All day long I have held out my hands to an obstinate people, who walk in ways not good, pursuing their own imaginations – a people who continually provoke me to my very face, offering sacrifices in gardens and burning incense on altars of brick. – Isaiah 65:2-3
The poet Marie Howe instructs her students to make six observations about the real world they encounter each morning before coming to class. She’s in the business of retraining their attention. It begins by being present to their environment, resisting even the use of those observations for the sake of metaphor.
I decided to try it this morning. As I write, I see clearly my daughter’s shiny hair kinked from sleep … a misplaced purple plastic bowl by my bathroom sink … odd Greek letters on the blue pharmacy sign. My heart rate slows.
Usually, I race through my surroundings with a utilitarian vengeance. Do I need this? Is it useful? Where are the devices that will add to my productivity right now? When I do still stand in the midst of my surroundings, facing the stuff around me, my greatest urge is to control, order, arrange and set it right.
Howe suggests the frantic activity has become an escape from the hard work of attending to the whole of life present to us all the time. It’s painful to watch the shimmer of water in a glass held by a wrinkled and shaking hand. It’s hard to absorb the tender mixture of youth and age, the coupling of freedom and decay, the inhale-exhale of life and death. As I made those simple observations this morning, both the ache and the wonder of the ordinary settled heavy in my chest.
It’s too easy to trade the raw elements of life around us for a very bright screen, a flashing app notification or an urgent email. This is not a treatise against technology or social media; rather, it is an invitation to check our subconscious. Did the inner self breathe a sigh of relief as I excused it from facing the detailed landscape around me? “This might be the most difficult task for us in postmodern life: not to look away from what is actually happening,” Howe says (“Not to Look away,” O! Magazine).
God’s words through Isaiah don’t surprise me. They seem to convict a distracted people moving at breakneck speeds, pursuing their own agendas. The altars of bricks perplex me, though. What does God find provoking about these seemingly sacred monuments? Exodus 20:25 records a command from God to build altars only out of uncut stone not hewn by human tools. What’s the difference? Consider first the multitude of times God revealed majesty in the ordinary of rivers, bushes, boulders and walking sticks. The witnesses, present to their own fear, pain and hope, woke up to the deep meaning of the moment. They paused in the middle of a field to build an altar to God, doing the hard work to dig rocks out of dirt with their fingers, turn shapes this way and that and balance them together in gratitude for the holy Here – the holy Now.
Perhaps people had begun to build altars of bricks not where they had experienced God’s presence but where they found a convenient place to pay their tribute. Perhaps people had begun to order material branded by the local manufacturer for the sake of efficiency. Perhaps they commissioned hired hands to bypass all the scrapes, dirty finger nails and raw skin that accompany unexpected encounters with the Divine. And their subconscious selves breathed a sigh of relief.
Altars of uncut stone, on the other hand, bear witness to humans who didn’t look away, race past, or skirt over the hard Here and Now. They paid attention. They dug deep. Their heavy chests wrestled with God, shrouded in ache and wonder. May we accept the offer of our ordinary landscapes to notice the holy Here and Now.