The Star Thrower by Loren Eiseley
A Study Guide
A note: Loren Eiseley was writing before we had developed a consciousness about sexist language. I think had he been writing after that change in our culture, given his appreciation of evolution, he would have used non-sexist language, but no attempt in this study guide has been made to re-write his work.
Perhaps a clue to the importance of this book is that both the Editor’s Preface and the Introduction by W.H. Auden both merit a close reading. In the Editor’s Preface Kenneth Heuer notes that one of Eiesley’s fans was Ray Bradbury the science fiction writer whose work has survived his death and has been enlarged upon by others. We might note here that Ray Bradbury was a member of the United Church of Christ whose work is certainly a testimony to the God Is Still Speaking Initiative in our denomination. The Spirit of Loren Eiseley is in tune with the vision of Ray Bradbury and the United Church of Christ.
Page 20: W. H. Auden provides us with an important insight into the character of Loren Eiseley and his unique spirituality:
. . . More importantly, he reveals himself as a man well trained in the habit of prayer, by which I mean the habit of listening. The petitionary aspect of prayer is its most trivial because it is involuntary. We cannot help asking that our wishes may be granted, though all to many of them are like wishing that two and two may make five, and cannot and should not be granted. But the serious part of prayer begins when we have got our begging over with and listen for the Voice of what I would call the Holy Spirit, though if others prefer to say the Voice of Oz or the Dreamer or Conscience, I shan’t quarrel, so long as they don’t call it the Voice of the Super-Ego, that that “entity” can only tell us what we know already, whereas the Voice I am talking about always says something new and unpredictable – an unexpected demand, obedience to which involves a change of self, however painful.
Auden points in the direction of a spirituality without religion. Are you comfortable with a non-religious spirituality? How would you describe your own spirituality? Can you discern any spiritual disciplines that might help you become a better listener?
The Judgment of the Birds
Page 21: It is a commonplace of all religious thought, even the most primitive, that the man seeking visions and insight must go apart from his fellows and live for a time in the wilderness. If he is of the proper sort, he will return with a message. It may not be a message from the god he set out to seek, but even if he has failed in that particular, he will have had a vision or seen a marvel, and these are always worth listening to and thinking about. . . .
. . . One must seek, then, what only the solitary approach can give – a natural revelation.
Let it be understood that I am not the sort of man to whom is entrusted direct knowledge of great events or prophecies. A naturalist, however, spends much of his life alone, and my life is no exception. . .
Have you ever taken time to retreat into nature to observe and listen? Have you found any wisdom or revelations in nature? Eiseley seems to have been something of an introvert. Do you think introverts have any spiritual advantages? What are the biggest disadvantages of introversion? Do you think there are natural revelations? Have you experienced one?
Page 33 – 34: I have said that I saw a judgment upon life, and that it was not passed by men. . . I shall never see an episode like it again if I live to be a hundred, nor do I think that one man in a million has ever seen it, because man is an intruder into such silences. The light must be right, and the observer must remain unseen. No man sets up such an experiment. What he sees, he sees by chance.
You may put it that I had come over s mountain, that I had slogged through fern and pine needles for half a long day, and that on the edge of a little glade with on long, crooked branch extending across it, I had sat down to rest with my back against a stump. Through accident I was concealed from the glade, although I could see into it perfectly.
The sun was warm there, and the murmurs of forest life blurred softly away into my sleep. When I awoke, dimly aware of some commotion and outcry in the clearing, the light was slanting down through the pines in such a way that the glade was lit like some vast cathedral. I could see the dust motes of wood pollen in the long shaft of light, and there on the extended branch sat an enormous raven with a red and squirming nestling in his beak.
The sound that awoke me was the outraged cries of the nestling’s parents, who flew helplessly in circles about the clearing. The sleek black monster was indifferent to them. He gulped, whetted his beak on the dead branch a moment, and sat still. Up to that point the little tragedy had followed the usual pattern. But suddenly, out of all that area of woodland, a soft sound of complaint began to rise. Into the glade fluttered small birds of half a dozen varieties drawn by the anguished outcries of the tiny parents.
No one dared to attack the raven. But they cried there in some instinctive common misery, the bereaved and the un-bereaved. The glade filled with their soft rustling and their cries. They fluttered as though to point their wings at the murderer. There was a dim intangible ethic he had violated, that they knew. He was a bird of death.
The sighing died. It was then I saw the judgment. It was the judgment of life against death. I will never see it again so forcefully presented. I will never dear it again in notes so tragically prolonged. For in the midst of protest, they forgot the violence. There, in that clearing the crystal note of a song sparrow lifted hesitantly in the hush. And finally, after painful fluttering, another took the song, and then another, the song passing from one bird to another, doubtfully at first, as though some evil thing were being slowly forgotten. Till suddenly they took heart and sang from many throats joyously together as birds are known to sing. They sang because life is sweet and sunlight beautiful. They sang under the brooding shadow of the raven. In simple truth they had forgotten the raven, for they were the singers of life, and not death.
Did the raven do anything wrong? Have you ever encountered a bird of death, or any other animal representing death? Can we observe animals mourning? What would it mean to be a singer of life?
Page 34 – 36: . . . on the top of a step ladder, I made one more observation upon life. It was cold that autumn evening, and standing under a suburban street light in a spate of leaves and beginning snow, I was suddenly conscious of some huge and hairy shadows dancing over the pavement. . . I was standing under the shadow of an orb-weaving spider. Gigantically projected against the street, she was about her spinning when everything else was going underground. . .
I procured a ladder from my yard and climbed up to inspect the situation. . .
I stood over her a moment longer, comprehending somewhat reluctantly that her adventure against the great blind forces of winter, her seizure of this warming globe of light, would come to nothing and was hopeless. Nevertheless it brought the birds back into my mind, and that faraway song which had traveled with growing strength around a forest clearing years ago – a kind of heroism, a world where even a spider refuses to lie down and die if rope can still be spun on to s star. Maybe man himself will fight like this in the end, I thought, slowly realizing that the web and its threatening yellow occupant had been added to some luminous store of experience, shining for a moment in the fogbound reaches of my brain.
The mind, it came to me as I slowly descended the ladder, is a very remarkable thing; it has gotten itself a kind of courage by looking at a spider in a street lamp. Here was something that ought to be passed on to those who will fight our final freezing battle with the void. I thought of setting it down carefully as a message to the future: In the days of the frost seek a minor sun.
But as I hesitated, it became plain that something was wrong. The marvel was escaping – a sense of bigness beyond man’s power to grasp, the essence of life in its great dealings with the universe. It was better, I decided, for the emissaries returning from the wilderness, even it they were merely descending from a stepladder, to record their marvel, not to define its meaning. In that way it would go echoing on through the minds of men, each grasping at that beyond out of which the miracles emerge, and which, once defined, ceases to satisfy the human need for symbols.
Do you sense futility or heroism in fighting battles that are hopeless? Do you think it is important for people to refuse to lie down and die? (Rage, rage against the dying of the light?) Or is there a wisdom in knowing the times and the seasons, and knowing when to let go? Do you have any stories you need to pass on without defining their meaning for those to whom you are telling them? What do you think it is about humans that we are so attracted to symbols?
The Long Loneliness
Page 37: There is nothing more alone in the universe than man. He is alone because hoe has the intellectual capacity to know that he is separated by a vast gulf of social memory and experiment from the lives of his animal associates. . . .
Man, by contrast, is alone with the knowledge of his history until the day of his death. When we were children we wanted to talk to animals and struggled to understand why this was impossible. Slowly we gave up the attempt as we grew into the solitary world of human adulthood. . .
Do you try to talk to animals? Do you ever experience your pets responding to you? Do you think we are as alone as Eiseley seems to portray us? Why do you think so many people keep pets?
Page 39 – 42: We are forced to ask ourselves whether native intelligence in another form than man’s might be as high as or even higher than his own, yet be marked by no such material monuments as man has placed upon the earth. At first glance we are alien to this idea, because man is particularly a creature who has turned the tables on his environment so that he is now engrossed in shaping it, rather than being shaped by it. Man expressed himself upon his environment through the use of tools. We therefore tend to equate the use of tools in a one to one relationship with intelligence.
The question we must now ask ourselves, however, is whether this involves an unconsciously man-centered way of looking at intelligence. Let us try for a moment to enter the dolphin’s kingdom and the dolphin’s body, retaining, at the same time, our human intelligence. In this imaginative act, it may be possible to divest ourselves of certain human preconceptions about our kind of intelligence and at the same time to see more clearly why mind, even advanced mind, may have manifestations other than the tools and railroad tracks and laboratories that we regard as evidence of intellect. . .
The result is immediately evident and quite clear: No matter how well we communicate with our fellows through the water medium we will never build drowned empires in the coral; we will never inscribe on palace walls the boasts of porpoise kings. . .
Over all that region of wondrous beauty we will exercise no more control than the simplest mollusk. Even the octopus with flexible arms will build little shelters that we cannot imitate. Without hands we will have only the freedom to follow the untrammeled sea winds across the planet. . .
Man without writing cannot long retain his history in his head. His intelligence permits him to grasp some kind of succession of generations, but without writing, the tale of the past rapidly degenerates into fumbling myth and fable. Man’s greatest epic, his four long battles with the advancing ice of the great continental glaciers, has vanished from human memory without a trace. Our illiterate fathers disappeared and with them, in a few scant generations, died on of the great stories of all time. This episode has nothing to do with the biological quality of the brain as between then and now. It has to do instead with a device, an invention made possible by the hand. That invention came too late in time to record eyewitness accounts of the years of the Giant Frost. . .
Writing, and later printing, is the product of our adaptable many-purposed hands. It is thus, through writing, with no increase in genetic, inborn capacity since the last ice advance, that modern man carries in his mind the intellectual triumphs of all his predecessors who were able to inscribe their thoughts for posterity.
How important are our hands to the development of human intelligence? How has writing changed human intelligence? Is our intelligence also dependent upon the transmission of culture? Are we in an age when cultural evolution may have become as important, or more important than biological evolution?
Page 42-44: . . . . One of the surprising things about the porpoise is that his superior brain is unaccompanied by any type of manipulative organ. He has, however, a remarkable range-finding ability involving some sort of echo-sounding. Perhaps this acute sense — for more accurate than any man has been able to devise artificially – brings him greater knowledge of his watery surroundings than might at first seem possible. Human beings think of intelligence as geared to things. The hand and the tool are to us the unconscious symbols of our intellectual achievement. It is difficult for us to visualize another kind of lonely, almost disembodied intelligence floating in the wavering green fairyland of the sea – an intelligence possibly near or comparable to our own but without hands to build, to transmit knowledge by writing, or to alter by one hairsbreadth the planet’s surface. Yet at the same time there are indications that this is a warm, friendly and eager intelligence quite capable of coming to the assistance of injured companions and striving to rescue them from drowning. . .
Perhaps man has something to learn after all from fellow creatures without the ability to drive harpoons through living flesh, or poison with strontium the planetary winds. . . “Genius in the porpoise? Has the porpoise ever written a book, spoken a speech? No, his great genius is declared in his doing nothing particular to prove it. It is declared in his pyramidical silence.” If man had sacrificed his hands for flukes, the moral might run, he would still be a philosopher, but there would have been taken from him the devastating power to wreak his thought upon the body of the world. . . This role would now be a deserved penitence for man. Perhaps such a transformation would bring him once more into the mood of childhood innocence in which he talked successfully to all things living but had no power and not urge to harm. It is worth at least a wistful thought that someday the porpoise may talk to us and we to him. It would break, perhaps, the long loneliness that has made man a frequent terror and abomination even to himself.
Our human ability to destroy as well as create may be a clue to the myths about original sin. What do you think? What would we have to sacrifice in order to embrace the “mood of childhood innocence.” Do you think any of our animal research will offer us clues to non-human intelligence? How is intelligence related to “consciousness?” Is there a difference between “consciousness” and “moral consciousness?” Do you think our intelligence can save us from poisoning the planetary winds with strontium?
Man the Firemaker
Page 45 – 48 Man, it is well to remember, is the discoverer but not the inventor of fire. Long before this meddling little Prometheus took to experimenting with flints, then matches, and finally (we hope not too finally) hydrogen bombs, fires had burned on this planet. . .
Man did not invent fire but he did make it one of the giant powers on earth. . . . Man’s long adventure with knowledge has, to a very marked degree, be a climb up the heat ladder, for heat alone enables man to mold metals and glassware, to create his great chemical industries, to drive his swift machines. . . . AS we follow man on this journey, we shall learn another aspect of his nature: that he is himself a consuming fire. . .
The second stage in human history is represented by the first true humans. Paleoanthropic man is clearly a tool user, a worker in stone and bone, but there is still something of the isolated tinkerer and fumbler about him. . . It is quite clear that some of these men knew the use of fire, but many may not have.
The third act begins some 15,000 or 20,000 years ago. The last great ice sheet still lies across northern Europe and North America. . . . Suddenly, into this late paradise of game, there erupts our own species of man – Homo Sapiens. Just where he came from we do not know. Tall lithe, long-limbed, he is destined to overrun the continents in the blink of a geological eye. He has an excellent projectile weapon. . . His flint work is meticulous and sharp. And the most aggressive carnivore the world has ever seen comes at a time made for his success: the grasslands are alive with seemingly inexhaustible herds of game.
Yet fire as much as flesh was the magic that opened the way for the supremacy of Homo sapiens. . . .
Fire shortens the digestive process. It breaks down the tough masses of flesh into food that the human stomach can easily assimilate. Fire made the difference that enabled man to expand his numbers rapidly and to press on from hunting to more advanced cultures. . .
With fire primitive man did more than cook his meat. He extended the pasture for grazing herds. . . . fire was a major factor along with soil, moisture, temperature, wind, animals and so forth in determining the types of plants occurring in any region. . . the vegetation of the Great Plains was a fire vegetation. . . Here, as in many other regions, man’s fire altered the ecology of the earth.
Today we are very concerned about human activity altering the environment. Have you ever considered how far back in history human activity has been altering the earth’s environment? Has the impact of human activity changed over time? How is fire still at the heart of human impact on our environment?
Page 49 – 52: Man, as I have said, is himself a flame. He has burned through the animal world and appropriated its vast stores of protein for his own. When the great herds failed over many areas, he had to devise new ways to feed his increase or drop back himself into a precarious balance with nature. . . Their economy permits no bursts of energy beyond what is necessary for the simple age old struggle with nature. . .
Nevertheless there is no road back, the primitive way, is no longer our way. We are the inheritors of an aggressive culture which, when the great herds disappeared turned to agriculture. Here again the magic of fire fed the great human wave and built up man’s numbers and civilization.
. . . In the process of adopting the agricultural way of life he made his second chemical experiment with heat: baking pottery. Ceramics may have sprung in part for the need for storage vessels. . .
After man had learned to change the chemical nature of clay, he began to use fire to transform other raw materials. . .
How far will he go? Three hundred years of the scientific method have built the great sky-touching buildings and nourished the incalculable fertility of the human species. But man is also Homo duplex, as they knew in the darker ages. He partakes of evil and of good, of god and of man. Both struggle in him perpetually. And he is himself a flame — a great roaring, wasteful furnace devouring irreplaceable substances of the earth. Before this century is out, either Homo duplex must learn that knowledge without greatness of spirit is not enough for man, or there will remain only his calcined cities and the little charcoal of his bones.
Humans are a flame who have burned through the world appropriately vast stores of energy and material for their own, a wasteful furnace. But there is no road back from the aggressive culture. Or is there? If we are going to survive on the planet, do we need to find a less aggressive and more cooperative way of being? Eiseley seems to be concerned about nuclear destruction “calcined cities and the little charcoal of his bones.” Do you think this is still a concern given deteriorating relations between the U.S. the E.U. and Russia? Or do you think there are greater threats to the future of our species? To what extent do you see the problem of our human aggressive culture as a spiritual problem?
The Innocent Fox
Page 53 – 54: Since man first saw an impossible visage staring upward from a still pool, he has been haunted by meanings . . . .
. . . . We have come from the dark wood of the past, and our bodies carry the scars and unhealed wounds of that transition. Our minds are haunted by night terrors that arise from the subterranean domain of racial and private memories.
Lastly, we inhabit a spiritual twilight on this planet. It is perhaps the most poignant of all the deprivations to which man has be exposed by nature. I have said deprivation, but perhaps I should rather maintain that this feeling of loss is an unrealized anticipation. We imagine we are day creatures, but we grope in a lawless and smoky realm toward an exit that eludes us. We appear to know instinctively that such an exit exists.
I am not the first man to have lost his way only to find, if not a gate a mysterious hole in a hedge that a child would know at once led to some other dimension at the world’s end. Such passageways exist, or man would not be here. Not for nothing did Santayana once contend that life is a movement from the forgotten to the unexpected.
As adults, we are preoccupied with living. As a consequence, we see little. At the approach of age some men look about them at last and discover a hole in the ledge leading to the unforeseen. By then, there is frequently no child companion to lead them safely through. After one of two experiences of getting impaled on thorns, the most persistent individual is apt to withdraw and to assert angrily that no such opening exists.
My experience has been quite the opposite, but I have been fortunate. After several unsuccessful but tantalizing trials, which I intend to disclose, I had the help, not of a child, but of a creature – a creature who, appropriately came out of a quite unremarkable and prosaic den. There was nothing, in retrospect, at all mysterious or unreal about him. Nevertheless, the creature was baffling, just as, I suppose, to animals, man himself is baffling.
What do you think Eiseley is trying to get at, when he talks about the hole in the hedge? Do you think that humans as a whole are haunted by meaning? “As adults, we are preoccupied with living. As a consequence, we see little. At the approach of age some men look about them at last and discover a hole in the hedge. . . “ Have you reached an age, where you begin to be able to see meaning beyond the everyday? What experiences have offered you the most sense of meaning? Do you think it is possible to manage your way through the hole in the hedge without encountering thorns?
Page 57 – 62: . . .After all, there was nothing to explain my disappointment. I had not known for what I was searching.
Or perhaps I did know, secretly, and would not admit it to myself: I wanted a miracle. Miracles by definition, are without continuity, and perhaps my rooftop scientist had nudged me in that direction by the uncertainty of this departure. The only thing that characterizes a miracle, to my mind, is its sudden appearance and disappearance within the natural order, although, strangely, this loose definition would include each individual person. Miracles, in fact, momentarily dissolve the natural order or place themselves in opposition to it. . . There was magic, but is was an autumnal, sad magic. I had a growing feeling that miracles were particularly concerned with life, with the animal aspect of things. . . .
. . . That was how the true miracle, my own miracle, came to me in its own time and fashion. . .
The episode occurred upon an unengaging and unfrequented shore. It began in the late afternoon of a day devoted at the start to ordinary scientific purposes. There was the broken prow of a beached boat subsiding in heavy sand, left by the whim of ancient currents a long way distant from the shifting coast. . .
I sat down and rested with my back against the overturned boat. All around me the stillness intensified and the wandering tendrils of fog continued their search. . .
The man lay back among the pillows, wracked, yellow, and cadaverous. Though I was his son he know me only as one lamp is briefly lit from another in the windy night. He was beyond speech, but a question was there, occupying the dying mind, excluding the living, something before which all remaining thought had to be mustered. At the time I was too young to understand. Only now could the hurrying shadow drawn from the wrecked boat interpret and relive the question. The starving figure on the bed as held back from death only be the magnificent heart that would not die.
I, the insubstantial substance of memory, the dispersed droplets of the ranging fog, saw the man lift his hands for the last time. Strangely, in all that ravished body, they alone had remained unchanged. They were strong hands of a craftsman who had played my roles in his life: actor, laborer, professional runner. . . Now in the last lucid moment, he had lifted them up and, curiously, as though they belonged to another being, he had turned and flexed them, gazed upon them unbelievingly, and dropped them once more.
Have you ever wished for a miracle? Have you ever experienced an occurrence that in retrospect you would say was miraculous? How do you think the author’s desire for a miracle was related to his vision of his father’s death?
Page 62 – 64: Suddenly I was back under the overhang of the foundered boat. . . .
I was a biologist, but I chose not to examine my hands. . . Finally the dawn began to touch the sea, and then the worn timbers of the hulk beside which I sheltered reddened just a little. It was then I began to glimpse the world from a different perspective. . .
. . . It was then I saw the miracle. I saw it because I was hunched at ground level smelling rank of fox, and no longer gazing with upright human arrogance upon the things of this world.
