Spiritual giraffes

Sometime after my family started traveling, my sister and her husband began traveling full time as well. They now travel with their two children, my two-year-old niece and my four-month-old nephew. My niece has spent a surprising amount of her life traveling from place to place. She handles moving pretty well, and seems to like it. It’s just a part of how her life works.

Another part of how her life works is that from time to time we all end up in the same place. It’s a perk of my brother-in-law working for the same company as my parents that our paths cross every so often. Sometimes it’s for a week, sometimes a weekend, and sometimes there is just enough time to meet up for dinner as we sail on to a new destination. This, too, is something she takes in stride—every now and then, some of her relatives just show up at her hotel room, in a store, climbing up the side of a large hill, or at some random RV park. Her response to our appearance is quite routine. She smiles at us, yells “Bob!” at my dog (my dog’s name is Robyn, not Bob) then goes inside the RV to raid the refrigerator or the fruit bowl. It doesn’t really faze her at all. It is something that she expects to happen at irregular intervals.

In the book The Warm Place by Nancy Farmer, a baby giraffe is trying to get back to her mother after being captured by poachers and taken to a zoo. In order to get back from the United States to Africa, she naturally stows away on a ship along with her friends: a chameleon, two rats, and a runaway boy. The people who own the ship are a particularly nasty family. Several times during the story, they all but bump into the baby giraffe, but somehow fail to see her. This prompts a reminder to the reader that humans can only see what they expect to see, or what they believe is possible.

This same idea is expressed by C. S. Lewis at the end of The Last Battle, when the dwarves refuse to see that they are no longer trapped in a disgusting stable. In a world where we are supposed to expect the unexpected, human beings do an awfully good job of ignoring it. For instance, in the aftermath of a hurricane, news reporters make sure to cover all the things that people expect. They show all of the destruction, the flooding, the deaths, the looters, and they tell viewers over and over again how much money it will take to rebuild everything. But they tend to neglect aspects that are less expected (and less dramatic and less newsworthy) such as people helping each other, and regular people doing brave or selfless things. They cannot see the part of the storm where people sit around laughing at the weather reporters freaking out, joking about whether a branch will fall on a roof that needs to be replaced. Nobody seems to remember that the sky is never quite as gorgeous as it is the day after a hurricane. People don’t expect that to be a part of experiencing a hurricane and, so, many people don’t see those parts of it.

It is easy to get into the habit of ignoring the unexpected in everyday life. Too many things get in the way of noticing everything that changes. The human mind is extremely good at making everything seem normal. Normal eventually becomes mundane, and sometimes even adventures feel like drudgery. That’s unfortunate, because the world is full of unexpected things, and those are the things that turn drudgery into an adventure.

The inability to see unexpected things affects people spiritually perhaps even more than it affects us physically. We get into the habit of being Catholic. We get used going to Mass on Sundays and Holy Days, saying the Rosary—going through the motions without seeing anything special about it.

All it usually takes to be able to see things is someone else saying, “Look at the sky; it’s really pretty today” or “Whoa! There appears to be a nine-foot-tall baby giraffe hiding in our hall closet. We should probably do something about that.” Fortunately for our souls, Lent does just that. It reminds us that being Christians shouldn’t be something that we settle into. Being Catholic should be a bit difficult. It should make going about life as society dictates it uncomfortable and even impossible. Lent reminds us that there is more to life than the ordinary and expected things. It cuts through the layers of ordinary. Now, halfway through Lent, we are well on our way to being able to see all those spiritual giraffes. At least, that’s what I tell myself as I’m drooling over a bottle of chocolate milk.

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