Advent, the Environment, and Admiration

Our ecumenical service on the First Sunday of Advent was focused on the environment, both natural and human. With good words, good song, prayerful reflection, and real communion.

It brought again to mind something that regularly comes to me as I fret and try to act about our global crisis. It’s the thought that criticism will not be enough. Sure, we really do need to be critical, to educate, to spread awareness and concern about how bad things are and how much worse they are going to get. And to protest against the many villains. Yes. Yes. But something more fundamental is needed as we try to turn things around. And that is admiration — even if we use some other name for the attitude and sensibility, something more than respect, perhaps intimacy and even reverence.

For when we admire the most ordinary things, we open ourselves to their goodness and beauty, their individuality and truth. Admiration is one of the most basic forms of love. It nourishes that good taste of the world without which there is no good taste of ourselves.

I am very fortunate to be able to spend many mornings with my cup of coffee on the front porch of our mountain residence – something I do through the four seasons. I started the practice as a form of meditation involving  both “lectio divina” (reading a sacred text slowly and meditatively) and quiet breathing. Soon I realized that my natural environment was the major source of my prayer — the mountain air, the trees, crows and other birds, mountain grasses and flowers, fall frost and winter snow, the sounds of silence and the rising sun dispersing fog off the lake. There always is, even when the wind howls, an experience of real intimacy, real admiration.

And this happens as often in the city.  A few mornings ago, after breakfast with a friend, I emerged onto a street busy with folks walking to work. At the corner three workers in vests and hard-hats were replacing cement between loose bricks on the old sidewalk we still have here and there in downtown Denver. I watched them work, admired their precision with the mud and the levels. Said hello with a thumbs up. The older man responded and I told him that one of my grand uncles was a bricklayer back when in New York. He smiled back.

Or it may be when sitting with the dog outside Union Station almost any time of day. Admiring the beautiful, but even more admiring the variety of ethnicities and races, classes and genders. The muscled and the trim, the heavy and heavy laden, the lame as well as the quick.  All truly admirable, even those begging or limping or suffering in other ways. For only when we acknowledge and, yes, embrace with admiration our own personal lameness and pain, our limits and inadequacy, our own sufferings…only then can we open ourselves in real compassion to the poor…and to the ironic fact that limitation is essential to our humanity and worthy of compassion which is itself  a form of admiration.  Even if it only calls forth a wave, or a smile, or some loose change.

Admiration, you see, multiplies itself, becomes mutual, spreads and grows. It’s easy to see how this happens even in busy cities. The little light passes from face to face, heart to heart – perhaps among coworkers, in stores and pubs and schools, on busses or busy streets.

As for the natural world, I doubt that I’ve heard trees talk, or mountains speak, or rapids and rivers. Then again maybe I have, even if I too often rush by, not listening or failing to catch their different language.

I am not sure that admiration and intimacy and reverence are the same thing, but they seem related and overlapping. Perhaps admiration is what we first and most continually feel in the presence of the good and beautiful and true. Yet I suspect it is always grounded in a deep reverence, however we may name its source.

So that’s my pitch today. And Advent is a good time to make it.

We all admire much and often, even when unaware. Indeed a human life cannot be lived without a steady diet of admiration for the human and the rest of nature. We’re better at it than we think.  Still we can always enlarge the frequency and range of our admiration. And that means studied practices, during Advent and throughout the year – like mindfully smelling the flowers and hugging the kids, listening to the trees and watching the stars and greeting many more faces.

Without a foundation in admiration, all our necessary anger and fear, our actions and protests, risk simply spreading further division and greater alienation.

Let me close with a final example. I happened to catch a rerun of My Fair Lady the other night. One song lingers. The young man sings of admiration “On the Street Where You Live.” It is, of course, his infatuated admiration for Liza that breaks into song, but that admiration spreads along the street, to lilacs and larks and enchantments pouring from every door. Sure it’s terribly romantic. And good for that, so long as admiration spreads from the romantic to the ordinary, and even unto the tragic.

7 thoughts on “Advent, the Environment, and Admiration

  1. Reminds me of Walt Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing” at times, John — but so much deeper. To me, admiration immediately evokes Gratitude.

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  2. Hi John. Beautiful reflections. Thank you. And I agree with Joan about the connection with Gratitude. You have probably already read Oliver Sacks’s powerful little book by that name (the one with four essays he wrote in the last year of his life). If not, I recommend it. There are interesting connections to your earlier post about secular humanists, insofar as Sacks was raised an Orthodox Jew but left, in part because of the rejection of his sexuality: A beautiful evocation of the sentiments you express so clearly here are found at the end of the essay, “My Own Life” (which you might remember as well because it was published in the NYT): “I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers. Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.”
    Thanks again for such a powerful meditation. — Matt

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    1. Matt, thanks for your words. And also (moreso?) for your evocation of Sachs. Sadly I have not read his book nor his NYT essay. But you lead me to do so during this coming year. John

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  3. Matt, this connection with gratitude is perfectly echoed in the attitude and words of Henri Nouwen. After Henri’s heart attack his friend, Nathan, visited him in the hospital. Henri said to Nathan: “I am not sure if I am going to die or not, but if I do, please tell everyone I am so grateful.”
    In the midst of what seems like ubiquitous tragedy, Advent, and now Christmas, instills in us the good news of God’s love, so well expressed in Coleridge words “He prayest best who lovest best all things both great and small. For the dear God who madest us, he made and lovest all.”

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  4. You made me think of many times I have experienced the beauty of nature. When we were on the way home from taking Jenn and Gerik to the airport, the sun was setting but not visible to us. What was visible was the reflection of the sun on the tree tops turning them all a beautiful rosy color. It was a very unique and wonderful experience

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