglow taught me, I’d say my friend engages God not as one would the Sun, seeking to locate by fixed coordinates a blinding orb somewhere high in the skies. Rather, for him God is the unseen and generous light that is known in the event of its selfless act of transforming darkness, bringing the world “to light” for the sighted, making all things intelligible, revealing all things beautiful, dispelling for the willing all nights, calling forth the dawn everywhere and always and in all things.
How has such a man been fashioned? God alone knows. But once when we were together, I asked him, “What gave you your view of things?” He thought for a moment, and then said: “Though I suffered lots in childhood with a chaotic family, I had a baby sister I was forced to care for a lot of the time. She eventually drew me out of myself, but I’ll tell you it must have been grace that took me from resentment to something else. And when you come out of yourself and get into another’s world you find everything looks totally different. The rest of my life just kinda flowed from caring for someone else. I think that the vocation of every baby conceived or born is to yank others out of their self-absorption and comfort. I guess I could say grace gave me my sister so I’d see love’s everything. If you get that, everything just looks different.”
St. Maximus the Confessor, come to my aid to worthily speak of this mystery:
“The Cause of all things, through the beauty, goodness and profusion of His intense love for everything, goes out of Himself in His providential care for the whole of creation. By means of the supraessential power of ecstasy, and spell-bound as it were by goodness, love and longing, He relinquishes His utter transcendence in order to dwell in all things while yet remaining within Himself. Hence those skilled in divine matters call Him a zealous and exemplary lover, because of the intensity of His blessed longing for all things … He longs to be longed for, loves to be loved and desires to be desired…”