If you want to validate the existence of this divine presence, forget your test tubes, your state-of-the-art laboratories, and your most advanced computer programs. Instead, go find a child and spend the day with them. Any kid can teach you more about the inner workings of this energy, what the Chinese call the ‘Dao, than an entire university physics faculty.
Children are one of the most spectacular yet subtly sublime gifts the Creator can bestow. God surprised and blessed my wife and I with the birth of Salina in May, 2004. For me, it was particularly surprising as I was 55 at the time. Now I am 60 and Salina celebrated her fifth birthday a few months back. In this past half-decade, I have been given a new perspective on why Jesus told us to be as little children if we wanted to see the kingdom.
Salina has always amazed me with her curiosity, her sense of discovery, and especially her spontaneous wonder and awe as she encounters things new and exciting. Further, she never tires of things that strike her fancy, especially if I do something that she likes but has never really seen before. I am reminded, for example, when I first showed her how to blow bubbles with bubble gum. For me, it was old hat – but for her, this simple act was like seeing a rainbow for the first time or discovering the wonders of ice cream. Whenever I produced a large, pink bubble as if by magic, she would pop it with her hand, laugh in that way that only children can laugh, and say, “Do it again, Daddy; do it again.”
This amazing ability to turn something new into an almost sacred event is, I think, part of that unsullied and untainted aspect of the image of God that we are blessed with in our creation. Moreover, children never seem to tire of monotony, at least until they get a bit older. At those miracle ages of two through five or so, kids just seem to revel in both newness and repetition. I am reminded of the famous words of G.K. Chesterton:
Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity to make all daisies appear alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never grown tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite for infancy: for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”
Sometimes when I sit quietly and open myself to what Chesterton says in these few words and what the Holy Spirit speaks to me when I reflect on them, I am literally stunned into silence; and then I shiver.
Children have not forgotten how to experience our world with a sense of wonder and awe. Noted Jewish philosopher Abraham Heschel, one of my very favorite authors, calls this capacity for reverence in life “radical amazement” and affirms that the spiritual journey cannot be completed until we recover this inborn spiritual quality. Heschel makes this statement, “The beginning of awe is wonder and the beginning of wisdom is awe.” When I first discovered these words, I pondered on the meaning for weeks and eventually discovered by doing so I totally lost their true import. I have come to see that Heschel is alluding to the fact that true wisdom begins with the experience of awe, and this basic sense of “radical amazement” has its birth in a childlike wonder at the incredible thing we flippantly call “life” ; the unfathomable creation that surrounds us every moment. I will let Heschel say the rest:
The secret of every being is the divine care and concern that are invested in it. Something sacred is at stake in every event…..The meaning of awe is to realize that life takes place under wide horizons, horizons that range beyond the span of an individual life or even the life of a nation, a generation, or an era. Awe enables us to perceive in the world intimations of the divine, to sense in small things the beginning of infinite significance, to sense the ultimate in the common and simple; to feel in the rush of the passing the stillness of the eternal.
Deep in my personal spirit, when it is connected with and animated by the Holy Spirit, I know with certainty that my daughter Salina innately understands this. She cannot articulate it with the eloquence of Heschel but she expresses this sense of radical amazement nonetheless. Every time she giggles when Daddy blows a bubble; every time she sits on the deck and watches birds feeding in the back yard and cows feeding in the field beyond; every time her eyes dance with wonder when she sees a sunset and screams, “Look Daddy, God is smiling,” – I know she gets it just as much as Heschel ever did and just as much as I long to once again.
I am always amazed at how she sees the world in all its glory, the way God intended it to be seen, and responds without any sense of guile or bewilderment. Just yesterday we stopped the car along a rural lane near our home to watch a group of wild geese circle a field, then land in a large pond. My daughter’s eyes grew wide as she saw these birds gracefully glide almost silently on to the surface of the water. She sat there spellbound as she quietly took in this aspect of God’s remarkable world.
My grandfather was in many ways my first spiritual director. Working as a game warden, a career that my father also pursued, he spent most of his time in natural settings and he had this uncanny ability to see the intricate and interconnected patterns that are everywhere to be witnessed if a person only has “eyes to see.” My grandfather often said that it was important to see each new day with what he called “fresh eyes.” A deeply spiritual man, he rarely attended the Baptist Church where my grandmother was an active member. Instead, he often went off into the woods of north Alabama with one of us grandkids in tow, giving us his own version of Sunday School.
