The moment of Helen Keller’s discovery, that the amazing cool sensation of water she feels pouring over her hand, united with the letters that spell W-A-T-E-R is beautifully portrayed by Patty Duke (Helen) and her teacher (Anne Bancroft) in The Miracle Worker, the movie of her early life.
On a recent visit, our grandson Matthew, just shy of one year old, decided it was time to pull the garden hose out to water the plants. I guess he had seen his mother do that before and it suddenly seemed like the thing to do. He struggled for a few moments pulling the hose down the brick walk, falling on his bottom as his mother and I watched his solitary determination with interest and joy.
He hadn’t yet considered that water was actually needed and I doubt he knew where the spigot was or that you had to turn it on. His thoughts were a lot more rudimentary than Helen’s, but you could see the foundation of his emerging skills, intelligence and passion in full bloom.
The newness of his sudden exploit shifted my attention into that place of “just noticing” that happens when there is something rare. It’s the way you watch a hummingbird that suddenly appears before you in all its tremulous beauty, rendering you grateful for the thatness of the moment.
I treasure those times when young children are interested in something for its own sake and not angling for an adult’s attention. Even so, after a few moments I failed to resist a certain provocation to tamper with it a bit.
I walked over to the spigot and turned on the water. What was I looking for? A moment of hilarity? I wasn’t really thinking so much as following an urge. Still, something much more beautiful occurred and I pulled out the iphone to capture it on video.
The water came on. You can hear my daughter’s voice as she laughs at what she thinks is about to happen. Matthew’s brother Collin (three) is in the background calling for his mother’s attention on what he is doing over at the fishpond. I can hear in Christi’s voice pleasure, surprise and a little feigned incredulity and disapproval. She knows exactly what is about to happen.
But Matthew is so in the moment of discovery and exploration that when the water gushes out it doesn’t cause him to miss a beat. The water doesn’t touch him. I suppose if it had, he would have reacted differently. He’s too young to have any awareness or interest in spelling like Helen and he hasn’t suffered and struggled in isolation and torment like she did for years before realizing that the world is much more than mere sensation. It has meaning! And meaning is at the heart of love and relationships.
Watching the short video I took of Matthew at that moment, I am fascinated with the way he notices the water flowing and has no clue how it has suddenly appeared. Watching him helps me rediscover the unknown mystery of something I take so much for granted that I no longer see it. I too am blind, deaf and dumb to the world around me, but in a different way than Helen.
Matthew’s grip on the hose is firm and sensitive. He moves it around from back to front getting a different feel for it as he notices the change in the hose made by the water pressure. He’s interested. Calm—ever the scientist and explorer. He has a direct embodied relationship with the water and the hose and the moment that I can only long to rediscover.
I found myself watching the moment on video over and over to enjoy again that pure attention and interest combined with his movements that show how he is pondering the whole thing and sensing it in his body as he navigates the world on his newly acquired upright walking legs.
In the stories of the elders witnessing miracles or seeing an angel or a saint appear and speak to them, there is often this same quality of simple alert presence that is without vainglory or frivolity. They do not hunger for miracles, because they have realized that the world as we ordinarily know it is miracle enough. The saints and angels are always with us.
Jesus said to those he rebuked for failing to realize this preciousness of this world and each one in it. “As you have done unto the least of these you have done unto me.” Those without awareness of the unity of heaven and earth protested. “When did we ever see you hungry and fail to give you food or in prison and fail to visit you?” (Mt 25:37)
The truth is that “Thy will is done on earth as it is in heaven.” Christ is waiting for us to realize this in our everyday lives, a discovery of meaning and connection even greater than that of Helen Keller. Seeing, we do not see. Thinking we already know, we cannot discover. Presuming we are worthy of life, we fail to know the Eucharistic joy that comes only to those humble enough to receive everything as a gift from God.
In a year or two in this same situation, Matthew will probably be squirting water at people for attention and no longer able to contemplate the moment with the simplicity and purity of attention he has now unless someone is watching him do it or giving him a trophy or an award. Having to learned to walk and run on two legs, he will discover that there is another fall which is much harder to climb out of.
But for a short while, without realizing it, he tastes the wonder and apatheia of the saints. For a short while, he is a window into heaven for his Papou. Fully embodied. Free of malice. Totally attentive. Relaxed and with joy.
It will take years to rediscover how the “garden of Eden” is slowly lost. But Jesus knew a great secret. Eden is everywhere and in all places at all times. It is we who are lost. “Except ye become as a little child, ye cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”