The Journal of the Unitarian Universalist Association

 A Sherlock Way of Knowing:
Five Spiritual Teachings of a Fictional Detective
By Stephen Kendrick

November/December 1999

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The worst roommate of all time must have been Mr. Sherlock Holmes, who kept tobacco in his slipper, performed malodorous chemical experiments at all hours, saluted his queen by forming the letters V.R. on his walls with bullet holes, and generally led a chaotic and eccentric life. But worst of all for the faithful John H. Watson, fiction’s best-known roomie, must have been the many and wearying demonstrations of his own mental slowness. Dr. Watson is no fool, but as he puts it, “I was always oppressed with a sense of my own stupidity in my dealings with Sherlock Holmes.” Here, Holmes’s creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, is deploying an ancient narrative device—as ancient as the easily awed questioners of Socrates or Jesus’ disciples, who are at pains to understand their teacher’s message, highlighting genius with an ordinary soul standing in for you and me. Besides, Holmes cannot teach without a dutiful student.

At the beginning of the story “A Scandal in Bohemia”—set in a period when Watson, having married, is living away from Baker Street—Holmes deduces from small details of Watson’s appearance, clothing, and shoes that his friend has been walking in the country, has a careless servant girl, and is back in medical practice. After Holmes explains how he arrived at his conclusions, Watson laughs and says, “When I hear you give your reasons, the thing always appears to me to be so ridiculously simple that I could easily do it myself, though at each successive instance of your reasoning I am baffled until you explain your process. And yet I believe my eyes are as good as yours.”

Agreeing, Holmes makes one of the most important statements in all the Holmes canon: “You see, but you do not observe.” Then he challenges Watson to state how many steps lead to Holmes’s lodgings, steps Watson has climbed hundreds of times. Watson can’t do it.

The correct answer is 17—insignificant in itself, but Holmes insists we learn to see this world in just such a clear and detailed way. Though Watson never quite awakens to it, his sometime roommate is as focused as a Zen master. Holmes, in short, is a spiritual teacher who just happens to like tracking down criminals. For the Holmes stories are, at last, not just about apprehending criminals but about apprehending reality. The detective is instructing his friend to learn what Buddhists call “bare attention.” An old Zen tale describes a student badgering the teacher Ichu over and over about the core of the teaching. The master writes with his brush the word Attention. Not satisfied, the student asks, “Is that it?” In response, his master writes, Attention, Attention. “What is profound about that?” the student asks. Writing the word three times, Ichu calmly answers, “Attention means attention.”

What he’s aiming at is the moment of perception before our thoughts take over, before our concepts and notions intervene. Likewise, Holmes sees with brilliance, but he sees, more importantly, with keen accuracy and without grand theories that twist truth into ideas and send the theorizer down blind alleys.

Most of us see things the way Watson does. Holmes doesn’t settle for that, however; he clearly thinks we all can reach insight by changing the way we go about seeing. The problem is that our usual vision is equivalent to blindness. The Jewish writer Abraham Joshua Heschel puts it another way: “The demand, as understood in Biblical religion, is to be alert and open to what is happening. . . . Every moment is a new arrival, a new bestowal.” Perhaps the worst sin, then, is to stop paying attention.

Five principles I draw from the Holmes stories can show us how to see with new attention. I caution you, however, not to make the mistake of thinking that simply seeing with our eyes is the point. It is said Helen Keller was once asked if there was anything worse than being blind. “Having no vision,” she replied.

Principle 1: Nothing Is Little
When Watson first meets the young Holmes in the short novel A Study in Scarlet, Holmes is just embarking on his new career as a consulting detective in the great city of London. He quickly makes himself essential to the police, as well as all classes of people from common folk to royalty, by noticing things other people miss. Holmes spends more time at the scene of a murder than anyone else, picking up small physical clues after the police have already combed the premises. Watson, just getting to know Holmes, finds he resembles nothing so much as a “pure-blooded, well-trained foxhound” as he paces the bloody scene, measuring between marks “quite invisible to me,” gathering up a small pile of gray dust, and then examining with his magnifying glass the word Rache scrawled on the wall in red.

“They say that genius is an infinite capacity for taking pains,” he tells Watson. “It’s a very bad definition, but it does apply to detective work.” As Holmes explains to Gregson, a befuddled policeman, “To a great mind, nothing is little.”

Elsewhere, Holmes speaks of taking impressions of footsteps and studying the distinguishing marks of various professions using “lithotypes of the hands of slaters, sailors, cork-cutters, compositors, weavers and diamond-polishers.”

Over and over, Holmes finds truth in the crevices of the floor, the cracks in the wall, in the disturbed dust. Likewise, true religion involves the realization that all events are crucial and that details are not just important but absolutely and extraordinarily important: lit by a searchlight, illuminated in meaning.