I don’t say this to discount the importance of church-going, only to say that, for my grandfather, it was not a high priority. Coming from a family with a long tradition of Quakerism, my grandfather treasured silence and solitude and often told me that my “inner light” could best be seen on a calm lake or pristine mountaintop. According to my grandfather, the best way to rediscover my “fresh eyes” was to go into nature and enter into “the sacred silence,” then just notice what was going on around me. Yesterday, as I watched Salina as she “noticed” the geese as they went about their business, I understood deeply that she had “fresh eyes” and that most children possessed this significant talent, at least until they were educated out of it.
I also understood why my grandfather never said I needed to develop fresh eyes; he always said I needed to rediscover them. The childlike perspective of awe and wonder that we all possessed when we were young is still there. Our task, with the divine assistance of the Holy Spirit, is to go through the cognitive clutter we have all accumulated and find it once again.
On the way home I also recalled a passage from a remarkable little book, written by Jeanne Gowen Dennis. The book is entitled, Running Barefoot on Holy Ground and subtitled, Childlike Intimacy With God. A fine and educative book, “Running Barefoot” discusses the notion of having fresh eyes. Let’s listen to the author:
Why do children notice so many things that adults miss? Maybe being closer to the ground gives them an advantage. Perhaps it’s because they’re discovering the wonders of the world around them for the first, second, or twentieth time, and somehow the novelty has not yet worn off. Unlike most adults, little children also pay attention to details. We are so distracted by our responsibilities that we often miss what is right before us. Perhaps we should take regular walks with toddlers and let them lead us along. Still, we’ll only learn to see through their eyes if we use the time to exercise our sight, not just our bodies.
Having Salina around has been a blessing in many wonderful ways, but one of the most beneficial spiritual lessons she has brought my way is helping me rediscover my fresh eyes – helping me learn to see again. She has in some magnificent manner taught me the spiritual discipline of “noticing.” For example, there was the time she looked into a clear night sky at a quarter-moon and said, “Look, it’s just like my fingernail,” or the occasion when she sat in wondrous rapture watching three butterflies flitting about on our back deck. As the two of us “noticed” the choreography of their airborne dance, I became aware that I was, for a few brief moments, actually seeing what was going on. It was, in a word, exhilarating.
All of this comes natural to children, but we adults must now somehow train ourselves to be open to the marvels God parades before us on a daily basis. It not only involves “slowing down to smell the roses,” no – it goes much deeper than that. In my experience, I have had to learn to live in my body again; allowing myself enough time to become reacquainted with my five basis senses and perhaps discover a few I didn’t know, or more likely forgot, that I even had. In order to see like a child, I needed to rediscover how to experience life in the pristine clarity of the moment – unsullied by morbid memories or future fears.
I not only needed to learn how to see – I needed to learn how to be.
A good way to begin this process of rediscovery is by learning to pay attention to what is coming in through your senses. Pick on of your senses, say hearing, and go outside and just spend five minutes paying attention to what you hear – the birds chirping in the trees, a distant plane overhead, a passing truck on the Interstate two miles away. Don’t strain to do this; simply allow the sounds to come in and just notice them. Just allow them to be what they are and just allow yourself to just be. I have found it useful to spend about three days on each one of my senses and to keep a journal of my experiences. I record what I noticed and also what prevented me from being present to my surroundings. For me, as well as others I have taught to use this exercise, let the sense of vision be the last one you focus on. I can’t explain why this seems to be the best way to do this, all I can say is, for the majority of people, it works best that way.
In conclusion, let me suggest one other thing that might seem a bit silly to you. You may, in fact, think this is childish. Yet, when you think about it, that’s the whole point, isn’t it. Try doing things the way a young child does them. Experiment with your body and your posture. What do I mean? I’ll close with this quotation, again from Dennis’ book:
To see as children see, all our senses must be alert. New worlds open up when children exercise their power of sight. They see with fresh eyes – fully, simply, and in intricate detail. Young children experience each new discovery to the fullest, first with their mouths, then with their hands and fingers, and finally with their whole beings. They “see” with all their senses and in every possible position: on their knees, on their stomachs, on their backs, upside down, backward, and sideways. They explore the world with eyes wide open, closed, or squinted; through drinking glasses or cellophane; from inside cabinets, under coffee tables, and even in mirrors.
If you apply these ideas you may, like my daughter Salina and the great poet William Blake, discover (rediscover) that you “hold infinity in the palm of your hand.”
© L.D. Turner 2010/2012/All Rights Reserved
- Do You Hear What I Hear? (Part One) (lifebrook.wordpress.com)
- Cultivating amazement (chrysalisjourney.wordpress.com)
- Resonating with the words of Heschel… (morethanfoursides.wordpress.com)
- Ten Elements of the Quaker Spiritual Journey (awholeheart.com)