Susurration, Softness

What is it about snowflakes – which are water and cold in motion – that stirs a recollection of ancient stillness? Falling slow and sparse this morning, precursors to the storm still half a day or so away. Deep in the woods, I could hear each flake sifting through pine trees – susurration, softness – and also smell stove smoke that was thirty years old. In the black distance a train moaned, one that I followed years ago when getting away seemed desirable.

Dreams of conflict, dreams of imprisonment. Lay in bed for a few minutes wondering if I could muster the courage to walk, but by the time the snowflakes were settling on me, fear was forgotten, shined away by . . . what? What are you waiting for, I asked the older dog who, rather than walk this morning, simply laid down in the early part of the field. He scampered up at my return, his answer simple and obvious: you.

Talking in circles while talking of God gets confusing indeed, especially when you feel compelled to assure everyone that your God isn’t homophobic, anti-semitic, mysogynistic, etc. When what you’re really saying is, Please, love me. Please, heal me.

Thomas Merton feels instructive, as here, from the thirteenth chapter in Contemplative Prayer:

We will have to face fears and doubts. We will have to call into question the whole structure of our spiritual life. We will have to make a new evaluation of our motives for belief, for love, for self-commitment to the invisible God. And at this moment, precisely, all spiritual light is darkened, all values lose their shape and reality, and we remain, so to speak, suspended in the void.

The most crucial aspect of this experience is precisely the temptation to doubt God himself. We must not minimize the fact that this is a genuine risk. For here we are advancing beyond the stage where God made himself accessible to our minds in simple and primitive images. We are entering the night in which he is present without any image, invisible, inscrutable, and beyond any satisfactory mental representation.

Yet I cannot shake the desire to use words to shape experience, make a record, bear witness . . . I do, I keep looking around, expecting at any moment to see an angel with prismatic wings bestowing on me some obscure but lovely blessing.

{ 5 comments… add one }
  • Marya February 23, 2010, 6:49 am

    How did we get to this place where the default God is all those things that we despise? Has the intent of religion always been “my God is better than your God”?

  • admin February 23, 2010, 9:59 am

    Is it a regrettable part of being human? That we are always drawing lines in the sand – tribal lines maybe – my body is better, my country is better, my way is better? And religion is just another aspect? have a similar feeling around education – wanting to be clear in my talking that I recognize that all loving parents can make different choices around learning for their kids, one doesn’t trump another. Not wanting to hurt or offend or isolate people feels right to me – inclusivity is good – but perhaps I am wandering to an extreme with it.

    Or maybe we are simply projecting onto this idea of God everything that scares the hell out of us, deep inside. I don’t know.

    I want to have wordless conversations about God! No symbols allowed. But I still haven’t figured out how to do that.

  • Marya February 23, 2010, 12:12 pm

    We are herd animals and therefore feel the need to form groups. The sense of belonging means that someone has to be excluded, un-belong. The social identity theory fits this premise. I found this article to be rather enlightening.
    http://www.spring.org.uk/2007/11/why-groups-and-prejudices-form-so.php

    And I think it is everything that you said above. I too am looking for a pre- or post-verbal understanding of the universe. Alas, I am cursed with words.

  • admin February 23, 2010, 3:46 pm

    Marya you are wonderful!

    Hmmm . . . the experiment measured 14-15 year old boys? It suggests that other groups have been tested – do girls of that age test the same? Buddhist monks? Tea Party activists? If all groups automatically favor their own by virtue of excluding others, there must be at least be a continuum, no?

    But that – for me anyway – ignores the existence of human beings for whom the herd instinct seems muted, even absent, if I can say that. I’m thinking of Emily Dickinson who, though in many ways rooted in 19th century New England Protestant culture, was obviously keeping company with angels a la Blake and Dante. She was communing quite explicitly with the divine, and seemed as a result to infer a general human condition. Or Ghandi. Or Jesus or Buddha. Are these individuals exceptions or do they suggest that there is some higher/whatever realm of human experience?

    When Zen Buddhists ask, What was your face before your parents were born, can’t we argue that social identity theory or herd mentality is just another mask?

  • Marya February 24, 2010, 7:14 am

    Sean, what interesting and thought-provoking questions, thank you!

    As an epidemiologist I fall into the trap of Gaussian thinking: everything is a distribution, mostly a bell curve. The Western scientific method allows only for measuring the central tendencies with any degree of certainty. The margins (and sometimes these are chunky) get left out.

    I too think about people who do not seem to follow this blueprint, just the ones you have mentioned, and even some individuals I have had the privilege of knowing personally. But what is the rule and what the exception? And do we even need to make up rules, or is this just our busy mind trying to fill itself with something to replace the nothingness?

    But then I think of Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, and how banal and routine she does paint one’s slide into evil, and the social identity theory bubbles to the surface.

    Ultimately, we crave stories to understand who we are, why we are here and how we relate to that which is “not I”. Simplistically, the less there is internally, the more the external, the story, has to backfill the void.

    In addition to your individual examples, I also wonder if the time we live in changes the risk of herd behavior.

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