Thoroughly Alive

We must hunger after the beautiful and the good...


Earth's Crammed with Heaven

"Earth's crammed with heaven And every common bush afire with God. But only those who see take off their shoes..."

Elizabeth Barret Browning's poem has always offered me a jolt of conviction. Only those who see... Of course, after several years of speaking to bunches of people about the vital importance of beauty, I like to think I am the sort who sees God's presence in the stuff of creation. Those talks had their birth because long ago, I did indeed "see." I think my startled joy in creation began when I was fifteen and my family moved to Colorado. My next three years were marked by the hours in which I roamed the mountains just out our back door. What I tasted in the wind, touched in the wet, red rocks after a maddened storm, saw in the limpid bowl of evening with its foam of starlight staid my faith for the next ten years. Through doubt and change and loss, the beauty I encountered held my faith intact.

Of course I am one who sees.

And yet. I've been in California this week, speaking on beauty once again. I felt that I skidded onto that stage with weeks of rush and distraction propelling me from behind. I have this message down pat, thank goodness, and I'd been up since dawn to be sure I had my words intact. But the ceaseless motion of work, the unending presence of my iPhone and laptop, the rip-tide of activity that is always pulling me down and leaving me gasping for breath seemed to buzz in my ears even as I spoke my greeting into the microphone.

My own words came to me as conviction. I told my audience that to lose our daily contact with the richness of the earth is to be separated from the God who so shaped reality that we would live immersed in his tangible goodness. I told them that the cultivation of beauty makes us real like the velveteen rabbit in the old story. To cultivate a life of beauty is to step away from manufactured food and virtual experience and impersonal entertainment. Beauty requires relationship, the gathering of precious people to cook, to celebrate, to savor. It requires times of quiet in which we truly taste the goodness of God in his creation, watch the slow turn of sunlight, the lap of water, hear the music of dawn and the silence of dusk. Beauty arrests our minds with the stillness necessary to deep prayer.

But it's been awhile since I have lived the words I spoke. In my idealism, I used to think that holding the right ideas would drive the right action. Now, I find that everything is a battle. I am almost panicked sometimes by my own inability to control the amount of screen-time I practice, to stem the busyness, to shut out the noise of entertainment and advertisement. I feel that I begin and end my days with more than I can accomplish, with a restlessness that feels like an illness taking hold in my bones. More and more, I feel that this is the mark of the modern world. A frenzy, an overwhelmedness, a fear of rest a drive to do more that leaves all of us with unquiet minds and souls that are fevered with need. Relationships dwindle. Fear grows. And God becomes a distant idea I cannot quite grasp.

Only those who see take off their shoes...

Early, early, the morning after my talk, when the damp and shadows of the morning still tasted of the night, I slipped out the door of my friend's house and began the long walk down to the ocean.


Have you ever noticed the tautness of dawn light? Poised and sharp, like a knife about to be thrust. And it strengthens minute by minute, a luminesence that gathers in the sky until the cry of a bird far above feels like the herald of some great presence about to descend and change the earth. Day has arrived.


Have you ever felt the coming of color to your eyes as something you wished you could eat? Have you ever seen emerald water that made you feel you were lacking enough senses to take it in, or sapphire depths that made you wish you could somehow join the substance of the water, become that perfect, glimmering, joyous blue?


Have you ever noticed the stillness of the ground? When you sit on a patch of grassy earth, or sink your hands in damp, gritty sand, have you ever noticed the quiet that clings to your skin, the hush that seeps into your bones from the gentle earth?


Have you ever known awe at the artistry of the minute within creation? Examined a shell and found the etchings of tiny, unknown fingers, the spread of what seems fresh-made pearl? Have you counted the grains of sand that can be caught within a single oyster?

photo-8Have you ever sat still enough to feel the ceaseless dance of the cosmos? The ebb and flow of the sea into the shadowed coves, the curve of the sun through the heavens, the rise of sap and the fall of leaves, the circle of stars and the fresh-flung breath of the roving wind? And have you ever wondered at what point that dance began?

photoAnd have you, at days end, when the sinking sun fills the bowl of the sky with a honeyed light that comes like healing over your head, remembered that the next day will come anew and the wonder begin again? In a world where nothing is sure and all may be broken, have you known that there is at least one grace that will never change, and that is the dawning of each new morning?

I have. I did again. I walked that morning and remembered. As Elizabeth Barrett Browning said, "I saw." And when one sees, the natural reaction is to take off one's shoes and lift up one's heart and that is the beginning of renewal. The great thing I believe to be true about beauty, the truth I spoke, the truth that convicted me and turned my steps around, is that it remains. The beauty of the earth is ceaselessly offered. And it heals, an-ever renewing grace given from the heart of the Creator. "Taste and see that the Lord is good," we are told. And even if we have starved ourselves of that goodness, even if we are weak and frail with our own fear and frenzy, the table of the universe is always laid and ready for our return.

All it takes is one step out into the sun, one moment in which we fix our eyes on the burning bush of creation and see. 

May your day be marked with freshened sight.