My wife and I were staying at a little inn in the mountains recently. We woke up one morning and she opened the window blinds. “Oh!” she said. “A tractor!” There was a parking lot for some cabins next to us and there was a tractor parked there. For some reason at first unclear to me, she had found this astonishing.
On hearing the remark, I made a subconscious mental note to find out exactly what was so remarkable about a tractor sitting in a parking lot. I was still too groggy to ask when she said it. But a few moments later, she giggled, and explained how babysitting our 1 1/2-year-old grandson several times a week had affected her way of looking at the world.
“When he and I see something even as mundane as that, we get pretty excited about it.”
G. K. Chesterton points out that this is what fairy tales do for us: They plug us back into what he calls “the ancient instinct of astonishment” that we had when we were children:
These tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green. They make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water.
My wife went on to explain how this wonder at the world which our grandson has helped re-awaken in her operated not only with man-made things, but natural things as well. In fact, perhaps especially with natural things. This wonder at God’s creation affects many things, not the least of which is our view of God Himself.
In one of John Updike’s short stories, “Pigeon Feathers,” a young boy, David, has questions about his Christian faith. How do we know God exists? How do we know He cares for each of us? How do we know God will save us—and how can he, David, know that God will save him? Will he really live forever? They are questions neither his parents nor his Sunday School teacher are able to answer.
One day, David’s mother asks him to shoot a flock of pigeons that are making a big mess in their barn. These questions still on his mind, he takes his gun and shoots them. When he goes to place the birds in a hole he has dug for them in the forest, he picks up one of the birds.
The feathers seem “trimmed to fit a pattern” that worked itself out across its body in “geometrical tides”:
And across the surface of the infinitely adjusted yet somehow effortless mechanics of the feathers played idle designs of color, no two alike, designs executed, it seemed, in a controlled rapture, with a joy that hung level in the air above and behind him.
As he drops each bird into its grave, he notices that each one is different—one “banded in slate shades of blue,” another “mottled all over in rhythms of lilac and gray,” and yet another “almost wholly white, but for a salmon glaze at its throat.”
Something about the unique design of these birds ends up addressing his questions about divine reality and his eternal destiny in a way that his family and friends never could:
As he fitted the last two, still pliant, on the top, and stood up, crusty coverings were lifted from him, and with a feminine, slipping sensation along his nerves that seemed to give the air hands, he was robed in this certainty: that the God who had lavished such craft upon these worthless birds would not destroy His whole Creation by refusing to let David live forever.
He is assured, not by the abstract answers we think we need, but by the simple wonder of God’s creation.
Originally Published in The Classical Teacher Summer 2015 edition.