The little things point the way to what is ultimately crucial. I once heard John Updike say, “Eternity is littleness piled high.” But it takes genius to see that low. Our chance for greatness lies in training our vision to see what we usually overlook.

In the aftermath of leaving behind the Roman Catholicism of his youth, young Doyle filled many notebooks with ruminations similar to those he later put in the mouth of Holmes. He wrote: “A religion to be true must include everything from the amoeba to the milky way.” Nothing must be excluded from our view and purview for any faith to be true. Everything rests on the small. Every detective knows the case opens at the point of the overlooked bent blade of grass, the ripped laundry stub, the hair, the fiber, the bestirred grime. What is astonishing is that Doyle invented this method, this way of seeing reality, even before he imagined Holmes. Also scrawled in these early notebooks is this notation: “The coat-sleeve, the trouser-knee, the callosities of the forefinger and thumb, the boot—any one of these might tell us, but that all united should fail to enlighten the trained observation is incredible.” Doyle then proceeded to invent a character who could notice exactly these things.

G. K. Chesterton once jokingly alluded to this attribute of mystery tales featuring “hawk-like amateur detectives” (read: Sherlock): “The latter finds near the corpse a boot-lace, a button hook, a French newspaper, and a return ticket from the Hebrides; and so, relentlessly, link by link, brings the crime home to the Archbishop of Canterbury.”
 He said of the Holmes stories that they were “perfectly graceful and conscientious works of art.” What made them great to Chesterton was the ironic notion of a powerful intellect like Holmes obsessed with the “small things” instead of the great: “it constitutes a kind of wild poetry of the common-place.”

That is exactly what the parables of detective fiction give us, over and over. “Every stone or flower is a hieroglyphic of which we have lost the key,” added Chesterton, who understood so well the strange kind of wisdom found in these entertainments. We love detectives because we trust them to reveal that the world contains truth, not chaos; clues, not dead ends. And, above all, that it will be the “small things” that will take us there, not grand abstractions.

Nothing is little, not even the mustard seed in Jesus’ parable—so small you can hardly see it, and yet within it is something towering and great, the largest tree in the desert. As Jesus said in introducing this “wild poetry” of the small and the great and the true, “For there is nothing hid, except to be made manifest; nor is anything secret, except to come to light” (Mark 4:22). But for that to happen, we must take the next step of realization.

Principle 2: Notice What You See
When Watson says to Holmes, “You see everything,” the detective insists that this skill is nothing special. Anyone can master it.

“I see no more than you, but I have trained myself to notice what I see,” he says. When Watson further remarks that Holmes’s deductions about a certain client came from details “quite invisible,” Holmes corrects him, saying, “Not invisible but unnoticed, Watson. You did not know where to look, and so you missed all that was important.”

The world stands before us all in perfect clarity; it is our lenses of attention that are clouded and obscured. We can’t train with Holmes to learn what he calls “the importance of sleeves, the suggestiveness of thumb-nails, or the great issues that may hang from a boot-lace,” but we can learn to notice what we see. In one Hasidic story, a rabbinical student travels a great distance to visit a teacher not in order to listen to his learned discourses but to see how he tied his shoelaces.

And UU novelist Dan Wakefield once told me about going to a Roman Catholic nun for spiritual direction, hoping she would have special “clandestine” prayer formulas that would provide him a direct link to God. Instead she told him to go look at a tree. Wakefield went out to the Boston Common and was overwhelmed by the tree he gazed at. “The tree was too big and complicated and intricate to begin to comprehend,” he said. “Instead, I picked out something to look at that seemed more suited to my own powers of understanding: a blade of grass.” Twenty minutes a day for two weeks, he looked, and was amazed at the freshness of what he saw, “the aliveness of it.” And his spiritual journey opened up from there. Wakefield’s story reminds me of a wonderful drawing of Holmes by illustrator Sidney Paget. It shows the long form of the detective sprawled on the ground, absorbed in studying the grass.

Did not Jesus demand of his disciples over and over, “Let those who have eyes, let them see; let those who have ears, let them hear”? Noticing what you see means you are present and accounted for in your own life. Spinning great theories is not the detective’s task, nor is it ours.

The mystery in P.D. James’s detective novel A Taste for Death is resolved by the finding of a simple button in an offering box—but first you have to see a button. And there’s the rub. When we’re grasping for truth, for insight, a button is the easiest thing in the world to miss.

Noticing what you see takes time: time to let the eye adjust, to take in detail, not to let the sweep of the eye take away what is there for us to view. As painter Georgia O’Keeffe said, “Nobody sees a flower—really—it is so small it takes time—we haven’t time—and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time.” We are sleepwalkers, really.

