Friday, January 1, 2021

“Turning the Page” on a Year

When each New Year arrives, many of us hang up a new wall-calendar or insert a new set of pages in our day-timers.  And we sometimes make a resolution to behave differently, perhaps employing a book-related metaphor to describe the hoped-for change:  We say we are going to "turn over a new leaf" (the pages of books sometimes being called its "leaves").  Or we say we are going to "close the chapter" on something we wish to leave in the past.  Especially when the passing year was filled with trouble (as 2020 was with its COVID pandemic), we might say we are eager to "close the book" on the year gone by. 

But with that last example, we can understand the limitations of such metaphors:  A challenge such as a viral pandemic does not come to an end because we have labeled one particular day the end of a calendar year.  And even those processes in our lives that bring good things are continuous flows.  They are less like the flipped pages of a book and more like the slow advancement of a scroll.  Bringing about changes in human affairs is even better described as being like nurturing a green shoot, which in time becomes a larger plant.

Fortunately, we have been at this process of becoming since the day we were born.  We have a lot of practice with it because becoming is built into our biological nature.  As the neurobiologist Steven Rose explains:

Every living creature is in constant flux, always at the same time both being and becoming.... A newborn infant has a suckling reflex; within a matter of months
the developing infant begins to chew her food....
The paradox of development is that a baby has to be at the same time
  a competent suckler and to transform herself into a competent chewer. 
To be, therefore, and to become....

Our faith-traditions encourage us onward into unknown territory by reminding us that the ultimate Source of Life is also the very Ground of our Being that remains beneath us, supporting us even as we sometimes stumble.

Interestingly, the idea that even God cannot predict exactly what will be and what will be demanded in our engagement with the Divine is expressed in a pivotal story in the Christian Old Testament (the Hebrew Bible).  In Exodus 3:12-14, Moses, after being given a challenging long-term assignment by God, is promised by God, "I will be with you."  Nevertheless, Moses tries to gain more control over the situation by requesting to be told God's name.  Moses wants more control over the future than even God can promise.  And so, God provides to Moses the open-ended enigmatic reply, "I AM WHO I AM."  Translators sometimes add a footnote to this verse in order to express that God will be with Moses in both "being" and "becoming" -- just like that baby who both suckles and chews.  Such footnotes explain that what God has said could also be translated as "I WILL BE WHAT I WILL BE," or even "I WILL BECOME WHAT I WILL BECOME."

Even though ending a year cannot be an abrupt endpoint the way a book's chapter can be, maybe there can be value in a New-Year resolve to foster a new spirit that might lead to something better --  even if we can now only glimpse what that green shoot will become.

  ~ ~ ~ 

Is there a new shoot emerging that you would like to help cultivate?

(The Rose quote is from his chapter in Alas, Poor Darwin,
ed. by Hilary Rose and Steven Rose, © 2000. p. 310.)

Friday, December 4, 2020

A Little Light — But What a Light!

 It seems like such a little act:  lighting a candle.  But I have discovered in that act much to meditate upon.

An ungrand beauty.As the year heads into its last few months, more tiny flames are lit around the world as particular religious festivals arrive:  Diwali, Hanukah, Christmas, even the newcomer Kwanza.  All these celebrations light candles in some form as part of their ceremonies.  Sometimes the wicks being lit are at the tip of hard candles; sometimes in a tiny cup of liquid.  But the visual effect is the same.  And it is beautiful.

In the northern hemisphere, the lighting of candles on those holidays late in the year carries an added spiritual meaning through the warmth the candles bring in cold weather.  But even when those religious holidays are practiced in the southern hemisphere, with days getting longer, candle lights can bring a soft yellow glow to what was darkness.  Although I am not a Roman Catholic, I have (as long as I can remember) found pleasing any pictures of Catholics lighting candles in a sometimes dim sanctuary, often accompanied by private prayers.

Before electricity came to our modern world, candles were used where today we use tiny light bulbs.  I feel nervous when I see pictures of some Europeans lighting candles on the branches of evergreen Christmas trees.  And I know the firefighters at my local fire-department can sleep easier knowing that electric lights decorate our trees in the U.S.  But we still desire to light candles in other ways during these festive months.

Before our petroleum age, the material for candles was wax from bees or tallow from sheep or cattle.  We might do well to recognize the flame as also being a gift from Nature.

A power with a string attached.
Scientists who work in the area of evolutionary psychology try to project their thoughts back upon the path of human evolution.  Certainly a significant step in that story would have been being able to start a fire.  The European cultural heritage expresses how momentous that discovery was with its mythological story of Prometheus, who steals fire from the gods.  In the playwright Aeschylus's adaptation Prometheus Bound, Prometheus is also viewed as being the bringer of civilization.  But the god Zeus knew all too well how dangerous humans could be without bounds.  And so, Prometheus is bound to a rocky mountain as punishment.

