Friday, December 7, 2018

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 2, 2018

Obliging Animals

As I drove home, I was debating in my head what I was going to do to resolve a problem I had encountered upon leaving home a few hours earlier.  Quite soon after exiting my driveway in the morning, I had noticed a dead opossum in the middle of the street.  It had most likely been struck by a car the night before, because its lifeless body was still intact even though surrounded by a swarm of flies.  And so, as I drove back home after running my errands, I wondered what I was going to do about that unpleasant dead animal on my suburban street. Trying to shovel it up to put it in the trash would be difficult by myself, especially given all the flies.  I had a vague recollection that one of the city's many phone numbers was listed as "Dead Animals," but in a sprawling city of a few million people, how long would it take for the overburdened city servants to respond to one small, dead animal?  What was I going to do?

A usually distasteful sight.
As I turned the corner onto the street where I live, I was pleased to see that the problem had been taken care of by some obliging, non-human animals: Four vultures were by the street's curb, two of them picking at what little was left of the corpse.  The nicely-designed hooks on the tips of their beaks enabled them to easily tear off bite-sized pieces of meat.

I was struck by the contrast between my previously anxious mind about how to solve a problem and the relaxed casualness of the vultures.  They reminded me of a group of human diners at a Chinese restaurant who, after sharing a large meal, are in no hurry to leave, and so enjoy lingering together.  Two of them were still nibbling, while the other two lingered with the nibblers.

I do not know where the four vultures had been residing before they spotted the dead opossum.  But my appreciating how obliging they were in solving my clean-up problem led to my recalling the mob of flies that had been swarming around the corpse a few hours earlier.  Although distasteful to me, they too had been beginning Nature's disposal of the dead animal, even if in a much slower fashion.

Busily at work.
How numerous are the species of animals that obligingly help us humans! (And here I am thinking of animals other than those who are coerced into becoming meat on our dinner plates.)  Such animals as bees that make honey, some of which we snitch.  And the many kinds of other insects that pollinate our fruit and nut trees.  Also, the earthworms that help rejuvenate the life-giving soil.  The list goes on at length.

Quietly doing their work.Flies.  Vultures.  Bees.  Insects.  Worms.  These are all among the "Living Things We Love to Hate," as Des Kennedy expresses it in his book's title.  Nevertheless, such obliging animals, going about their own business, make our human work, recreation, and even lives possible.  We can be thankful for that.

~ ~ ~

Can you think of any other animals that help us in easily overlooked ways?

(The book mentioned is Living Things We Love to Hate: Facts, Fantasies & Fallacies by Des Kennedy, © 1992, 2002.)

Friday, October 5, 2018

When the “Lightning” Strikes

"Lightning, a kite, and an almanac by Dick."  It almost sounds like a Jeopardy clue under the category-heading of "Founding Fathers."  And the contestant who can hit their button first and say "Who was Benjamin Franklin?" gets the points.

A classic experiment.So frequently repeated are the story of Franklin flying a kite in the lightning storm and the title of Poor Richard's Almanack that we rarely get a chance to learn about the other contributions of Franklin. (Whose face and build are also widely recognized from the many portraits of him, some with the illumination of a lightning strike.).  Some people in the general public might know a bit about his having lived in France for awhile as part of his public service for his countrymen back in America.  Or maybe know about his fiddling with science even beyond that kite.  But we hear little about his religious habits or his spirituality.

That omission is why I was struck by one page in the book Gentlemen Scientists and Revolutionaries: The Founding Fathers in the Age of Enlightenment by Tom Shachtman. That author emphasizes that:
"The Founding Fathers' science was in no way opposite to their religion. 
The notion that science and religion were antithetical
is a nineteenth-century construct."
And in regard to Franklin, Shachtman writes:
"By the age of fifteen, Franklin wrote in his Autobiography, he had become
a doubter of organized religion...until he chanced upon printed lectures that
tried to debunk Deism:
[Franklin wrote:] ' They wrought an effect on me quite contrary
to what was intended by them, for the arguments of the Deists...appeared to me
much stronger than the refutations; in short I soon became a thorough Deist.' 
In his twenties, he set out his religious beliefs
in a ten-page liturgy, complete with a hymn."
Benjamin Franklin's explanation of his newly found religious orientation continues:
"I think it seems required of me, and my Duty, as a Man,
to pay Divine Regards to SOMETHING....
When I stretch my Imagination thro' and beyond...the visible fix'd Stars themselves,
into that Space that is every Way infinite, and conceive it fill'd with Suns like ours...,
then this little Ball on which we move, seems, even in my narrow Imagination,
to be almost Nothing, and my self less than nothing."

