A quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson has been rattling around in my head this week.

The quote reads: "Believe in magnetism, not in needles."

Emerson felt too many people trust the things our senses can detect instead of trusting the invisible power behind those things.

I do that — though not more than six or seven times a day.

Like fibbing, thinking in material terms is a universal human failing.

I remember reading how the Aztecs worshipped the sun. It made sense in a way. The sun helped them to see, it kept them warm, helped them to grow corn and raised their spirits. But the sun was only a "needle," it wasn't "magnetism." The idea of some unseen force driving the sun never occurred to the Aztecs.

It seems to occur to fewer and fewer people today.

Pulling our eyes away from "things" and setting them on the amazing creative force behind them will always be a struggle. We fight it every step of the way.

I remember standing at the church in San Juan Capistrano as a band of swallows returned after wintering in Latin America. People were amazed. They marveled at the "magical birds."

Yet, even though we were at a church, it didn't cross their minds that the swallows were just "needles" being guided by something more marvelous and wondrous. Perhaps, in the case of the swallows, it was literally the power of "magnetism" guiding them.

That moment made me stop and think. If swallows are mere "needles," what does that say about other creatures we adore and find awe-inspiring — I'm talking about the movie stars, athletes, politicians and saints?

Aren't they simply "needles," too — the mere manifestations of some astounding force?

And if they are just needles, what does that say about each one of us?

Aren't we all just swallows in the hands of a power mightier than we can imagine?

I believe we are.

And I believe that's one reason religious people are often asked to sacrifice — asked to give up their money, time and talents.

We do that to change our focus — to knock us off our fixation on "needles" and try to get us thinking about "magnetism."

Sometimes, when I teach kids, I try to make that point by turning the Aztec notion of "sun worship" around. I tell the kids that spiritual feelings are like having a "sun" inside of us. Just as the sun helped the Aztecs see better, stay warm and feel hope, that little sun inside does the same for us.

The idea seems to work — at least for a while.

Eventually, however, the world comes crashing back in with all its "stuff."

For, in the end, I'm afraid human beings will always be "needle" people by nature. Thinking about "magnetism" must be learned. In fact, sometimes it takes a whole lifetime before we realize, "Every experiment, by multitudes or by individuals, that has a sensual and selfish aim, will fail."

If you couldn't guess — that's Emerson again.


E-mail: jerjohn@desnews.com