I did not realize what it was that I looked upon. As my wandering attention centered, I saw nothing but two small projecting ears lit by the morning sun. Beneath them, a small neat face looked shyly up at me. The ears moved at every sound, drank in a gull’s cry and the far horn of a ship. They crinkled, I began to realize only with curiosity; they had not learned to fear. The creature was very young. He was alone in a dread universe. I crept on my knees around the prow and crouched beside him. It was a small fox pup from a den under the timbers who looked up at me. God knows what had become of his brothers and sisters. His parent must not have been home from hunting.
He innocently selected what I think was a chicken bone from an untidy pile of splintered rubbish and shook it at me invitingly. There was a vast and playful humor in his face. . . . It has been said repeatedly that one can never, try as he will, get around to the front of the universe. Man is destined to see only its far side, to realize nature only in retreat.
Yet here was the think in the midst of the bones, the wide-eyed, innocent fox inviting me to play, with the innate courtesy of its two forepaws placed appealingly together, along with a mock shake of the head. The universe was swinging in some fantastic fashion around to present its face, and the face was so small that the universe itself was laughing.
Can you see a parallel between Eiseley’s “getting around in front of the universe,” and Moses’ desire to see God face to face? God only allows Moses a glimpse of his back. Do you think the author has indeed seen the universe (God) in the little fox pup? How important is the fox pup’s offer to play to the author’s sense of miracle and divine?
Pages 64 – 65: It was not a time for human dignity. It was a time only for the careful observance of amenities written behind the stars. Gravely I arranged my forepaws while the puppy whimpered with ill-concealed excitement. I drew the breath of a fox’s den into my nostrils. On impulse I picked up clumsily a whiter bone and shook it in teeth that had not entirely forgotten their original purpose. Round and round we tumbled for one ecstatic moment.
But I had seen my miracle. I had seen the universe as it begins for all things. It was, in reality, a child’s universe, a tiny and laughing universe. I rolled the pup on his back and ran, literally ran for the nearest ridge. The sun was half out of the sea, and the world was swinging back to normal. The adult foxes would be already trotting home.
A little further on, I passed one on a ridge who knew well I had no gun, for it sung by quite close, stepping delicately with brush and head held high. Its face was watchful but averted. It did not matter. It was what I had experienced in adulthood. We passed carefully on our separate ways into the morning, eyes not meeting.
But to me the mist had come, and the mere chance of two lifted sunlit ears at morning. I knew at last why the man on the bed had smiled finally before he dropped his hands. He too, had worked around to the front of things in his death agony. The hands were playthings and had to be cast aside at last like a cherished toy. There was a meaning and there was not a meaning, and therein lay the agony.
The meaning was all in the beginning, as though time was awry. It was a little beautiful meaning that did not stay, and the sixty-year-old man on the hospital bed had traveled briefly toward it through the dark at the end of the universe. There was something in the desperate nature of the world that had to be revered, but he had been too weak to tell me, and the hands had dropped helplessly away.
After forty years I had been just his own age when the fog had come groping for my face. I think I can safely put it own that I had been allowed my miracle. It was very small, as is the way of great things. I had been permitted to correct time’s arrow for a space of perhaps five minutes – and that is a boon not granted to all men. If I were to render a report upon this episode, I would say that men must find a way to run the arrow backward. Doubtless it is impossible in the physical world, but in the memory and the will man might achieve the deed if he would try.
For just a moment I had held the universe at bay by the simple expedient of sitting on my haunches before a fox den and tumbling about with a chicken bone. It is the gravest, most meaningful act I shall ever accomplish, but, as Thoreau once remarked on some peculiar errand of his own, there is no use reporting it to the Royal Society.
Do you think the author experienced a miracle? Do you think the experience of ecstasy is inherently spiritual? Do you see the relationship between the experience of the fox pup and the author’s memory of his father’s death? Have you ever found yourself reversing the arrow of time? How important is memory in the life of the spirit? Have you ever experienced God in nature?
How Flowers Changed the World
Page 66 – 67: In those first ages plants clung of necessity to swamps and watercourses. Their reproductive processes demanded direct access to water. Beyond the primitive ferns and mosses that enclosed the borders of swamps and streams the rocks still lay vast and bare, the winds still swirled the dust of a naked planet. The grass cover that holds our world secure in place was still millions of years in the future. The green marchers had gained a soggy foothold upon the land, but that was all. They did not reproduce by seeds but by microscopic swimming sperm that had to wriggle their way through water to fertilize the female cell. . . The truth is, however, that there is nothing very “normal” about nature. Once upon a time there were no flowers at all. . . .
Somewhere, just a short time before the close of the Age of Reptiles, there occurred a soundless, violent explosion. It lasted millions of years, but it was an explosion, nevertheless. It marked the emergence of angiosperms – the flowering plants. Even the great evolutionist Charles Darwin called them “an abominable mystery,” because they appeared so suddenly and spread so fast.
Flowers changed the face of the planet. Without them, the world we know — even man himself – would never have existed. . . .
Have you ever given any consideration to the relationship between ourselves and the flowers? Can you imagine a world without flowers or grass? How different would our planet be? Does the story of the emergence of flowers give you any better appreciation of the wonder of evolution?
Page 68 – 70: The agile brain of the warm-blooded birds and mammals demands a high oxygen consumption and food in concentrated forms, or the creatures cannot long sustain themselves. It was the rise of the flowering plants that provided that energy and changed the nature of the living world. Their appearance parallels in a quite surprising manner the rise of the birds and mammals.
The event occurred in Cretaceous times in the close of the age of Reptiles. Before the coming of the flowering plants our own ancestral stock, the warm-blooded mammals, consisted of a few mousy little creatures hidden in trees and underbrush. A few lizard-like birds with carnivorous teeth flapped awkwardly on ill-aimed flights among archaic shrubbery. None of these insignificant creatures gave evidence of any remarkable talents. The mammals in particular had been around for some millions of years but had remained well lost in the shadow of the mighty reptiles. Truth to tell, man was still, like the genie in the bottle, encased in the body of a creature about the size of a rat. . .
Neither the birds nor the mammals, however, were quite what they seemed. They were waiting for the Age of Flowers. They were waiting for what flowers, and with the true encased seed, would bring. Fish-easting, gigantic, leather-winged reptiles twenty-eight feet from wing tip to wing tip, hovered over the coasts that one day would be swarming with gulls.
Stop and reflect on how mammals and the precursors of birds had been around for millions of years, awaiting a change in the environment in order to come into their own. Was it chance or design? Is there anything ever inevitable about evolution? If small but important developments have changed the face of the earth in the past, can you imagine how the earth might be changing now under our noses that might produce a completely different environment?
Page 71 – 72: . . . Nevertheless, the true flower – and the seed that it produced — was a profound innovation in the world of life.
In a way this even parallels, in the plant world, what happened among animals. Consider the relative chance for survival of the exteriorly deposited egg of a fish in contrast with the fertilized egg of a mammal, carefully retained for months in the mother’s body until the young animal (or human being) is developed to a point where it may survive. The biological wastage is less – and so it is with the flowering plants. The primitive spore, a single cell fertilized in the beginning by a swimming sperm, did not promote rapid distribution, and the young plant, moreover, had to struggle up from nothing. No one had left it any food except what it could get by its own unaided efforts.
By contrast, the true flowering plants (angiosperm itself means “encased seed”) grew a seed in the heart of a flower, a seed whose development was initiated by a fertilizing pollen grain independent of outside moisture. But the seed, unlike the developing spore, is already a fully equipped embryonic plant packed in a little enclosed box stuffed full of nutritious food. Moreover, by featherdown attachments, as in dandelion or milkweed seed, it can be wafted upward on gusts and ride the wind for miles, or with hooks it can cling to a bear’s or a rabbit’s hide; or like some of the berries, it can be covered with a juicy, attractive fruit to lure birds, pass undigested through their intestinal tracts, and be voided miles away.
The ramifications of this biological invention were endless. Plants traveled as they had never traveled before. . . Many of the older plants with more primitive reproductive mechanisms began to fade away under this unequal contest. They contracted their range into secluded environments. Some, liked the giant redwoods, lingered on as relics; many vanished entirely.
Competition seems to be one of the principal themes of evolution not only in the animal world, but also in the plant world. How did seeds impart a competitive advantage to the plants that produced them? How did seeds give a competitive advantage to warm blooded animals? Is competition still a theme in the enfolding of evolution?
Page 73 – 74: The explosion was having its effect on animal life also. Specialized groups of insects were arising to feed on the new sources of food and, incidentally and unknowingly, to pollinate the plant. The flowers bloomed and bloomed in ever larger and more spectacular varieties. . . .Intricate mechanisms splashed pollen on the breasts of hummingbirds or stamped it on the bellies of black, grumbling bees droning assiduously from blossom to blossom. Honey ran, insects multiplied, and even the descendants of that toothed and ancient lizard-bird had become strangely altered. Equipped with prodding beaks instead of biting teeth they pecked the seeds and gobbled the insects that were really converted nectar.
Across the planet grasslands were now spreading. A slow continental up-thrust which had been a part of the early Age of Flowers had cooled the world’s climates. . .
The mammals too, survived and were venturing into new domains, staring about perhaps a bit bewildered at their sudden eminence ow that the thunder lizards were gone. . .
On the edge of the forest, a strange, old-fashioned animal still hesitated. His body was the body of a tree dweller, and though tough and knotty by human standards, he was, in terms of that world into which he gazed a weakling. His teeth, though strong for chewing on the tough fruits of the forest, or for crunching an occasional unwary bird caught with his prehensile hands, were not the tearing sabers of the great cats. He had a passion for lifting himself up to see about, in his restless, roving curiosity. He would run, a little stiffly and uncertainly perhaps, on his hind legs, but only in those rare moments when he ventured out upon the ground. All this was the legacy of his climbing days; he had a hand with flexible fingers and no fine specialized hoofs upon which to gallop like the wind.
If he had any idea of competing in that new world, he had better forget it; teeth or hooves, he was much too late for either. He was a ne’er-do-well, and in-betweener. Nature had not done well by him. It was as if she hesitated and never quite made up her mind. Perhaps as a consequence he had a malicious gleam in his eye, the gleam of an outcast who has been left nothing and knows he is going to have to take what he gets. One day a little band of these odd apes – for apes they were – shambled out upon the grass, the human story had begun.
Eiseley suggests that the process of evolution was complimentary. New insets developed to accommodate the needs of the flowers, and birds evolved to take advantage of new food sources. Can you see how all things have been evolving together? Does the story as Eiseley narrates it suggest a direction in the evolutionary process? While other animals became more specialized in response to the flowers, what happened to the precursors of human beings? Do you think it was actually an advantage to remain an “in-betweener?” How do you feel about Eiseley’s statement: “Perhaps as a consequence he had a malicious gleam in his eye, the gleam of an outcast who has been left nothing and knows he is going to have to take what he gets?”
The Ghostly Guardian
Page 81 – 82: Darwin always troubled by such problems, used to speak of the mysterious and unknown laws governing these matters. Unlike many of this followers he had no illusions that he had solved all the mysteries of life and evolution. Reading this works one is often made aware of how that great mind hesitated painfully over much that his followers take for granted.
Once he expressed himself to the effect that the independent duplication of a single animal form, if proven for two separate areas of the world, might force him to entertain the possibility of some other explanation for evolution than that offered by chance mutations acted upon by natural selection. Strangely enough, these monkeys of South America offer an evolutionary problem very close to, though admittedly not identical with, the hypothetical case proposed by Darwin. These monkeys, while not totally identical anatomically with those of the Old World, are remarkably similar to them. In fact, only the sophisticated observer can recognize the difference. Yet the separation of these two monkey groups from each other is ancient, and no ancestral monkey remains connecting the Old World with the New are known by fossil hunters.
Instead, it is believed by many authorities that the New World and Old World monkeys have arisen as parallel developments from older pre-monkey forms, the lemurs, which were once spread over the whole region of Asia to South America. In this case, creatures of very similar brain, face, habits, and general appearance would have come into being in separate parts of the world from ancestors far below the monkey level. Such a development might suggest latent evolutionary powers not entirely the simple product of what we, in our ignorance of a better word, call chance. We are not in a position yet to verify absolutely this interpretation of the separate origins of Old and New World monkey, but it is the most reasonable theory that we possess.
And here is the latest theory about Old and New World Monkeys from Wikipedia: New World monkeys are the five families of primates that are found in Central and South America and portions of Mexico: Callitrichidae, Cebidae, Aotidae, Pitheciidae, and Atelidae. The five families are ranked together as the Platyrrhini parvorder and the Ceboidea superfamily, which are essentially synonymous since Ceboidea is the only living platyrrhine superfamily. Platyrhini means flat-nosed, and their noses are flatter than those of other simians, with sideways-facing nostrils. Monkeys in the family Atelidae, such as the spider monkey, are the only primates to have prehensile tails. New World monkeys’ closest relatives are the other simians, the Catarrhini (“down-nosed,” comprising Old World monkeys and apes). New World monkeys descend from African simians that colonized South America, a line that split off about 40 million years ago.
About 40 million years ago, the Simiiformes infraorder split into the parvorders Platyrrhini (New World monkeys—in South America) and Catarrhini (apes and Old World monkeys—in Africa). The individuals whose descendents would become Platyrrhini are currently conjectured to have migrated to South America either on a raft of vegetation or via a land bridge. There are two possible rafting routes, either across the Atlantic Ocean from Africa or across the Caribbean from North America. However, there is no fossil record to support the hypothesis of a migration from North America. The land bridge hypothesis relies on the existence of Atlantic Ocean ridges and a fall in the sea level in the Oligocene. This would have either produced a single land bridge or a series of mid-Atlantic islands to act as stepping stones for the migration. The latter is now the favorite choice.
At the time the new world monkeys split off, the Isthmus of Panama had not yet formed, ocean currents and climate were quite different, and the Atlantic Ocean was less than the present 2,800 km (1,700 mi) width by about a third; possibly 1,000 km less, based on the current estimate of the Atlantic mid-ocean ridge formation processes spreading rate of 25 mm/year.
So, do you think evolution is based only on chance, or is there another word Eiseley seems to be reaching for? What is we applied the world “synchronicity” to the processes of evolution? Do you think mere chance explains the tremendous growth in the brain of “modern” humans in a relatively short period of time? From page 5 in the study guide: Writing, and later printing, is the product of our adaptable many-purposed hands. It is thus, through writing, with no increase in genetic, inborn capacity since the last ice advance, that modern man carries in his mind the intellectual triumphs of all his predecessors who were able to inscribe their thoughts for posterity. Have we entered a new phase of evolution no longer dependent on biological principles?
The Bird and the Machine
Page 84 – 91: This is the great age, make no mistake about it; the robot has been born somewhat appropriately along with the atom bomb, and the brain they say now is just another type of more complicated feedback system. The engineers have its basic principles worked out, it’s mechanical you know; nothing to get superstitious about, and man can always improve on nature once he gets the idea. Well, he’s got it all right and that’s why, I guess, guess I sit here in my chair, with the article crunched in my hand, remembering those two birds and that blue mountain sunlight. There is another magazine article on my desk that reads “Machines Are Getting Smarter Every Day.” I don’t deny it, but I’ll stick with the birds. It’s life I believe in, not machines. . . .
Everything worked perfectly except for one detail – I didn’t know what kind of birds were there. . . . He had my hand, that is, and for a small hawk not much bigger than my fist he was doing all right. I heard him give one short metallic cry when the light went on and my had descended on the bird beside him; after that he was busy with his claws and his beak was sunk in my thumb. In the struggle I knocked the lamp over on the shelf, and his mate got her sight back and whisked neatly through the hole in the roof and off among the stars outside. . . .
He was a young sparrow hawk and a fine young male in the prime of life. I was sorry not to catch the pair of them. . . I had to admit the two of them might have been more than I could have handled under the circumstances. . .
In the morning, with the change that comes on suddenly in that high country. . . I was up early and brought the box in which the little hawk was imprisoned out onto the grass where I was building a cage. A wind as cool as a mountain spring ran over the grass and stirred my hair. I was a fine day to be alive. I looked up and all around and at the hole in the cabin roof out of which the other little hawk had fled. There was no sign of her anywhere. . .
. . . I suppose I must have had an idea then of what I was going to do, but I never let it come up into consciousness. I just reached over and laid the hawk on the grass.
He lay there a long minute without hope, unmoving, his eyes still fixed on that blue vault above him. It must have been that he was already so far away in heart that he never felt the release from my hand. He never even stood. He just lay with his breast against the grass.
In the next second after that long minute he was gone. Like a flicker of light, he had vanished with my eyes full on him but without actually seeing a premonitory wing beat. He was gone straight into that towering emptiness of light and crystal that my eyes could scarcely bear to penetrate. For another long moment there was silence. I could not see him. The light was too intense. Then from far up somewhere a cry came ringing down.
I was young then and had seen little of the world, but when I heard that cry my heart turned over. It was not the cry of the hawk I had captured; . . . Straight out of the Sun’s eye, where she must have been soaring relentlessly above us for untold hours, hurtled his mate. And from far up, ringing from peak to peak of the summits over us, came a cry of such unutterable and ecstatic joy that it sounds down across the years and tingles among the cups on my quiet breakfast table.
I saw them both now. He was rising fast to meet her. They me in a great soaring gyre that turned into a whirling circle and a dance of wings. Once more, just once, their two voices, joined in a harsh wild medley of question and response, struck and echoed against the pinnacles of the valley. Then they were gone forever somewhere into those upper regions beyond the eyes of men.
Why do you think the author let the sparrow hawk go free? How do you explain the mate’s vigil for her mate? Do you think birds and other animals experience love, caring, loyalty, joy? Do you think if animals can experience such “feelings” they are exhibiting a form of “consciousness?”
Page 94: I lay my paper down and across my mind a phrase floats insinuatingly: “It does not seem that there is anything in the construction, constituents, or behavior of a human being which it is essentially impossible for science to duplicate and synthesize. On the other hand. . . ”
“On the other hand. . . ” Ah my mind takes up, on the other hand the machine does not bleed, ache, hang for hours in the empty sky in a torment of hope to learn the fate of another machine, nor does it cry out with joy nor dance in the air with the fierce passion of a bird. Far off , over a distance greater than space, that remote cry from the heart of heaven makes a faint buzzing among my breakfast dishes and passes on and away.
On the other hand . . . what do you think? Is there some spirit beyond science? To what extent do you feel part of that spirit? Do you think our human attraction to religion and spiritual practices is in any way related to that spirit?
The Dance of the Frogs.
Page 106 – 109: He was a member of the explorers club and he had never been outside of the State of Pennsylvania. Some of us who were world travelers used to smile a little about that, even though we knew his scientific reputation had been, at one time, great. . . . but the time came when I realized that old Albert Dreyer. . . had journeyed farther into the Country of Terror than any of us would ever go, God willing, and emerge alive.
The reason I came to hear of his story was an odd one. I had been North that year, and the club had asked me to give a little talk on the religious beliefs of the Indians of the northern forest . . .
“. . . . What is different are the voices projected. Here they are the cries of animals the voices of the swamp and the mountains — the solitary elementals before whom the primitive man stands in awe, and from whom he begs sustenance. Here the game lords reign supreme; man himself is voiceless.”
A low, halting query reached me from the back of the room. I was startled even in the midst of my discussion, to note that it was Dreyer.
“And the game lords, what are they?”
“Each species of animal is supposed to have gigantic leaders of more than normal size,” I explained. “These beings are the immaterial controllers of that particular type of animal. Legend about them is confused. Sometimes they partake of human qualities, will and intelligence, but they are of animal shape. They control the movements of game, and thus their favor may mean life or death for man.”
“Are they visible?” Again Dreyer’s low, troubled voice came from the back of the room.
“Native belief has it that they can be seen on rare occasions,” I answered. “In a sense they remind one of the concept of the archetypes, the originals behind the petty show of or small, transitory existence. They are the immortal renewers of substance — the force behind and above animate nature.”
“Do they dance?” persisted Dreyer.
. . . “I cannot answer that question,” I said acidly. “My informants failed to elaborate upon it. But they believe implicitly in these monstrous beings, talk to and propitiate them. It is their voices that emerge from the shaking tent.”
“The Indians believe it,” pursued old Dreyer relentlessly, “but do you believe it?” . . .
“. . . I ruffled your feelings earlier in the evening. You must forgive me. You touched on an interest of mine. . . .
