A few decades ago, when I began reading seriously about our search for the divine in nature, I ran across this from John Stewart Collis in The Triumph of the Tree: “Having become aware of objects and begun to name them, this Earliest Man became aware of something else. It is a remarkable fact that no sooner had he looked closely at the phenomena of Nature than he began to concern himself with, not the physical object in front of him which he could clearly see, but with an invisible object which he could not see at all. He looked at the trees, the rocks, the rivers, the animals, and having looked at them he at once began to talk about something in them which he had never seen. This thing inside the objective appearance was called a god.”
Through the years I’ve returned to this quote often because it rings so true on so many levels. It ascribes to human nature that elemental longing we have for “the other side,” for spirit in matter, for the soul of creation — for God. Or at least for signs of a Deity. Or maybe an experience of the divine.
It seems to me this quest for God is the elemental human story. Our journey to reconnect with God is fundamental to Christianity — and other cultures and religions — whose narrative is about seeking redemption and salvation after the initial fall and alienation from the Creator. It’s about a return, a reunion, an arrival in the Promised Land after wandering the desert. Ultimately, it’s about experiencing God and achieving a kind of oneness.
Along our pilgrimage are those holy moments and places that help us sense the sacred. So we explore numinous landscapes and visit blessed shrines. We build monuments, totems and cathedrals. We leave prayer flags and tobacco pouches; we take away holy water and stones. And with each encounter we confront that essential human paradox — seeking the spiritual in the material world, looking for God in objective reality. Yet sometimes He smiles back. He reaches across the divide, emerges from the geography of grace, peeks out from the human creations built to honor Him and bring us close to the presence.
In this issue Jay Walljasper explores this phenomenon for us, and Patrick McGuire examines the Catholic imagination to find there a unique way of looking beyond the surface. Also in this issue is a daughter’s meditation on her physicist father’s slow conversion to the faith, and a playful look at who goes to heaven. We read, too, that God can be seen in a stranger’s eyes and in the face of the kidney donor lying on the gurney right next to you.
What these stories have in common is our innate sense of our believing in more than meets the eye, and its importance, because, as Saint Augustine wrote centuries ago, “Our whole business in this life is to restore to health the eye of the heart whereby God may be seen.”
Kerry Temple is editor of Notre Dame Magazine.