A few nights ago, my seven year old walked out (about 45 minutes after she was supposed to be asleep) and asked me, “Hey Mom, who’s Elizabeth Barrett Browning?”
I blow lots of things about parenting. I am not an expert. I actually internally winced the other evening when an acquaintance who is expecting her first turned to me and said, “I’ll be asking you for advice!” (My very best pregnancy advice: eat lots of donuts. Because you are MAKING A PERSON, and if that’s not a blank slate for apple fritters, then the universe does not make sense to me.) But here was a softball. When your daughter stays up past her bedtime in order to listen to Jim Weiss’ Treasury of Wisdom, and then rouses herself enough to come ask about Elizabeth Barrett Browning, do not send her back to bed. A little free advice: it’s why you read this blog, right?
Anyway: of course I wanted to know why she was asking.
“Oh,” she replied. “In the beginning of the story about Michelangelo and Raphael, there’s a quote by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. She said” (child screws up her face and thinks), “that ‘earth’s crammed with heaven, and every common bush afire with God; only he who sees takes off his shoes.’ Is that from a poem? Was she a poet?”
Well, yes, sweetheart, she was. And so of course we had to look her up, and the poem this passage was from, and copy it onto the laundry room door. And then it was back to bed, with Jim Weiss taking her the rest of the way to sleep. (Non-theological plug: if you haven’t already discovered his CDs, please stop reading and go buy a few. Thanks. He’s the most fantastic storyteller, and 100% responsible for this post, as well as the 4-year-old’s current obsession with King Arthur. Plus about 55% of the imaginative play at our house.)
Since then, I’ve been gazing at that passage every day. And thinking: what if I really believed that?
I mean really: I walk past hundreds of bushes every day. I never take off my shoes. (I live in San Francisco: this is a risky proposition.) But I’ve also been doing some reading in modern physics lately, and if quantum physics is going to make any sense at all to this creature of the humanities, I have to believe that God is acting constantly in every single imperceptible motion of the tiniest particles of existence. Every briefest perception of light, every whisker on my cat’s face is afire with God, let alone bushes and stars. The world around us is more wonderful and fraught than is safe to believe.
To be perfectly honest, at this point in my life I’m unable to move through my days in the constant awareness of this truth. I’m not sure I would make it through the grocery aisles or swim lessons trying to keep the radical awareness of God’s pervasive action in the forefront of my thoughts. It takes a greater saint, I think: my finite, broken self gets tired contemplating it. But I want to. I think about the material repetition of my days — waking up, making breakfast, cleaning up & making beds, getting everyone dressed and out the door, making lunches and snacks and dinners, getting everyone to bed — and the thought that God is afire, at work, illuminating and sanctifying those moments, electrifies me. What would my daily life, my daily interactions with my kids and husband, look like if I really believed that every earthly, mundane moment was crammed with heaven? I think I would relax. I just might give thanks more. I would certainly be less anxious. Because if every moment is crammed with heaven, there’s more there than I can control — and my efforts honestly aren’t so crucial. I can’t imagine better news.