“You had better know,” said Dreyer severely, “if you’re planning to become an investigator of primitive religions. . . .”
Can primitive religions teach us something about spirituality? Do the things that humans have believed in the past matter at all to us? Do you believe in spiritual presences? How might that inform your inquiries into spirituality or not?
Page 110 – 114: “It could happen to anyone,” said Albert Dreyer, “and especially in the spring. Remember that. And all I did was to skip. Just a few feet, mark you, but I skipped. Remember that too.
“It was a road that came out finally in a marsh along the Schuykill River. Probably all industrial now. But I had a little house out there with a laboratory thrown in. I was convenient to the marsh, and that helped me with my studies of amphibia. Moreover it was a wild , lonely road, and I wanted solitude. It is always the demand of the naturalist. . . .
“. . .My best work was done there.” He held up his black gloved hand and glanced a it meditatively. . . There were times when I worked all night. Or diverted myself, while waiting the result of an experiment, by midnight walks. It was a strange road. Wild alright, but paved and close enough to the city that there were occasional street lamps. . . Then suddenly you were in the marsh, and the road ended at an old, unused wharf. . .
“. . . . Spring. Frog time. The first warmth, and the leaves coming. A little fog in the hollows. The way they like it then in the wet leaves and bogs. . . .
“It was late Spring,” he said. “Fog and mist in those hollows in a way I had never seen before. And frogs, of course. Thousands of them, and twenty species, trilling, gurgling and grunting in as many keys. . .
“Well, it was unusual, put it that way, as an understatement. It was late and the creatures seemed to know it. You could feel the forces of mighty and archaic life welling up from the very ground. The water was pulling them — not water as we know it, but the mother, the ancient life force, the thing that made us in the days of creation, and that lurks around us still, unnoticed in our sterile cities.
“I was no different from any other young fool coming home a spring night, except as a student of life, and of amphibia, in particular, I was, shall we say, more aware of the creatures. I had performed experiments” — the back glove gestured before my eyes. “I was as it proved susceptible.
“It began on that lost stretch of roadway leading to the river, and it began simply enough. All around, under the street lamps, I saw little frogs and big frogs hopping steadily toward the river. They were going in my direction.
“At this time I had my whimsies, and I was spry enough to feel the tug of that great movement. I joined them. There was no mystery about it. I simply began to skip, to skip gaily, and enjoy the great bobbing shadow I created as I passed onward with that leaping host all headed toward the river.. . .
“It was only midway in my flight that I began to grow conscious that I was not alone. . .
“It was only as we passed under a street lamp that I noticed, beside my own bobbing shadow, another great leaping, grotesquerie that had an uncanny suggestion of the frog world about it. The shocking aspect of the thing lay in its size, and the fact that judging from the shadow, it was soaring higher and more gaily than myself. . . .
“No, you do not pause. You look neither to the left or the right, for fear of what you might see there. Instead, you dance on madly, hopelessly. Plunging higher and higher in the hope the shadows will be left behind, or prove to be only leaves dancing, when you reach the next street light. Or that whatever had joined you in the midnight bacchanal will take some other pathway and depart. . .
“I was part of it, part of some mad dance of the elementals behind the show of things. Perhaps in that night of archaic and elemental passion. . . my careless hoping passage under the street lights had called them . . . brought them leaping down some fourth dimensional road way into the world of time.
“Even as I leaped I was changing. It was this, I think, that stirred the last remnants of human fear and human caution that I still possessed. . . Furthermore, certain sensations, hypnotic or otherwise, suggested to me that my own physical shape was modifying. . .
“It was then that the wharf lights began to show. We were approaching the end of the road. . . .It was this that startled me back into some semblance of human terror. . . .
“Nevertheless, their power held me. We pounded madly toward the wharf, and under the light that hung above it, and the beam that made a cross. . . But in that final frenzy of terror before the water below engulfed me, I shrieked, ‘Help! In the name of God, help me! In the name of Jesus stop!'” . . .
“I was not I suppose a particularly religious man, and the cries merely revealed the extremity of my terror. Nevertheless this is a strange thing, and whether it involves the cross beam or the appeal to a Christian deity, I will not attempt to answer.
“In one electric instant, however, I was free. It was like the release from demonic possession. One moment I was leaping in an inhuman company of elder things, and the next moment I was a badly shaken human being on a wharf. . .”
What do you think Old Dreyer experienced on that night of the frogs? Have you ever felt yourself part of something larger than yourself? Do you think there are elemental forces of nature that are like disembodied spirits? Or are the elemental forces of nature part of our collective unconscious? For you are spiritual presences real? How do you explain Dreyer’s cry for help? Have you ever found yourself crying for help?
This chapter of the Dance of the Frogs reminds me of a book by Robert L. Moore entitled Facing the Dragon, that Rabbi Ballon and I both enjoyed so much we arranged to meet with Dr. Moore in Chicago. Here are a couple of Excerpts:
Page 64: Mircea Eliade made a major contribution to understanding these issues. Most people have overlooked his more important point – that space and time are heterogeneous for homo religious, that is for pre-modern human beings. There is not just one kind of space and time, not just one world, but two worlds, two kinds of space and time: (a) the world of the profane and (b) the world of the sacred, the world of myth.
This world of homo religious was not just Christian, however, but existed for eons prior to modernity, including most of human history. In fact, this radical distinction between ordinary space and time and sacred space and time prevailed throughout human history prior to modernization. Pre-modern people regularly felt the need to make contact with the divine realm. The liturgical year is a vestige of insights from that time. The Mass also served as a refuge from the ordinary world in which it was important to return often to the sacred center, the axis mundi. This world down here is imperfect and human, but the other world is full of numinosity and sacredness and power and grace.
In my view, our survival requires that we get back to the axis mundi, the center of the world. We must do this differently, of course, from how pre-modern people did it, but we must get back to the center in order to survive.
Page 95: That is where the issue of spirituality comes in. A lot of people think prayer is something only spiritual athletes do, as if prayer were the esoteric fifteenth initiation, but if you really understand it, prayer is a survival technique. If you are in one of these helping professions where you get a lot of archetypal transferences, you do not pray because it is pious or sweet or nice or the fifteenth initiation. You pray to stay alive, to get help in dealing with your grandiosity.
If you cannot pray, if you do not pray a lot and you do not have a sense of how to pass on the numinous energy to a mythic vessel, you need to learn how. You can take that energy that is coming toward you and, through your prayer pass it on. “Here,” you say, “this is really yours Lord. Take it. It belongs to you.” If you keep it within yourself, you will soon be drunk with archetypal energies. Prayer is a process of passing on the numinous magical god-energy.
Page 186: Another way to create a personal ritual to contain and channel grandiose energies is a regular exercise program three to five times a week. It is amazing how much craziness in a human personality can be controlled by the ritual of an exercise program.
Think of regular exercise as part of your ritual practice, a conscious ritualization in your ongoing spiritual discipline. It is striking how easy it is to tell if you missed part of your healing ritualization, because your grandiosity will kick up on you. When you miss your exercise program, you become more compulsive in other ways. This is a rule you can follow. Take it to the bank. You will act out more destructively to the extent that you do not tend to your physical discipline.
Page 189 – 192: Another resource for regulating grandiose energies is a regular participation in communal worship and liturgy. If we bracket the religious tribalism issue for a moment and focus on the individual’s regulatory needs, then liturgy does offer a partial containment and regulation. Remember we are talking about marking time. It helps if you have a liturgical year to follow. Christians are not the only ones who have done that. Most people in the world before the modern era used sacred calendars to mark time and help them feel oriented in relation to a true center. They used this means to contain themselves and help themselves stay sane, to provide something predictable, a dependable structure for living. . . .
This recommendation of prayer is perhaps my most radical. . . .
People who have a regular prayer life ritual handle their compulsions and impulsivity better than those who do not. They are less fragmented than those who do not pray regularly. . .
Prayer is any spiritual discipline that enables you to be connected with the basic energies of life and keeps you from an unconscious fantasy that you yourself are God or the God king or queen. . .
Do you begin to see the relationship between the world of the sacred and the profane in the talk that Eiseley gave at the Explorer’s Club? Can you see how “skipping with the frogs” connected Old Dreyer with a spiritual power he didn’t really know how to handle? What spiritual ritual pulled Dreyer out of the spiritual power that might have taken him to his destruction? Can you begin to see the importance of having spiritual ritual in your own life? What do you think of the suggestion that a regular exercise program can be part of your spiritual discipline? Does Yoga or Tai Chi or any number of other contemplative movement exercises fill this function?
The Hidden Teacher
Page 116: . . . . Over two thousand years ago, a man named Job, crouching in the Judean Desert, was moved to challenge what he felt to be the injustice of God. The voice in the whirlwind, in turn, volleyed pitiless questions upon the supplicant — questions that have, in truth, precisely the ring of modern science. For the Lord asked of Job by whose wisdom the hawk soars, and who had fathered the rain, or entered the storehouses of the snow.
. . . . In consequence of this remark perhaps it would be well, whatever our individual beliefs, to consider what may be called the hidden teacher, lest we become too much concerned with the formalities of only one aspect of the education by which we learn.
Have you ever considered that the voice from the whirlwind in Job was the voice of science? What hidden teachers have you encountered in your life? When have you been a teacher? What are the most important lessons you have learned, and how did you learn them?
Page 117 – 118: For example, I once received an unexpected lesson from a spider. . . .
Curious, I took a pencil from my pocket and touched a strand of the web. Immediately there was a response. . . . As the vibrations slowed, I could see the owner fingering her guidelines for signs of struggle. A pencil point was an intrusion into this universe for which no precedent existed. Spider was circumscribed by spider ideas; its universe was spider universe. . . As I proceeded on my way along the gully, like a vast impossible shadow, I realized that in the world of spider I did not exist.
Moreover, I considered, as I tramped along, that to the phagocytes, the white blood cells, clambering even now with some kind of elementary intelligence amid the thin pipes and tubing of my body – creatures without whose ministrations I could not exist – the conscious “I” of which I was aware had no significance to these amoeboid beings. I was, instead, a kind of chemical web that brought meaningful messages to them, a natural environment seemingly immortal if they could have thought about it, since generations of them had lived and perished, and would continue to so live and die, in that odd fabric which contained my intelligence – a misty light that was beginning to seem floating and tenuous even to me.
Have you ever thought of the cells of your body possessing an intelligence or a consciousness of their own? The bacteria that inhabit our guts are independent in that they can survive outside our bodies, but we are dependent upon them for our digestion. Are those bacteria aware of being part of our bodies? Do we need to become more aware of our interdependence with other life around us?
Page 118 – 119: . . . the long war of life against its inhospitable environment, a war that has lasted for perhaps three billion years. It began with strange chemicals seething under a sky lacking in oxygen; it was waged through long ages until the first green plants learned to harness the light of the nearest star, our sun. The human brain, so frail, so perishable, so full of inexhaustible dreams and hungers, burns by the power of the leaf.
The hurrying blood cells charge with oxygen carry more of that element to the human brain than to any other part of the body. . . . The human body is a magical vessel, but its life is linked with an element it cannot produce. Only the green plant knows the secret of transforming the light that comes to us across the far reaches of space. There is no better illustration of the intricacy of man’s relationship with other living things. . .
. . . In three billion years of slow change and groping effort only one living creature has succeeded in escaping the trap of specialization. . . It is man, but the word should be uttered softly, for his story is not yet done.
With the rise of the human brain, with the appearance of a creature whose upright body enabled two limbs to be freed for the exploration and manipulation of his environment, there had at last emerged a creature with a specialization – the brain – that, paradoxically, offered escape from specialization. Many animals driven into the nooks and crannies of nature have achieved momentary survival only at the cost of extinction.
Was it this that trouble me and brought my mind back to a tiny universe among the grass blades, a spider’s universe concerned with spider thought?
If the brain is our human specialization, what kind of dead ends might our brains lead us to? Do you think humanity can avoid extinction? What do you think are the most likely causes of human extinction in the future? If we are intricately linked to other life forms, what responsibilities do we have for stewarding our environment?
Page 120 – 121: We are too content with our sensory extensions. . . It is no longer enough to see as a man sees – even to the ends of the universe. It is not enough to hold nuclear energy in one’s hand like a spear, as a man would hold it. . . If we continue to do this the great brain – the human brain – will be only a new version of the old trap, and nature is full of traps for the beast than cannot learn. . .
. . . But beyond lies the great darkness of the ultimate Dreamer, who dreamed the light and the galaxies. Before act was, or substance existed, imagination grew in the dark. Man partakes of that ultimate wonder and creativeness. As we turn from the galaxies to the swarming cells of our own being, which toil for something, some entity beyond their grasp, let us remember man, the self-fabricator who came across an ice age to look into the mirrors and magic of science. Surely he did not come to see himself or his wild visage only. He came because he is a heart a listener and a searcher for some transcendent realm beyond himself. This he had worshiped by many names, even in the dismal caves of his beginning. Man the self-fabricator, is so by reason of gifts he had no part in devising – and so he searches as the single living cell in the beginning must have sought the ghostly creature it was to serve.
What do you think Eiseley means by the great darkness and the ultimate Dreamer? What do you think is the transcendent realm beyond ourselves? What gifts have we brought with us along the evolutionary path? How are we related to the single celled life forms that first inhabited our planet?
Page 121 – 128: The young man Elihu, Job’s counselor and critic, spoke simply of the “Teacher,” and it is of this teacher I speak when I refer to gifts man had no part in devising. Perhaps – though it is purely a matter of emotional reaction to words – it is easier for us today to speak of this teacher as “nature,” that omnipresent all which contained both the spider and my invisible intrusion into her carefully planned universe. But nature does not simply represent reality. In the shapes of life, it prepares the future; it offers alternatives. Nature teaches, though what it teaches is often hidden and obscure, just as the voice from the spinning dust cloud belittled Job’s thought but gave back no answers to its own formidable interrogation. . .
. . . Man, I concluded, may have come to the end of that wild being who had mastered the fire and the lightning. He can create the web but not hold it together, not save himself except by transcending his own image. For at last, before the ultimate mystery, it is himself he shapes. Perhaps it is for this that the listening web lies open: that by knowledge we may grow beyond our past, our follies, and ever close to what the Dreamer in the dark intended before the dust arose and walked. In the pages of an old book it has been written that we are the hands of a Teacher, nor does it yet appear what man shall be.
Do you think nature and God are one and the same? For you what is the teacher? For you what is the Dreamer in the dark? If humans can create the web in which they live, what more do we need to hold it together?
The Star Thrower
Page 169 – 173: If there is any meaning to this book (the Unexpected Universe), it began on the beaches of Costabel with just such a leap across an unknown abyss. It began, if I may borrow the expression from a Buddhist sage, with the skull and the eye. . . Upon that shore meaning had ceased. There were only the dead skull and the revolving eye. With such an eye, some have said, science looks upon the world. I do not know. I know only that I was the skull of emptiness and the endlessly revolving light without pity,
. . . It did not make sense, but nothing in Costabel made sense. Perhaps that was why I had finally found myself in Costabel. Perhaps all men are destined at some time to arrive there as I did. . . .
The beaches of Costabel are littered with the debris of life. Shells are cast up in windrows. . .
In the end the sea rejects its offspring. They cannot fight their way home through the surf which casts them repeatedly back upon the shore. The tiny breathing pores of starfish are stuffed with sand. The rising sun shrivels the mucilaginous bodies of the unprotected. The seabeach and its endless war are soundless. Nothing screams but the gulls.
In the night, particularly in the tourist season, or during great storms, one can observe another vulturine activity. One can see, in the hour before dawn on the ebb tide, electric torches bobbing like fireflies along the beach. This is the sign of the professional shellers seeking to outrun and anticipate their less aggressive neighbors. A kind of greedy madness sweeps over the competing collectors. After a storm one can see them hurrying along with bundles of gathered starfish, or, toppling and overburdened, clutching bags of living shells whose hidden occupants will be slowly cooked and dissolved in the outdoor kettles provided by the resort hotels for the cleaning of specimens. Following one such episode I met the star thrower.
. . . I was away from the shellers now and strode more rapidly over the wet sand that effaced my footprints. . . Ahead of me, over the projecting point, a gigantic rainbow of incredible perfection had sprung shimmering into existence. Somewhere toward its foot I discerned a human figure standing, as it seems to me, within the rainbow, though unconscious of his position. He was gazing fixedly at something in the sand.
Eventually he stooped and flung the object beyond the breaking surf. I labored toward him over a half-mile of uncertain footing. By the time I reached him the rainbow had receded ahead of us, but something of its color still ran hastily in many changing lights across his features. He was starting to kneel again.
In a pool of sand and silt a starfish had thrust its arms up stiffly and was holding its body away from the stifling mud.
“It’s still alive,” I ventured.
“Yes,” he said, and with a quick yet gentle movement he picked up the star and spun it over my head for out into the sea. It sank in a burst of spume, and the waters roared once more.
“It may live,” he said, “if the offshore pull is strong enough.” He spoke gently, and across his bronzed worn face the light still came and went in subtly altering colors.
“There are not many come this far,” I said, groping in a sudden embarrassment for words. “Do you collect?”
“Only like this,” he said softly, gesturing amidst the wreckage of the shore. “And only for the living.” He stooped again, oblivious of my curiosity, and skipped another star neatly across the water.
“The stars,” he said, “throw well. One can help them.”
He looked full at me with a faint question kindling in his eyes, which seemed to take on the far depths of the sea.
“I do not collect,” I said uncomfortably, the wind beating at my garments. “Neither the living nor the dead. I gave it up a long time ago. Death is the only successful collector.” I could feel the full night blackness in my skull and the terrible eye resuming its indifferent journey. I nodded and walked away, leaving him there upon the dune with that great rainbow ranging up the sky behind him.
I turned as I neared a bend in the coast and saw him toss another star, skimming it skillfully far out over the ravening and tumultuous water. For a moment, in the changing light, the sower appeared magnified, as though casting larger stars upon some great sea. He had, at any rate the posture of a god.
But again the eye, the cold world-shriveling eye, began its inevitable circling in my skull. He is a man, I considered sharply, bringing my thought to rest. The star thrower is a man, and death is running more fleet than he along every seabeach in the world.
Eiseley seems in this story to be both cynical and depressed. Have you ever found yourself wondering if life has any meaning? How can the path of science be especially troubling to the human spirit? After reading some of Eiseley’s other stories was he a collector in his past? From where do you think his mental struggle came?
Page 181 – 182: Dyersville, the thought flashed through my mind, making the connection now for the first time: the dire place. I recognized at once the two sisters at the edge of the photograph, the younger clinging reluctantly to the older. Six years old, I thought, turning momentarily away from the younger child’s face. Here it began, her pain and mine. The eyes in the photograph were already remote and shadowed by some inner turmoil. The poise of the body was already that of one miserably departing the peripheries of the human estate. The gaze was mutely clairvoyant and lonely. It was the gaze of a child who knew unbearable difference and impending isolation.
I dropped the notes and pictures once more into the bag. The last message had come from Dyersville: “my son.” The child in the photograph had survived to be an ill-taught prairie artist. She had been deaf. All her life she had walked a precipice of mental breakdown. Here on this faded porch it had begun – the long crucifixion of life. I slipped downstairs and out of the house. I walked for miles through the streets.
Now at Costabel I put on the sunglasses once more, but the face from the torn photograph persisted behind them. It was as though I, as a man, was being asked to confront, in all its overbearing weight, the universe itself. “Love not the world,” the Biblical injunction runs, “neither the things that are in the world.” The revolving beam in my mind had stopped, and the insect whisperings of the intellect. There was, at last, an utter stillness, a waiting as though for a cosmic judgment. The eye, the torn eye, considered me.
“But I do love the world,” I whispered to a waiting presence in the empty room. “I love the small ones, the things beaten in the strangling surf, the bird singing, which flies and falls and is not seen again.” I choked and said, with the torn eye still upon me, “I love the lost ones, the failures of the world.” It was like the renunciation of my scientific heritage. The torn eye surveyed me sadly and was gone. I had come full upon one of the great rifts in nature, and the merciless beam no longer was in travers around my skull.
In this small memory Eiseley confronts the pain of his mother’s mental illness, and probably recognizes that his own melancholic nature may have been inherited form his parents. Do you have any history of depression or mental illness in your family? As you grow older and think about death do you ever find depressive thoughts? For you what is the spiritual key for facing death? Does that key lead you at all in the direction of compassion for other living things?
