Monday, August 13, 2007

Harmony Part 3: The Devil, the Divine & the Details

“Girl number twenty unable to define a horse!” says Gradgrind, “Girl number twenty possessed of no facts, in reference to one of the commonest of animals!”
[Even though Sissy’s father was a horsebreaker, and she had lived around them all her life, she was a bit perplexed at the demand for a definition and had been speechless. The schoolmaster turns to another student, a boy named Bitzer:]
“Bitzer,” said Thomas Gradgrind. “Your definition of a horse.”
“Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive. Sheds coat in the spring; in marshy countries, sheds hoofs, too. Hoofs hard, but requiring to be shod with iron. Age known by marks in mouth.” Thus (and much more) Bitzer.
“Now girl number twenty,” said Mr. Gradgrind. “You know what a horse is.”

This passage from Dickens’ Hard Times illustrates beautifully the spiritual myopia that so often plagues us. Gradgrind was in the business of facts, empirical data, and couldn’t be bothered with anything else. Of course Sissy knew what a horse was, better than anyone in that room, but her knowledge was of a different sort. She was accustomed to looking past the physical details and beholding the soul of the thing.

The integration of faith and life is not merely an intellectual enterprise. It is a profoundly spiritual one, requiring spiritual eyes. One of my favorite examples of such other-sight is found in the life of 18th-century poet Christopher Smart. When Smart observed his cat sunning himself, he saw more than the cat. He penned the following:

For I will consider my cat Jeoffry.
For he is the servant of the living God.Duly and daily serving him.

For at the first glanceOf the glory of God in the East
He worships in his way.
For this is done by wreathing his body
Seven times round with elegant quickness.
For he knows that God is his saviour.
For God has bless'd himIn the variety of his movements.
For there is nothing sweeterThan his peace when at rest.

For I am possessed of a cat,
Surpassing in beauty,
From whom I take occasionTo bless Almighty God.[1]

Where others saw felis silvestris catus, Smart saw an ambassador of the heavenly kingdom. Smart saw God in the most mundane of things. This passage is my favorite:

For the flowers are great blessings.
For the flowers are great blessings.
For the flowers have their angels,
Even the words of God's creation.
For the flower glorifies God
And the root parries the adversary.
For there is a language of flowers.
For the flowers are peculiarly
The poetry of Christ.[2]

Where others saw only rosa damascena trigintipetala, Smart beheld the Word of God.

You don’t have to write poetry in order to look past the cells, the molecules, the quanta, the notes, the letters, the graphs, the curves, the subjects, or the media. To see with other eyes and escape the soul-killing myopia that daily work so often engenders is a simple thing. All we have to do is pause now and then in our busyness and ask God to show us the beauty and poetry of even the smallest jots of creation.

I close with a stanza from the mind of Elizabeth Barrett Browning:

Earth's crammed with heaven,
And every common bush aflame with God.
But only those who see take off their shoes.
The rest sit around and pluck blackberries.[3]

[1] Christopher Smart, Jubilate Agno, c. 1760, first published in 1939. These are selected lines from the poem that were set to music by Benjamin Britten in 1943 under the title Rejoice in the Lamb.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Elizabeth Barrett Browning, "Aurora Leigh," book vii.

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