I first truly noticed what I saw as a 12-year-old counselor at a camp along the Kentucky River. We took 20 young campers out past their bedtime, foregoing our nightly ghost story to gaze at the night sky. We sat at the edge of a field overlooking the black river. A steep cliff face towered over the far bank. I showed the campers the stars in their constellations—the Archer, the Crab, the Big and Little Dipper. The longer we stared upward, the more stars we could see.

Across the river, against the dark cliff, thousands of fireflies dotted the dark in random, shifting patterns. And I did not know what was more wondrous, the cold blue flickering stars or the fireflies. For a moment, I was lost and yet more fully at home than I had ever felt before, truly seeing what my eyes beheld. There was no clear message or moral imperative or evocation of God’s majesty. No, it was smaller than that, something not exactly mystical but fully attentive and receptive. My sight and my vision were aligned—one.

I often tell my congregation that they should not expect to “get” religion by attending church. But worship should prepare them and open them up to remember when they were touched by the divine, the moments when they felt most alive. But before we remember, we must first see.

Principle 3: The Deceptiveness of the Ordinary
In “The Red-Headed League,” after Holmes explains the basis of a typically dazzling performance of deduction, the comical character Jabez Wilson tells him, “I thought at first that you had done something clever, but I see that there was nothing in it, after all.”

Ruefully, Holmes turns to his friend. “I begin to think, Watson, that I make a mistake in explaining.” The detective, like the magician, knows that explanation can quickly deflate the sense of the miraculous, the marvelous. Not even Watson is immune to this.

In The Hound of the Baskervilles, after his friend has deduced that he has been in his club all day and after hearing the reasoning explained to him, Watson bursts out, “Well, it is rather obvious.”

Holmes replies, “The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes”— one of his wisest observations ever. In fact, it is precisely the obvious, the fully ordinary, that fools us again and again. Why? Perhaps because, owing to our habits of perception, the familiar is easily, and quickly, lost to us. Every counselor has heard the bewildered cry of people grieving a loved one: “And I can’t even remember her face clearly” or “I’ve forgotten his voice.”

We lose sight even of what is holy. In the Zen collection The Gateless Gate, it is put quite plainly: “It is too clear and so it is hard to see. A dunce once searched for a fire with a lighted lantern.” And so it is. We search for truth with the answers inside us, we grasp for love with affection all around us, we long for treasures with riches heaped about us.

Mystery writers have known for a long time that the best place to hide a clue is right in plain sight, where we don’t expect it. In fact, one of the very first detective stories, Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Purloined Letter,” ends when the missing letter is found in the most glaringly obvious place—even as the police ransack everywhere it “should” be hidden.

We are so used to thinking of religious revelation coming into the world by thunder and lightning, miracles, and blinding visions that we too easily forget that spiritual truth is right here before us. It’s just too obvious for us to notice. Holmes has this important lesson in mind when he observes, “There is nothing so unnatural as the commonplace.” It is in the ordinary that the holy dwells, and it is not so much hiding there as overlooked.

It takes a rare observer to stay sharp, to keep the channels open—not to the mysterious but to the ordinary. Sarah Coakley, a professor at Harvard Divinity School, tells of hearing the frustration in the voice of a Russian scientist, a recent immigrant who was driving a taxi to make ends meet. In their new country, he feared, his children were losing “the capacity to attend.” Our culture “doesn’t know the meaning of listening,” the cabbie complained. “It doesn’t know how to focus—on a sound, on an idea, on each other, on God.” As she listened to this expatriate’s anguish, Coakley thought she could hear a refrain from the Russian Orthodox liturgy of St. John Chrysostom: “Wisdom, attend.” Similarly, Heschel says prayer is taking notice of the wonder of this world. This is what we’re always being asked to do, and yet we so easily lose this attending, this holy curiosity for the surface of life.

The Greek word for the Catholic sacraments is mysterion. Hearing Holmes talk about the world being “full of obvious things” nobody ever notices showed me just why sacraments can be called mysteries. Nothing is so ordinary as bread and wine, yet in the sacrament of communion these plain and unadorned materials are revealed as the very means of grace. In the Christian understanding of the word, mystery means not what is hidden but rather that what is right there in plain sight is splendor once we are ready to attend. The mystery is laced and threaded through every particle of this creation, the very physical and real foundation of all.

Principle 4: Don’t Confuse the Mysterious with the Bizarre
Although ordinary life contains the most powerful mysteries, Holmes tells us to beware of the bizarre. Drawn into a murder investigation far from London, in the Boscombe Valley, he says, as he surveys newspaper accounts, “It seems, from what I gather, to be one of those simple cases which are so extremely difficult.”

Watson replies, “That sounds a little paradoxical.”

“But it is profoundly true. Singularity is almost invariably a clue. The more featureless and commonplace a crime is, the more difficult it is to bring it home.” Later on, he adds that the more bizarre a case appears, the less truly mysterious it actually is.

