Allowing the ordinary to become extraordinary

In her Pulitzer prize winning book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard wrote about moments of arresting beauty. She remarked to an interviewer, “Consider the lilies of the field” is the only commandment she never broke. “Beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will sense them. The least we can do is try to be there . . . so that creation need not play to an empty house.”[1]

However, Dillard also observed and recorded surprising pain. One memorable moment was watching “a small green frog floating on the surface of a pond until suddenly it transmogrifies before her, its skull collapsing inward ‘like a kicked tent,’ its body ‘shrinking before my eyes like a deflating football.’” A giant water beetle had villainously punctured the frog’s belly, poisoned the frog and then sucked out its innards.[2]

Even when we spend time in nature’s theater, discerning the sacred in nature, post-Darwin, is no simple task. Evolution’s dependence on the survival of the fittest has permanently annulled once widespread efforts to discern a grand design in nature will in turn reveals the Designer. Competition among species also means that theological musings about nature must include both the beautiful and the painful. Nature is often red of tooth and claw (Tennyson).

One aspect of the human spirit is our aesthetic sense, a quintessential human quality. No other species creates art for its own sake; no other species devotes so much energy, so much time and so many resources to creating and then appreciating art. Nature’s beauty invites the perceiver to turn inward searching one’s inner depths and to turn outward searching for an Artist. These searches involve self-awareness and invoke creativity, two other aspects of the human spirit.

Another aspect of the human spirit is our linguistic capability, a quality observed in other species but that is nevertheless quintessentially human because of our much greater development of and dependence on language. When integrated with both our self-awareness and yet another aspect of the human, our ability to love and to be loved, humans uniquely try to make their experienced world (or life) intelligible (or meaningful).[3] Existentialist philosophy that posited life has no meaning led to a philosophical dead end and often to depression. A beetle sucking the life out of a frog can be a catalyst that prompts one to delve deeper into the spiritual life, fanning one’s curiosity what if any meaning life has and what if any love transcends brokenness and pain. The spiritual journey entails walking with questions and only infrequently glimpsing the possibility of answers.

The extraordinary is not the supernatural. The extraordinary is that facet of the ordinary which our everyday perception fails to see. A nineteenth century Zen monk about spiritual power of the tea ceremony: “[Zen] held that in the great relation of things there was no distinction of small and great, an atom possessing equal possibilities with the universe. The seeker for perfection must discover in his own life the reflection of the inner light.”[4]

Perhaps the Covid-19 pandemic restrictions offer an opportunity to look again at the ordinary, everyday things in life, to discover in them the extraordinary, that which Thomas Moore calls, “everyday sacredness.”[5]

[1] Quoted in Philip Yancey, Soul Survivor (New York: Doubleday, 2001), p. 232.
[2] Yancey, p. 234, quoting Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.
[3] George Clifford, "Making the Ethereal Earthly: A New Definition of the Human Spirit," Journal for the Study of Spirituality, Vol. 5, No. 2, (October 2015), 113-127. DOI: 10.1080/20440243.2015.1122887.
[4] Kakuzo Okakura, The Book of Tea, p. 15.
[5] Thomas Moore, Care of the Soul: A Guide for Cultivating Depth and Sacredness in Everyday Life (New York: HarperCollins, 1992)


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