Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town attempts to find the value, above any price, of the smallest event in daily life. Emily, having just died, asks for and receives permission to return to a day in her life—her twelfth birthday. As she relives these hours and watches herself going through them, she experiences the anguish of seeing how she and her family, basically loving yet typically human and forgetful, fail to really “look at one another.” This sad fact causes Emily to beg to be taken back “up the hill” to her grave before the day is over.
“But first: Wait!” she cries. “One more look. Good-by, Good-by world…Mama and Papa. Good-by to clocks ticking…and Mama’s sunflowers and food and coffee. And newly ironed dresses and hot baths…and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you.”
Each of us needs in some way to experience a similar return to the life we once knew. We need to develop a reverent response to reality, accompanied by a gentle desire to grasp the divine directives that come to us through each situation.
It is the artist who teaches us how to see. She leads her students to a field where she asks them to sit still in the grass and observe a leaf, an ant, a twig. She tells them to relax completely and focus on one subject at a time. Then she asks them to sketch what they saw with their full attention to the exclusion of all else.
Such meditative seeing ought to be a practice we adopt. Unfortunately, in this fast-paced world of ours, we do a lot of looking but see less, a lot of listening but hear little. Although we read voluminously for the purpose of gathering information, we may fail to grasp the deeper meaning and inexhaustible richness of writings that nourish our soul.
The question of whether or not we are living a spiritual life leads to the conclusion that we have to let go of our fears, desires, needs, prejudices, and defenses, all of which distort reality. Only then may we be able to…comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that [we] may be filled with all the fullness of God (Ephesians 3:18-19).
The Lord calls us to be laborers in the vineyard he plants. He asks us to put the Father’s will before any thought of what we do or do not want to accomplish. Our main motive must be to move through each day as he presents it to us whether we lecture to an audience or listen with patience to someone who needs our support. In the routines of the workaday world, Jesus invites us to reclaim the treasure of a deeper spiritual life.
With Christ as our center, we minister to others in, with, and through him. His presence permeates our service to society and gives us access to the depth of charity that flows forth from our intimacy with the Trinity.
The balance between inspiration and incarnation has to become part of our everyday routine. The effectiveness of our social involvement corresponds to the depth of our spiritual life. Our primary concern becomes listening to what God asks of us and letting the answer we receive permeate our social concerns.
The truth is, we cannot give to others what we do not live ourselves. We can succeed in what we do only to the degree that we realize that it is God’s will we seek, not merely tangible results or immediate rewards.
Jesus shows us by his example that we need to slow down our hectic pace, to enter into the depths of our being, and to get in touch with our truest self. During these moments of prayerful reflection, we try to discern the Father’s will in dialogue with our personal and communal calling. Jesus himself would at times disappear from the crowd and go off by himself to a deserted place (see Mark 6:31). To be faithful to the will of the Father, he had to make time in his life for meditative reflection.
Just as a candle is of little value without a wick, so our most sincere commitments risk losing their witness value unless we deepen the contemplative dimension of our life. It has to be the ground of our loving service to every soul entrusted to our care. No wonder we need to pray without ceasing:
Make my heart less earthbound, Lord,
My mind less drowned in small designs.
Let me run no longer after the seductive pipers
Of this small and narrow land
Of lust and arrogance.
Shake me loose from my rusty moorings
In worldly routines.
Shame me by the shallowness
Of a lost and empty life,
A sad succession of pursuits
Of earthly happiness.
Anxiously I hunted for fulfillment,
Evading me like a lark in flight.
When I thought I captured it,
The song had choked already
In its little throat.
Soon the graceful singer died.
I clutched only a bunch of feathers
In my grasping hand.
Grant the grace of sweet upheaval
In this dense and dreary life.
Let me meet you at the well of daily happenings
As once the woman did.
Create a new heart in me
That I may not return blindly
To all that used to be.
–Adrian van Kaam
Readings from A to Z: The Poetry of Epiphany
(Pittsburgh, PA: Epiphany Books, 2000),10-11