A block from my office beside a deserted railway track the geese built their nest again, to incubate their eggs. Geese take turns, I understand, one parent flying away to feed and rest while the other sits like a painted carving. But I couldn’t tell the difference between these two. Sometimes both were there. And this spring they had acquired a handmaiden- a brown mallard duck, always somewhere near them.
As usual, the word had gotten around the office quickly, and the gifts began. We wandered out there at coffee time, taking bread crusts, a dish of grain, a bowl of water. And the geese ate the food and came to know us. Oh, they hissed and threatened if we came close, but their idea of “close” shrank to 4 or 5 feet.
Around them lay a blasted wilderness of tractor-squeezed mud and struggling willows, scorched cattails. The factory across the way sometimes sends out synthetic fumes, and the city sprays for purple loosestrife, which makes it hard for the cattails to recover. But in the midst of this raddled marshland, these sober parents sat on five cream coloured eggs.
“Where are you going?” asked my workmates as I went out the door at coffee time. “The geese are back, I’m taking them some food.” And everyone nodded that this was perfectly natural, even when I came back to the office, muddy to the ankles.
People have not forgotten worship.
In my 1929 Oxford, next to worship the entry reads “(archaic) worthiness, merit, recognition given or due...honour and respect,” and further on, “...a reverent homage or service paid to God.” The derivation given is Old English weordhscipe, (worth + SHIP). Is worship merely the recognition of that which is worthy?
The words worth and value and attention come together and meet like three roads in this question. If something is worthy, I value it. If something is of value, I pay attention to it. How can I possibly value something if I never attend to it?
Where we choose to put our attention is important. Jesus made mention of this when he said, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” This was both a reassurance and a veiled warning, because what you value, what you find worthy, where your attention is fixed, will draw you to it. A blessing, but also a curse if you have chosen to treasure some dead thing or thing which never lived. This is the reward of idolatry - you get what you ask for.
Now, we do not have complete control over where our attention goes. Sometimes our attention is required by the task at hand. When driving, we watch the road and ignore the sunset. Working, we see paper and ink and pay less attention to living people. When planning a factory or iron mine, we might stray so deep into paper plans that we do not see the green land or the living workers at all, except as inefficient impediments to the pure function of the plan we have made. To plan purely, in the abstract, is a needful skill, but we can err by going into it and trying to live there.
When I go out to feed the geese, the pinpoint reality of their endangered nest easily penetrates the fog of the abstract. They are not “environmental issues” or “biodiversity” or “native fauna” - they are Gihh’brrruk and his mate Ka’dthsss, whom I knew from last year and will see next year, sitting on their nest doing a job of work. My heart was glad to see them, and I lay bread before them.
A stained glass window is one of the grand accomplishments of Western art. At its best a rose-window is an intricate miracle by day and after dark, a burning quilt giving comfort to the deep night itself. Each of the square-cut pieces of glass that make it up transmits a single colour, but together they speak a message greater than any of them alone.
My geese are one pane of glass. So are the cattails nearby, each slender leaf spiraling upwards. The white moon among the stars is a pane of this glass, and the dawn. High school wrestlers practicing their art in panting silence, or myself moving with the smooth movements of my bicycle, so like flying. Music is there, too, and ice. Flame.
When we turn our face to any of these, in delight or rapt attention, we give worship. But the delight does not come from them, the awe is not due to them - it passes thru them as thru a pane of glass. When we look worshipfully, we open to this awe and collect it as leaves collect sunlight. But the opening is the necessary part.
“Where your treasure is…” I can pay attention to my goose, my bicycle, the moon – I coose where to aim my attention. I choose how I look, at varying depths of involvement, deep or shallow.
If I am walking downtown, I do not (often) walk into people. Even if I am reading a book, the corner of my vision sees what’s ahead and responds to avoid collisions. But while I am doing that, I am not aware of other people, except as obstacles.
Now, if I look up and see my favourite aunt from Calgary bearing down on me like a four-masted schooner, my attention sharpens and I begin to see her completely, not the way I saw the anonymous people on the street. Her facial expressions, health, movements and expressions - all will be seen and noted before I drag her off for supper and an evening of catching up.
Now, suppose I looked up and saw instead my own true love. Not only would all my perceptions intensify and deepen as they did above, but the rest of the world would fade and fall silent.
Worship, truest worship, requires attention at the deepest level we can manage. To respond in automatic routine even to the loveliest theology is not that. To sit absorbed by the broken colours of a ruined brick wall, is. The first is idolatry or ignorance, the second, prayer.
Idolatry and Art
What is idolatry? Simply, idolatry is the error of stopping too soon.
An old friend practices tae kwon do. He told me that when he learned to punch, he was taught that he had to aim beyond the surface he intended to strike. It was only in this way that he could apply full force.
Worship may not seem much like tae kwon do, but in the same way, worship can never stop at the surface it is aiming at. If someone attends solely to stamp collecting, or raising his children, or gardening, or nuclear disarmament, then those concerns are idols and when he is parted from them he is devastated. But when he strikes through them, aiming just beyond each, then each one becomes a window to the invisible source, and attention given to each is true worship - yea, even unto golfing.
Art is worshipful because to do real art one must look. Focused attention is absolutely required, and leads one into unguessed perceptions. When I began painting again a few years ago, I learning this all over again. The colours in the human face, the form of a tree, things we all know, are unique landscapes of colour and form. They are complex in infinite regress, their perfections deepening as attention deepens. Nothing the artist puts on paper is any more than a child’s scrawl compared to the object of his attention.
The real is complex, perfect and surprising. But many of us spend too much time in the unreal, which is predictable, simplistic, boring. Cartoon drawings, contrived political turf wars, racial prejudgements - our prejudices trim the branches off the trees by ignoring them, and then we try to claim a forest is only an assemblage of fence posts. A forest of fence posts is the natural result of not looking. Not valuing. Not worshiping.
The true mystics knew this absolutely. They looked, and loved. In our day, Thomas Merton loved the ground he trod, the morning grasses bent by heavy dew, the mockingbirds of Kentucky. That love shows like windows of raindrenched colour through all his writings. Rumi, 800 years earlier, wrote just as easily about food and drink and lovers and warriors and frogs and mice, as he did about the nameless formless Beloved, and just as intimately. And Jesus came too, eating and drinking. “Will you have another glass of wine?” “Fill it up!”
The Emperor’s Robes
Here is a secret. When God willed in the beginning to be present and knowable, to be seen, it was necessary that God be clothed somehow. Absolute Being without limit or constraint, how could such a One be seen? And so a king’s wardrobe of many cloaks was sewn and embroidered, each of which displayed some part of the truth of that One, and yet concealed some other part, a necessary falsehood so that other truths might be seen.
He clothed himself in geese. In bicycles and Greek amphoras, in the smell of the first frost, or the wet leaves beaten into the gutter. So that He might be seen, He clothed himself in us.
To know this is to begin to worship.
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