Whenever I have to fly somewhere, I find it hard to sleep the night before. It’s not that I’m afraid of flying, for I always sleep like a baby the night before I fly home. No, I think instead that it’s just the excitement of long-distance travel (plus the edginess I always feel before I have to speak in front of a large audience).
That’s odd, when I think about it. Flying would be sensible to fear. Falling from a tremendous height, with the added thrust of a jet engine helping gravity do its job more efficiently and the toasty warmth of several thousand pounds of fuel exploding on impact to vaporize this mortal flesh: that would sting a bit. But I’m more nervous about a talk with several hundred pairs of kindly and sympathetic eyes looking at me. I’m more full of nervous energy about the mere fact that I will be 2,500 miles from home than about these remote, cinematic improbabilities of a fiery crash.
It is curious that a mere large crowd of people-looking at you-can inspire jitters and, in some people, paralytic fear. It is odd that mere immensity of distance can evoke a sense of wonder. Large numbers-of people, of miles, of almost anything-tend to overcrow our spirits. Say a reptile died at the zoo yesterday and nobody cares. Say it died 150 million years ago and many people respond as though this somehow meant something about Our Place as Upstart Newcomers on Mother Earth. Pick up a bit of gravel and you don’t generally feel a wave of religious awe. Say that the gravel is a meteorite and has been floating about in space for the past 3 billion years and you can practically hear the swelling orchestral music as Carl Sagan intones: “We… are star stuff” and goes on to expound on his billions of years, and our puny insignificance amidst it all. Take one man and have him go through a series of curious poses and he merely looks funny. Take 50,000 men and have them go through the same poses at the same time and you have an awesome military spectacle evoking something humble and exultant in us. Pile up a few rocks and you’ve got a few rocks. Pile up a huge number of rocks and you have one of the Seven Wonders of the World, the Pyramids.
To be human is to be a little bit animal and a little bit angelic. Angels-pure rational intelligences-are probably not terribly impressed with sheer size and number. They are above that sort of thing and are probably a bit puzzled by the human impulse of veneration that some of us are tempted to render to a mountain simply because it is gigantic and looming over us. Animals, likewise, don’t cast glances up at the Milky Way with fear and trembling, but for the opposite reason: animals are beneath us and their minds think of little else besides their next dinner and the other appetites that drive them. But humans are neither mere brains nor mere bellies. They have chests — that strange place within them where the purely animal and purely intellectual fuse to produce poetry and wonder.
To be sure, poetry and wonder can be abused. The mistake of ancient paganism was that it tended to confuse God with poetry. Likewise, modern attempts to denigrate the human person by appeals to size (“Man is insignificant compared to the size of the universe!”) rely on a fuddlement of philosophy and poetry. As Chesterton famously retorted: Man is insignificant compared to the size of the nearest tree. Ultimately, size means nothing to God.
But for all that, we are inveterate poets nonetheless and so size, to our great credit, still means something to us. The key is understanding what it means. Knowing I belong to a race of poets doesn’t help me get rid of my jitters before I fly somewhere to speak, but it is still somehow comforting to discover I’m truly another strange son of Adam. For I would not willingly give up my sense of wonder at the sheer bigness of things. It goes right back to the roots of childhood and is blessed by a God who made us small and once shared in our amazement at having hands too tiny and arms too short to reach the huge heads of the cattle who looked down on him as his lay in a manger. Of all God’s creatures, human beings alone have the capacity to feel wonder. That is exactly why his “glory above the heavens is chanted by the mouth of babes and infants”:
O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is thy name in all the earth!