On Finding God in Unexpected Places
Let me give you some of the background for an article I contributed. One of the aspects of the monastic life I most appreciate is the way in which one is surrounded constantly by ‘pointers’ toward God. This is a deliberate, designed part of the monastic life. Wherever you turn, you are reminded–whether by a cross, by an icon, or simply by the spire of the church–to direct your thoughts heavenward and remember God. The pealing of the church bells, chanting the hours, everyday disciplines–everything became an occasion to remember God.
It can be difficult, without such “habitual reminders,” to remember God in the midst of our daily lives. There was a time in my life when I sought to create my own habitual reminders, from putting up crosses and icons, or significant words in places I would often see them, and I even sought to make it so that I would remember God whenever I tied my shoes. The specifics may seem flippant, but the idea is serious: prayer is a discipline of attention, and the attention wanders. Especially, of course, in contemporary society, where “attention spans” are famously short, it can be difficult to harness our attention and direct it consistently toward God.
Yet remaining in prayer in every moment, holding every thought captive, is what would be required to be constantly aware that we live, move and have our being in God. Some faiths, including the Christian faith, have sought to control breathing as a means of prayer, since in this way you are always bringing your attention back to God and God’s grace.
Of course, it can be easier to remember God in some places than in others. I, like the vast majority of people I know, am possessed of the most keen awareness of God when I am out in the natural beauty of God’s creation. Growing up in California, I was surrounded by natural beauty of all kinds. One of my favorites was Yosemite National Park. Twice I was on top of Half Dome during a meteorite shower, and the streaking lights in the midst of the most brilliant midnight sky was simply awe-inspiring.
My other favorite location was anywhere amongst the California redwoods. An old-growth redwood forest is nature’s version of a cathedral. Your thoughts are drawn irresistibly upward.
These thoughts returned to me when I attended Princeton Theological Seminary and took courses with the well known Diogenes Allen. At one point he described one of the great teachers of the church–I believe it was Saint Bonaventure, but I’m not certain–who preached regularly to craftsmen and laborers. He taught them that their “techne,” their craft, the works of their hands, bring glory to God. This was an early instance of the theology of work. Where God is glorified in the works of nature, God is glorified in the works of man because of the creative ingenuity that was required to make creative creatures. When Bonaventure taught, of course, he would have been referring to bridges and houses, statues and furniture.
In the contemporary context, we are rarely surrounded by the extraordinary works of nature that lead our hearts to rejoice in God and our souls to “magnify the Lord.” Rather we spend our time surrounded by the works of human hands–the products of our “techne,” our techn-ology. What if our technology could serve as a “habitual reminder” of God? Why is it, after all, that our computers and bridges and skyscrapers don’t lead us into worshipful prayer? Do they carry the stench of human hubris?
In my view, we need to recover a sense of the works of our hands as habitual reminders toward God, because the works of our hands show, more than any forest or ocean or mountain ever could, the creative power of God’s hand. Only an omnipotent Creator could create creative creatures. The inability to see technology as a pointer toward God leaves us–in the vast majority of our days–feeling cut off from God; if we could recover this sense, then we could redirect our attention throughout each day and every day, striving ever more and more to rest in constant communion with God.
This is the background for the article here.