A Leaf Falls
When we moved to central Indiana forty-four years ago, one of my wife’s cousins, a graduate of Indiana University, told us that we’d love the long fall season in our new home.
My wife’s cousin was certainly right. Just when it seems that autumn colors are at their peak, the colors become even more vibrant. Some trees are so full of light that I’m tempted to look for the on-off electrical switch on the trunk somewhere.
Having a career in teaching Biblical studies, I found myself wondering what book in the Bible had the verse about God knowing when even a leaf falls. My search took me down a rabbit hole, at the bottom of which I discovered that the image of God knowing when a leaf falls isn’t found in the Bible, but in the Qur’an.
Of course, there are statements in the Bible that also highlight God’s attentiveness to the smallest aspects of this world. Jesus said that God knows the number of hairs on our heads as well as when a sparrow falls.
To borrow a contemporary term and apply it to the images of sparrows, leaves, and human hair, God in the Bible and Qur’an is definitely “woke.”
Every religion encourages humans to become more like the divine, but we might not think of “waking up” to the seemingly small things around us, like leaves and sparrows, as part of being more like the sacred. Put another way, we don’t always consider sleepwalking through our lives as a spiritual issue, but the great religions do.
While the concept of conversion pertains to our moral lives—moving from the evil to the good—conversion also applies to our need to change how we experience the world—the birds, trees, and other people. Our minds are so often consumed with worries, concerns, and plans that we miss the beauty and wonder around us.
One of my favorite spiritual mentors, the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, had a “woke” experience in Louisville in 1958 that changed his life. On one of his rare trips from his isolated monastery outside of Bardstown, Kentucky, to Louisville, he was at the busy downtown intersection of Fourth and Walnut when he suddenly realized that everyone he was passing was “shining like a sun.”
On an earlier visit to Louisville, Merton was frustrated by the crowds and the commercialism all around him. But on his visit in March 1958, Merton’s vision cleared and for a few moments, he experienced Eden in the midst of Louisville. In those moments, he suddenly realized that he loved everyone surrounding him, even though they were strangers. Merton was never the same after that. He was awake.
It’s unfair to expect Merton’s epiphany to offer a foolproof spiritual technique for the rest of us to follow. Merton didn’t wake himself up in March 1958; he was awakened by the divine.
Yet, perhaps there is a pre-condition that increases our chance of waking up to the wonder and beauty around us. And perhaps that pre-condition can be expressed in a simple morning prayer. “God, this day you have given will never happen again. Please don’t let me sleepwalk through it.”