Page 182 – 185: Out of the depths of a seemingly empty universe had grown an eye, like the eye in my room, but an eye on a vastly larger scale. It looked out upon what I can only call itself. . . The nothing had miraculously gazed upon the nothing and was not content. It was an intrusion into, or a projection out of, nature for which no precedent existed. The act was, in short, an assertion of value arisen from the domain of absolute zero. A little whirlwind of commingling molecules had succeeded in confronting its own universe. . . .
. . . For a creature. . . had stretched out its hand in pity. . .
I had been unbelieving. I had walked away from the star thrower in the hardened indifference of maturity. . . Belatedly, I arose with a solitary mission. I set forth to find the star thrower.
Man is himself, like the universe he inhabits. . . He walks in his mind from birth to death the long resounding shores of endless disillusionment. Finally, the commitment to life departs or turns to bitterness. But out of such desolation emerges the awesome freedom to choose – to choose beyond the narrowly circumscribed circle that delimits the animal being. In that widening ring of human choice, chaos and order renew their symbolic struggle in the role of titans. They contend for the destiny of the world.
Somewhere far up the coast wandered the star thrower beneath his rainbow . . . The star thrower was mad, and his particular acts were a folly with which I had not chosen to associate myself. I was an observer and a scientist. Nevertheless, I had seen the rainbow attempting to attach itself to earth.
On a point of land . . . I found the star thrower. In the sweet rain-swept morning, that great many hued rainbow still lurked and wavered tentatively beyond him. Silently I sought and picked up a still-living star, spinning it far out into the waves. I spoke once briefly. “I understand,” I said. “Call me another thrower.” Only then I allowed myself to think. He is not alone any longer. After us there will be others. . .
I picked and flung another star. Perhaps far outward on the rim of space a genuine star was similarly flung. . . . I looked back across my shoulder. Small and dark against the receding rainbow, the star thrower stooped and flung once more. I never looked again. The task we had assumed was too immense for gazing. I flung and flung again while all about us roared the insatiable waters of death.
But we, pale and alone and small in that immensity, hurled back the living stars. . . . It was unsought, the destiny of my kind since the rituals of the Ice Age hunters, when life in the Northern Hemisphere had come close to vanishing. We had lost our way, I thought, but we had kept, some of us, the memory of the perfect circle of compassion from life to death and back again to life – the completion of the rainbow of existence. . .
I picked up a star whose tubed feet ventured timidly among my fingers while, like a true star, it cried soundlessly for life. I saw it with an unaccustomed clarity and cast far out. With it I flung myself as forfeit, for the first time, into some unknown dimension of existence. From Darwin’s tangled back of unceasing struggle, selfishness, and death, had arisen incomprehensibly, the thrower who loved not man, but life. . . Somewhere, my thought persisted, there is a hurler of stars, and he walks, because he chooses, always in desolation, but not in defeat.
. . . . Tomorrow I would walk in the storm. I would walk against the shell collectors and the flames. I would walk remember Bacon’s forgotten words “for the uses of life.” I would walk with the knowledge of the discontinuities of the unexpected universe. I would walk with the knowing of the rift revealed by the thrower, a hint that there looms inexplicably, in nature something about the role men give her. I knew it from the man at the foot of the rainbow, the starfish thrower on the beaches of Costabel.
Eiseley writes, “I had been unbelieving . . .” What do you think he came to believe? What is our freedom to choose? What do you think it meant for Eiseley, when he thought: “He is not alone any longer. After us there will be others?” What do you think is the “perfect circle of compassion?” What do you think it means to choose, “always in desolation, but not in defeat?” Do you think it is possible for humans to rise above Darwin’s “unceasing struggle, selfishness and death?”
Science and the Sense of the Holy
Page 190: In the end science as we know it has two basic types of practitioners. One is the educated man who still has a controlled sense of wonder before the universal mystery. . . The second kind of observer is the extreme reductionist who is so busy stripping things apart that the tremendous mystery has been reduced to a trifle. . .
. . . Blaise Pascal, as far back as the seventeenth century, foresaw our two opposed methods. Of them he said: “There are two equally dangerous extremes, to shut reason out, and to let nothing else in.” It is the reductionist who, too frequently, would claim that the end justifies the means, who would assert reason as his defense and let that mysterium which guards man’s moral nature fall away in indifference, a phantom without reality.
Do you think humans have a moral nature? What do you think happens, when science is practiced without some moral or spiritual safeguards or limits?
Page 193: The numinous then is touched with superstition, the reductionist would say, but all the rituals would suggest even toward hunted animals a respect and sympathy leading to a ceremonial treatment of hunted souls; whereas by contrast in the modern world the degradation of animals in vile experiments of little, or vile, meaning, were easily turned to the experimental human torture practiced at Dachau and Buchenwald by men dignified with medical degrees. So the extremes of temperament stand today: the man with reverence and compassion in his heart. . and the modern vandal totally lacking in empathy for life beyond his own, his sense of wonder reduced to a crushing series of gears and quantitative formula, the educated vandal without mercy or tolerance, the collecting man that I once tried to prevent from killing an endangered falcon, who raised his rifle, fired, and laughed as the bird tumbled at my feet. I suppose Freud might have argued that this was a man of normal ego, but I, extending my childlike mind into the composite life of the world, bled accordingly.
What does Eiseley think is the fate of the world, when it loses a sense of the numinous? Is having a sense of the numinous necessary to having some moral and compassionate limits? How do we develop compassion for life not our own? How do we nurture a sense of wonder?
Page 197 – 198: . . . . Yet still the question haunts us, the numinous, the holy in man’s mind. Early man laid gifts beside the dead, but then the modern unbelieving world. . . Freud says, “As for me I have never had such feelings.” They are a part of childhood Freud argues, though there are some who counter that in childhood. . . the man is made, the awe persists or is turned off by blows or the dullness of unthinking parents. One can only assert that in science, as in religion, when one has destroyed human wonder and compassion, one has killed man, even if the man in question continues to go about his laboratory tasks.
Is a sense of the holy a special gift that helps to make humans human? Can our educational system help children cultivate a sense of awe and wonder and thus keep alive some sense of the holy? Is there a role for religious institutions to remind us of the holy? What kinds of things remind you of the holy?
The Winter of Man
Page 204 – 205: Has the wintry bleakness in the troubled heart of humanity at least equally retreated? — that aspect of man referred to when the Eskimo, adorned with amulets to ward off evil reiterated, “Most of all we fear the secret misdoings of the heedless ones among ourselves.”
No, the social scientist would have to answer the winter of man has not departed. The Eskimo standing in the snow, when questioned about his beliefs said: “We do not believe. We only fear. We fear things which are about us and of which we have no sure knowledge. . . ”
But surely we can counter that this old man was an ignorant remnant of the Ice Age, fearful of nature he did not understand. Today we have science; we do not fear the Eskimo’s malevolent ghosts. We do not wear amulets to ward off evil spirits. We have pierced to the far rim of the universe. We roam mentally through light-years of time.
Yes, this could be admitted, be we also fear. We fear more deeply than the old man in the snow. It comes to us, if we are honest, that perhaps nothing has changed the grip of winter in our hearts, that winter before which we cringed amidst the ice long ages ago.
What do you think the Eskimo means, when he says, “Most of all we fear the secret misdoings of the heedless ones among ourselves?” What are some of the major sources of fear for us? How are our fears different from persons living in more primitive cultures? Has science alleviated our fears?
Page 205: For what is it that we do? We fear. We do not fear ghosts but we fear the ghosts of ourselves. We come now, in this time, to fear the water we drink,, the air we breathe, the insecticides that are dusted over our giant fruits . Because of the substances we have poured into our contaminated rivers, we fear the food that some to us from the sea. There are also those who tell us that by our own heedless acts the sea is dying.
Eiseley lists several impending environmental disasters. Have we done anything to head off any of those disasters? Have any new threats to our environment emerged since Eiseley’s death? To what extent does our pollution of the earth define our nature as the “heedless ones?”
Page 205 – 206: We fear the awesome powers we have lifted out of nature and cannot return to her. We fear the weapons we have made, the hatreds we have engendered. We fear the crush of fanatic people to whom we readily sell these weapons. We fear for the value of the money in our pockets that stands symbolically for food and shelter. We fear the growing power of the state to take these things from us. We fear to walk our streets at evening. We have come to fear even our scientists and their gifts.
We fear in short, as that self-sufficient Eskimo of the long night had never feared. Our minds, if not our clothes, are hung with invisible amulets: nostrums changed each year for our bodies whether it be chlorophyll toothpaste, the signs of astrology, or cold cures that do not cure: witchcraft nostrums for our society as it factures into contending multitudes all crying for liberation without responsibility.
We fear, and never in this century will we cease to fear. We fear the end of man as that old shaman in the snow had never had cause to fear it. There is a winter still about us — the winter of man that has followed him relentlessly from the caverns and the ice. The old Eskimo spoke well, It is the winter of the heedless ones. We are in the winter. We have never left its breath.
Eiseley lifts up our fears of nuclear weapons and their proliferation. Do you think we are any safer from nuclear destruction today than in 1970? “Our minds if not our clothes, are hung with invisible amulet. . . ” what kinds of “protections” against threats do we moderns use? In our modern context what might Eiseley be referring to when he says: “. . . our society as it fractures into contending multitudes all crying for liberation without responsibility?” How do you think the old Eskimo would see our present problems?
Man Against the Universe
Page 207: Man against the universe. But who is man and how is the universe to be defined? Sigmund Freud, in the modern era, remarked that man’s mind has suffered from the impact of three significant events. The first took place when Nicolaus Copernicus, over four centuries ago, succeeded in demonstrating that the earth revolved around the sun, thus removing man from his privileged position at the center of the cosmos. The second blow which man’s religious sensitivity sustained might well be dated to Darwin’s demonstration in 1859 that man was only one part of nature’s living web and was akin to indeed descended from, the animal life of the past. Finally, Freud himself, the great conquistador of psychology, created the third trauma by revealing the subterranean irrational qualities of the human mind.
Which of those three great revelations do you think have proved most traumatic for human culture? How do you think it affects human thought to know we are not the center of the universe? What would happen, if we discovered evidence we are not the only “intelligent” life in our galaxy? What practical affect has the study of psychology had on human culture?
Page 210 -211: George Boas, one of the most eminent intellectual historians, remarked, some thirty years ago, that there are always at least two philosophies in a country: one based on the way people live, and the other upon the results of meditation upon the universe. In the end, one is apt to contend against the other. A perfect example of this may be observed in the rise of those doctrines labeled by critics as romanticism. They reached a peculiar intensity in the early nineteenth century, chiefly as a revolt against the formalism and social restraint of the eighteenth century.
One can venture that one of the first principles to emerge from the romantic revolt was the assertion of the self against the universe. . . . The experience of nature became tinged with a belief in a higher awareness, as though in the observation of nature itself one saw into the mind of the divinity. Something subjective, lingering behind one’s casual impressions, was thus sensed in nature. And intensified empathy, a willingness to transcend the ordinary modes of thinking, because a part of the suddenly emancipated and magnified self.
This feeling for nature as a thought to be encompassed, a human ego sustained by a creative power greater than itself yet capable of assimilation by the individual, crossed the Atlantic and took on a peculiarly American tinge among Emerson and his followers, who became known as transcendentalists. The mystical aspect of this experience is described by Emerson early in his career, “Standing on bare ground,” he says, “my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space, all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing, I see all, the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God.”
Can you identify with the spirituality represented by the transcendentalists? Just in the past two years there has been a real push for people to put down their phones, pads and devices and get out into nature. Do you think this is a healthy movement? When and in what places do you feel closest to nature? What are some ways to bring people closer to nature?
Page 214 – 216: As Darwin centered jupon the “fierce destruction” whose creative role he sought to unravel, he appealed less to the tame logicians of his era and more and more to “speculative men,” men with imagination, men who loved extremes of argument – in short, romantic men. In a burst of enthusiasm Darwin himself once cried. . . “I am but a gambler and love a wild experiment.” In those words Darwin had revealed the soul of a romantic, a man willing to follow a dancing boglight through the obscurity of forgotten ages.
Nevertheless, when he came to write the conclusion of the Origin of the Species, a certain orthodox benignity is allowed once more to conceal the ferocity of the world whose cruelty and waste he had once exclaimed over. “As natural selection works solely by and for the good of each being,” the author philosophizes, “all corporeal and mental endowments will tend to progress toward perfection.” “Thus,” concludes Darwin, “from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in his view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been and are being evolved.” Of this type of conclusion the mystical Emerson had remarked soberly on an earlier but similar occasion, “What is so ungodly as these polite bows to God in English books?”
The man whom reality eluded, or so it was said, produced in 1841 a statement that anticipates the full flowering of process philosophy in the twentieth century but would equally and more eloquently have graced Darwin’s final paragraphs in the Origin of the Species. “The method of nature,” Emerson muses, “who could ever analyze it? That rushing stream will not stop to be observed. We can never surprise nature in a corner, never find the end of a thread, never tell where to set the first stone. The bird hastens to lay her egg. The egg hastens to be a bird. (Nature’s) smoothness is the smoothness of the pitch of a cataract. Its permanence is a perpetual inchoation.”
Unlike Darwin’s somewhat sly intimations of perfection and progress it was the idealist, not the concealed materialist, who wrote: “That no single end may be selected and nature judged thereby, appears from this, that if man himself be considered as the end, and it be assumed that the final cause of the world is to make holy or wise or beautiful men, we see that it has not succeeded.”
As a result of his contemplations, even though he did not possess the Darwinian key of natural selection, Emerson is aware of nature’s infinite prodigality and wastefulness of suns and systems. He recognizes that nature can only be conceived as existing to a universal end, and not to a particular one, such as man. “To a universe of ends,” Emerson adds as an afterthought, “a work of ecstasy.” Nature, he maintained is unspecific. “(It) knows neither palm nor oak, but only vegetable life, which sprouts into forests and festoons the globe.” Nowhere is anything final. Nature has no private will; it will answer no private question. “The world,” Emerson meditates, looking on with that far-reaching sun-struck eyeball which earned him critical derision, “Leaves no track in space, and the greatest action of man no mark in the vast idea.”
What does it mean if human beings are not the “end” product of evolution? If human beings are not the pinnacle of creation, how do we locate ourselves in our environment? What should we infer about creation, that so many individuals and even whole species are sacrificed in the process of evolution? Should we adopt “survival of the fittest” as the ethic for dealing with problems socially? If we assume we should conform to the survival of the fittest, does that mean we should practice eugenics? What policy did the Third Reich adopt toward those whom it did not consider fittest?
Thoreau’s Vision of the Natural World
Page 232: Thoreau once said disconsolately that he awaited a Visitor who never came, one whom he referred to as the “Great Looker.” Some have thought that pique or disappointment shows in these words and affects his subsequent work. I do not whose to follow this line of reasoning, since, on another page of Walden, he actually recollects receiving his guest as the “old settler and original proprietor who is reported to have dug Walden pond. . . and fringed it with pine woods.” As a somewhat heretical priest once observed, “God asks nothing of the highest soul but attention.”
Have you ever tried to intentionally practice attention? Have you ever considered trying an experiment like Thoreau’s? “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary.” How long do you think you could live in nature?
Page 232: Supplementing that remark Thoreau had asserted, “There has been nothing but the sun and the eye since the beginning. . . . “ The Visitor had come in human guise and looked out upon the world a few brief summers. It is remembered that when at last an acquaintance came to ask of Thoreau on his deathbed if he had made his peace with God, the Visitor in him responded simply, “We have never quarreled.”
Who or what do you think is the “Visitor?” Is there are part of you that is the Visitor? Have you made your peace with God?
Page 233: In the very first volume of his journals Thoreau had written, “There is always the possibility, the possibility, I say of being all, or remaining a particle in the universe.” He had, in the end, learned that nature was not an enlarge version of the human ego, that it was not, to use Emerson’s phrase, “the immense shadow of man.” Toward the close of his life he had turned from literature to the growing, formidable world of the new science – the science that in the twentieth century was destined to reduce everything to infinitesimal particles and finally these to a universal vortex of wild energies.
But the eye persisted, the unexplainable eye that gave even Darwin a cold shudder. All it experienced were the secondary qualities, the illusions that Physics had rejected, but the eye remained, just as Thoreau had asserted – the sun and the eye from the beginning. Thoreau was gone, but the eye was multitudinous, ineradicable.
I advanced upon the fallen oak leaves. We were all the eye of the Visitor – the eye whose reason no physics could explain. Generation after generation the eye was among us. WE were particles but we were also the recording eye that say the sunlight – that which physics had reduced to cold waves in a cold void. Thoreau’s life had been dedicated to the unexplainable eye.
I had been trained since youth against the illusions, the deceptions of that eye, against sunset as reality, against my own features as anything but a momentary midge swarm of particles. Even this momentary phantasm I saw by the mind’s eye alone. I no longer resisted as I walked. I went slowly, making sure that the eye momentarily residing in me saw and recorded what was intended when Thoreau spoke of the quality of the eye as belonging more to God than man.
What do you think “the eye” represent for Thoreau and Eiseley? Is there more than one way of “seeing” in the world? Is there a difference between a scientific “seeing,” and a poetic “seeing?” What are the values of the different kinds of seeing? What do you think is the quality of the eye that belongs more to God than to man?
Page 233 – 234: But there was a message Thoreau intended to transmit. “I suspect,” he had informed his readers, “that if you should go to the end of the world, you would find somebody there going further. . . .”
. . . . Thoreau, as is evidence by his final journals, had labored to lay the foundations of a then unnamed science – ecology. In many ways he had outlived his century. He was always concerned with the actual, but it was the unrolling reality of the process philosopher, “the universe,” as he says, “that will not wait to be explained. . . .”
. . . . “One world at a time,” (Thoreau) he jokes playfully on his deathbed, but it is not, in actuality, the world that any of us know or could reasonably endure. It is simply Thoreau’s world, “a prairie for outlaws.” Each one of us much seek his own way there. This is his final message, for each man is forever the eye and the eye is the Visitor. Whatever remedy exists for life is never to be found at Walden. It exists, if at all, where the real Walden exists, somewhere in the incredible dimensions of the universal Eye.
Have you ever thought of Thoreau as a pioneering ecologist? Why do you think there is so much resistance to ecology in our culture? What do you think Thoreau meant, when he said on his deathbed, “One world at a time?” How do you understand the relationship between the eye and the Visitor and the universal Eye?
On page 181 of Rabbi Lawrence Kushner’s book Surely God Was in this Place and I, i Did not Know in a section entitled “The Eye of the Text:” It is not Jacob who says, “God was in this place and I, i did not know.” It is you who are reading these words. You are the sacred text itself. The holy text is not about you. You are not even “in” it. You are it.
Do you think the Eye of the Text is at all related to the relationship between the Visitor and the Universal Eye in Eiseley’s treatment of Thoreau?
The Lethal Factor
Page 251 – 252: Brooding upon the mysteries of time and change, a great and thoughtful scholar, Alfred North Whitehead, many years ago recorded his thoughts in a cryptic yet profound observation. He said, in brief, “We are. . . of infinite importance, because as we perish we are immortal.” Whitehead was not speaking in ordinary theological terms. He was not concerned in this passage with the survival of the human personality after death — at least as a religious conception. He was, instead, struggling with that difficult idea which he describes as the “prehension of the past,” the fact that the world we know, even as it perishes, remains an elusive, unfixed element in the oncoming future.
. . . The individual animal or plant in the course of its development moves always in relation to an unseen future toward which its forces are directed: the egg is broken and a snake writhes away into the grass; the acorn seedling, through many season, contorts itself slowly into a gnarled, gigantic oak. Similarly, life moves against the future in another, an evolutionary sense. The creature existing now – this serpent, this bird, this man – has only to leave progeny in order to stretch out a gray invisible hand into the evolutionary future, into the nonexistent.
With time, the bony fin is transformed into a paw, a round insectivore eye into the near-sighted gaze of a scholar. One insectivore fragment has taken to the air and becomes a vampire bat, while another fragment draws pictures in a cave and creates a new prehensile realm where the shadowy fingers of lost ideas reach forward into time to affect our world view and, with it, our future destinies and happiness.
Thus, since the dawn of life on the planet, the past has been figuratively fingering the present. There is in reality no clearly separable past and future either in the case of nerve and bone or within the less tangible but equally real world of history. Even the extinct dead have plucked the great web of life in such a manner that the future will vibrates to their presence. . .
