In the face of the unknown, Christopher Columbus counted.
“On the 33rd day after I departed from Cadiz, I came to the Indian sea,” he wrote King Ferdinand’s treasurer. “There are in the island Juana seven or eight kinds of palm trees. In all these islands, each man is content with only one wife, except the princes or kings, who are permitted to have 20.”
On that historic October in 1492, Columbus encountered a vast wilderness – an island “large and without perceptible end,” “trees stretching up to the stars” – and he responded in the best way he could. The system he had learned as a boy – one, two, three, four – worked for charting a new course, for mapping a New World.
The impulse to count is timeless. Humans put numbers to the angle of the sun. They tracked the ebbing tide and the falling snow. They tallied their steps and their silver, their daughters and their donkeys. By counting they created cosmos out of chaos.
When a baby is conceived, we count weeks and trimesters and heart rates, waiting for three seasons to come and go. When it is born, we count inches and ounces, then months and teeth.
The church understands this impulse, giving us a liturgical calendar that lends rhythm to the year. This month we slide toward the end of ordinary time – the 28th week, the 29th, the 30th – which brings us to four weeks of Advent, 12 days of Christmas, 40 days of Lent and 50 days of Easter. It may sound mechanical, but it is mysterious too: Deep down we know life is so un-ordinary that each week is worth counting.
My husband and I just returned from a cross-country road trip. As we set off, the windshield seemed to expand before us, opening a lid to a big, bright sky. I felt the sting of possibility, a release from the confines of the routine. Soon I was examining the flat, grey underbellies of the clouds. “When you really study the clouds,” I told my captain, “they’re amazing!”
Later Ted was urging me to behold the crisscrossing beams of New York’s Tappan Zee Bridge. “Look up!” he said. “Isn’t this cool?”
Amid the staggering beauty, I counted. From the beginning to the end, I tallied everything I could. We covered 2,800 miles of road – nearly an oil-change worth – 108 gallons of gas, $56 in tolls and 10 states, one-fifth of The Fifty Nifty.
Measuring our progress began as a source of motivation, but there was more to it: It was a way to orient ourselves, to grasp the infinite space ahead.
By counting we get hard proof that we were here. We make meaning, we mark our place, we insert ourselves into history.
Counting helps us close the gap between what we can see and what we can touch, where we are and where we hope to be.
The German poet Rainer Maria Rilke articulated this idea in his poem “A Walk.” He wrote: “My eyes already touch the sunny hill. Going far ahead of the road I have begun, so we are grasped by what we cannot grasp; it has inner light, even from a distance – and changes us, even if we do not reach it, into something else, which, hardly sensing it, we already are.”
We are progressive pilgrims, building God’s kingdom day by day, brick by brick. The journey is long and hilly, but we advance as simply as our ancestors did: one, two, three, four.
Christina Capecchi is a freelance writer from Inver Grove Heights, Minn. She can be reached at www.ReadChristina.com.