I have long wanted to have inscribed across the portals of every church and temple a similar dictum of Holmes’s: “It is a mistake to confound strangeness with mystery.” People attracted to all forms of religious life can, and do, make this mistake. In our spiritual journeys, we are often attracted by the grotesque, the outlandish, the startling. We confuse these qualities with effusions of the divine. Great spiritual masters teach that these have a glittering power to divert our attention, our attending, while true enlightenment means a deeper appreciation of daily life.

Sounding a little like a detective, the Tibetan teacher Chögyam Trungpa says, “When you see ordinary situations with extraordinary insight, it is like discovering a jewel in rubbish.”

Principle 5: Presume Nothing
Over and over, Holmes restrains himself from jumping ahead of his perceptions. “I make a point of never having any prejudices, and of following docilely wherever fact may lead me,” he claims.

Bringing to the world a mind choked with judgments is, according to Holmes, a bad habit but one we humans are prone to. Unfortunately, some of our leaps of faith, and leaps into faith, can land us in disaster. There is no special spiritual virtue in believing ideas born of exclusion, paranoia, or cosmic insecurity. But facing reality with an open mind and an attentive heart allows us to ease, not leap, into faith. For true faith isn’t believing outlandish things but being perfectly open and free to see the sacred in the ordinary and the commonplace. There is a Zen saying that Holmes would surely have approved of: “If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything—it is open to everything.”

To come at reality without prejudices or preordained views means, at times, that we can experience something miraculous—a powerful coincidence, for example—without dismissing it out of hand. And this approach to truth leads naturally to one of Holmes’s most famous sayings: “How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?”

To gaze at the world with bare attention and an open curiosity can lead us to improbable places and unlikely solutions to the holy. When we learn to presume nothing, we can see anything. We may mostly live and see like Watson, but there are paths to observing like Holmes, who insists that we can all learn to observe what we see. All it takes is a steadfast inner confidence in the method and a willingness to face the unknown. As Albert Einstein said, “It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery every day.”

But it is not scientists or detectives I think of here, nor is it writers of spiritual books. The people who best teach me to live with holy curiosity allied to this willingness to “presume nothing” are visual artists like Van Gogh, who once wrote to his brother that the artist is someone who “has paid attention to the things he sees with his eyes and hears with his ears, and has thought them over; he will end in believing, and he will perhaps have learned more than he can tell. To try to understand the real significance of what the great artists, the serious masters, tell us in their masterpieces, that leads to God.”

The passion aroused by the radical painters of Holmes’s own time—the Impressionists and their successors—came from their rejection of a false realism. They painted how the eye actually perceives, the way things look in the flux of light. They rejected paintings that were precise, that were more about preconceived ideas than about how our eyes actually perceive the world. These painters “presumed nothing” and painted accordingly. And that made them shocking.

You are probably thinking we’re a long distance from Sherlock Holmes here; a close reading of Doyle suggests otherwise, though. In “The Greek Interpreter,” Watson is surprised to hear Holmes speak for the first time about his family roots, including a grandmother, “who was the sister of Vernet, the French artist.” (Émile Jean Horace Vernet was an actual French painter who died in 1863.) Then Holmes adds revealingly: “Art in the blood is liable to take the strangest forms.”

Nothing could be odder than the artistic vision finding its employment in apprehending thieves and murderers, but Holmes has it right—his skill is, in the end, an artistic one. Doyle presents his detective as a special sort of artist all through his career; as Watson notes: “Holmes had the impersonal joy of the true artist in his better work”; and again, “Holmes, like all great artists, lived for his art’s sake. . . . ” Holmes says, laughing at himself, “Watson insists that I am the dramatist in real life. Some touch of the artist wells up in me.”

This grandnephew of the painter Vernet expressed “the strangest forms” of the artistic vision, and he shows us again and again how to break out of seeing in stale and preconceived ways. Step by step, he explains to Watson how to observe, how to reach the state of “bare attention.” How to attend. How to value and treasure the smallest details of the world set before us. How to realize that at last nothing is little.

Many years ago I was working on a sermon while my son, who was four, played with miniature cars next to me with the serene concentration of the child. I idly asked him what love was. Without looking up, he said, “Love is the eyes we see with.” I promised my family a long time ago not to use them as sermon illustrations, but I will never forget the cold chill I got as I hurriedly scratched his definition down. I have never found a better one.

Any faith is a way of seeing, an inner vision that can become as vibrant as a Van Gogh painting with curling, swirling color that reveals the objects of the world bathed in light and reflecting and revealing their full energy and power. To see deeply and well and accurately is to know that nothing is invisible, even if it goes unseen. 

The Rev. Stephen Kendrick is minister of the Universalist Church of West Hartford, CT. This article was adapted from his new book Holy Clues: The Gospel According to Sherlock Holmes (Pantheon, 1999). 

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