Can you see how your life today is in a sense an extension of the lives of your ancestors? In what ways is your present self the product of your past selves? Do you ever get a glimpse of how your past or present selves may be reaching into the future?
Page 261: . . . All else vies way before the technician and the computer specialist running his estimates as to how many million deaths it takes, and in how many minutes, before the surviving fragment of a nation – if any – sues for peace. Nor, in the scores of books analyzing these facts, is it easy to find a word spared to indicate concern for the falling sparrow, the ruined forest, the contaminated spring – all, in short, that still spells to man a life in nature.
One of these technicians wrote in another connection involving the mere use of insecticides, which I here shorten and paraphrase: “Balance of nature? An outmoded biological concept. There is no room for sentiment in modern science. We shall learn to get along without birds if necessary. After all, the dinosaurs disappeared. Man merely makes the process go faster. Everything changes with time.” And so it does. But let us be as realistic as the gentleman would wish. It may be we who go. I am just primitive enough to hope that somehow, somewhere, a cardinal may still be whistling on a green bush when the last man goes blind before his man-made sun. It if should turn out that we have mishandled our own lives as several civilizations before us have done, it seems a pity that we should involve the violet and the tree frog in our departure.
Eiseley seems to point to nuclear weapons as the lethal factor? Can you imagine any other “lethal factors?” Do you believe we have to be concerned about the “balance of nature?” How do you explain political groups who deny a need for a care for the environment?
Page 262 – 263: If I were to attempt to spell out in a sentence the single lethal factor at the root of declining or lost civilizations up to the present, I could be forced to say adaptability. I would have to remark paradoxically, that the magnificent specialization of gray matter which has opened to us all the climates of the earth, which has given us music, surrounded us with luxury, entranced us with great poetry, has this one flaw: it is too adaptable. In breaking free from instinct and venturing naked into a universe which demands constant trial and experiment, a world whose possibilities were unexplored and are unlimited, man’s hunger for experience became unlimited also. He has the capacity to veer with every wind, or, stubbornly to insert himself into some fantastically elaborated and irrational social institution only to perish with it.
It may well be that some will not call this last piece of behavior adaptation. Yet it is to be noted that only extreme, unwise, adaptability would have allowed man to contrive and inhabit such strange structures. When men in the mass have once attached themselves to a cultural excrescence that grows until it threatens the life of the society, it is almost impossible to modify their behavior without violence. . .
Do you agree with Eiseley that “adaptability” is also part of the lethal human factor? What social movements do you see today that might be the most problematical in terms of the survival of our species? Can you see any viable alternatives to the system of nation states that presently dominate our global economic and political affairs?
The Illusion of the Two Cultures
Page 270 – 271: The mind which had shaped his artifact knew its precise purpose. I had found out by experimental observation that the stone was tougher, shaper, more enduring than the hand which wielded it. The creature’s mind had solved the question of the best form of the implement. . .
As I clasped and unclasped the stone, running my fingers down its edges, I began to perceive the ghostly emanations from a long vanished mind, the kind of mind which, once having shaped an object of any sort, leaves an individual trace behind it which speaks to others across the barriers of time and language. It was not the practical experimental aspect of this mind that startled me, but rather that the fellow had wasted time.
In an incalculably brutish and dangerous world he had both shaped an instrument of practical application and then, with a virtuoso’s elegance, proceeded to embellish his product. He had not been content to produce a plain, utilitarian implement. In some wistful, inarticulate way, in the grip of the dim aesthetic feelings which are one of the marks of man. . . this archaic creature had lingered over his handiwork.
. . . With skills lost to me, he had gone on flaking the implement with an eye to beauty until it had become a kind of rough jewel, equivalent in its day to the carved and gold-inlaid pommel of the iron dagger placed in Tutankhamen’s tomb.
The Pennsylvania Dutch who are practical if nothing else have a phrase, “just for pretty.” Where in the human spirit resides the desire for things that are beautiful for their own sake? Do you think our culture has become too utilitarian? Much more so than in the 50’s and 60’s we use imagination. Can you see any places in our world, where we need more imagination?
Page 273 – 274: Creation in science demands a high level of imaginative insight and intuitive perception. . . . The scientist’s achievement, however, is quantitatively transmissible. From a single point his discovery is verifiable by other men who may then, on the basis of corresponding data, accept the innovation and elaborate upon it in the cumulative fashion which is one of the great triumphs of science.
Artistic creation, on the other hand, is unique. It cannot be twice discovered as, say, natural selection was discovered. It may be imitated stylistically, in a genre, a school, but, save for a few items of technique is it not cumulative. A successful work of art may set up reverberations and is, in this, just as transmissible as science, but there is a qualitative character about it. . .
The symbols used by the great artist are a key releasing our humanity from the solitary tower of the self. “Man,” says Lewis Mumford, “is first and foremost the self-fabricating animal.” I shall merely add that the artist plays an enormous role in this act of self-creation. . . .
It is surely possible to observe that it is the successful analogy or symbol which frequently allows the scientist to leap from a generalization in one field of thought to a triumphant achievement in another. For example, Progressionism in a spiritual sense later became the model contributing to the discovery of organic evolution. Such analogies genuinely resemble the figures and enchantments of great literature, whose meanings similarly can never be totally grasped because of their endless power to ramify in the individual mind.
John Donne gave powerful expression to a feeling applicable as much to science as to literature when he said devoutly of certain Biblical passages: “The literal sense is always to be preserved; but the literal sense is not always to be discerned; for the literal sense is not always that which the very letter and grammar of the place presents” A figurative sense he argues cogently, can sometimes be the most “literal intention of the Holy Ghost.”
Creativity occur both in art and science. How do you think the two differ? How is the kind of science represented by Einstein different from the kind of science represented by most scientific applications in engineering? How are analogies important in spirituality? How are analogies used in art and science? What is the difference between a literal and a figurative reading of a biblical text?
Page 274 – 275: It is here that the scientist and artist sometimes meet in uneasy opposition, or at least along lines of tension. The scientist’s attitude is sometimes, I suspect, that embodied in Samuel Johnson’s remark that, wherever there is mystery, roguery is not far off.
Yet surely it was not roguery when Sir Charles Lyell glimpsed in a few fossil prints of raindrops the persistence of the world’s natural forces through the incredible, mysterious aeons of geological time. The fossils were a symbol of a vast hitherto un-glimpsed order. They are in Donne’s sense both literal and symbolic. As fossils they merely denote evidence of rain in a past era. Figuratively they are more. To the perceptive intelligence they afford the hint of lengthened natural order, just as the eyes of ancient trilobites tell us similarly of the unchanging laws of light. Equally, the educated mind may discern in a scratched pebble the retreating shadow of vast ages of ice and gloom. In Donne’s archaic phraseology these objects would bespeak the principal intention of the Divine Being — that is, of order beyond our power to grasp.
Is there room for mystery in life? What role does mystery play in spirituality? Is the attempt to find meaning in science essentially a spiritual quest? Do you think science ever points toward the intention of the Divine Being?
How Natural Is Natural?
Page 290 – 291: A century later Laplace had succeeded in dispensing with this last vestige of divine intervention. Hutton had similarly dealt with supernaturalism in earth-building, and Darwin, in the nineteenth century, had gone far toward producing a similar mechanistic explanation of life. The machine that began in the heavens and finally been installed in the human heart and brain. “We can make everything natural,” Pascal had truly said, and surely the more naive forms of worship of the unseen are vanishing.
Yet strangely, with the discovery of evolutionary, as opposed to purely durational, time, there emerges into this safe-and-sane mechanical universe something quite unanticipated by the eighteenth century rationalists — a kind of emergent, if not miraculous novelty.
I know that the word “miraculous” is regarded dubiously in scientific circles because of past quarrels with theologians. The word has been defined, however, as an event transcending the known laws of nature. Since, as we have seen, the laws of nature have a way of being altered from one generation of scientists to the next, a little taste for the miraculous in this broad sense will do us no harm. We forget that nature itself is one vast miracle transcending the reality of night and nothingness. We forget that each one of us in his personal life repeats that miracle. . .
Yet this is the same dust which, dead, quiescent and unmoving, when taken up in the process known as life, hears music and responds to it, weeps bitterly over tie and loss, or is oppressed by the looming future that is, on any materialist terms, the veriest shadow of nothing. How natural was man, we may ask, until he came? What forces dictated that a walking ape should watch the red shift of light beyond the island universes or listen by carefully devised antennae to the pulse of unseen stars? Who, whimsically, conceived that the plot of the world should begin in a mud puddle and end — where, and with whom? Men argue learnedly over whether life is chemical chance or anti-chance, but they seem to forget that the life in chemicals may be the greatest chance of all, the most mysterious and unexplainable property in matter.
Do you think life is mechanistic, or is there something in living things that transcend the chemicals? When one celled life first developed on earth over 3 billion years ago, was intelligent life inevitable? What is your definition of miraculous? According to your definition is life miraculous? What is natural?
The Inner Galaxy
Page 308 – 311: . . . I have walked much to the sea, not knowing what I seek. The west headland I visit is boiling, even on calm days. Spume leaps up from the sea caverns of buried reefs and the blue and purple of the turbulent waters are roiled and twisted with clashing and opposed currents. I go there frequently and sit for hours on an old whiskey crate half-buried in the sand.
Staring into those uncertain and treacherous waters with their unexpected and lifting apparitions is like looking into the future. You can see its forces constantly gathering, expending themselves, streaming away and streaming back, contorting or violently lifting into huge grotesque shapes. The meaning escapes me, but day after day the harpy gulls scream and mew over it and the crabs scuttle like spiders along its edge, waving pincers.
But I wander.
On one occasion, there was just this broken crate in the sand, myself, and the sea — and then this other. I only became aware of him after several days had passed. I first encountered him when I had ventured at low tide up to the verge of the reef beyond which burst that leaping, spouting thunder, which, in my isolated wanderings, I had come to conceive of as containing the future. As I reached the flat, slippery stones over which passed a constant surf, I saw a gray wing tilt upward and move a few feet farther on. It was a big gray-backed gull, who slid quietly down again amidst the encrusted sea growth. He moved just enough, out of old and wise judgment, to keep me at arm’s length, no more. He was no longer with his kind, hovering and mewing over the outer rock masses of a dubious future. He had a space of his own on the last edge of the present. He fed there upon such things as the sea brought. He was old and he rested, if one could be said to rest amidst such waters.
I disturbed him once by coming closer, where upon he rose and tilted slightly in the blast from the reef. If I did not move, neither did he. Since I am not one to go rushing over dangerous crevices, we achieved, after some days, a dignified relationship. We were both gray, and disinclined toward a future that had come to have little meaning to either of us. We stood or sat apart and ignored each other, being, after all, creatures diverse.
Every morning when I came he was there. He was growing thinner, but he still rose at my coming and hovered low upon his great seagoing wings. Then I would seek my box and he would swoop back to that little space that contained his last of life. I came to look for the bird as though we shared some sane, enormously simple secret amidst a little shingle of hard stones and broken beach.
After several days he was gone. A sector of my own life had been sheared away with his going. I shied a stone uncertainly toward the still-spouting future. Nothing came of it; no hand reached out, no shape emerged. The only rational shape had been that aged gull, too wise to venture more than a tilting wing’s length upward in such air. Finally, the extremest edge of his space had hesitantly touched mine. Neither of us had much farther to go, and the harsh simplicity of it was somehow appropriate and gratifying. A little salt-washed rock had contained us both.
Here, I thought, is where I shall abide my ending, in the mind at least. Here where the sea grinds coral and bone alike to pebbles, and the crabs come in he night for the recent dead. Here where everything is transmuted and transmutes, but all is living or about to live.
It was here that I came to know the final phase of love in the mind of man — the phase beyond the evolutionists’ meager concentration upon survival. Here I no longer cared about survival — I merely loved. And the love was meaningless, as the harsh Victorian Dawinists would have understood it or even, equally, those harsh modern materialists. . .
I felt, sitting in that desolate spot upon my whiskey crate, a love without issue, tenuous, almost disembodied. It was a love for an old gull, for wild dogs playing in the surf, for a hermit crab in an abandoned shell.
It was a love that had been growing through the unthinking demands of childhood, through the pains and rapture of adult desire. Now it was breaking free, at last, of my worn body, still containing but passing beyond those other loves. Now, at last, it was the bright stranger, the foreign self,” which Emerson had once written. . .
Amidst the fall of waters on that desolate shore I watched briefly an exquisitely shaped jellyfish pumping its little umbrella sturdily along only to subside with the next wave on the strand. “Love makyth the lover and the living matters not,” an old phrase came hesitantly to my lips. We would win, I thought steadily, if not in human guise then in another, for love was something that life in its infinite prodigality could afford. It was the failures who had always won, but by the time they won they had come to be called successes. This is the final paradox, which men call evolution.
When Eiseley talks about a disembodied love, what do you think he means? What do you think attracts Eiseley to sit beside the sea? Do you think Eiseley imagined some part of himself might survive his death? What do you think his phrase means: “Love makyth the lover and the living matters not?” Is it true that the failures end up as the winners in the story of evolution? How would you apply this paradox to our current human situation?
Together in Christ
SLIDE 3: CONFIRMATION SUNDAY
On this confirmation Sunday we celebrate the choice our confirmands have made to affirm their willingness to follow in the way of Jesus and take their place as adult participants in the community of faith. And my prayer for them today parallels the prayer Paul offered up for those early Christians in the City of Colossae: “Be assured that we haven’t stopped praying for you, asking God to give you wise minds and spirits attuned to God’s will, and so acquire a thorough understanding of the ways in which God works. As you learn more and more how God works, you will learn how to do your work. We pray that you’ll have the strength to stick it out over the long haul — not the grim strength of gritting your teeth but the glory-strength God gives. It is strength that endures the unendurable and spills over into joy, thanking God who makes us strong enough to take part in everything bright and beautiful.”
SLIDE 4: INCLUSIVE OF ALL
Paul’s prayer is really for all of us, because today we celebrate the covenant relationship that forms the United Church of Huntsville. Our foundation is in our Mission Statement: The United Church of Huntsville is inclusive to all. We strive to humbly walk the path of Jesus and to show love and justice in our church and in the world around us. No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey you are welcome at the United Church of Huntsville. Everyone is welcome at the Sharing Table of Jesus. So one of the ways God is at work in each one of us and in our fellowship is through radical hospitality, seeking to include all people regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, educational level, and theology.
SLIDE 5: DISAGREE IN LOVE
Our confirmands had a powerful example of how we seek to be inclusive by embracing a non-doctrinal fellowship. At the Sharing Table we asked all of the adults as well as the confirmands to fill out the Great Questions Questionnaire, and then we spent two Thursday evenings asking everyone at the table to share their answers. Needless to say at United Church wherever two people are gathered there are three opinions. And so we discovered that even though we disagree about our statements of belief, we are still able to live together in a spiritual fellowship that seeks to follow the way of Jesus together. As a witness to our diversity of belief, Evan and Cole will read their Statements of Faith as part of their confirmation, and their joining our fellowship.
SLIDE 6: REPAIRING THE WORLD
Why do we study Holy Scriptures, come to worship, engage in mission, and pray with and for each other? Because as we learn more about how God works, we learn more about how to do our work. One of the purposes of confirmation is to help young people to begin to identify how they might use their gifts and talents to serve God. During our sharing about the Great Questions Questionnaire we did discover one remarkable convergence of thought. Stewardship, using the gifts God has given to us to help repair the world – in Hebrew Tikkum Olam. It is my prayer that both Evan and Cole will find their own unique contributions they can make to the repair of the world.
SLIDE 7: THE STAR THROWER
On this subject of repairing the world the Monday Bible Study has been reading The Star Thrower by Loren Eiseley. The story that gave the book its title speaks to repairing the world.
Loren Eiseley would go to the ocean to do his writing. He had a habit of walking on the beach before he began his work. One day he was walking along the shore. As he looked down the beach, he saw a human figure moving like a dancer. He smiled to himself to think of someone who would dance to the day. So he began to walk faster to catch up. As he got closer, he saw that it was a young man and the young man wasn’t dancing, but instead he was reaching down to the sand, picking up something and very gently throwing it into the ocean.
As he got closer, he called out, “Good morning! What are you doing?” The young man paused, looked up and replied, “Throwing starfish back into the ocean.”
“I guess I should have asked, ‘Why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?’”
“The sun is up and the tide is going out. And if I don’t throw them in they’ll die.”
“But young man, don’t you realize that there are miles and miles of beach and starfish all along it. You can’t possibly make a difference!”
The young man listened politely. Then bent down, picked up another starfish and threw it into the sea, past the breaking waves. “It made a difference for that one!”
SLIDE 8: VOCATION — WHERE YOUR DEEP GLADNESS & THE WORLD’S DEEP HUNGER MEET
And that reminds me of a favorite quotation from Frederick Buechner about finding your niche in the world: “Vocation,” he wrote, “comes from the Latin word vocare (to call) and means the work a person is called to by God. There are all different kinds of voices calling you to all different kinds of work, and the problem is to find out which is the voice of God rather than of society, say, or the superego, or self-interest. The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need to do and (b) that the world needs to have done. If you enjoy your work, you have presumably met requirement (a), but if your work is writing television deodorant commercials, the chances are you have missed requirement (b). On the other hand, if your work is serving as a doctor in a leper colony, you have probably met requirement (b), but if most of the time you are unhappy and depressed, the chances are you have not only bypassed (a) but you probably aren’t helping any of your patients either. Neither the hair shirt nor the soft berth will do. The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.“
SLIDE 9: SERVING IN THE LIFE OF THE CHURCH
Today, not only are we confirming two young people, but we will also be electing new officers for our congregation. Part of our call to repair the world is to give our time and talents in the life of the congregation. The congregation has a unique mission in the life of the Tennessee Valley to help others see that we follow in the way of Jesus by creating and sustaining an inclusive community of faith.
SLIDE 10: JOY FOR THESE CONFIRMANDS
And this brings me to the last part of Paul’s prayer. “We pray that you’ll have the strength to stick it out over the long haul — not the grim strength of gritting your teeth and gutting it out, but the glory-strength God gives. It is strength that endures the unendurable and spills over into joy, thanking God who makes us strong enough to take part in everything bright and beautiful.” And after forty-one gutting it out in ministry, I’m not proud of some of my life, but coming now to my last confirmation class with joy I offer prayers of thanksgiving with their parents and the rest of this congregation that God will see them through to become responsible adults.
SLIDE 11: NO HALLOWEEN GOD
So, look for the joy! God doesn’t need any more long faced fun killing gloomy Christians. Jesus laughed because God laughs. Jesus told jokes. Jesus enjoyed life so much, they called him a party animal. It’s time to put away the Halloween images of God, angry, vengeful, scary, ready to zap unbelievers and anyone who transgresses even the minutest portion of the law.
SLIDE 13: ROWDY CHRISTIANS
No God wants rowdy Christians, who enjoy life, who have a smiles on their faces and a ready laugh, who are ready to forgive others, because they know what it means to be forgiven — often.
Today let’s celebrate Evan and Cole’s confirmation as they take their place in our community of faith, as we elect new leadership for the challenges that lie ahead.
SLIDE 3: HEALING AFTER THE ELECTION
We have just finished one of the most bizarre election cycles in American political history. The electioneering was no holds barred, sink as low as you can go, conjuring up hate filled images inciting fear and division. Now that the voting is over we have a long way to go to put our nation back together again. We have a President and congress that will have to govern and they might not get along with each other. And we might wonder how long our government can continue without finding some common ground for addressing major issues like the budget, the national debt, climate change, health care and employment.
SLIDE 4: NEW JERUSALEM
On this Sunday after election-day the lectionary lifts up the 65th chapter of the prophet Isaiah. This passage is drawn from the portion of the text that is commonly referred to as Third Isaiah, probably written by an unknown author after Babylon had been conquered by the Persians, and Cyrus had allowed the Jews to return to Israel. This prophet was writing to inspire Jews to return and rebuild Jerusalem holding out the promise of a new and Holy City that would be blessed by God:
I’m creating new heavens and a new earth. All the earlier troubles, chaos, and pain are things of the past, to be forgotten. Look ahead with joy. Anticipate what I’m creating: I’ll create Jerusalem as sheer joy, create my people as pure delight. I’ll take joy in Jerusalem, take delight in my people: No more sounds of weeping in the city, no cries of anguish; No more babies dying in the cradle, or old people who don’t enjoy a full lifetime; One-hundredth birthdays will be considered normal — anything less will seem like a disappointment.
