Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Column: All that is hidden

My kids think I'm crazy, and love to tweak me by waving their hands through the smoke, cutting short my contemplation. I've loved watching the smoke trails since I was very young, and knew nothing of molecules or diffusion or random walks.

The photo is of Gloucester harbor last summer, shrouded in smoke from Québécois forest fires.

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times 7 April 2011.

For there is nothing hidden but it must be disclosed, nothing kept secret except to be brought to light. — Mk. 4:22

Mike deftly douses the candles on the dinner table and takes his plate off to the kitchen. I am left to sit in the silent dining room, savoring a few seconds of tranquility before the evening bustles in, with its forms to fill in and complex after school plans to sort out.

I watch the smoke twirl like a ribbon up toward the ceiling, pale silken threads spinning off in elaborate whorls. For just this moment, the intricate and ever present dance of the air molecules is revealed. The air that seemed so still is transfigured, revealed as alive with motion. It’s an ephemeral revelation; all too soon the mystery is again veiled in an ordinary smudge of smoke hovering over the remains of dinner.

Clouds and smoke both hide and reveal, shield and expose. Clouds shield us from the sun; smoke exposes even the gentlest of air currents. God led the Israelites through the desert, His presence revealed by a pillar of cloud, His countenance cloaked in its misty depths.

I’m entranced whenever the invisible movements of the air reveal themselves, whether in candle smoke after an elegant dinner or in the dust devils trapped in a Philadelphia alleyway. Still, I have to admit that most of the time — despite all the hours I spend teaching about it — I’m thoroughly oblivious to the molecular ballet going on all around me. It makes me wonder how often I’m similarly blithely unaware of God. The gap between what I know and profess, and what I am conscious of is sometimes vast.

As one way to bridge that chasm, Jesuit Father David Townsend suggests we deliberately make space in our lives in order to have the chance to experience “a flash of discerning awareness of the presence of God.” Between meetings, walking from the car to the grocery store, we might ask for the grace to see where God has been in the last few minutes of our lives. Like St. Ignatius, who would stop briefly at the start of each hour of his day to look for the subtle movements of God in the last hour, I, too, can take a breath before I unload the dishwasher or the next student walks through the door and notice what I already know: God is, was and will be here.

I find the psalms equally call forth that contemplative capacity in me. These ancient songs grab hold of the ordinary — bread from the earth and olive trees, snow and torrents of water — and use it to make God within and without visible. The psalms are a bridge between what is seen and unseen.

Picking up the Liturgy of the Hours and praying the psalms off and on throughout my day, is like blowing out the candles, the movement of God that stirs every corner of the universe is momentarily visible.

Neither the praying of the psalms nor the practice of looking for the movements of God within my day are ends in themselves. It’s not enough to know that God is there. Each seeks to pull me into the movement, caught up in God’s Word and work. Here I am Lord, I come to do Your will.


  1. I didn't know about Ignatius hourly mini-examens...and you inspired me to start the next stage of my day (writing on campus with a friend, and a spring break girl with a pile of books) that way. Thanks!

  2. This is a good one. Isn't it amazing how some little detail we ordinarily miss can somehow draw our minds to God, who is so much bigger than that tiny detail?