We have a shelf in our house designated for cobwebs. It’s a small windowsill in our kitchen where the afternoon sun shines through, turning the myriad of thin strings into a glittery display.
It wasn’t me who first noticed their value, I had planned on dusting them away, but my hand was stopped by my four-year-old’s passionate plea that they were far too beautiful to destroy. So, I left them. Each time that I go about our house now I look to that un-dusted windowsill and wonder how many times I’ve swept away beautiful things without ever seeing them, and I give a silent prayer of thanks that I get to spend my days with a small person who sees beauty where most people would see only something ordinary or nothing at all.
I don’t actually think the ordinary is quite so ordinary as we tend assume. We just don’t know how to see properly. In all our busyness and preoccupation with ourselves and our agendas we pass over what really matters and spend our lives on things that are of no real consequence, and anesthetize ourselves against anything that gives us enough pause to be in awe.
We spend much of our life merely–as e.e. cummings termed it–undying. Somehow we become so preoccupied with staying alive that we forget to see life. We spend much of our efforts and time striving after vain things. Like T.S. Elliot’s, Mr Prufrock, we measure our lives in coffee spoons; or perhaps with miles travelled, money spent, comforts enjoyed, degrees earned, or experiences acquired. And as we measure our lives with all these tedious things and careful roads to acquirement we flurry past the moments that would instill in us awe. We avoid those bits of existence that remind us how very small we are, and that, perhaps, there is something much bigger than us in existence.
We may walk on a path with ferns, but we trample them underfoot instead of seeing how they spiral with the fibonacci sequence that curves in perfect mathematical precision, echoing the same design at the center of a sunflower, or the swirl of galaxies.
We may meet another person, but we construct a singular story about them so we can fit them into a box instead of knowing them and all their complexity and value as an individual.
We may eat a pleasing meal, but we eat to our capacity, often quickly, without ever considering the multifaceted function of our bodies as we taste, chew, swallow and digest the food we ingest and the transformation of food to energy that allows us to go about our busy day.
We may run down the street, but we preoccupy ourselves with calories burned and weight lost, without ever considering that our labored breath is a gift that could just as well cease, and we fail to consider why it is that we are still breathing today.
We try and construct our lives around us in order to stay alive and comfortable and at some point that comfort fails to fill us completely as we recognize it as a monotonous cycle devoid of meaning; and we begin to ask the question, what’s the point? As Tolstoy’s rather nihilistic character states,
But why should we live? If there is no other aim, if life was given only to perpetuate life, then there is no reason why we should live.
-The Kreutzer Sonata By Leo Tolstoy
Living just to avoid death seems like a waste, it hardly seems like being alive. So how do we live? What is the secret?
I think perhaps the secret lies in part in the eyes of a four-year-old, in that tiny glimpse of something seen through the sparkle of a cobweb in my kitchen window. In order to live we have to see, in order to see we have to be in the moment, looking neither forward nor backward, but into eternity.
The moment is that ambiguity in which time and eternity touch each other.
-Søren Kierkegaard, The Concept of Anxiety
It is only when we are fully in the present, in the moments that are right in front of us, that we see with proper astonishment a glimpse of eternity. In our glimpse of eternity we are really getting a glimpse of the God who has existed eternally, the One who stands outside of time, touching our moments with himself.
Because, as Buechner says, “the secret of the universe is a room where life is reborn out of death.”
Real life is only lived when we are first reborn by the death of God: When we look toward that historical event when the eternal God entered the human moment, and as blood dripped from his wounds the future changed, our future changed. Life was reborn out of death, we were given life, not for a circular survival for our own finite pleasure, but rather to be in continued awe of the God who created us and died for us.
Real life is only lived in moments when we remember him and cherish all he’s done. When we see every moment as a link in a chain of eternal events that serve to show us the surpassing greatness of a being who embodies all good qualities to perfection.
And it’s quite spectacular, this life lived in awe of a God so big. Because when we actually take the time to see the eternal in the moment and to worship God there, we will be quite suddenly aware of sacredness everywhere:
In the way the sun reflects in my son’s red hair versus my older son’s black hair, I am in awe that God designed their own unique DNA and imprinted them with their hair color, eye color, and blood type at the moment of their conception, a time before I was even aware of their existence.
In the feeling I get as I peer over the edge of a great height, I am stunned that it took only a word spoken from God to bring a mountain of such magnitude, detail and beauty into being.
In the pungent smell of garlic as I slide a knife through it and hear the snip sound of it being cut, I am astonished God not only created food to keep our bodies moving and alive but that he also created it to taste good, with endless combinations and preparations offering a plethora of flavors and distinguished dishes.
In watching a marble roll down a hill and seeing the reality of gravity, an unseen force that holds planets in orbit, and pulls the sea to and fro, I am rather stupefied that God would design just the correct amount for our planet so we are just close enough to the sun for the light and heat necessary for life to thrive.
We live in an extraordinary world, but we have exchanged our sense of awe with boredom. There is a distinct fingerprint of God written on everything, but instead of looking for him and revering him for his complex and creative handiwork, we tend to close our eyes and curse him.
But real life is found only in moments acknowledging eternity and the God who brought time and humanity into being.
If we pause before dusting a shelf, stepping on a leaf, or shaking a hand, and take the time to really look, perhaps then we’ll see the secret of the universe more often, pausing long enough to be in awe, echoing the words of the Puritan prayer,
Thou hast died for me,
may I live to thee,
in every moment of my time,
in every movement of my mind,
in every pulse of my heart.
-Valley of Vision
Only then can we avoid undying, only then can we really live.