Catholic priest, James Martin, offers this incident as illustration of the richness of (his) existence that our plugged-in culture is bypassing:
Not long ago, I was walking through a park in New York City. Racing across Union Square to an appointment, I stumbled on a pair of grungy young men, one with playing an accordion, the other a violin. Their music was a sprightly, lively, intricate, intoxicating type of Eastern European folk music. Mesmerized, I stopped to listen to the furious melodies and rising and falling rhythms. A little crowd gathered around, and I noticed that we were in the middle of the weekly open-air farmers’ market, with vendors carefully laying out fresh fruits, vegetables, and flowering plants for all to see.
As I listened to these two skinny guys, one with long dreadlocks, the other with a scraggly beard, I smelled something unusual — fresh peaches — from behind me. What a glorious moment: the music, the sunshine, the crowd, the shoppers at the market, and the smell of ripe peaches.
Just then someone cut through the rest of the crowd: a woman punching her BlackBerry and listening to her iPod. She knifed through us and rushed away. She had missed the entire experience, since she was entirely absorbed in her own world.
I won’t deny that Father Martin had a pleasant aesthetic experience, but with all due respect, human beings are filtering all the time. For those intent on noticing the full range of life’s music, perhaps the experience of that hour might have included the Blackberry/iPod woman as well. (Let priests who have eyes to see and ears to hear, let them see and hear.) If the world, afterall, is holy, then it’s all holy. Holy the peach vendor. Holy the street guitarist. Holy the business woman. Father Martin, were he attending, say, to the scent of the woman’s perfume as she passed by him, might have found her every bit as intoxicating as the fruit stand. And maybe he would have seen her beauty as well—not just her feminine beauty, but her feminist beauty: the beauty of a liberated woman in a large city. After millenia of patriarchal oppression, what a glorious thing the blind priest missed! She belonged in the scene as much as the street vendor. And the value of the world that she was absorbed in may have been every bit as rich (to her) as the priest’s moment of contemplation. It was not just that she had missed him; he had missed her.
For all those caterpillars (like Father Martin) who would lay their smug eggs of pity and guilt on a woman moving too fast, and without attention to the “right” things, I offer the following sonnet by William Wordsworth. It’s in praise of the cloistered mind; of people too absorbed in their own worlds—their inner cells—to go outdoors much and watch the bees in the flowers. Wordsworth thinks this is perfectly fine, for we too are bees with our noses in the flowers, but they are the imaginative flowers and projects of our choosing. The sonnet is titled “Nuns Fret Not”:
Nuns fret not at their convent’s narrow room;
And hermits are contented with their cells;
And students with their pensive citadels;
Maids at the wheel, the weaver at his loom,
Sit blithe and happy; bees that soar for bloom,
High as the highest Peak of Furness-fells,*
Will murmur by the hour in foxglove bells:
In truth the prison, unto which we doom
Ourselves, no prison is: and hence for me,
In sundry moods, ’twas pastime to be bound
Within the sonnet’s scanty plot of ground;
Pleased if some souls (for such there needs must be)
Who have felt the weight of too much liberty,
Should find brief solace there, as I have found.
*Mountains in the Lake District.