SLIDE 5: VISION OF INFINITE POSSIBILITIES
Of course this vision of a New Jerusalem is an ideal, a hope, some would say a pipe dream. But maybe what we need right now in the wake of this most recent election is an infusion of hope a reclaiming of our nation as a people of infinite possibilities. Who would have believed when John Kennedy announced we would put a man on the moon by the end of the decade that our nation would actually accomplish that goal, and Huntsville of all places would play a major role in making that pipe dream happen?
SLIDE 6: INFINITE POSSIBILITIES IF GOD IS STILL SPEAKING
So let me invite you today to consider some infinite possibilities for our nation based on the values we are developing in this congregation at the Sharing Table. Like our Pilgrim ancestors, who sailed across the Atlantic seeking to create a New Jerusalem in the Wilderness of America, we lift up the words of the Pilgrim Pastor John Robinson, “Do not rely upon ancient formulations of faith and truth, for God has yet more light and truth to break forth from His Holy Word.” One of the values we can embrace that can open up infinite possibilities for our nation is “God is still speaking.” We are not stuck with a fundamentalist interpretation of any sacred texts, whether it is the Torah, the Quran, the Bhagavad Gita, the Sutras, or the New Testament. God is still speaking and for those who cultivate an open mind, new understandings of the divine will open up as we learn to live together and respect each other – all faiths living together in peace.
SLIDE 7: DISAGREE PEACEFULLY
We don’t all have to agree. Indeed at the Sharing Table of Jesus wherever two are gathered there will be three opinions. We proved that for our confirmands, when we all shared our answers to the Great Questions Questionnaire. On many of the questions people chose radically different answers, and some folks even wrote their own unique answers to the question. But even when we disagreed, we disagreed without bullying or threatening one another, and we can still live in peace, embracing one another as part of the same spiritual fellowship.
SLIDE 8: REOPENING OUR CULTURE TO SCIENCE
By embracing God is still speaking we can reopen our culture to science. The religious right has spent so much time and energy denying science, even vilifying scientific inquiry that our nation has begun to lag in scientific and technological achievement. Infinite possibilities open up, when we begin to apply science to our modern problems like climate change and green energy. We can also encourage further exploration in outer space and under the sea. Exploring space costs money, but think of all the benefits we realized by sending astronauts to the moon. We invented computers, made incredible breakthroughs in materials science, advanced meteorology, mapping of the earth, GPS satellites and communications. All because we dared to invest in scientific discovery, that repaid the investment many times over.
SLIDE 9: REACH OUT TO EXPLORE AND DISCOVER
We need to begin boldly going where human beings have never gone before again, because that is who we are. The human spirit seeks to reach out to explore and discover. We need a quest for new knowledge and achievement beyond the accumulation of money and power. God has planted in the human heart the desire to reach into the great beyond, and as we pursue that immense journey we will find answers to many of our problems.
SLIDE 10: COMMUNITY OF AFFIRMATION
At the Sharing Table of Jesus no matter who we are, or where we are on life’s journey, we are welcome here! We are a community of affirmation. We do not practice discrimination on the basis of race, ethnic origin, gender, sexual orientation, income, or culture, we even seek accessibility for persons with disabilities – we welcome everyone. We do not make fun of people with disabilities. We do not engage in gay bashing, race baiting or behaviors supporting any form of racial supremacy. As a result we are becoming a community of healing – the kind of healing our nation needs right now!
SLIDE 11: HEALING GRACE OF GOD
We can reach out into our community with our unique message of openness and affirmation and invite others to come to the Sharing Table and experience the healing grace of God. We can offer encouragement that God knows many of us are struggling. We do live in a difficult economy, where corporations and businesses don’t care about employees. We need to know we have good spiritual friends who stand with us as we struggle to earn a living. Friends who pray with us and for us when we are unemployed, sick, wrestling with addiction or other mental health issues. Here at the Sharing Table there is no shame, if we are struggling with depression, or anxiety, or relationship issues, because we acknowledge we are a community of imperfect people. We know that none of us is in a position to judge, and we even are so bold to claim that God does not judge, God simply loves us. Every once in while God may pick us up by the scruff of the neck and ask us, “How is that working for you?” But God and this community only seek to help, to love never to shame or condemn.
SLIDE 12: SHARING
Another value of the Sharing Table that can open up infinite possibilities is sharing. When we share with one another both spiritually and materially miracles begin to happen. Especially when we can overcome our fears of sharing our spiritual neediness with others, we can begin to pray with and for each other, and miracles begin to happen.
SLIDE 13: MIRACLES OF HEALTH AND WELL BEING
These are not zap the rabbit out of the hat kind of miracles. No, the wonders that happen at the Sharing Table are small quiet events, where faith intersects with healing to overcome fear and doubt to support health and wellbeing. And perhaps the most important miracle of all is when we develop good spiritual friends we know that we don’t ever have to feel like we are abandoned or alone. Each of us may have to face challenges, with our jobs, our children, our finances, our health, and eventually each one of us will face death. But we don’t have to bear our burdens alone. God gives us good spiritual friends at the Sharing Table who will pray with us, and for us, help to hold us accountable, who will sit with us when we are in grief and support us when we are hurting. And so allow me to close with the Statement of Faith of the United Church of Canada selection number 887 in your hymnal a statement of our infinite possibilities at the Sharing Table:
SLIDE 14: GOD IS WITH US. WE ARE NOT ALONE. THANKS BE TO GOD!
We are not alone, we live in God’s world.
We believe in God: who has created and is creating, who has come in Jesus, the Word made flesh, to reconcile and make new, who works in us and others by the Spirit.
We trust in God.
We are called to be the Church: to celebrate God’s presence, to live with respect in Creation, to love and serve others, to seek justice and resist evil, to proclaim Jesus, crucified and risen, our judge and our hope.
In life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us. We are not alone.
Thanks be to God.
Hold On to Faith
SLIDE 3: WHEREVER 2 ARE GATHERED 3 OPINIONS
First Century Israel was a rich mix of many different forms and practices of Judaism, sort like the old joke wherever there are two Jews there are three different opinions – an observation some folks might apply to United Church. In fact this week at the Sharing Table we shared with the confirmands the important truth that at United Church everyone is allowed to have their own theology, and somehow we all manage to live together in fellowship.
In First Century Israel there were Sadducees and Pharisees, Essenes and Zealots, followers of John the Baptist, and many others. Each of these groups had an almost infinite variety of adherents. For instance the Pharisees were not a monolithic group. There were liberals and conservatives and Rabbis who were lumped into the movement although they had their own peculiar take on the law. Jesus probably would have been classified as a Pharisee, but a very liberal Pharisee, similar to the great Rabbi Hillel.
SLIDE 4: ETERNAL LIFE
On the subject of eternal life, there were a number of different opinions. In general the Sadducees taught there was no life after death – this life was it. What you see is what you get. Many Pharisees and others believed in an afterlife, and these opinions were hotly debated in the First Century. Although Jesus primarily called upon his followers to concentrate on realizing the Commonwealth of God in the here and now by loving God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and loving and sharing with their neighbors at the Sharing Table as we would like to be treated ourselves, he also appears to have taught that God’s love for us continues after death.
SLIDE 5: TRICK QUESTION
In our scripture this morning several Priests in the Temple in a effort to trip Jesus up, posed to him a trick question. Suppose a woman was married one of seven brothers. Now also suppose her first husband died without leaving any children, and so according to the Law of Moses the woman was then married off to the next oldest brother who also died without leaving any children. (This was called Levirate Marriage.) And suppose according to the law the woman was married off to the next oldest brother. In those days you had to take a good look at man’s brothers before agreeing to marry him.
Now suppose all of the brothers died without leaving any children, as they say all the brothers were shooting blanks, and further suppose the poor woman died before she could marry someone, who could actually produce children. “Now,” asked the Sadducees, “if you believe in the resurrection from the dead, who would the poor woman be married to in the afterlife, since she had been married to all seven brothers?
SLIDE 6: IN GOD’S EYES ALL ARE ALIVE
Now Jesus recognized that his opponents were resorting to an absurd example in order to trip him up. So Jesus engaged in a creative example of Midrash. He pointed to the passage about Moses and the burning bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as if they were alive, for as Jesus concludes: “Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”
SLIDE 7: RESURRECTION NOT A REWARD
This morning on Remembrance Sunday I want to call our attention to Jesus’ creative Midrash. God is not God of the dead, but of the living; for to him all are alive. Now I have heard some people claim that it is somehow more noble to live without believing in the resurrection, because then you do the good you do without any promise of reward. Resurrection according to Jesus, at least, is not a reward. God’s love for us persisting beyond death is simply the way life is. God loves us no matter what. So any comfort we may derive from knowing that God does not abandon us in death is not a reward it is an affirmation of the goodness of God and the eternal nature of God’s love.
SLIDE 8: DEATH MAKES OUR MOMENTS PRECIOUS
As I grow older I recognize the comfort of God’s love is there for a reason. Life is bitter sweet. Without death life would have no meaning no urgency. Life would become one long emptiness. Death makes our moments precious. I now marvel that in my youth I played solitaire to pass the time, not knowing when I was young how priceless were those minutes I was wasting. Do not waste a moment, but know that God stands ready to redeem the time. In the end God takes all of the moments of our days and holds them for us to consecrate them.
SLIDE 9: TIME
And so I am reminded of a poem by Michel Quoist a French priest and poet:
You who are beyond time, Lord, you smile to see us fighting it.
And you know what you are doing.
You make no mistakes in your distribution of time to people.
You give each one time to do what you want him to do.
But we must not lose time, waste time, kill time,
For time is a gift that you give us, but a perishable gift,
A gift that does not keep.
Lord, I have time, I have plenty of time,
All the time that you give me,
The years of my life, the days of my years, the hours of my days.
They are all mine.
Mine to fill, quietly, calmly,
But to fill completely, up to the brim.
To offer them to you, that of their insipid water you may make a rich
wine as you made once in Galilee.
I am not asking you tonight, Lord, for time to do this and then that,
but your grace to do conscientiously, in the time that you give,
what you want me to do.
SLIDE 10: GOD REDEEMS THE TIME
God forgives the hours we waste in our youth. We did not know. We did not realize what a precious resource we allowed to slip through our fingers. One of the promises of resurrection is that God redeems the time, and takes us home, where we cannot be separated from God’s eternal love. In this truth I take comfort.
SLIDE 11: THE POWER OF MEMORY
I also take comfort in the increasing realization that loved ones who have gone on before me are not that far away. For one thing their DNA lives on in us. But more than that they live in my memory, and memory is powerful. The central act of worship in our faith is based on the power of memory, do this whenever you remember me. We follow the way of Jesus and in the bread and the wine at the Sharing Table Jesus comes alive in us. We become the eyes the ears, the hands, the feet of Jesus in the world. All based on the power of memory.
SLIDE 12: FEEL CLOSER TO OUR PARENTS
As I grow older I especially find myself feeling closer to my parents. One reason I draw closer to them is I no longer need to separate out from them. One of the tasks we undertake in adolescence is our need to individuate, to become independent, to define ourselves differently from our parents. As we grow older and our parents die, we no longer need to push back to assert our independence. We may even come to a point of compassionate understanding knowing why our parents acted as they did. Sometimes we can even acknowledge that they did the best they could with what they had.
SLIDE 13: YOU’VE GOT A FRIEND
Sometimes after our parents are gone we speak and surprise ourselves, when we hear our parents coming out of our mouths. People whom we have loved and who have loved us are never very far away. I’m reminded of the Carol King song, “You’ve Got a Friend.”
When you’re down and troubled and you need a helping hand and nothing, oh, nothing is going right. Close your eyes and think of me and soon I will be there to brighten up even your darkest nights. You just call out my name, and you know where ever I am I’ll come running to see you again. Winter, spring, summer, or fall, all you have to do is call and I’ll be there, yeah, yeah, you’ve got a friend.
SLIDE 14: NEVER FAR AWAY
On this remembrance Sunday allow ME to remind you that we all have friends, who have gone home to be with God before us. Those friends, loved ones, are never very far away. And that is why today we call out their names, we lift up their memories, so we might be comforted by their presence.
SLIDE 5: ZACCHAEUS
The story of Zacchaeus only appears in the gospel of Luke. We have no independent confirmation of the character of the little tax collector other than Clement of Alexandria writing in about 190 A.D. that Zacchaeus’ was also named Matthias, and he was chosen as the Apostle to replace Judas in the Book of Acts. This story is unlikely since Matthias was counted as among those who had followed Jesus since he had been baptized by John. In another later church work the Apostolic Constitutions dated about 380 A.D. Zacchaeus the Publican was recorded as having served as the first Bishop of Caesarea. The implication of all of these traditions is that the transformation of Zacchaeus in this story resulted in the tax collector becoming a follower of Jesus.
SLIDE 6: SALT AND BALSAM GUM
In assessing the authenticity of the story, several details in the account are very accurate. First, the Chief Tax Collector of Jericho would have been very rich. A thriving industry in Balsam Gum, the famous balm in Gilead, had its headquarters in Jericho. Also the very lucrative trade in Dead Sea Salt, so valuable that Roman Soldiers were often paid in salt (remember euphemism worth your salt), was also headquartered in Jericho. With all of these very expensive trade goods passing through Jericho, the collection of taxes would have been enough to make a person wealthy. Because the tax collectors were taking a cut of the tolls they were gathering on behalf of the Romans, most of their fellow countrymen considered them to be traitors, collaborators with the enemy – prompting the comment in verse 7 : “All the people saw this and began to mutter, ‘He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.’”
SLIDE 7: SYCAMORE FIG TREES
If you have ever visited the City of Jericho, you will recognize another important confirming detail in the story – there are sycamore fig trees all over the City. The sycamore fig is also symbolic in this narrative, because it is known as the “resurrection tree.” This species of tree which often lives on the edge of the desert will hibernate if it is covered over by sand dunes. Centuries later, if the tree is uncovered and water gets to the root system, the sycamore fig will come back to life. So when Jesus first encounters Zacchaeus, the little tax collector is sitting in a resurrection tree.
SLIDE 8: CURIOSITY
As we examine the process of the transformation of Zacchaeus, we first note curiosity. We don’t know what reports the little tax collector had heard about Jesus, but maybe we can assume he had heard marvelous stories about healings and a message about God’s love that included social outcastes like himself. This Rabbi Jesus reputedly had dinner with publicans and prostitutes, and one of his closest followers was even a tax collector from Capernaum named Matthew. So Zacchaeus was curious. He wanted to get a look at this unusual Rabbi for himself.
SLIDE 9: YOUR BRAIN ON CURIOSITY
The process of transformation often begins with curiosity. How might my life be different? Can faith make a difference in my life? Is there really any hope for me? What if God touched my life? Curiosity makes change possible. Curiosity stimulates portions of the brain that create new circuitry especially associated with learning and memory. When we are curious, our brains are receptive to forming new neural pathways for new behaviors and attitudes. This is your brain without curiosity, this is your brain on curiosity! Feeding our curiosity opens our minds to the possibility of transformation.
SLIDE 10: MOTIVATION
So, Zacchaeus was curious, but he had a problem. He was vertically challenged. Given the crowds that surrounded Jesus as he was passing through the streets, there was no way a short person was going to be able to get a glimpse of the Rabbi. Zacchaeus figured the route Jesus was taking, and ran ahead using side streets. Climbing a tree, the little tax collector waited to get a glimpse of Jesus.
The story does not tell us how Jesus knew Zacchaeus’ name. Perhaps noting that this fellow had climbed a tree in order to get a look at him, Jesus asked one of his companions or a member of the crowd, “What is the name of the man who has climbed the tree?” Jesus recognized motivation, and acknowledged Zacchaeus’ curiosity by inviting himself to the tax collector’s house for the mid-day meal.
SLIDE 11: HOSPITALITY
So the second step in the process of transformation was challenging Zacchaeus to open his home in hospitality. Pushing this congregation to embrace radical hospitality was a step in the transformation of this congregation from a club atmosphere to a community of faith where everyone was welcomed. No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here. And not just welcome, you are invited to the sharing table where everyone sits down to eat together. In many churches small groups of friends, hot foot it out the door together to visit the restaurants after worship. Here we invite everyone to stay and fill a plate and visit with everyone. For this is the Sharing Table of Jesus.
Zacchaeus was honored to be asked to provide hospitality. As an outcaste “good people” would not have visited his home, much less sat and shared a meal at his table.
SLIDE 12: HALF MY POSSESSIONS I SHARE WITH THE POOR
We do not know what all transpired at the home of the tax collector that day, what stories were shared, what questions were asked. The gospel, however, reports that Zacchaeus’ transformation was made whole, when he stood up and said, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” He offered to make restitution for any cheating he had done, and he gave away half his wealth to the poor. So the transformation of Zacchaeus was not just a change of heart and a decision to follow Jesus, it was a change of behavior in making amends for wrongs he had committed and a generous gift of sharing his wealth with the poor. Jesus confirmed the change of heart and behavior he observed in the tax collector, when he said, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham.”
SLIDE 13: BOUND BY HIS WEALTH
And I want to lift up Zacchaeus in contrast to the example of the Rich Young Ruler. The Rich Young Man came to Jesus asking, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus asked him if he was faithful to the Law of Moses. And the young man replied, “All these laws I have kept since I was a child.” And Jesus recognizing that his great wealth was the impediment that stood between him and God said, “One thing you lack, go sell what you have and share with the poor and come follow me.” Of course the Rich Young Ruler went away sorrowfully, because he wasn’t about to do anything as foolish as to part with any of his wealth. Zacchaeus was transformed, liberated, by his willingness to offer hospitality and share his wealth with the poor, while the Rich Young Ruler remained spiritually bound to his money.
SLIDE 14: USE SOME OF HIS MONEY TO FEED THE POOR
Zacchaeus didn’t have to give everything away, he just had to unburden himself of a share of his wealth that was holding him back from being liberated to love other people. He was finally able to come to the Sharing Table, when he was able use some of his money to invite the poor to come and eat with him.
SLIDE 15: WE HAVE TO REALLY WANT TO CHANGE
How many of us are willing to allow the transforming love of Jesus to change our behavior? Maybe it is like the question, “How many psychotherapists does it take to change a lightbulb?” Answer, just one, so long as the light bulb really wants to change. And truth to be told, most of us really don’t like change. Change is hard. Change is difficult, especially when we are talking about changing ourselves!
SLIDE 16: ONE THING WE COULD DO DIFFERENTLY
Maybe a quotation from Stephen Covey’s, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, is a place to begin. “What one thing could we do (we aren’t doing now) that if we did on a regular basis, would make a tremendous positive difference in our personal lives?” No one is asking us to give all of our money away. No one is asking us to change our lives completely. No one is asking us to get divorced, change jobs move to Alaska or Hawaii. Just what is one thing we could change, that if we did that on a regular basis, would make a positive difference in our lives? Daily physical exercise? Thirty minutes of prayer a day? Starting the day with a list of thanksgivings? A regular program of savings? Going back to school? Tithing? Or making a concerted effort to reach out to others, especially people who might need our help in friendship and love?
SLIDE 17: BABY STEPS AND CURIOSITY
Whatever change we are willing to make start with baby steps – small changes. And then like Zacchaeus let’s add some curiosity to our lives and who knows the love of Christ might transform us!
Ask Boldly, Live Justly
SLIDE 5: WOULDN’T PRAY FOR THEMSELVES
When I was pastoring in Monee, Illinois many very saintly ladies there, who were powerful prayers, would tell me that they did not pray for themselves, because praying for yourself is selfish. They were more than willing to pray for other people, for world peace, for their congregation and their friends, but when they were invited to ask other people to pray for something for them, they wouldn’t do it. And I have found that those wonderful pious ladies in Monee were not alone. The greatest challenge at the Sharing Table is encouraging people to offer up a need they would like other people to pray for them. We don’t like to publicly share our neediness. We are strong independent pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps, why would we pray for ourselves or ask other people to pray for us. That just seems like weakness. Paradoxically, however, turning to God for help, and asking others to join with us as prayer partners in seeking blessing in our lives is a sign of strength. That may have something to do with our parable this morning.
SLIDE 6: THE TENACIOUS WIDOW
But allow me to use some insights from Dr. Amy Jill Levine to recast the Parable of the persistent widow and the unjust judge. Amy Jill points out that Jesus did not offer this story as a commentary on prayer, it was Luke who provided that context. Dr. Levine also points out that if we think of this story as a meek, mild, weak oppressed widow who passively makes her request again and again, even though it seems to fall on deaf ears, then we have missed the context that Jesus set in telling the story.