That danger of possessing fire is why my reflections upon candle-lighting have led me to see it as an example of behaving in a restrained, respectful manner.  In humankind's use of candles, we have found a way to handle fire in a controlled way. If in mythology fire brings civilization, can lighting a candle be a civilizing act today?  In our religious and spiritual lighting of candles, can we—instead of fanning the flames of anger in ourselves and others—turn our hearts toward worship?

The commonality across faith-traditions of lighting candles (whether in sticks or cups of liquid) might enable us to share in the emotions of Howard Thurman, even if our faith-tradition is non-Christian, or if we have none.  He writes in part:
"I Will Light Candles This Christmas.
Candles of joy despite all sadness,
Candles of hope where despair keeps watch,
Candles of courage for fears ever present,
Candles of peace for tempest-tossed days,
Candles of grace to ease heavy burdens."

~ ~ ~

Do you light candles on particular occasions?  When?  What feelings does it bring?

(The lines from "Candles for Christmas" by Howard Thurman are from Meditations of the Heart, © 1953, used under Fair Use.)
(The painting of Prometheus by Jan Cossiers is in the Public Domain.)

Friday, November 6, 2020

Yearning for Something Better

"We pursue the true, the good, and the beautiful,
even though the false, the nasty, and the messy 
might have been just as useful to our genes."

What was it that attracted me to this statement by the contemporary philosopher Roger Scruton?  In part, it was my knowing that Truth, Goodness, and Beauty have been held by Christianity to be the three classic avenues through which we come to know God.  But something more immediate influenced me, something about human society today.  In a world in which we are told by some people not that there are additional facts but that there are "alternative facts," and told by still others that "truth isn't truth," it can be hard to find our bearings.  Hard to restore our grounding.  Scruton's statement reminded me that there is something within us that yearns for something better.

My responses to Scruton's words began to resonate with the picture on the cover of Scruton's book The Soul of the World.  It was a painting by the great 17th-century master Nicolas Poussin titled "Landscape with a Calm."  That painting (see below) does indeed convey an air of calm, with a herder and animals in the foreground, still water and sheep in mid-ground, and a gentle slope and stable architecture in the background.  A diffused sunlight bonds all the elements together.

Researching in an art book, I found out that although Poussin lived in the era of effusive baroque art, there was in Poussin a "conscious attempt to suppress feeling....[Nevertheless,] his paintings are hardly ever cold or lifeless."  That is because there is in them, even if it is subtle, "an emotional tension -- a tension developed between the imaginative force of the informing idea and the strict discipline of the means used to control and express it."  Poussin sought with his landscape paintings to convey more than a landscape.  He sought to convey not the surface complexity (or possible chaos) of the world but to hint at enduring truths obscured by our human disorders.  Even in his twenties, he had written:
"My nature leads me to seek out and cherish things that are well ordered,
shunning confusion which is as contrary and menacing to me
as dark shadows are to the light of day."

There it was: Echoing down from centuries ago, a statement of Poussin that there was also in his nature a yearning for an orderly, truthful dimension that lies beneath the visible surface of this too-often darkened world.

Moreover, isn't the yearning within us for some stable ground a yearning for more than truth? Isn't it also a yearning for something we can trust?  And for people we can trust?  (The chief cause of broken friendships is betrayal.)  If the yearning is for more than truth, it would be a yearning also for goodness in our relationships to the world.  And a yearning for a kind of beauty that is not always visible to our physical eyes.  Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.

~ ~ ~

Is there a way you try to restore your bearings in a world in which, it seems, "anything goes"?

Seeing more than the surface of this world.

(The quotes by Scruton are from The Soul of the World, © 2014, pp. 5 & 6.)
(The quotes by and about Poussin are from The Age of Baroque by Michael Kitson
in the series Landmarks of the World’s Art, © 1966 p. 73.)

Friday, October 2, 2020

Supporting Life through Letters

 Describing an often overlooked characteristic of 19th-century biologists, Joseph Kastner writes:  "Naturalists who never laid eyes on each other became intimate friends by virtue of the long and faithful letters they wrote to each other, year in and year out...."  Early British biologists' use of correspondence for research accelerated after the 1840 creation of the Penny Post within England, which set a fixed rate for a letter regardless of the distance it had to travel.  No biologist took greater advantage of the postal service for gathering scientific data than Charles Darwin, who penned over 14,000 letters.  But there is more than science in those early biologists' letters. There are also matters of the heart.

Being helped also by the beauty of Nature.
from Hooker's
Himalayan Journals
Appreciating the poignancy of some letters requires knowing about the state of 19th-century medicine.  Because there were virtually no vaccinations nor oral or injected antibiotics, a child was twenty-five times more likely to die before reaching early adolescence than is a child in Britain today.  Despite 19th-century biologists' accelerating knowledge about the natural world, they were not exempt from that statistic.

