Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Sublime in the Ordinary

Two weeks ago I stepped out of the Willard Walker Hospice House in Fayetteville, having spent a couple of hours with a parishioner there. A heavy rain had just passed. It was very late in the evening, just around midnight. Some of the noisier forest creatures had gotten back to work at their singing and chirping and croaking, and though the heat of the city was still in the air, the rain had washed the oppressive radiant heat away, and everything smelt fresh and alive. 

As I walked to the car, I thought, "This, exactly, is why I do what I do." I had some jazz, Andrew Hill I think, playing in the car, and I drove home with the windows down. I don't consider myself particularly mystical, but that was one moment, of which there are more and more, when I felt "the whole world charged with the grandeur of God" (Gerard Manley Hopkins).

Do you have these moments? Do you find yourself, suddenly, in the midst of very mundane matters, simply overwhelmed--with gratitude, with grace, with awe?

I know for sure such transcendence cannot be forced. Yes, we can coax a simulation of transcendence out of all kinds of situations. Just sing a praise song, modulate it up on the last verse, keep repeating the verse a few times and build the volume, and you can get that special feeling down your spine. You know the one. The one where tens of thousands of people are calling the Hogs simultaneously, and you all shout in unison, "Wooooo Pig Sooie, Razorbacks!" Yeah, that tingle.

But that feeling, as powerful as it is, isn't what I'm talking about here. That's the transcendence you expect. There's no mystery. It is evoked during worship. It is drummed up at football games, or the conclusion of a symphony. 

The transcendence I'm talking about is the one that creeps up on you, takes you completely by surprise, because it simply arrives in the middle, sui generis (as compared to pig sooie). In the case of my late night at hospice, it was, after all, just a pastor going home after an evening at hospice. I was spending time saying goodbye to a beloved parishioner. The rain was over, the storm had passed. I was just doing my job. It might have been any evening, any day. I've had the same kind of feeling come up while shoveling snow, or washing the dishes, or sitting out on the front porch contemplating the neighborhood.

I happen to think this kind of transcendence, this intuition of the sublime, is an unfortunately unremarked part of Christian faith. Eric Auerbach, a rather fascinating literary critic and philologist of the last century, put it this way, "Scripture created an entirely new kind of sublimity, in which the everyday and the low were included, not excluded, so that, in style as in content, it directly connected the lowest with the highest" (Mimesis, 154). Both in style and substance, the Christian Scripture ranges widely from the lowest to the highest, from clumsy Greek to poetic Hebrew, from transcendent architecture to bawdy and elicit goings-on in dingy tents.

The transcendent, the sublime, in this understanding (and I think this is or ought to be a deeply held Christian conviction) is found as much, maybe even more, in the work of the ordinary craftsman rather than the incredible genius. At the very specific level, we might say that although we can all recognize the extraordinary beauty of Crystal Bridges, for Christian faith, the truly sublime is located as much or perhaps even more in ordinary beauty of the built environments of our own homes. If the only beauty of faith is linked to the geniuses collected at Crystal Bridges, then the faith is misunderstood, distorted. The sublime is also found, must certainly be found, in the drawings my children bring home from school.

Which reminds me of the other transcendent experience I had, this one just this week. A work crew was at our house shoring up some piers under our house. The site leader for the job was asking me a set of questions about a window on our house, and it was clear from his questions that when he examined our house, he looked at it, always, from any angle, as something he knew how to build, and could see how others had built. He noticed, for example, that the bricks around the window were not original to the house. The window bricking had at some point been re-laid. And I thought to myself, "When he looks at our house, he knows how to build it. All of it, any of it." And suddenly, this very ordinary craftsman standing before me in dirtied jeans and a hand-ripped tank top was transfigured, made new. And so was I.

[for those without a subscription to the Northwest Arkansas Times, this is a reprint of my column for August 25th, 2012]

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