Wonder is everywhere in the natural world. Often you don’t even have to look for it. You just have to receive it.
This happened to me one evening some years ago as I walked out the side door of the residence where I was staying. The door faced west into the setting sun. It had just rained so the air still felt moist.
I looked up and the scene stopped me in my tracks.
It was the sky.
To call the scene a “radiant sunset” would have done it an injustice. I stood lost in wonder, forgetting about anything else I had to do that evening.
The sky itself seemed to be on fire.
Piercing reds and oranges shot out from wispy clouds; intense yellows glowed nearest the setting sun; some hint of purple emerged at the sky’s farthest edges, and a pallet of blues invaded the spaces between the other colors. Did I even see a faint hue of green?
What was captivating me was actually the waning light filtering through a zillion water droplets in the air – the very definition of a diffused rainbow.
God was painting with light. On a canvas of air. Right before my eyes.
A Window to Grace
I had the fleeting thought that I should run back into the building and get my camera (remember those days when you had no cell phone camera at your fingertips and had simply to enjoy the experience of the moment? Me neither…)
But I knew – intuitively – that I would squander that momentary gift if I ran inside. I just couldn’t do it. So I stood still for the few moments the glorious scene lasted and murmured “wow” to myself.
My senses filled up with the fresh and musty scents of natural life that the recent rain had elicited from the earth.
The total sight, sense, and olfactory overload took me by surprise, but it was a deeply pleasant and satisfying surprise.
It was not pleasant in the way of pleasure. The experience invaded my senses, of course, but it was deeper than that.
The senses became an open doorway to the soul letting in a grandeur of divine artistry that I could not resist for the few moments that sunset blazed across the heavens.
As the sun gradually diminished and then sunk behind the mountains in the distance, I almost felt a loss. Like the visit of a good friend who has to go but you don’t want your time with him to end.
The sights and sounds, images, laughter, and conversations you shared during the visit stay with you. You dwell on them for hours, sometimes days, afterward. You accomplished nothing during your time together, but your spirits were uplifted.
Mere sense pleasures don’t have that power.
It may sound trite, but that sunset was a spiritual experience. I dwell on it to this day.
Receive the Grace
I think St. Thomas Aquinas says somewhere that “grace is received according to the capacity of the receiver”.
I’ve always taken that to mean we can’t be full of grace unless we are empty of self. That one insight alone should make us aware of the purity of the Our Lady’s soul, the only person in scripture who is called “full of grace”.
How do we develop a greater capacity to receive grace? Is it just a matter of trying to be a better person on a daily basis?
Not really. There’s nothing wrong with moral effort, of course, but living a decent life is only half the answer. Moral purity is a precondition to profound experiences of grace.
Disposition of soul is the real answer. It’s more a matter of removing obstacles to grace than of doing anything to merit grace. It means removing the self (undue concern for or preoccupation with self, externals, passions, anxieties, etc.) and attunement to higher things.
God is always the prime mover when it comes to the life of the spirit. We can’t earn or obtain the action of grace by human effort, but we can dispose ourselves to it.
The best way to do that is by embracing authentic experiences of Beauty, Truth, and Goodness, when they come.
These transcendental values – spiritual gifts really – take us out of ourselves. They beckon us to put aside all concern for the mundane and raise our eyes and hearts upward – like watching a setting sun or visiting with a good friend.
Stop and Contemplate
Then there’s the need to “seize the opportunity” when grace strikes.
I once attended a retreat where the speaker told the retreatants that any time we were overcome with a sense of “awe” or wonder at some exuberance of the natural world, we should just stop right there…and contemplate what we are experiencing.
Have you ever been struck by an enchanting aroma, some deep nostalgia, a moving song or scene, the luminous moon, or the sheer beauty of a sleeping baby?
Stop and drink in the experience for a moment.
The now moment of the graced scene – even if it lasts only a few seconds or minutes – will open you to the transcendent quality of God’s grace breaking through the mundane opacity of our world.
Okay, now I’m going to be heretical and say: when that happens, don’t pull out your iPhone and take pictures!
In doing so, you absolutely devastate the spiritual character of the experience.
Empty of Self
That moment challenges you to empty yourself – of yourself. The urge to take a picture or video of an inspirational moment is actually an acquisitive urge that says:
“Capture it! Get it onto my phone! (Click.) Now it’s mine!”
That urge, by definition, makes the picture-taking a self-centered act, even if only mildly so. There is probably no actual sin in it, except that the accumulation of such experiences makes our personalities much more self-centered in general and prone to sin.
See how our culture corrupts us? We don’t even question the urge to take pictures and videos of everything any more. Everybody does it.
And everybody also promptly forgets about the experience and never looks again at their pictures. Or if they do, it’s certainly not in a way that can even remotely re-create the profound experience of grace they could have had in the moment it happened.
Moments like that, when embraced, stay with you because they lodge in the best recording device known to man: the human soul.
How did we get into the habit of trading the indelible gift of graced memory for a two-dimensional delete-able digital photo file?
That’s not much of a trade-off.
Please take time to visit Peter Darcy’s Sacred Windows website at www.sacredwindows.com, for more reflections on Beauty, Truth, and Goodness. You may also wish to sign up for his bi-monthly newsletter.