There is beauty in the world. There is peace in the world. There is joy. In fact, there’s lots of it. Only, there’s lots of other stuff too. Sometimes trying to recognize the good things is like trying to find the right web-site. Your search returns 6 million hits. So where’s the one you want? It’s there somewhere, but buried within 5 million nine-hundred-ninety-nine thousand nine-hundred-ninety-nine distractions. Each one a little dust mote floating in the sunshine of life. And as anyone who’s driven across country can attest, as the miles pile-up those dust motes have a way of adding-up to a dark, muddy smear.
Still, despite the millions of specks of road grit spackled to the windshield (along with who knows what else), the beauty is still out there — even when you can’t see it. Sometimes it will find you even if you can’t find it, like it did for me last night when it snuck up on me.
Our eight month old daughter woke sometime deep in the dark of night. I stumbled bleary-eyed and groggy to her crib. When you’re that tired, I don’t even know how you function. Maybe Mr. Miyagi was right in The Karate Kid when he told Ralph Macchio: “Wax on, wax off” — endless repetition may actually ingrain certain motions so deeply in the muscle fiber that they become automatic. Only for parents it’s not karate moves, it’s stupendous feats of hygiene daring, as in: “Diaper on, diaper off.”
Anyway, somehow I managed to get her diaper changed and make a bottle while on auto-pilot, all the while aided by the sweet strains of nocturnal wailing from a little baby that sounded the way I felt: desperate to get back to sleep.
I was beginning to emerge from semi-consciousness as I weaved a weary way to the rocking chair by the picture window in our living room, one hand holding the baby, now swathed in clean britches as fresh as a spring breeze, the other hand clutching hopefully to the warm bottle I was counting-on to lull my progeny back to the somnolence I optimistically hoped to regain shortly for my own self as well.
I sat down and for a few minutes there was intent and vigorous sucking as our daughter powered down six ounces of warm, creamy formula-bliss. Then in a dramatic moment, she released the nipple from the vice-grip of her toothless gums, pushed the bottle away, and snuggled into my arm. She gave a contented sigh, wiggled once more, and suddenly she was back to sleepy land.
I looked down at her lovely little face nestled in the crook of my arm. Her eyes closed, a smile dimpling her chubby apple-dumpling cheeks, an expression of contentment and serenity across her brow, with “moonlight flowing over all” from the open window (Longfellow). It was beautiful. I was surprised by the moment of joy.
It wasn’t the frothy kind of jocularity that goes with party-hats and off-key singing, but the quiet, seeping all the way down into your bones kind of joy that’s almost too much to bear. The kind of joy that makes you believe in Heaven. As George Weigel said in Letters to a Young Catholic, it was the kind of “beauty [that]helps prepare us to be . . . . people who can be comfortable in heaven – the kind of people who can live with God forever.”
Scripture tells us: “The earth, though out of it comes forth bread, is in fiery upheaval underneath.” Job 28, 5.
We’re all familiar with the fiery upheaval. Not just sleepless nights or crying babies, but real trials, pain, and heartache. Ugliness, loss, regrets, wounds – wounds that don’t seem to heal, or at least take longer than they’ve had so far – are all real too, and they hurt. Yet, amidst the upheavals, the joy is there, and it’s also real.
Maybe when we find ourselves ambushed unexpectedly by joy and beauty it’s because God has sent them out on a search-and-rescue mission to track-us down and remind us that good things are still out there. And to give us our own marching orders: to go forth and find them ourselves. And not just find them, but grow them – for ourselves and others.
We can’t just wait for joy and beauty to sneak-up on us, anymore than we’d wait for a chance rainstorm to clean our windshield on a cross-country road-trip. While we’re driving we use the wiper-blades and an automated squirt of washer-fluid to fight the grime, and at gas stations it’s time to deploy the big squeegee-brush to get the windows clean all the way to the edges where the wiper-blades don’t reach. We keep on cleaning the windows throughout the journey, both so we can enjoy the magnificent scenery, and to be sure we don’t wind-up in a ditch on the side of the road.
Beauty and joy need some proactive participation on our part too. We can seek them out, sustain them where we find them, and nurture them — along with nurturing our own capacity and appreciation for them. It’s part of our calling as Christians, especially those of us who are parents. Because it’s not just we big people who need them. Our children also need beauty and joy, like flowers need the rain, to help them grow and blossom into the people of beauty and joy prepared for Heaven that God intends them to be.
It’s a life-long quest, but we don’t make the journey alone. God is with us every step of the way, through the fiery upheaval as well as the times of beauty and joy. Enduring the fires, we pray. In moments of joy, we thank God for the bread that sustains us!
(© 2011 Jake Frost)