After the death of Darwin's beloved daughter Annie at the age of ten, the botanist Joseph Hooker, who helped Darwin study plant species, offered his condolences to Darwin.  Several years later, only an hour after Hooker's daughter died, Hooker was writing to Darwin to tell of his own grief.  Darwin wrote back at once.

Guided by books, and by friendship.
Thomas Henry Huxley
The leading British advocate for Darwin's theory of evolution for natural selection, Thomas Henry Huxley, also lost a child.  After Huxley's son Noel died at the age of three, Darwin drew upon his own experience of grief with Annie to reassure Huxley that grief could soften with time, writing, "I was indeed grieved to receive your news this morning....  I know well how intolerable is the bitterness of such grief.  Yet believe me, that time, and time alone, acts wonderfully....  I cannot think of one child without tears rising in my eyes; but the grief is become tenderer and I can even call up the smile of our lost darling...."

Inspired by those who have gone before us.
statue of
Jean Henri Fabre
Such personal expressions of grief and condolence, sometimes traveling in envelopes as part of scientific study, also crossed the English Channel.  The most difficult of emotions were sometimes even revealed in the pages of scientific books.  The eminent French entomologist Jean Henri Fabre closed his first volume on insects with a dedication to the memory of his own son, who had died when Fabre was working on the book. Charles Darwin, despite scientific disagreements,  wrote a cordial letter to Fabre, saying,  "Permit me to add, that when I read the last sentence in your book, I sympathised deeply with you."

I was moved even more by the tenderness and cordiality of these letters when I re-read them during the COVID pandemic.  With our own world's death-count increasing, it had become easy to be numbed by the numbers, so familiar had they become.  Even though we have electronic means of communication these 19th-century letter-writers did not have, these biologists' letters, with their warmth, transcended their limited technology.

~ ~ ~

Can you think of any way our communicating with others might become more spiritually supportive?

(The Kastner quote is from A Species of Eternity by Joseph Kastner, © 1977,
and is taken from The Naturalist's Path by Cathy Johnson, © 1991.  p. ix.)
(The Darwin quotes are taken from Annie's Box by Randal Keynes, © 2001.  pp. 221 & 285.)

Friday, September 4, 2020

Stepping In... to Step Deeper into the World

 I have met more than one person who very much likes StoryCorps stories, a brief weekly spot on Public Radio's Friday news programs.  The StoryCorps project traveled around the U.S. for years, recording ordinary Americans as they told about pivotal events in their life journeys. Many of what is shared is poignant.  When I take pen to paper to write my own thoughts about a wider world and reading, there is one particular StoryCorps spot that comes to mind.  As I imagine the experience in my mind, it also has to do with Nature.

Bringing richness to an arid land.
A woman explained to StoryCorps how a bookmobile became a life-changing experience for her.  As a little girl, she lived with her family in Native American migrant-worker camp.  Traveling so frequently, the girl was not allowed to have books, because they would have been too heavy to move.  But then one day, when the girl was 12, a traveling library (a bookmobile) stopped on its periodic rounds where the family was currently living.  And the girl was invited to step in.

As the now grown woman explained her childhood experience, when first told she could take home a book from the mobile, she wondered what was the catch.  Being told there was none other than returning the book in two weeks, she began to devour books.  And her having stepped (at first hesitantly) into the bookmobile made it possible for her to step into a whole new world. Or perhaps I should say "worlds," because the girl's selections ranged from volcanoes to dinosaurs.

Yearning for a larger world.
"The Journey" (1903)
Elizabeth Shippen Green
The child's stepping into that vehicle filled with books reminded me how each book can become for us a vehicle by which we step into the mind, and maybe the emotions of the author of that book. By so doing, we expand our world, even bringing hope to some corner of our lives where it previously could not be seen.  As the woman explained to StoryCorps, because of those books, "By the time I was 15, I knew there was a world outside of the camps.... I believed I could find a place in it.  And I did."

I am humbled by this story.  Although the family I grew up in was decidedly middle-class, we had a couple of filled bookcases in our house; and my mother periodically purchased an additional book so that our home library might grow as I grew.  I am also humbled because I know that it is upon the often hard lives of migrant workers that I depend for life when I purchase fruits or vegetables at the grocery store.

This woman's story came back to my mind during the COVID pandemic. Many of us had to step back into our homes in order to protect ourselves or others -- even when we would have preferred to go about freely. We turned to electronic means of communication to try to satisfy that human desire to learn and connect with more than our individual lives. Those methods were less satisfying than the "real thing." Nevertheless, the confinement of our circumstances could make us more aware of how much we needed each other, and how much other people depended upon us..


How have books widened your world?  Has there been a critical experience in your life that has made your life richer than it otherwise would have been?

(The quotation is from "Once Forbidden, Books Become A Lifeline
 For A Young Migrant Worker," by NPR Staff, May 30, 2014, and is used here under Fair Use.)
(The illustration by Green is in the Public 'Domain.)