Consider the fig tree and all the other trees. When their buds burst open, you see for yourselves and know that summer is now near; in the same way, when you see these things happening, know that the kingdom of God is near.
Luke 21: 29-31
A couple of nights ago I awoke in the middle of the night and then had a very difficult time getting back to sleep. My mind was relentlessly turning over a task that I had recently been avoiding and would need to take up in the coming days. Although there was obviously nothing I could do about it at the moment and, in truth, it was hardly an insuperably difficult or complex problem, my mind was managing to catastrophize about the potential effects of my delay and of my inability to deal with them. We all know through far too frequent experience the truth which John Milton most famously described: “The mind is its own place and in itself/ Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven” (Paradise Lost, Book I)
As the liturgical year comes to an end, the gospel of Luke has Jesus tell his disciples to “Consider (or look carefully at) the fig tree and all the other trees,” as he earlier told them in the Sermon on the Mount to consider the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. Jesus seems to be saying that we are a capacity to recognize and know the kingdom of God, but to do so we must turn our attention from the world of our own thoughts to the world as God has created it.
Yesterday I had some time with my cousin who is now an international diplomat but who was formerly a teacher of literature at the secondary and university levels. He mentioned that when discussing a text with his students he would often ask them after they have given their view of the text’s meaning: “That’s what you think it means, but what else might it be about.” Precisely what artistic expression offers us is the possibility of a new and unknown perspective on the world and reality. It invites us to bracket our own perspective and to look with another’s eyes. It reminds us that everything and everyone are more than they seem to us.
As we approach the end of November we, in the northern hemisphere, enter into our winter season. It is a time of profound quiet and stillness. Yet, this morning as I sat to pray, I heard from outside my window the singing of a single bird. I realized that the bird’s song was inviting me, as I attempted to still my busy mind, to turn my mind from its inward obsession toward the world outside of me. The kingdom of God is near, but to recognize and realize it I must come near to God’s world. This requires of me to step out of and detach from the world of my own thoughts, concerns and imaginings. “Consider the fig tree and all the other trees” and “see for yourself” that “the kingdom of God is near.”
The un-secular is not only awareness of other possible viewpoints’, but of other possible moral relations, not circumscribed by what I as an individual find possible now. Do the roses look as if they were flowers that were loved? And what, specifically, does that mean?
There is a quite complex process going on in such a recognition. I recognize that what’s before me, whether rose or person, can be seen from other perspectives than mine. I acknowledge the interiority and inaccessibility that this entails, and the necessary relation of time and understanding in such a light. What would a maximally comprehensive seeing/reading of the person or object be? One that had unrestricted time to look. But unrestricted time to look presupposes a constancy or commitment to looking, thus a self-investment, even self-dispossession, in respect of what is seen or read. If we put the taking of time at the centre of truthful understanding, a certain convergence of understanding and love begins to appear. My own willingness to stay in engagement with what I see is a mark of commitment and so of a certain kind of self-renunciation (I give up the freedom to walk away in search of something more obviously useful to my determinate plans). To entertain the possibility of other perspectives is to grant that more time than mine can be spent on this exercise; my seeing of someone or something as already and otherwise seen is shadowed, so to speak, by the possibility of an always more sustained and self-invested seeing –a greater love.
Rowan Williams, Faith in the Public Square