The year is 2016. Though he’s been dead for 61 years, Albert Einstein made news recently. A key part of his theory of relativity was proven, but he was apparently such a humble man that he would never raise a fist and say, “Told you so.” In the month of February, 1905, an unknown, 26-year-old patent clerk published an article that would eventually change everyone’s understanding of the world. The article contains what has been called “the most revolutionary sentence written by a physicist of the 20th century.” Fasten your seatbelts, because here is that sentence.
According to the assumption to be contemplated here, when a light ray is spreading from a point, the energy is not distributed continuously over ever-increasing spaces, but consists of a finite number of energy quanta that are localized in points in space, move without dividing, and can be absorbed or generated only as a whole.
Apparently, that was revolutionary. 1905 is called Albert Einstein’s annis mirabilis, his year of miracles. Within a few months, he wrote a series of papers that would transform the way humanity sees the universe. In 1905, apparently every physicist knew what light was, whether it came from a lightbulb or from a candle flame or from the sun. Light was one continuous wave, and the distance between the peaks and the troughs in that wave determined the light’s color.
But Einstein, who really had been a patent clerk at the time but also a doctoral student at the University of Zurich, who played with physics theories in his spare time, suggested another view: Light was not one continuous wave but a cluster of localized particles, moving without dividing. His work changed our understanding of space and mass and energy.
I had to plagiarize much of that preceding information, because I do not understand the particle physics Einstein is talking about. However, Einstein did say something else that we might find easier to comprehend. It speaks not simply of what we see when we look at the universe but how we see. “There are only two positions you can take,” Einstein wrote. “Either you believe that nothing in life is a miracle, or you believe that everything in life is a miracle.”
In one Gospel story, Jesus encounters a Canaanite woman falling at his feet, with a furious request: “Have mercy on me, O Lord. My daughter is severely possessed by a demon.” Now, at this point in the story, notice two things. First, Jesus does not answer the woman immediately. He does this elsewhere in the gospels, this pausing before replying. Why? Because the faith of the person before him is not yet sufficiently mature to handle what he wants to give. He is not being cruel or dismissive. Instead, he is like a dancer who is silently leading his partner where he wants her to go. And it works. The woman breaks through the rudeness of the Lord’s disciples—“Send her away,” they said. “Dismiss her.” “Dismiss her” is closer to the original Greek. And Christ declares that he will bless her perseverance and heal her daughter. So first we notice our Lord’s wise silence.
Then we notice our Lord’s wise medicine, wrapped in the unexpected appearance of an insult. When the woman breaks through the disciples and appeals to Christ with urgency, notice his response. “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” Who are the children and who are the dogs? Here’s what some commentators say. The Jews he calls children because, like offspring, they had been the chosen nation of God. The Gentiles he calls dogs because of their unclean way of life. So “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs” means it is not right to take the grace intended for the Jews who are supposed to be worthy of it and throw it to the Gentiles who are living unworthy of it.
This is your Christ: silence, followed by an insult. Now the only way this scene works is if we trust that Christ is up to something. We must trust that he is not being cruel toward Gentiles in general or toward this woman in particular. So let’s lean in toward the heart of their conversation. He argues, “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” She argues back, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” As has been said elsewhere, both the proud and the humble argue with God, but the difference is that the humble are happy to be defeated. Jesus stimulates her faith, rewards her perseverance, and inspires her gratitude all at once. He heals her daughter, and the woman departs in peace.
What is the difference between the person who dines in elegance and the dog who waits on the floor by their feet? One difference is how each one sees the crumbs that fall from the table. To the diner, a crumb is small and insignificant. To the dog, however, a crumb is big and important. The Canaanite woman is not asking for a loaf of bread, like a big sign or a mighty act. She is asking for the small crumb of a special touch from the Master. Small by comparison to his power, but great in comparison to what she has now. A crumb is not impressive to those who dine on loaves, but to the hungry dog under the table, it is quite a gift. It is not what I see when I look at the crumb, but how I see.
The heart is the center of Christian spirituality. It determines how we see. If we see the good and the lovely in people around us, it is because the heart is leaning toward the good and the lovely. If we see the dark and corrupt, it is because the heart leans toward the dark and corrupt. This is why, in the most frequently quoted psalm in the Church, we pray, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” A clean heart looks on all that we take for granted and turns them back into miracles.
Einstein looked at capillary action and quantum theory and mass-energy equivalence, and though a secular Jew saw the fingerprints of some kind of God. Some of us may look upon a starry sky or a mountain range or a roaring ocean or a work of art or the symmetry of an internal combustion engine or a winter morning, and see the fingerprints of God. Yet all of us should be able to look at the roof over our head, the food in our refrigerator, the clothes on our back, the car in our driveway, the breath in our lungs, the family and friends in our life, and see them as personal gifts from a personal God. “There are only two positions you can take,” Einstein wrote. “Either you believe that nothing in life is a miracle, or you believe that everything in life is a miracle.”
It’s not the size of the crumb that turns it into a miracle. It’s whether we can see it as a miracle at all. Einstein played no role of the development of the atomic bomb, but his early discoveries did. Fearing that the Germans would develop the bomb first, he wrote a letter to President Roosevelt to speed up American research into it. Years later, after seeing the devastation that human beings were capable of, he came to regret that letter. He arrived at the same conclusion in the 20th century that Christian saints have known since the first century. This world will change for the better only when we start really seeing the greatest miracles of all—each other. Another great 20th-century figure put it this way: Next to the blessed sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.