Biblical widows who are mentioned in the scriptures were strong people. They were survivors who had often absorbed the worst life could throw at them, and they were still standing. Rather than a weak simpering victims, think of the widow in the story more like Ruth and Naomi. Here were two women who knew what they needed, and went about putting people and events in motion including exploiting the sexual weaknesses of men to make sure their needs were taken care of, and the future of their family line was secured. Or think of another era of advocacy and speaking up — Maggie Kuhn and the Gray Panthers.
SLIDE 7: LIKE A PITBULL
Amy Jill points out that the widow in Jesus’ story far from passively begging for her voice to be heard, she speaks to the judge in the imperative. “Hey you, judge give me what I want.” And what does this widow want? If we examine the language closely she is not meekly asking for justice, she wants a judgement against her opponent that will exact vengeance. As Amy Jill Levine points out this widow is more in the mold of the Biblical widow Judith who chopped off her opponent’s head. Since we can suspect that Jesus was not in favor of revenge or chopping off your opponents’ heads, what was Jesus doing telling this parable about a widow who behaved like a pit bull?
SLIDE 8: PRAY BUT DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT
I suspect Jesus was creating an over the top illustration that says, “Pray, but also do something about it!” Because the truth is once we name our prayer request out loud, we are more likely to go to work on it. And if we name our prayer request out loud in front of others, then we are inviting other people to hold us accountable and offer to help us. When we keep our prayer requests all to ourselves, and never voice them, because we might be selfish, we are missing out on the tremendous power of prayer partnerships. Mutual aid and accountability are powerful aids to prayer.
SLIDE 9: RODENT DAMAGE
A couple of weeks ago I had an experience that illustrates the need to be proactive in prayer. I had our older black Toyota in for service, when the Service Consultant called me back into the mechanic’s area that is normally off limits to customers. He wanted to show me, some rodent damage they had discovered in my engine. It seems some rat or squirrel had gotten up under the hood of the car and had eaten a hole in the engine cover, and then proceeded to chew on the wiring harness that leads to really powerful battery array on the Prius. (As Jesus said, beware of possessions where moth and rust consume, and squirrels break in and eat the inside of your engine.) The car was still drivable, but potentially if moisture got in to the chewed wires, it could short out important systems on the car including the main battery pack. The service consultant told me that this is not unusual – who knew? – said they see two or three of these a week, and the damage is usually covered under the comprehensive package on insurance.
SLIDE 10: PERSISTENCE & DETERMINATION
So I called Alfa, and they said it was covered, but I would have to get an estimate from the Toyota Dealer and then their adjustor would have to look at it. The car was drivable, so I didn’t want to leave the car there for days and days, waiting for an adjustor to find time to see it, and then days and days more, while the dealer worked on ordering the parts. So I started a telephone dance between the adjustor and the dealership trying to get them to agree on a date, when I could bring the car in and they would get the estimate written, the adjustor sign-off so the parts could be ordered. I had to keep playing telephone tag, and not unlike the persistent widow, I finally arranged for an appointment and made sure the adjustor knew he had to show up the same day, so we could get the show on the road. Pray but be proactive. And once I had everyone’s attention, and they knew I wasn’t just going to roll over and let them do their thing on their own terms, I finally got the car fixed without having to rent a car for days on end.
SLIDE 11: HOLD US ACCOUNTABLE
This persistent widow can be a good illustration for us all. Pray, and get moving on whatever it is we need to get done. Now sometimes, when we have done all we can do, we have to have faith and trust God for the rest. But we can be willing to claim our prayer requests publicly and so open ourselves to prayer and help from others, who can also hold us accountable.
SLIDE 12: TRUST GOD AND BE PROACTIVE
This morning I also want to suggest two applications for this story for the United Church of Huntsville. Trust that God will be with you in the interim process, but be proactive in your search. An interim period offers an opportunity for a congregation to adjust to a different style of leadership from what they have experienced for the past 16 years. That’s a good thing. But interim periods that drag on needlessly, because we are not pursuing the search proactively can stall a congregation’s forward momentum. So, trust God, trust the process and be proactive in your search.
SLIDE 13: COME ON Y’ALL WE NEED SOME REAL MONEY
Second application I want to suggest is about stewardship. We are coming down the homestretch of our Stewardship Drive – “Make a Surprising Investment.” We want to enter this interim period with a healthy budget, paying back the money we have borrowed from the funds and making sure we have a little extra to pay for moving expenses and other expenses surrounding the search and call process. In the past, when we have asked for money, we have been like the meek and mild oppressed widow envisioned by Luke who says, “Please, please, please, give us some money, any spare change you might happen to have.” And we know what kind of results we have gotten from those kinds of weak simpering appeals.
One of my failures as your Pastor is that I have not been good about asking for money. And what we really need is something more like the tenacious widow Amy Jill Levine sees Jesus presenting in this Parable. “Come on y’all we need some real money, if this congregation is going to a move ahead. God is not going to deposit twenty-thousand dollars in the church’s checking account. If we are going to balance the budget and give our search committees some real resources to work with, we have to put the money in the church’s checking account. We have to become proactive stewards. People who work together in the bright light of accountability rather than in secret, to insure the financial viability of this congregation.
SLIDE 14: GOD LISTENS WHEN WE PRAY AND GOD ACTS WHEN WE ACT
So let’s pray, and let’s also do something about it. We don’t need to be like Judith chopping off heads, but we do need to be like Ruth and Naomi willing to set in motion people and events that will insure that the future of this congregation is secured. God listens when we pray, and God also acts, when we act. Take a risk. Let our prayer requests be made known and then act and hold ourselves accountable for our prayers.
God Was in this Place, & I, i Did Not Know
A Study Guide
Jacob’s Dream at Bethel NIV
Genesis 28:10 Jacob left Beersheba and set out for Harran. 11 When he reached a certain place, he stopped for the night because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones there, he put it under his head and lay down to sleep. 12 He had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. 13 There above it[c] stood the Lord, and he said: “I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. 14 Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring.[d] 15 I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”
16 When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.”
Jacob’s Dream at Bethel the Message
Genesis 28:10-12 Jacob left Beersheba and went to Haran. He came to a certain place and camped for the night since the sun had set. He took one of the stones there, set it under his head and lay down to sleep. And he dreamed: A stairway was set on the ground and it reached all the way to the sky; angels of God were going up and going down on it.
13-15 Then God was right before him, saying, “I am God, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac. I’m giving the ground on which you are sleeping to you and to your descendants. Your descendants will be as the dust of the Earth; they’ll stretch from west to east and from north to south. All the families of the Earth will bless themselves in you and your descendants. Yes. I’ll stay with you, I’ll protect you wherever you go, and I’ll bring you back to this very ground. I’ll stick with you until I’ve done everything I promised you.”
16-17 Jacob woke up from his sleep. He said, “God is in this place—truly. And I didn’t even know it!” He was terrified. He whispered in awe, “Incredible. Wonderful. Holy. This is God’s House. This is the Gate of Heaven.”
Jacob’s Dream at Bethel NRSV
Genesis 28:10 Jacob left Beer-sheba and went toward Haran. 11 He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. 12 And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. 13 And the LORD stood beside him and said, “I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; 14 and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. 15 Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” 16 Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the LORD is in this place–and I did not know it!” 17 And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”
Page 12: “God is in the self, but the self is not God.” For this reason these pages are really, in a larger sense, about one’s own self and the Self of the Universe.
How do you suppose that God is part of your “self?” How are ourselves not God? Do you think the Universe has a Self?
Page 14: . . . the question is itself the answer. . . . You already have what you are looking for. . .
. . . the ultimate question one can ask. . . is not “What is the meaning of life?” or even “Why am I here?” but simply “Who?” . . . And the question “Who?” is a request for either a name or a personal pronoun. The answer, in other words, must be personal. It must be a self.
Do you think God is personal or impersonal? Again does the Universe have a Self?
Page 15: Only when the words of the text are holy or, like a love letter, are read with a diligence of attention bordering on reverence, can midrash occur.
A diligence of attention bordering on reverence, are there any books or texts that captivate your complete attention?
Page 25: The “burning bush” was not a miracle. It was a test. God wanted to find out whether or not Moses could pay attention to something for more than a few minutes. When Moses did, God spoke. The trick is to pay attention to what is going on around you long enough to behold the miracle without falling asleep. There is another world, right here within this one, whenever we pay attention.
What are the outer limits of your attention span? Have you ever been aware of something happening, after you took a second look? How long do we have to be able to look in order to see what is happening around us? Have you ever had a moment in which you thought you might just be in God’s presence?
Page 26: Wake Up! Most of the time the lights are on but no one is home. . . . We find what we seek. And we seek who we are.
When asked who he was, the Buddha said, “I am awake.” What are the moments in your life, when you are most awake? Are there ways of expanding our consciousness so we are able to seek beyond our usual boundaries? Who is seeking?
Oblivious to Miracles
Page 26 – 27: The story of Reuven and Shimon asks us what miracles are we missing? Can you think of any spiritual practices that can help us open ourselves to perceiving the miracles in everyday life?
“If God was here, and I didn’t know, then perhaps God has been other places also.” In retrospect can you imagine places in your life, when God has been present and you did not know?
Page 28: Spirituality is that dimension of living in which we are aware of God’s presence. . . Jewish spirituality is about the immediacy of God’s presence everywhere. It is about patience and paying attention, about seeing and feeling, and hearing things that only a moment abo were inaccessible.
Are there spiritual practices that can help us become more spiritual? When are you most aware of God’s presence?
You already are where you need to be. You need go nowhere else. Feel it now in the moisture on your tongue. Sense the effortless filling and emptying of your lungs, the involuntary blinking of your eyes. Just an inch or so behind your sternum where your heart beats. That is where the makom (the place) is. Right here all along and we did not know it because we were fast asleep, here in this very makom.
Where should we seek God? Are there in fact some places, where it is easier to sense God’s presence than others? What places do you experience as holy?
. . . the most powerful moments of teaching occur when the teacher has enough self-control to remain silent.
Are there times in your life, when you have learned from silence? Have you ever experienced a mentor or teacher, who knew when to be silent?
Page 37: The students who gathered in Kotzk were slapped in the face. They understood the injury as a necessary step toward apprehending the truth. And each day the truth had to be “found anew, as if it had never been known.” In this search, their constant and greatest adversary was none other than their own egos. “The true worship of God. . . . is not in finding the truth, but rather in . . . total abandonment of self.”
In some Buddhist schools of meditation the Master strikes the student as a way of “waking them up.” Do you think the Kotsk school was at all similar in the slapping of the students. Have you ever experienced a reminder that jolted you awake to the interference of your own ego?
Pages 39 – 40: Kotzk deliberately misreads the verse in Deuteronomy in which Moses recalls his experience at Sinai and says, “I stood between God and you.” Says Menachem Mendl, that it is you I, “your ego that stands between you and God. Normally not even an iron barrier can separate Israel from God, but self-love, egotism will drive them apart.”
In others words, there is only room enough in this world for one ego, yours or God’s. You pick. Paraphrasing the words of the Talmud, “The Holy One says of anyone who is conceited, there is only room in this world for one ego, yours or Mine.”
Do you think God has an ego? If ourselves are part of God, but ourselves are not God, then how is our ego part of God? Or is it? Can you draw a Venn Diagram?
Page 44: I’m God; you’re not.” God can only be God when you are not.
Do you think it is possible to be an atheist without confusing God with self?
Egotism and Idolatry
Page 46: Ego is not thinking you’re talented or a good person. That is only self-confidence, or, in extreme cases, ordinary conceit. Ego is arrogance. It is thinking that you are better than someone else. It is making yourself big in the presence, and at the expense, of someone else. A hermit cannot be arrogant. An ego needs someone else, another person, one you believe to be inferior to you, in front of whom you can preen, raise your shin, and stretch your beautiful neck.
The ultimate fantasy is not just judging yourself to be better than others but trying to make yourself so important that you imagine you can do whatever you please and still live forever. The entire Hebrew Bible can be understood as a chronicle of humanity’s incessantly foiled attempts to do whatever they want, live forever, and thereby to be God. In this way both ego and idol attempt to displace God.
Somehow egotism is always in the comparing. We compare ourselves to others either individually or collectively, rather than simply accepting the life God has given us as a gift. When do you find yourself most tempted to make judgements about other people? Are there spiritual practices that can pull us back from egotism?
Redundant Personal Pronoun
Page 47 – 48: This simple “extra I” (which the school of Kotzk identifies was ego or conceit) leads Pinhas Horowitz, the author of a Hasidic commentary on the Torah, Panim Yafot, to an important insight. “It is only possible for a person to attain that high rung of being able to say, ‘Surely God is in this place,’ when he or she has utterly eradicated all trace of ego from his or her personality, from his or her sense of self, and from his or her being. The phrase, ‘I, i did not know,’ must mean, ‘my I – I did not know’”
“The beginning of true piety is not so easy,” whispered the Kotzker. “You must subdue your ego and call yourself a liar. It could make you lonely and a little crazy. A crazy man about God. You understand me?”
“Yes, I think so. God was here all along, and the reason I didn’t know it is because I was too busy paying attention to myself.”
Religious life demands constant vigilance against the schemes of our egos (the little i’s) to supplant the Divine.
How do you read the use of the I and the little i? Does this remind you at all of Rabbi Rami, in Perennial Wisdom for the Spiritually Independent?
Page 68 Perennial Wisdom: When you answer the question “Where did I come from? With “I am alien,” you are prevented from realizing the greater you, the organic you, the you that is the universe manifest as you in this moment and in this place. When you answer the question with “I belong,” you quickly move beyond the isolated egoic “I” to the “I” of universe then to the “I” of God, the eternal Spirit that is all the objects we perceive around and within us.
Page 51: Martin Buber teaches that humility, in classical Hasidism, is built around the notion that each person is unique and therefore, precious. . .
Humility commences with the realization that no one is inferior or superior to anyone else. This fundamental egalitarianism then matures into a willingness to give of oneself to another. Until, finally, true humility generates a love for all creatures.
Humility welcomes everyone regardless of their circumstances or their identity, because each person is a unique expression of the creativity of God. What kinds of people, however, are the hardest for you to accept? How do you understand humility? Are there any spiritual practices that encourage humility?
Pages 60 – 61 In the center of mural at least as large as the viewer there are three people: a mother holding her infant child to her bosom, faces the trench. Just behind her, at point blank range, a you German soldier trains the sights of his rifle at the woman’s head, about to shoot. (The end of the rifle barrel is no farther away from her head than the reader’s eyes are from this printed page.) In the background there are clouds and the gently waving, autumn grass of this unnamed Polish field.
If there is a God, where was that God when this photograph was taken? God was there. See, we have a photograph. There is God, over there in the ditch, in the mother’s terrified eyes, even in the psychosis of the Nazi soldier. There is God, an ashen reality, now almost two generations later, more mysterious and holy than ever. The question is not Where was God? But Why do human beings do such things? Blaming God not only absolves us but increases the likelihood that we will allow such horrors to happen again.
How could God allow such a thing? Why didn’t God do anything? To ask such questions assumes that God occasionally intervenes in human affairs without human agency. Yet countless events remind us that God does not work like that. Indeed, while it contradicts literal readings of some sacred texts, we suspect God never has. God did not die in the Holocaust, only the Deuteronomic idea of a God who, through suspending laws of nature, rewards and punishes people. . . .
This is simply not how the world works. And all theology after the Holocaust must begin with this acknowledgement. . . . What is evil and where does it come from?
Can you see God in the ovens of Auschwitz? Can you see God is the face of a soldier about execute innocent victims? Can you see God in a drone circling a compound about to fire a missile? Is God only where things are “nice,” or can God be found in evil and ugliness?
Bad and Evil
Page 61 – 62 First of all many things are bad that are not evil. This is a very important but often overlooked distinction. “Bad” means “unfortunate,” “painful,” and even “horrible,” but it does not mean that someone is necessarily responsible for what has happened. A freak accident, for which no one is to blame, for instance, is “bad,” but it is not “evil.” Other times “bad” means “unethical,” “wicked,” and “evil.” . . . So “bad” can mean either “unfortunate,” as in “no one is to blame,” or it can also mean “evil,” as in “someone has caused this bad thing to happen.”
This double meaning of “bad” probably reflects a time when human beings believed that they were powerless in the face of whatever befell them and that everything that happened was caused by God. . . .
Therefore the question “Why is there evil in the world?” means “Why are human beings evil?” or “What is the origin of human cruelty?” Sometimes people suffer because of some evil they themselves or others did or did not do, and sometimes they suffer through no one’s fault, although the range of accidents tends to diminish sharply with maturity and responsibility.
Do you think we can always sort out the difference between bad and evil? Can you identify any situations in your life that have been purely evil? Can something be evil that is the result of stupidity? Where does stupidity end and evil begin?
Page 64: And it God is everywhere, God is also in the perverse things we plan and carry out. . . . “God is present even in our sins.” And rejecting our sins only postpones the ultimate task of healing and self-reunification. Such an acceptance of all of ourselves is another way of finding God.
What are your sins you find most difficult to accept? Do you ever find yourself reviewing your past life, and finding a kind of humorous acceptance of the some of the dumb things you have done? If you were given an opportunity for a do-over, what in your life, knowing what you know now, would you try to do over? How do you imagine your life would be different?
Page 65: The Baal Shem Tov taught that God is actually hidden within all evil and suffering, but that God only hides when people do not realize that God is there.
Can you imagine any times, when God may have been hiding in a situation of misery or suffering?
Page 66: Why would anyone ever choose evil at all? Why would a human being ever do anything cruel? That is the question. According to Jewish legend, the pain of being human being (and thus for many, the resultant evil that people do) inn two primal psychological “tearings.” Something is separated, rejected, and made “other.” And the memory of the tearing, the wound, is too painful to endure. (And indeed, when theses “tearings,” as they so often do, shape the parent child relationship itself, the result . . . is the psychopathology of child abuse. From parent to child one generation after another. A contemporary definition of original sin.) And the social institutions and political and political states that people fashion naturally resemble their creators.
Page 67: In the first tearing, a part of ourselves is rejected and identified as “enemy/” The second tearing involves every human being’s traumatic separation from his her parents, the process of individuation and becoming autonomous. Both are lifelong, unending struggles. In one we tear off a part of ourselves to maintain our own sense of goodness, and in the other we experience ourselves as having been torn away for our own good. . . . And important elements of each are expressed in Jacob’s own life story. Esau, Jacob’s twin brother, is made into an enemy. And Jacob must leave his parents, never to see them again.
Often when reject a part of our shadow side, we project it onto others. Can you think of a time when you have projected your own feelings onto others? In the story of Jacob, his twin becomes the enemy. Have you seen families in which people have become rivals and them enemies? What kind of “pay-back” does Rebecca collect for her favoritism of Jacob? How easy or difficult was your separating out from your parents? In what ways has your separating out from your parents continued even into later adulthood?
Pages 67 – 68: In order to understand the first tearing and the process that makes Esau an enemy, we must consider the legends surrounding Amalek, the paradigmatic enemy of the Jewish people. . .
This is not the simple “good guy/bad guy” scenario it first appears to be. The rabbis go on to teach that the wicked Amalek is descended from a woman named Timna. And while Timna was once in love with Jacob, he wouldn’t give her the time of day. Thus spurned, she became instead a concubine of Jacob’s nephew, Eliphaz. . .
This messy family arrangement also means, or course, that Timna’s father-in-law was Jacob’s twin, Esau. And rabbinic tradition is quick to note that not only was Esau himself rejected, but that he once shared a womb with Jacob. Nothing more than the thinness of a membrane separated Esau, the great-grandfather of Amalek from Jacob. . . .
Jacob rejects Timna, Jacob rejects Esau. They would have loved to be, or once were part of him. Now they are “other.” Now they are enemy. Being torn away, that is the source3 of the pain we feel and probably of the pain we, in turn, inflict on others. All humanity is a closed organic system. Pain put into the system sooner or later comes back to us. Generation after generation. What goes around, comes around.
Have you observed multigenerational conflicts in families or groups around you? To what extent might the Jacob/Esau tearing be describing the Palestinian/Israeli conflict? Or given the tremendous amount of miscegenation that occurred in America, could this also be a description of a black and white tearing in America?
