If a man is called to be a street sweeper,
he should sweep streets
even as Michelangelo painted,
or Beethoven composed music,
or Shakespeare wrote poetry.
He should sweep streets so well
that all the hosts of heaven and earth
will pause to say,
‘Here lived a great street sweeper
who did his job well.’ – Martin Luther King, Jr.
My daughter and I had dinner together recently and had a fabulous conversation. Among other things, we discussed how to live in a way that makes all into an adventure. That was the theme, and it was fun. Her fear is of becoming like so many people she has seen who seem to settle in life for ‘meh,’ and become complainers who paint themselves as restless victims of everyone and everything gone wrong.
We talked about how faith in God plants within a person a strong internal center, opening out into a wide horizon. It also gives an enduring sense of hope-filled meaning, revealing a world pregnant with endless latent possibilities. No matter how seemingly insignificant or mundane any detail seems, for the person of faith infinity is everywhere upending boring.
We talked about the need for wonder, for a deep hunger for learning, as well as a readiness to risk new things and new relationships. I said too many people get lodged in the cul-de-sacs of chronic complaining, cynicism, pettiness, backbiting or gossip — all of which extinguish the spark burning in the soul, the élan vital of a life worth living.
We talked about humility, gratitude and generosity as fuel for wonder, and the need to search out — and hang with — other wonderers. Yes, to love and pray for those oozing toxic, but avoid entanglement in their stale world of shallow waters.
I also shared with her my practice of silence over the years to stoke wonder. I said there’s an immense power in silence to awaken new and multi-dimensional perspectives on life. She was really intrigued by this, and we had fun exploring how that might work.
I told her this odd thing. Years ago, my therapist recommended that when I get into a stressed mindset (which teems with dark shadows), I should pull out of my routine and have a ‘good stare.’ She encouraged me to find something simple and beautiful to look at, to spend time with in ocular communion. But, she said emphatically, no digital junk food. A tree, flowers, a painting or statue, a photo of a loved one, the clouds, my fish tank, even a blank wall. Then, she said, choose a set amount of time and stick to it — e.g. 15 minutes. She gave me tips on fighting the temptation to quit it, and the benefits of remaining faithful to it.
I am telling you, it worked wonders.
One thing she mentioned, that I found so fascinating, was how staring can offer the brain opportunity to rest and refresh when it’s overtaxed. In that waking rest, she added, it can heal in important ways akin to sleep. “It’s very unfortunate staring gets such a bad rap in our culture — the space cadet criticism,” she said.
I eventually learned to think of this practice as kind of visio divina “divine looking,” and linked it with Aquinas’ definition of contemplation as a “simple gaze on truth.” The good stare becomes a contemplative gaze that allows the mind a quiet space to simplify, unify, defrag and re-center on the beautiful. For eyes of faith, the world is rife with divine glory, a fresh pathway back into a fuller life. Absurd! But, I’m sold on it.
+ + +
Okay, this reflection has completely unraveled and has nowhere left to go, so let me just end randomly.
When I was a child, I was obsessed with whirlpools that form when water drains — I could stare at them for crazy-long periods of time. They became springboards for pure imagination. You see, wonder had not yet been beaten out of me. And so whirlpools, which led my eyes from the shallows into unknown, twirling depths, gave me an inkling of imagination’s vast capacity. So when I came back to faith, it was never a big leap for my sight to be sacramentalized, to opening in my heart room for seeing God in all things.
I’m telling you, if I could be employed to clear drains and watch whirlpools, I would do it.
“For an angel went down at a certain time
into the pool and stirred up the water;
then whoever stepped in first,
after the stirring of the water,
was made well from whatever disease he had” — John 5:4
Yes, you are welcome to now look me up on the DSM.