March 29, 2007
The Sublime & the Sick
I've got a thing for spring. When I first moved into my house, the above-ground pool in the back was covered in snow and served no real purpose until spring sprang, at which point the snow melted and the pool became a temporary home to a family of ducks. I took out the trash one morning and found myself face to face with a lackadaisical duck, waddling around my driveway, minding his own business, being wondrous. I got over my buyer's remorse in a hearbeat.
I've since junked the pool, so the ducks don't come around the house anymore. But this morning I noticed a family of ducks crossing the road (to get to the other side, I'd imagine), and then I noticed a mother in a car pointing out the ducks to her young son. He became quickly overcome with wonder, and my day started to perk up a bit.
Ducks and, really, let's admit it, all waterfowl are wondrous. The sleekness and vividness of a duck's feathers, the casualness of its waddle, the dignity of its beak, the intricacy of its webbed feet--I'm awestruck by it when I come across it. I don't really know why, except that having grown up in Iowa and now living in the suburban midwest, waterfowl remain mildly foreign, faintly exotic.
After my commute I stepped into the office and noticed, perched high above me on the building's skylight, a goose freshly returned from its wintery exile. I'd never seen webbed feet from below, and it was wondrous. I called my friends to come give witness to this sight, to mark this moment. But then, somewhere between the call and the response, the goose decided to mark the moment on its own.
That's the seedy underside of the wondrous waterfowl. They poop. Everywhere. All the time. I know peaceable people who get positively serial in their desire to kill waterfowl, based solely on the animal's propensity to poop. And really, who can blame them? Goose poop is gross to look at, gross to smell, gross to accidentally step in. And in some areas (say, for example, our parking lot), it's nearly impossible to avoid.
So there I stood, trying to avoid direct eye contact with the slowly rippling stain above me, while simultaneously transfixed by the wondrously webbed feet mere inches away. It was sublime. It was sick. It was irreducibly complex.
Yesterday I started reading the book Becoming Who You Are, a series of reflections by Jesuit author James Martin about the spiritual process of Henri Nouwen, Thomas Merton and Mother Teresa. What I've read so far is a fascinating exploration of Merton and Nouwen, both celebrated for their spiritual depth and profound humility, yet both remarkably confessional about their inner pride and pettiness. Readers of Nouwen and Merton are generally awestruck by them and inclined to see them through the lens of that depth, but in reality humility and pride are there in them both, tightly commingled. Merton and Nouwen are sublime, but they're also sick. In a word, they're complex.
So am I, of course, when I step back and think about it. The psalmist recognizes both the inherent wonder in being human and the wickedness that so tragically attends to us. "I am fearfully and wonderfully made," he writes, only to admit shortly thereafter that he can't clean himself up: "See if there is any wicked way in me" (Psalm 139:14, 24). We're sublime, but we're also sick. In a word, we're complex.
Not so complex, however, that God can't see us for who we truly are, and not so complex that God can't take delight in us. I'm unwilling to suggest that God is awestruck by us, but I do think he's willing to endure the gross in us out of love for the grace in us.