Guest Post by KG:
I went with my wife Su one day, one rainy day, as she stopped at a couple of garage sales. I sat in the car and waited while she ‘cased the joint’. As I set I began to watch the rain, how it washed everything: the streets the houses the cars and the lawns. Suddenly a fall leaf fell on the window and was immediately pasted there by the misting rain. My attentions to the effect of the rainfall shifted to the leaf. I was struck by its amazing beauty and complexity between the serrated edges, its symmetry and the articulate branching of the veins. As I looked closer and closer it seemed that they spread out ever more finely. "What a waste" I said to myself without thinking. I knew that there were millions of leaves that littered everything and each was as artistically crafted as the one on my car window. “Isn’t such careful architecture and finery spent on this one leaf (or any leaf for that matter) just a waste of good art?” And it is all so temporary, just a few months of the year. The tree takes in sunlight, minerals and moisture and builds its bulky foliage. And not just any foliage but these masterfully crafted leaves... hundreds of millions of them. I knew that in the leaves that populate each tree (I’m told 6 million on the average large elm) there are millions and millions of cells in each leaf, every one of which has a blueprint for building another tree with leaves included. In the end there is just decay and dirt, like the artist who completes a masterpiece only to crumple it up and throw it away. What a waste.
It didn’t take long for my thoughts to multiply. What I judged to be the case in the single instance of this one leaf/tree is true of even more that I wasn’t seeing. This is true of every living plant whether it blooms and is carefully cultivated in the flower pot or wild and grows on the remote and inaccessible mountain side. This is true of every enormously complex insect that roam's the forest floor or the farmer's field or for the briefest 24 hour life hovers over and inhabits the decaying carcass on the shore of an island. This is true of every animal that lives as a child's pet or inhabits the sea or roams the Serengeti or clings to the roof of the nearby cave. This is true of the grass that grows or the plants that sprouts up in the otherwise vacant field or the fungus that pops up everywhere and in abundance over all the earth however extreme the condition. Billions of times over again and again this exquisite parade marches relentlessly on. Finally, this is true of people whatever their color or size for however long their life may be. And then the uninvited thought came to mind: and a large majority of all that wonder no one will ever see. What a waste.
Looking back I have to admit that it is clear to me now that I was indulging in an all too familiar way of thinking, a God absent or ‘horizontal’ way of thinking. I am a believer but I am not surprised at the things that go on in my head. I have found that it is not at all unusual for me to carry at least two contradictory ways of looking at events or issues in my head at the same time. In the case of my reflections on the leaf pasted against the window it is this sort of ‘horizontal’ thinking. It is for me the default way of looking at things. It is that way because that is natural to me. And it natural to me because it is my earliest way of looking at life, i.e. with God there but only figured into the scheme of things. The other way of looking at life, a very different ‘other’, is the God tempered world and is ‘vertical’ in its orientation. I have been at pains to fit into it ever since God’s world caved in on me. It is the God-haunted world in which I now live. Because of that I live a dimensionally challenged life shuffling between life in the vertical and the horizontal.
The world is described in Genesis as a “good” thing. It is so not because God was merely commenting on how the things he had made met some necessity or satisfied some particular need he had. When God said “it is good” he meant little more than that it flowed from his own goodness and was like himself, good. He liked what he had made, much like an artist who reflects on his own finished work. He liked it which is more than just a statement about God’s ‘tastes’. It was good and he was satisfied with what he had made. If there was an audience it was the artist himself. It was what he wanted. As he said in his final inquisition of Job, “Who has cleft a channel for the torrents of rain and a way for the thunderbolt, to bring rain on a land where no man is, on the desert in which there is no man, to satisfy the waste and desolate land, and to make the ground sprout with grass?” (Job 38:25-27). In other words, no one ever sees some of God’s best work. God’s ‘performances’ are meant to satisfy an audience of one.
This exquisite orchestration that I took to be a ‘wasted’ effort was and is for the designer of that leaf a personal thing, his thing, and because it is his work, his fingerprints are left all over it. G. K. Chesterton talks about his own experience in his book Orthodoxy. There he says that the impression left on his thinking by this phenomena of recurrence in nature was eventually life changing for him. “Now, the mere repetition made the things to me rather more weird than more rational. It was as if, having seen a curiously shaped nose in the street and dismissed it as an accident, I had then seen six other noses of the same astonishing shape. I should have fancied for a moment that it must be some local secret society. So one elephant having a trunk was odd; but all elephants having trunks looked like a plot. I speak here only of an emotion, and of an emotion at once stubborn and subtle. But the repetition in Nature seemed sometimes to be an excited repetition, like that of an angry schoolmaster saying the same thing over and over again. The grass seemed signalling to me with all its fingers at once; the crowded stars seemed bent upon being understood. The sun would make me see him if he rose a thousand times. The recurrences of the universe rose to the maddening rhythm of an incantation, and I began to see an idea.” In other words, the occurrence of reoccurrence can have other than prodigal implications. Seen from the vantage point of the vertical our Father is younger than we are. He has the eternal appetite of infancy which in the moment of finishing a task shows his delight with the joyful appellation ‘do it again’. It is to his glory that he seems to exult so evidently in the repetition of the things he deems to be ‘good’. How else might a God drop hints about his life?
My time in those idle ‘arboreal’ moments eventually landed me in the lap of an ongoing project. It is a project begun years before when I had read something C.S. Lewis had written in Christian Reflections. It had made sense at the time but was hard to integrate into my selfish life, my life framed in the horizontal. Lewis had made the observation that there is an important difference between gratitude and adoration. Gratitude exclaims, very properly, "How good of God to give me this." Adoration says, "What must be the quality of that Being whose far-off and momentary coruscations are like this!" He adds, in adoration “(o)ne's mind runs back up the sunbeam to the sun.” I suppose that for me gratitude begins and ends in the self. That’s not a bad thing. God calls us to do it. But adoration takes us beyond ourselves. It is genuinely “un-selfing”. It is a moment of wonder into which I am, for at least a moment, erased. Adoration always leads me to follow the moment back to its source. It was just that sort of moment I was having that wet Fall day.
Sometimes our first thoughts on a given subject aren’t our last thoughts on that subject. At least it shouldn't be when two plains of existence are lodged in the same person’s head. In all of my attention to and thoughts about such beauty my first thought suggested the conclusion that without an audience, without watching eyes, all of this is gloriously wasteful. My second thoughts however led me to wonder about the kind of being who ladles such attention on something so ephemeral. It was truly (eventually) a timeless moment. While my bride was hunting treasures I was preoccupied with unpacking one, “lost in wonder, love and praise”.