One of my favorite memories from my childhood in Northern California is hiking up the foothills of a mountain in the summer time, springing from boulder to rock, jumping over large exposed roots, pushing upwards to a promised higher viewpoint. Along the way to find a small creek and dip my hands into its clear, clean, cold water. To taste it, drink it and wash my face of its sweat and dust. I can still feel the water’s incredible power to refresh and renew – even in the memory.
After the intensity of work and of school how vacation calls like a mountain spring! We need renewal, we need refreshment, but we just can’t always get to the mountains…
As an adult I discovered another source. I found a place I can dip my being into and feel how it cleanses me of all that would make me old and burdened: bitterness, cynicism, criticism, prejudice – all those things that can easily grow in the soul through living in this world and that turn me into a cranky old codger. “How can anyone be born after having grown old?” (John 3:4) a student of the spirit once asked. I found this inner ‘spring’ in the active practice of looking at the world with interest, with wonder.
A friend of mine recently shared a quote from Herman Hesse that brings this wholly wonder-filled way of looking at the world to beautiful expression:
If I inspect a forest with the intention of buying it, renting it, cutting it down, going hunting in it, or mortgaging it, then I do not see the forest but only its relation to my desires, plans, and concerns, to my purse. Then it consists of wood, it is young or old, healthy or diseased. But if I want nothing from it but to gaze, “thoughtlessly,” into its green depths, then it becomes a forest, nature, a growing thing; only then is it beautiful.
So it is with people, and with people’s faces too. The man whom I look at with dread or hope, with greed, designs, or demands, is not a man but a cloudy mirror of my own desire. Whether I am aware of it or not, I regard him in the light of questions that limit and falsify: Is he approachable, or arrogant? Does he respect me? Is he a good prospect for a loan? Does he understand anything about art? A thousand such questions are in our minds as we look at most people we have to deal with, and we are considered expert psychologists if we succeed in detecting in their appearance, manner, and behavior whatever it is that will abet or hinder our plans. But this attitude is a shabby one . . .
At the moment when desire ceases and contemplation, pure seeing, and self-surrender begin, everything changes. Man ceases to be useful or dangerous, interesting or boring, genial or rude, strong or weak. He becomes nature, he becomes beautiful and remarkable as does everything that is an object of clear contemplation. For indeed contemplation is not scrutiny or criticism, it is nothing but love. It is the highest and most desirable state of our souls: unconditional love.
If we have once achieved this state, be it for minutes, hours, or days (to sustain it permanently would be perfect bliss), then people no longer appear as they used to. They are not mirrors or caricatures of our desire, they become nature once more. Beautiful and ugly, old and young, cordial and offensive, open and taciturn, harsh and mild are no longer opposites, nor are they standards of judgment. All are beautiful, all are remarkable, no one can any longer be despised, hated, misunderstood.” – Herman Hesse from My Belief (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1974), 37–38.
The newness of the world, its beauty and overwhelming grandeur can only be regained for me as an adult if I learn to wash away the dust of prejudice, criticism and cynicism that would prevent me from truly seeing the world, that make me ‘old’. “How can anyone be born after having grown old?”…
Try beginning the day with an inner walk up the mountain to the waters of wonder and wash your being in its openness, in its ability to clear away all that obstructs our view of the newness, the magnificence of life, of people, of the world.
Its a hike. It takes real work to get there, again and again. But it is an incredible, always available and unending source of refreshment, this wonder, this interest, this childlike openness to the world. Perhaps we can hear the answer to the question put in other words elsewhere, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 18:3)
Patrick Kennedy works in the Washington D.C. area as a priest and pastor in the Christian Community, a movement for religious renewal. More information can be found here.