At our house, we have a little critter box full of stick bugs, whose sole task in life is to eat the ivy leaves we give them, to excrete itsy-bitsy stick bug pellets and (one presumes) to occasionally contribute to the gene pool of stick bugdom. I can think of no eternal sentence nearer the precincts of hell than the doom of boredom laid on a stick bug. But, judging from their lack of complaint and enormous ivy-fed size, it appears that I am entirely too anthropomorphic in my judgment here. Stick bugs are too stupid to be bored. They find their lives to be as enriching and fulfilling as they need to be, considering they only have a glorified nerve ganglion for a brain. If we listened in on their thoughts, I strongly suspect we would just hear a dial tone. So I wish my stick insects well but thank God he made me a man instead.
As a member of that troublesome species, one of the things I note is that we do have the capacity for boredom-and longing. Something in us craves newness as we crave water. The newness of the first snowfall of the year, of early morning, of a baby’s cry: these things are little sacraments of our eternal thirst for the newness of life that is the Holy Spirit.
However, we often confuse that water of newness with the high caffeine soda pop of novelty. Our culture urges upon us some thrill (it scarcely matters what as long as it enslaves us) and it gives us a buzz. But the buzz decreases over time. So we increase the dose to get the original thrill back. And so the cycle continues until we either despair of it ever “being like it was” the first time we felt the thrill or, under grace, awaken to the fact that we are trying to squeeze out of what is temporal the Joy that is only found in the Eternal God.
It is our misplaced craving for newness, I suspect, that often drives us to worship the past or the future. We don’t seem to grasp, apart from revelation, that there is nothing really new under the sun, still less that you “can’t go home again”. The things that speak of newness speak, not of the Future, still less of novelty, but of eternity. So, in their own way, do the things that speak to us of the sweet long ago, of first love, of that Christmas once upon a time, of the long summer afternoons of childhood play, of all that we cherish out of the vanished past. For, of course, at the moment they were happening, those exquisitely beautiful times made us look, not at the time we were living in, but at the beauty of God who is beyond them. So both past and future point us, not toward a fruitless nostalgia, nor to a faith in the mere march of time, but to the fact that the hope of the world is beyond the world. Time is sacramental. Therefore when we make it an end and not a sacrament, we receive only sadness, for the past is gone and the future is that time when all that we now love will be dead.
I think of all that this time of year, when the wild geese honk overhead in their melancholy receding cry and the orange sky burns to darkness earlier and earlier everyday. Some ancient pagan grief lives at the heart of October, something in the leafless branches of those “bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang” that laments this passing world.
But there is also the tingle of first snow’s approach and the hint that Eternity will yet break into time with the new and everlasting covenant that shall again surprise the winter dark with morning light and the unpredictable cry of a Child.