When preschoolers inhabited the Owensby house, bedtime included story time. On some nights, Andrew, Meredith, or Patrick would choose a short and frankly tedious book designed to teach colors or animal names. Inevitably, they would insist that we read it again and again before they drifted off to sleep.
More often, the kids selected a book that we parents enjoyed reading at least as much as the children did. The tenderness of Goodnight Moon stilled my soul no matter how many times we read it. And the humor and weirdness of Where the Wild Things Are made my efficient, practical adult heart vulnerable, at least for a few minutes, to the playful magic that children encounter on any ordinary day.
Roald Dahl—author of Matilda, James and the Giant Peach, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory—once wrote:
And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it. (from Billy and the Minpins)
That’s what great children’s literature does. Children hear with delight well-crafted tales about their familiar, magic-infused universe. When we adults read Dahl or Maurice Sendak or Margaret Wise Brown, we glimpse the depths and textures of life that we’ve become too hurried or cynical or sophisticated or wounded to look for.
Strictly speaking, it’s not magic to which we can become oblivious. It’s mystery. It’s the loving, life-giving presence of God in the midst of all things. Things as simple as a morsel of bread or a cup of wine, a nighthawk’s cry or a dog’s slobbery tongue on your lips.
Sometimes we rush past the divine presence in an over-scheduled hurry. There is no time to listen to a child’s prattle or the same old story from an elderly person. And so we miss the mystery.
Sometimes we say that we’ll sit and enjoy sunsets or listen to music or simply be still when we have time. Right now, we have to complete an assignment or chauffeur the kids or prepare for that presentation. And so we miss the mystery.
Maybe we’ve been disappointed or wounded or betrayed so often that we just don’t get our hopes up. We expect the world to let us down. Not to delight us. And so we miss the mystery.
Maybe it was something like this that led some of the people in a crowd surrounding Jesus to say, “Who does this guy think he is? Isn’t that Joseph and Mary’s boy?” (John 6:42)
Jesus had just said that he is the bread of life. The bread of heaven. Mystery in the flesh. To top it off, he said of all that by way of explaining the meaning of a miracle he had performed. Feeding thousands of people with a few loaves of bread.
And still, some among the crowd missed the mystery.
I can’t really blame them. After all, every day the divine reaches out to us from the depths of ordinary, simple, mundane places. From unremarkable people and routine circumstances. And sophisticated, worldly, practical grownups like us manage to see only the ordinary, the simple, and the mundane, not the infinite mystery seeking to embrace us in those people and places.
Paradoxically, we were made to yearn for, and to be fulfilled by, an encounter with and union with the divine. As Augustine put it in The Confessions: “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.”
Jesus put it this way. “No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me.” (John 6:44) In other words, it is in our very spiritual DNA—in the very way we were created by God—to yearn for God in the deepest recesses of our being. Ronald Rolheiser calls this the holy longing.
That longing does not necessarily take overtly religious shape. We long for our lives to have significance. For our lives to have mattered. And as we mature in this longing, we come to see that our significance derives not from achievement or status, not from power or possessions, but from relationship. From giving and receiving love. From being part of something greater than ourselves.
The Greek philosopher Aristotle, for instance, argued that Love set all things in motion. Every thing that is yearns for what he called the Unmoved Mover. Thomas Aquinas adopted and adapted Aristotle’s thinking, recognizing that God’s love brought all things into being, sustains all things, and draws all things into union with the divine.
In Jesus, we see most clearly that God is not a mystery that we will observe from a distance. God is the mystery that inhabits our lives. That by dwelling with us and dwelling within makes us who we most truly are.
Maybe Jesus would paraphrase Roald Dahl like this:
Watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because mystery is always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who yield to their longing for mystery will be embraced by it.