“To say that Helen was our aunt is accurate, in the way that saying that the sun is a star is accurate,” my second cousin Paul began. He stood at the pulpit looking out at the hundreds of family members, friends, former students, and acquaintances who had gathered to mourn our recently deceased aunt. Then he continued: “But it doesn’t begin to convey the enormous importance of that one particular star, and this one particular aunt, to those of us warmed by its light, and by her light.”
Paul’s words opened a eulogy, but to me these poetic sentences accomplished more than introducing a speech commemorating our beloved relative’s life. Like good philosophy, they expressed a sentiment that’s broadly applicable and conveys a truth about life: Human language so often underwhelms and fails to capture the nature of an experience.
Yes, the sun is a star—in fact, a quite ordinary one as far as science is concerned—but unlike the billions of other twinkling lights in the sky, our sun gives us life. A technically correct designation falls flat when attempting to express our utter reliance on an object that is uniquely special to all living organisms across the globe. Sometimes words and definitions—no matter how scientifically, historically, or grammatically accurate they may be—simply don’t do our relationships to people, objects, and experiences justice.
I felt acutely the inadequacy of language in the weeks after my first daughter’s birth when I experienced some of the most intense emotional waves of my life. People were quick to inform me that the highs and lows of this phase were the result of post-partum hormonal mayhem. I certainly understand that the biological changes of childbirth can scientifically explain my rollercoaster of emotions. Yet every time I found myself awash in the warm glow of love as I smelled my newborn’s soft head and someone knowingly remarked, “It’s the hormones,” irritation needled me.
Maybe hormones are making me emotional, I remember thinking, or maybe I’m overwhelmed because I’m experiencing a love that I never have before. Maybe I’m crying because my body is adjusting to a plummet of estrogen, or maybe I’m crying because I’m scared to leave the hospital, frustrated by the challenges of feeding, and sad that my little bundle will only be so tiny for so long. Maybe I’m laughing ecstatically because of the surge of oxytocin, or maybe I’m laughing because, as I examine her perfect fingers or watch my partner tenderly swaddle her entire six pounds and three ounces, I’m overcome with a sacrosanct joy that can’t be expressed in any other way.
Do the most sacred weeks of my life really just boil down to hormonal inflections?
Do the most sacred weeks of my life really just boil down to hormonal inflections? I don’t think so. It’s not that scientific explanations are inaccurate so much as that they feel incomplete or even boring in the face of such mysterious and magnificent life moments. At times when the limits of scientific language are revealed, I’m especially grateful to have a language of faith to help me understand and explain my experiences.
There is a concept known as the “gift of tears” within the Catholic tradition. Richard McBrien’s compendium Catholicism (HarperOne) describes the gift of tears as a “religious experience by which a person is moved to a profound sense of sorrow for sin, repentance, adoration, or gratitude before God. Such tears are no different from any others, but their religious significance goes far beyond the merely physical.”
This description, when applied to the tears I shed during my daughter’s first few months of life, transforms my crying from hormonal to holy. I’ve never felt closer to God than I did during those early lullaby-filled weeks. Naming the experience as religious more aptly conveys my instinctual feelings about the time than does attributing my emotions to a hormonal influx.
I’d go so far as to say that much of life in general, and parenthood in particular, is a religious experience—that is to say, one in which the veil between heaven and earth is thinned to transparency, one in which the presence of God is perceptible—if we allow ourselves to see it that way. The goosebumps that prickle my skin as I enter the room and hear my toddler delightedly exclaim “Mama!”: That’s the Holy Spirit tingling through my veins. The lump that forms in my throat as I notice a spark of light in the eye of an ordinarily stoic woman at church as my baby showers her with a gummy grin: That’s God too.
“God is not remote from us. He is at the point of my pen, my pick, my paint brush, my needle—and my heart and thoughts.”
—Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J.
To remain open to the idea that our everyday experiences can be religious experiences is central to our identity as Catholics. It’s called sacramentality, and it rests on the message of the incarnation: God dwells among us and can be seen, touched, and heard in the context of human living. Every tangible element of creation, from the natural environment to human persons, provides an opportunity to encounter God’s presence. As the great Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin wrote: “God is not remote from us. He is at the point of my pen, my pick, my paintbrush, my needle—and my heart and my thoughts.”
By embracing the sacramental imagination, we accomplish two things. First, as we cease to confine God to boxes, we open ourselves up to a deeper relationship with God. Naming our experiences as God-infused instead of dismissing them as hormonal reactions, for instance, allows us to know God in new ways.
In turn, we open ourselves up to a much richer experience of life. The fragrant bath bubbles, the soothing squish of a peach as it’s cut into bite-sized pieces, the daily rhythm of packing lunches—it’s all consecrated. When we allow ourselves to delight in these otherwise mundane moments and to lift a prayer of gratitude heavenward, life has more luster than when we attribute our sensations to expected, ordinary, biological reactions.
“Miracles occur,” Sylvia Plath writes in her poem “Black Rook in Rainy Weather,” recalling a bird reorganizing her feathers on a desultory day, “If you care to call those spasmodic / Tricks of radiance / Miracles.” There’s more to our experiences than can be described scientifically or with words. The question then is simply this: Do we, like Plath, dare to embrace the miraculous, the God-in-all-things, the glimpses of the holy in the everyday moments of life?
This article also appears in the November issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 85, No. 11, pages 43-44). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.
Image: Pexels.com/Tracey Shaw