In my ongoing efforts to step aside from the madness in which we seem engulfed, I came across an incredible article by the novelist Mark Helprin in the most recent issue of First Things (read more). Helprin begins, speaking first as a novelist, by noting that great writers always find both beauty and meaning in the detail of the natural world. These writers surround their characters, and the unfolding action, with vivid, specific detail from daily living. To neglect this rich context impoverishes whatever meaning is intended. Without it, the writing grows thin, tedious, unsubstantial.

I came away from this essay saying, yes, this is true to life as well. We do impoverish our lives, when we ignore the details of daily living, the simple tasks of fixing dinner, watering the plants, catching a glimpse of a fleeting sunset, pausing to smell the fresh air after rain. I am as guilty as anyone of this neglect.

Sharon and I were on a plane the other night winging our way across the Pacific from Honolulu to LA. I was listening to Bach on the headphones when I spotted a most extraordinary sunset over my shoulder. The storms had moved on, leaving these massive streaks of rose and orange and blue out across the horizon. I was taken quite simply out of myself by the breathtaking congruence, the alignment, of Bach’s marvelous music and the stunning beauty breaking out to the west. It was as if they were both tapping into some deep reservoir of beauty and meaning. Small detail of the day perhaps—but somehow it was so deeply restoring.

“Lasting writers,” Helprin argues, “seldom divorce themselves from” the details of the natural world. “In so doing they discipline themselves as if in prayer, with almost incanted repetitions in reference to what is real—that is, the universe granted to us by God in all its depth, weight, expanse, color, detail, action, beauty, mystery, and surprise—allowing their thoughts to run both freely and parallel with the truth.”

Helprin turns to Boris Pasternak, to his “now rather neglected masterpiece, Doctor Zhivago,” where the “moon, snow, flowing water, effulgences of light, the richness of color, the many different moods of the wind, and the sound of music, birds, and horses’ hooves on snow and board and stone”—all the kinds of things we too often pass by, things, yet, that are absolutely essential to a more full life.

We find Zhivago, for example, having “lost everything,” knowing “that he and his family may be imprisoned or executed at any moment,” looking “through the cracks” of the horrid cattle car as it clangs along, suddenly catching sight of “a round, almost blindingly bright moon hovering in the frigid, glassy space above the snow.” This changes everything. His faith is restored, “not only because it is so strikingly beautiful, but because it is majestically inviolable.”

“In times of madness and violence,” Helprin continues, “intractably endemic to history,” don’t we find “comfort, reassurance, and even victory merely in the notion that the context in which we live operates independently of us, that there are countless blazing galaxies, snowbound forests, and immense seas in an imperturbable work of which the bright and luminous moon that lifted Zhivago was only the tiniest part?” Don’t such things make our fretting and fighting, our accusations and condemnations, seem altogether petty? Don’t these things make us feel as if we have not risen to our best selves? Don’t we feel, in the presence of such radiance, somehow diminished and darkened by our obsessions with all the endless, political rancor?

Perhaps we may be reminded, as we connect with the luminous majesty of creation, that God offers us a gift of utter beauty, really each moment of the day. It is a renewing, restoring gift. It brings with it a kind of restfulness for which we desperately, quietly yearn. We pause, if but for a moment, to recognize again that goodness lies at the very heart of the universe. Things are okay. Things are good. As we catch our breath, we say once again, all is well. We separate ourselves from this magnificent detail of our daily lives, so “majestically inviolable,” at the cost of our own impoverishment, even our peril.