There were two things I liked in these passages.  The first was Franklin's ability to remain sufficiently open to change his mind.  He had apparently began reading the arguments trying to refute the existence of God because they aligned with his doubts about organized religion; but he turned in a different direction when he found the refutations lacking.  That turn in direction put him on a course where, several years later, he could put to pen his own majestic expression of religious belief.

Discovering many kinds of illumination.
The second thing I liked was Franklin's expression of his need to feel reverence (the paying of "Divine Regards," as he interestingly put it). Our media today are so quickly drawn towards brash voices and dominating personalities that it is easy to forget that we are often better served by humility.  And in religious and spiritual lives, humility is cultivated through following a path of reverence.
~ ~ ~

How do you think we can find a good midpoint between the extremes of brashness and timidity?

(Quotations are taken from Shachtman's Gentlemen Scientists and Revolutionaries, © 2014, pp. xii-xiv.)
(Both pictures are details from the originals, both of which are in the public domain.)

Friday, September 7, 2018

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, August 3, 2018

Beauty: To Capture or to Create?

Preserving memories of something wonderful.It's so easy to do now -- to take a photograph.  Just pull out the cellphone, aim, and press a button.  What you saw is instantly preserved.

I am old enough to remember when Polaroid demonstrated on live TV the then remarkable accomplishment of having its new camera eject a printed picture in only 60 seconds.  No more waiting until the 24 or 46 exposures were finished, taking the exposed roll of film to a store, and returning some days later after professionals had turned it into prints or slides.  Polaroid's 60-second do-it-yourself camera was so remarkable that they had to have hosts of TV shows with live audiences demonstrate the camera so viewers at home would know there was no editing or other TV trickery.

Traveling back further in the history of cameras, we would find further evidence of how comparatively easy photography can be today.  Such as the chemically treated glass plates and bottles of caustic chemicals that were once required.

Ourselves being captured by what we see.Behind all these efforts, however, lies the same desire: to preserve something one has seen.  To capture it so that one might see it again.  We even once referred to "snapshots," to "shooting" a roll of film, and to "photoshoots," unconsciously preserving in our language the similarity between capturing an image and capturing a wild animal to preserve it or even try to possess it.

Most photos in the world (I think I can safely guess) are of family or friends.  Such photos help us preserve our memories.  They allow us to see (and with prints, touch) even when the faces thus preserved are far way or no longer alive.

A resonance between the world's beauty and ours.
"Orpheus and the Beasts"
by Sebastiaan Brancx
But there is another photographic urge, which was brought to my mind by a statement by a contemporary philosopher Elaine Scarry.  It is the urge to photograph something because we are struck by its beauty.  In her book On Beauty and Being Just, Scarry writes:
"[Beauty] seems to incite, even to require, the act of replication.... Beauty brings copies of itself into being.
It makes us draw it, take photographs of it, or describe it to other people.  Sometimes it gives rise to exact replication and other times to resemblances....
Beauty prompts a copy of itself."
What struck me about Scarry's statement is that she did not use that word "capture" that has been so much a part of the lexicon of photography. Instead, she employed words that suggest that beauty can inspire us to become creative ourselves.

A photograph is, in a way, an imitation of part of what was before our eye when we clicked the camera's shutter -- but often only a pale imitation of the real thing.  A photograph of a mountain is hardly the mountain itself. Scarry's statement suggests something more.  It suggests the desire not to capture just an image, nor to capture the thing itself, but the desire to create in our own life something that bears some of the same good qualities of what we have perceived as being beautiful.

Moreover, some of the qualities we can perceive as being beautiful are known not by the eye but by the heart.  The grateful heart.

It's amazingly easy to pull out the cellphone and push a button.  It's much harder to creatively imitate the caring and helpfulness and kindness we have received from other people. But that we can sometimes do so is also a remarkable thing.

~ ~

Who has inspired you with their caring, helpfulness, or kindness?

(The quotation is from On Beauty and Being Just by Elaine Scarry, © 2011, p. 3.)