“The world is full of the grandeur of God and those who recognize it take off their shoes;
the rest sit around and pick blackberries.”
-Elizabeth Barrett Browning
The best-selling book The Lovely Bones tells the story of Susie, a fourteen year old girl who just so happens to be dead since she is murdered in Chapter One. The book does not unravel in the usual murder mystery way; there is no doubt about who the killer is. Instead the book de- cides to show the impact of Susie’s murder, on her par- ents, on her sister and brother, on the young man who has a crush on her, on total strangers and even on the man who took her life. Without giving too much away, the thing that struck me about the book (the movie ver- sion fails miserably) is how the author infuses ordinary everyday things with an unusual richness and depth of meaning. Suddenly, a piece from a Monopoly game be- comes a cherished reminder of a lost daughter. A bor- rowed dress becomes a connection with a sister. In one scene, a simple eighth grade school picture falls out of a young man’s stack of books as he heads off to college several years after the murder. That remembrance transports him back to a lost yearning, a vanished devo- tion. And most deliciously of all, a simple icicle becomes an emblem of retribution, vindication and justice. Sadly, it seems that we tend to miss a lot of this in our ordinary lives. But when tragedy strikes, when suddenly we are awakened, a world of meaning is revealed, a world richly charged with that grandeur of God of which Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote.
Advent is a time to stop and attend to that marvelous grandeur. Our Scriptures this weekend all have basically the same message for us: WAKE UP. Wake up to the grandeur. Wake up to the depth and meaning that sur- rounds you. Wake up to the grace of God that literally surrounds, permeates and saturates our existence. If you can’t sense it, you are not doing it correctly.
The question that is faced on the first Sunday of Advent is simply this: are we taking off our shoes in the powerful presence of God or are we mindlessly picking blackber- ries?
Here is one of my favorite grandeur of God stories:
I once had a very sad and difficult task. One of our stu- dents at Borgia found her mother dead early one Friday morning. Her mother had been suffering for a long time, but her passing still came as a dark shock. What made this situation even more difficult is that the young woman had similarly found her father dead five years earlier in much the same way. The girl was now orphaned and alone. (She did have relatives.) Nevertheless, it was heartbreaking and good old Fr. Kevin was called to help. What do I say? What do I do? What solace could I give?
As I drove up to her house, I was greeted by a pack of six dogs, her family’s pets, dogs of varying sizes and shapes: tiny, medium and jumbo. As the scene played out, I was reminded of my poor father. My dad loathed dogs, and every single dog he encountered sensed that loathing and thus were mystically drawn to my father, despite his angry protestations and rejections. The in- stant I arrive at the house, all the dogs surround me, bounding about. It became obvious that all wanted to be my friend. I go into the house and as I am talking to the young woman one of the dogs boldly jumps up between us, sits in my lap, turns, looks at me and, in that marvel- ous magical dog way, encourages me to relax. “Pet me and this will be OK.” the dog seems to say. And as I do, I indeed become more relaxed, more at ease and most importantly, more attentive to this hurting young woman to give her encouragement, compassion and presence.
As you all know, dogs are used like that clinically. When the World Trade Center was attacked, dogs were brought in to comfort the rescuers. Believe it or not, one of the dogs I met that very day was a 9/11 veteran. That week, the dog went to a firefighter sitting by himself. The firefighter complained that he did not want a mangy mutt near him. But dogs are not to be denied. She simply sat next to him for a couple of minutes. After a while the man put his finger on the dog. Next the man started slowly stroking the dog’s neck. Before you knew it, the dogs was licking the exhausted firefighter all over the face.
The hound of heaven. The dogged grace of God.
No one can tell me that the little dog that came and sat on my lap that fateful day was not charged with the grace and loving kindness of God. No one can tell me that ca- nine encounter was a fluke. I assure you that on that day, no blackberries were picked. I just solemnly took off my shoes (metaphorically speaking) and basked in the grandeur of God