GK Chesterton wrote Manalive, a novel that revealed his desire to gaze at the world through a life-giving haze of wonder and awe. I was reminded of this recently at a talk and it made me reflect on the stories that he speaks of taking place in the fictional life of Innocent Smith.
(If you haven’t read the book and want to, you should probably stop here because I need to ruin a few points in order to reveal what is so attractive about his life. This is your warning. Stop here! Proceed no further. Or, if you don’t care, carry on.)
Mr. Smith does seemingly crazy things–like entering his house through his chimney, so he can have the adventure of breaking into his own home or sending his wife ahead to a random town only to arrive later and again sweep her off her feet. Over and over again, Innocent seeks to make the ordinary circumstances of life into experiences shot through with wonder. He pulls guns on people so as to scare them into life. And he lives his days with a wide-eyed perspective that finds a game in chasing his hat caught up in a wind or climbing a tree to get a new vantage point.
The point that struck me while I recalled Chesterton’s tale was that Innocent Smith (and GK Chesterton himself, arguably) sought to jolt himself into recognizing the glorious aspects of life that become ordinary. So as not to think his wife is boring because she is familiar, Smith re-lives the experience of finding, wooing, and marrying her over and over again. Because returning home isn’t meant to be trite, Smith treks across rooftops, slips down his chimney, and starts explore a room as though it belonged entirely to a stranger. These ordinary things were glimpsed in a new way because Smith intentionally tried to do so.
It left me with this question: how can I try to do that? How can I enter my classroom in a different way? How can I return home in a new way? The ordinary, mundane tasks of the day, how can I bring life into these places of life where it seems I need to just move on to the next thing?
One time, when we were visiting my sister in a convent out east, we heard them cleaning up and doing dishes in a room nearby. It wasn’t a place we were permitted to enter, but the sound of laughter and the joy that spilled over made us want to be there doing dishes with them. If that is an ordinary occurrence, I don’t know, yet it was striking nonetheless.
If I stop and consider it, the fact that I stand daily before scores of students and speak to them about Jesus and the Church is a reality that should move me. Someday, I know it will happen, I will dream about that time when I literally preached the Gospel to hundreds of people. In the midst of it, however, it is easy to get bogged down in correcting papers, disciplining, the repetition repetition repetition (which is the mother of learning, but I mean I already know this stuff), and the occasional teenage attitude. How can I see more than glimpses of purpose and life?
Because I do see the glimpses. I see it in random questions students ask like, “Do atheists go to Heaven?” It is found in the girls who frequent my room after school and chatter about their day. I see it when a visitor comes into my classroom and appreciates the art work that the students tend to glaze over. In many, many ways I catch a glimpse. But Innocent Smith doesn’t seem to merely catch a glimpse: he seems to live that fully awaken life of wonder and awe. I don’t know if it is simply due to him being a sanguine or if there is something deeper in the human experience that I can take away from it. Comfort opts for the former while idealism points to the latter.
Let’s be a bit more like Innocent Smith.
How can I enter my life in a new way? How can I find newness in typical, ordinary human experiences? How can I find the glory of God shimmering amidst wrappers left on the classroom floor and papers that don’t grade themselves?
I’m hoping we will all discover this together.