I joined a score of geriatric white hill walkers recently on the Cape Peninsula and was happy to discover I could keep up. The scenery was magnificent with the Atlantic on one side and the Indian Ocean on the other.
To my initial irritation, my companions kept stopping, not to wonder at the distant scene but to gaze earnestly at the tiny plants about our feet. Purple, blue and dazzling white flowers were everywhere among the predominant scrub. But the prize find was a Schizaea Pectinata, otherwise called a toothbrush fern. The fronds of this tiny plant are packed together and the plant itself is rarely noticed.
Ferns do not flower and there was no particular attraction in this small hidden inhabitant of the wild. So why the excitement? Each one who stopped to look has an answer. For me, the excitement was that we actually stopped to look. We did not pass by oblivious. I only knew one of the people on that walk but I doubt if many of them would describe themselves as spiritual, still less religious. Yet the act of stopping, looking and valuing something seemingly insignificant is an act on the threshold of reverence.
The words that we often associate with religion – worship, adoration, sacred, martyr and so forth – are finding their way into ordinary converse. They are no longer the exclusive property of religion. The boundary between religious language and everyday experience is blurring. For example, while we still have many we call martyrs today who have died for their faith, we have many – perhaps many more – who have died for the truth. I am thinking particularly of the 71 journalists killed in 2017 for reporting what they witnessed.
These people showed extraordinary courage in investigating events and then reporting on them. Their work took them into highly dangerous situations and they were prepared to risk their lives to tell the world what they saw and heard. And the world is a better place for knowing the truth. Journalists are particular about what they observe. They too look at details. Often they will start their report with the story of one person: a Syrian widow who is grieving at the death of her child or the body of a migrant child washed up on a Greek beach. Details move us where generalizations pass us by. The gospels are full of individuals; Bartimaeus, Zaccheus and the woman at the well. Stories of people tell us about ourselves. Observing plants and animals tell us about our planet, our only home. We need both.