Do you enjoy the endless wonder of God's handiwork that is your backyard? Whether your backyard is a back forty or forty feet of enclosed concrete, I assure you there is something worth discovering just outside your door. Some may dismiss this idealistic, romantic notion as merely the whimsical musings of an aloof theologian priest who tries way too hard to see God in all things. Others may want to believe that signs of God's handiwork can be this close to them, but hesitate due to years of feeling estranged from the divine. And those who daily practice divine attentiveness might simply smile at my question and affirm, "Of course I live in wonder!"
I can see all three responses to the question of wonderment present in my life and ministry. When I'm at my best, I find a deep connection with God that allows me to see every moment as an encounter with the Lord. There are times, sadly, when work consumes me, placing my mind and heart in a "get it done" mentality, sacrificing my time with the Lord in favor of worshiping the false god of productivity. It is then when I can feel a disconnect between the work I do as a priest and the God who called me to this blessed ministry. If not addressed, this disconnect can bleed into bitterness to the point of questioning the backyard mysticism I have asked you to reflect upon. At these moments, I find it helpful to slow down, take a deep breath, and do something that pulls my mind and heart away from the workaholic life. For example, watching the birds that visit my backyard feeder as they fight with one another over seeds.
For those of us who live in areas of the world that are experiencing the beauty of autumn leaves, slowing down and detaching from the "productivity machine" may be going to a local park with a pair of binoculars and be taken by the endless beauty that a few trees can provide - Even in a light rain that forces us to observe from the dry safety of a pavilion.
And when frustration runs deep and it seems as though I can't see God present in my life, I can take out my camera, even in the light pollution of the city of Eau Claire, and be reminded that just as my physical eyes are hindered by many things that prevent me from seeing the night sky in its full beauty, so, too, is my very being hindered from seeing the full presence of God in the world around me. Just as beginner astrophotography is teaching me how to "change the way my camera sees" to make more stars visible, so, too, do I need to change the way I approach priesthood to detach from the noise and heart of productivity that can alienate me from God.
In order to see with the eyes of faith, we need to slow down, take time, and be attentive to prayer and God's presence in the world. So, too, does embracing a heart of backyard wonderment call us to slow down, take time, and be attentive to the beauty creation presents to us. This reflection on backyard attentiveness reminds me of the short fairytale by G.K. Chesterton called Tremendous Trifles. I have referenced this short work before, but as a refresher, it's the story of two young boys who are given a wish by a passerby. One asks to become a giant so he can see all the wonders of the world in a single day. Sadly, being out of proportion to the world he lives, he becomes bored, ceasing to see the wonderment of God's creation to the point of his demise. The other boy seeks to be made tiny, only a couple inches tall. This request brings him great joy, spending an eternity of wonderment at the blades of grass in the backyard.
This tension is at the heart of all of our spiritual lives, is it not? We experience the temptation to see the world with the eyes of the giant, out of proportion with creation, and try to dominate the natural world we live in. It is those moments when we need to make ourselves small, humble, and realize that the place that God asks us to embrace in this world is well summarized in the words of Carl Sagan, "A mote of dust on a sunbeam." The great saint of The Little Way, St. Therese of Lisieux, shared this disposition of heart. Here is a quote from this small Doctor of the Church that fits nicely with this reflection on backyard holiness.
Jesus has been gracious enough to teach me a lesson about the mystery of the differences in souls, simply by holding up to my eyes, the book of nature. I understood how all the flowers God created are beautiful - how the splendor of the rose and the whiteness of the lily do not take away from the perfume of the violet or the simplicity of the daisy. I understood that if all flowers wanted to be roses, nature would lose her springtime beauty, and the fields would no longer be decked out with little wildflower.
And so it is in the world of souls… Jesus’ garden. He willed to create great souls comparable to lilies and roses, but he created small ones as well… and theses must be content to be daisies or violets destined to give joy to God’s glances, when he looks down at His feet. Perfection consists in doing God’s will… in being what He would have us be. (Quote from St. Therese was taken from the Society of Little Flower homepage.)
Spiritual Exercise: Spend some time in backyard wonderment today. Be attentive to the simplicity of beauty that surrounds you - a beauty that, perhaps, you have become desensitized too. If you live in a concrete jungle and find this exercise difficult to complete, go to a local park or someplace that contains the beauty of nature. Slow down, remove yourself from the trappings of mere productivity, and revel in the wonderment of God's handwork - a handwork that includes the wonder that is you.