The Unnamed Wrestler
Page 69 – 71: We now understand why the struggle between Jacob and Esau assumes such significance. That night, over two decades later, when Jacob is left alone on the other side of the Jabok, he wrestles with another being. Was it his conscience, an angel, the patron of Esau, a divine being, or perhaps a once-rejected side of himself? The text does say, “You have wrestled with beings divine and human. . . “
The unnamed night wrestler of Genesis 32 represents a dimension of ourselves that has been rejected and labeled as “evil other.” It comes back to injure and name us during the night. And since it is still a part of ourselves we cannot bear to acknowledge, when we sense it in someone else, we are all the more frightened and angry. And often, failing to find it in someone else, we project it onto them anyway for this deludes and comforts us into feeling that we have utterly torn it away. Hating something in someone else is easier than self-reproach.
Once we realize that what we detest in another person only wants to be accepted, taken back, and loved, do we begin to diminish our own capacity for evil. By embracing what was never really other, we neutralize the evil. We heal and redeem it and, in so doing, we heal ourselves and God.
Early Hasidism develop a doctrine called “strange thoughts,” or “lascivious thoughts” during prayer. According to this teaching, one sure sign that we have attained a high level in prayer is that invariable we will be assailed by embarrassingly wicked thoughts. Our first inclination is to reject them at once, but, as everyone knows, this only gives them greater power over our prayers. We must counsels the Baal Shem, realize that such thoughts are in reality only rejected parts of ourselves that sense this time of great closeness to God and come out of our unconscious yearning for redemption. . . .
Hannah Rachel of Ludomir, whose eyes restlessly search the horizon for someone else, carefully explained to Jacob that he must learn how, as the Hasidim say it, to “find the root of love in evil so as to sweeten evil and turn it into love.
Welcoming home rejected parts of ourselves may be embarrassing. What parts of our own self do you find most embarrassing and want to hide? In what ways do nick names sometimes represent our renaming by a rejected part of ourselves? What parts of ourselves do we most want to heal and redeem? Have you ever encountered lascivious thoughts in prayer? Do you think it is possible to find the love in evil? How will that turn evil into love?
The Set-up in the Garden
Page 71 – 72: The second form of tearing that is responsible for human evil comes from parents and children separating from one another. The price a human being pays for growing into autonomous adult is the pain of leaving home. I am now convinced the Eden story intuits this.
If God didn’t want Adam and Eve to eat fruit from the tree in the center of the garden, then why put it right there, out in the middle of the garden where Adam and Eve could reach it? Why didn’t God just hide the fruit somewhere deep in the forest? And then, equally puzzling, after putting the tree in the middle of the garden, why did God specifically tell Adam and Eve to be sure not to eat the fruit? . . .
Maybe God realized that Adam and Eve weren’t clever enough on their own to figure out how to sin. After universes of infantile obedience, they remained tediously, predictable, and incorrigibly infantile.
“Yes, Daddy, yes Mommy, whatever you want.”
“This will never work,” reasons God. “Better they should know some sin, estrangement, and guilt but at least become autonomous human beings rather than remain these insipid, goody-two-shoes infants. But I can’t just make them autonomous. If I did, their autonomy, their individuation, their independence would be a sham. They must earn it themselves. They must want it badly enough to pay a price. I’ll let them make their own children, but first they must earn their autonomy.
I suspect it was for this reason, out of desperation, that God resorted to a “setup” that has come to be known as the expulsion from the garden of Eden. Eating the first fruit was not a sin but a necessary, prearranged passage toward human maturity. We have read it all wrong: God was not angry; God rejoiced at our disobedience and then wept with joy that we could feel our estrangement and want to return home.
How do you feel about this version of the story of “estrangement from God” and our separation out from parents? What is your most vivid memory of disobeying your parents? What forms of “sin” do you think God is most forgiving? What has been the price you have paid from becoming an autonomous adult? If human beings have a hard time separating out from parents, do you suppose parents ever have a hard time separating out from their children?
God Has Been Here All Along
Page 77 – 78: Jacob wondered now if God hadn’t been a player all along. Perhaps that was the real meaning of the dream: not so much that the deal between himself and God was still on, not even that God would bring him safely back to this place, but that God was still present throughout the whole fiasco. . .
Thinking this way about what he had done still made him feel ashamed but not devastated. He could at least imagine trying, as Hasidism would say, “to raise and sweeten” the evil devisings of his heart. To let them be a part of God’s plan without hurting others at the same time. He could not imagine trying to take the pain he now realized was deep inside him and instead of hurting others to simply cry instead. He could even imagine how, perhaps in some safe future place, he might again someday be able to discern God’s presence and the outline of some kind of plan. But he also knew, deep in his gut, that most of time such retrospective consolation would be concealed from him.
Do you ever have the sense in looking out over your life, you can sense of hand of God in your life? Do you think that ever in retrospect you will ever understand fully your purpose in having life your life? Where do you think God might be working out a purpose in your life now?
Sweetening the Evil in Yourself
Page 78 – 80: We go down into ourselves with a flashlight, looking for the evil we have intended or done — not to excise it as some alien growth, but rather to discover the holy spark within it. We begin not by rejecting the evil but by acknowledging it as something we meant to do. This is the only way we can truly raise and redeem it.
We lose our temper because we want things to be better right away. We gaze with lustful eyes because we have forgotten how to love the ones we want to love. We hoard material possessions because we imagine they will help us live more fully. . . .
We do not simply repudiate the evil we have done and sincerely mean never to do again; that is easy (we do it all the time). We receive whatever evils we have intended and done back into ourselves as our own deliberate creations. We cherish them as long-banished children finally taken home again. And thereby transform them and ourselves. When we say the vidui, the confession, we don’t hit ourselves; we hold ourselves. . .
This time Jacob tells the truth! Now, over two decades later, he manages to unify both sides of his personality. And the minute he tells the truth about his identity to the nameless night wrestler, his other side, his twin brother, (God?), he is transformed into Israel. Now he is the being who has struggled with beings human and divine and survived. He rises to his destiny.
In many religious traditions during periods of confession or repentance, people literally beat themselves with chains or flails. In many Protestant traditions people beat themselves over the head over and over again. How do you think Kushner thinks we ought to handle our sins. What has been your most important spiritual wrestling?
Self-Reflection – Three Selves
Page 84: “In order to be aware of yourself,” explained the Maggid, “a part of you must be looking at the rest of you. You have deliberately broken off a piece of your consciousness, set it a few inches over your shoulder, and you depend on this little piece of knowing to inform the remainder of our consciousness that it is you.”
Have you ever experienced yourself observing yourself? How is the observer different and the same as yourself?
Page 85: .. . . . But you must understand that there are three stages of self.” . . . “The first stage is simply earning a living. Preoccupied with mouths to feed, needing sleep, and, if they are lucky, finding some leisure to sit down and rest, they do not have time to ponder whether or not they have selves or the designs of the Holy One of Being. For them it is enough to attend the house of prayer in the morning and the evening, give a little to charity, observe the Sabbath. . . .
“Then there are the ones who are driven to ask questions.” . . . “These are the ones who know that they have selves. Afflicted with the ancient questions of who they are and who God is, they sit with their feet in cold water so that can stay awake a few more hours and read just another page or two of Talmud, driven by the hope that the answer will be on the next page, condemned by self-reflection to be aware they themselves are the ones who are searching.”
“Some, the third kind,” he glanced at the first beams of sunlight now turning the night sky into dawn, “are no longer aware of their selves. They are very close to God.”
“Then what is the difference between them and the first group of people who were preoccupied with earning their living?” Asked Jacob.
“Not much. Maybe only that they have gone on the journey and returned to precisely the same place from which they began,” shrugged the master.
What kind of person do you think you are? Do you really think there is not much difference between the first kind of person and the third kind of person? How important is the journey?
Washing the Dishes
Page 86: The great insight of religion is not that we can find God in everyday life; it is that finding God returns us to everyday life. Forgetting one’s self, making the self as nothing, give us life beyond thinking and theology, beyond the incessant self-reflecting that renders us voyeurs of our own lives.
Have you ever felt like a “voyeur” of your own life? Have you ever experienced forgetting yourself long enough to be in the here and now?
Rituals of the Mind
Page 87 – 88: So why have religion at all? Why not just live and enjoy life? Because sooner or later we all lose that childlike ability to simply live each moment without reflection. We ask ourselves the great question. Overwhelmed by the mystery of existence, we are embarrassed to hear ourselves whisper, “Who?” The question comes in many disguises and according to many timetables. For some, it takes shape only over decades. For others, the world is shattered in an instant. But sooner or later the question comes to every human being.
When or where has life’s question come to you? How is it different to ask “Who?”, rather than “What?” Is it every important to ask “Where?” or “When?”
Page 88 – 89: Religious rituals are a funny sequence of things we do to help us remember that we have forgotten why we have been created, and gently provide us with the instruments of return. They are ancient techniques for sending us back to everyday life with a childlike sense of wonder.
What religious rituals do you find most comforting? Most challenging? Are there any rituals that help you to focus in the here and now? Do you have any non-religious rituals in your day?
Speaker of the Self
Page 89 – 91: . . . when you talk to yourself, who’s talking and who’s listening?
. . . the fact that we can hold these interior conversations with our “selves” means that we are fragmented, alienated, broken. If we were whole, then there could be no conversation, because there would be no one else “in there” to talk to. . . .
Too much concentration can be worse than none at all. . . The goal seems to be how to do something with all your heart without forgetting the sanctity of what you’re doing. . .
Similarly, my teenage daughter (the one who became a Rabbi) once explained to me, “You cannot dance if yo9u are worried about what you look like on the dance floor. You must give yourself to the music, let it tell you what to do; quit being so self-conscious. The only way you will ever know you are dancing is if, once the music has stopped, you didn’t realize you were dancing.”
Who is talking, and who is listening? Can you identify these different selves? Have you ever really been able to dance? I have often said, it is almost impossible to worship and lead worship at the same time. Every time I actually experience worship, I make mistakes in leading it. Have you ever lost yourself in prayer or worship?
Face to Face
Page 94 -95: We cannot see our own faces without a mirror, and even then the image is reversed. And we cannot know the presence of God until God has departed. . . . In order to be present in God’s presence, all our awareness must be there. Especially and including that part of consciousness that normally tells the rest of consciousness that we are present. But, of course, this means that some of our awareness is not there. . .
. . . What God says to Moses at Horeb, “I will let you see anchorai, my back,” the Hebrew is not, as frequently misunderstood anthropomorphic. The word achorai also has a temporal sense. What God says means, “Moses, you cannot know Me at the time when I am present. That would only mean that some part of your brain was hiding behind a rock trying to observe what was going on. No Moses, you can only see achorai – what it’s like must after I have been there.
Have you ever had the sense of somehow knowing God was present after the event? Is life review in old age an opportunity to discover God’s presence in our lives in hindsight? Do you now begin to understand this book title: Surely God Was in this Place and I, i Did Not Know.
And Empty Throne
Pages 97 – 98: One of my Bat Mitzvah students, upon hearing that the letters of the tetragrammaton were all vowels, and therefore were pronounced like breathing and screaming, suggested that the first sound a newborn infant makes as it brings itself into being might be the Name of God.
Have you ever been present for the first breath or cry of an infant? Have you ever been present for the last breath of someone you loved? How are those two breaths similar? How are they different? Think back, can you hear God’s name in those breaths?
Only Nothing Is Guaranteed
Page 98 – 100: . . . only Nothing can embrace all being, infinite possibility, and, therefore, the presence of God. For this reason, one who expects nothing has no guarantees, just openness to every possibility. . .
What enormous courage to enter the Nothing of limitless possibility and no guarantees. To let go of the old tangible self, the ego idol, definition, boundary and enter the Nothing. All on the gamble that what you sense within might come to fruition through your courage. To simply entrust yourself to your source. Something akin to exhaling. And about that far away.
. . . Again and again we trade infinite wonder for a handful of statue; we barter the limitless Nothing for the short-term bird in the hand. And when the deal is done, we have become what we serve: things rather than children of light.
. . . . But Nothing is always there, right where you are. You don’t need to be anywhere or possess anything you don’t even need to put forth your hand. When we say that God is everywhere, we do not mean some invisible, ubiquitous “thing” but another perpetually coexistent mode of being that can be summoned with even casual spiritual discipline. God’s presence is a function of our perception. When we realize that every something – our books, our homes, our fears, our friendships, our selves – rest in Nothing, we have entered the Presence.
In prayer or meditation have your ever experienced “Nothing?” What do you think of the idea of God as “No thing?” Thinking of God as “No Thing” do you think you have entered the presence?
Page 109 – 111: . . .Fear must never be an excuse. You can be weak, you can be confused, you can even be in prison, but you cannot be afraid. The political forces that seek your acquiescence are counting on you to be afraid. Your fear is their most powerful weapon. And when you refuse to be afraid, they fall from the ladder, they cease to exist. . .
. . . He is afraid precisely because he is running away, not just from his brother, Esau, but from his parents and everything he has been. And, as Nachmani’s interpretation of the ladder suggests, Jacob is also running away from history. He does not take responsibility for his life or his world or to enter either as an active participant. . . .
“But I didn’t realize that this moment was history. I thought it was just another ordinary moment. I didn’t realize that One other than me was also watching, waiting, hoping, peering through the lattice. I didn’t think I could have any impact, that what I did or did not do mattered.”
“Well realize it now: What people do matters. . . They trusted where God had put them and in what God put before them. They chose to step forward into their destiny.”
What are some of your struggles with fear? What would you do if you weren’t afraid? Have you ever had the sense that you were in an important historical moment? Do you think what you do matters? Has God ever called you to step forward into destiny?
Hands of God
Pages 121 – 122: Often the window through which you can alter history is as ordinary as a stranger coming to your door and asking for food or money. Other times a tank appears on the street, and you must decide whether or not you will stand in its path. But whether as easy as giving a few dollars or as terrifying as putting your life in jeopardy, something is laid before you. There are many ways to avoid action. We blame others, we say the problem is too big or too complicated, we close our eyes we tell lies. But finally we are free only to step into this moment or back away from it. No matter what we do or do not do, we have made our decision. . . .
.. . For, while God does not have hands, we do. Our hands are God’s. And when people behave as if their hands were the hands of God, then God “acts” in history.
Do you think you have ever been the hands of God? Do you think churches, synagogues, mosques, temples or other religious organizations are ever behaving like the hands of God? What do you think are the most important reasons religious organizations so often fail in the mission to serve as the hands and feet of God.
Environment as Resolution
Page 124 – : Our newly emerging understanding of the environment provides us with a new metaphor for the synthesis of mythic and linear conceptions of history. The environment embodies both. We are all living manifestations of an organism called the environment. And this organism seems to move through daily, weekly, monthly, annual cycles. . . And yet, for all of our knowledge of nature’s rhythms, we sense an urgency in our present condition. We correctly understand that we can inflict irreversible ecological damage. . . In the environment the mythic cycles of nature coexist with the irreversibility of linear time. We must act in ways that will ensure that the ever-renewing web of nature will continue to spin. . .
Do you think human beings have the will to reverse the damage we are doing to our environment? How important do you think environmental damage will figure into the long course of history?
Page 126: “Because you and I and all human beings are created in one image, we are, each of us, versions of God. We are to God as the DNA molecule is to us. So, in addition to seeing the beginning and the end, I also saw myself. All was within me. I stood there with my arms and legs stretched out like the rays of the sun and watched all being pass before me. It was all in my hands. I could do with creation whatever I pleased!”
Do you think we are able to do with creation whatever we please? What are the consequences, when we do with creation whatever we please? As humans do you think we should think of ourselves as having dominion over the earth, or should we think of ourselves as stewards of the earth?
Page 130 – 131: I once asked Daniel Matt, who was tutoring me in Zohar, why, in the Zohar’s sefirotic diagram purporting to describe the infrastructure of creation with ten spheres arranged in a male-female, yin-yang balance, mothering was understood as tern and judgmental while fathering was tender and forgiving. They seemed to reverse human experience. He thought for a moment and surmised with a smile that the Baal HaZohar, the author of the Zohar, must have had one helluva mother. It occurs to me now that his wife may have written much of the book. What we do know is that all Kabbalists, or Jewish mystics, had access to the feminine dimension of themselves and of God. For them, God was potentially both male and female. I now suspect that, in some sense, all were women, every last one of them, drawing freely not only from both sides of consciousness but also from gender.
Are you aware of having both a masculine and a feminine side to your own nature? Do you think mysticism is more a part of the feminine side of our natures? Do you think it is possible to have both a feminine and a masculine spirituality?
Page 132 – 133: . . . Suppose one of the I’s doesn’t refer to your ego or another mode of consciousness; suppose it refers to God. Suppose one of the I’s, the first one, is actually another Name for God. What I’m saying is that we know God has many names. The list is probably endless.
“But perhaps there was a Name for God that until last night neither you nor anyone else had ever known before. Suppose one of God’s Names is: ‘I, Anochi. Now the verse reads, ‘Surely God was in this place, but by the Name, I Anochi, i did not know.’ Do you understand me?” The author of the Zohar’s eyes were wide open, “God’s Name is I, Anochi!”
“Oh, God! Whispered Jacob. “That means that God and I both call ourselves by the same name. And (the logic was simple) if God’s Name is I (Anochi), then God must also have a Self.” His mind felt like it suddenly had turned itself inside out.
How important is it to think of God having a “self?” Is that what scripture might mean, when in Genesis it says we are created in the divine image? If God has a self, is it possible to know God personally? Is this perhaps the goal of mysticism?
Pages 134 – 135 Assuming the waves could speak, what should they say to the ocean? Perhaps the most meaningful noise they could make would be the rhythmic, relentless whisper they make as they rise and fall, come in and out of being. Surely that is a worthy prayer. . . .
You might say that we have only two options: We can recite the words, acknowledge that we are all waves of the same sea, made of the same stuff, creatures of the same Creator, or we can be too busy to make the words, recite the prayer, offer the service.
We can on occasion, to select another analogy, choose to be aware of the barely audible noise made by the involuntary emptying and filling of our lungs, this noise by which we live. Or we can ignore and take it for granted. The only casualty is our own awareness, our sense of life.
Prayers run in two directions, for the ocean also speaks to the waves. But since the waves are already part of the ocean, there sound is, in some sense, the sound of their source speaking to them. They are the mouth of the ocean, and their prayer is the way the sea has of speaking to itself.
Have you ever had the sense of hearing other than yourself, when you have stopped to listen in prayer? Do you ever sensed God’s presence in worship in the organized liturgy? What is your favorite part of worship?
I am and Do Not Covet
Page 139 – 141: As the first utterance begins with “I,” so the last commandment concludes with “your neighbor,” thereby completing the spectrum from me to you, one to another, I to thou. . . .Nevertheless, according to at least Rabbi Yakum, “One who violates the tenth commandment violates them all,” even the first!
The first utterance and the last commandment may be joined to one another because they are simply difference sides of the same truth. They are each the cause of the other. Something like this is suggested by Rabbi Michal of Zolotchov who intuits that “not to covet” is not a commandment but a reward.
“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. . . or anything that is your neighbor’s. How is it possible to command someone concerning a mental state which has not external manifestations? . . . “You shall not covet,” is not so much a command as the Divine assurance of a reward. . . .
If you are content with your portion, you will want nothing and will lack nothing. You will be like the One who spoke, “I am.” It does not mean that you will not, or ought not change and grow; it means only at this moment, in this place you are all that you can be. . . . Right now we can only be who we are. We are simply all that we can be. . . . To utter the “I am” is to want nothing else and, strange though it sounds, to want nothing else is the necessary prerequisite for all genuine growth. . . Growth must begin with self-acceptance; change begins with not trying to change.
Do you see how spiritual growth and change is a sort of paradox? Do you see the relationship between self-acceptance and not coveting? Do you see how letting go of desire (Buddhism) is the beginning of change? How do you think it works out accepting that I am overweight before I can lose weight?
Self-Acceptance and Change
Page 141 – 142: You cannot become someone other than who you are until you know who you are. And you cannot know who you are until you accept who you are right now and in this place. For the time is now, and not some other time; and the place is here, and not somewhere else. And you are who are, not anyone else. . .
It is a paradox. Change begins by not trying to change. And what you imagine you must do in order to change yourself is often the very force that keeps you as you precisely the way you are. How else can you explain the years and decades of your own foiled plans for growth and broken resolutions. . . And if you could remain still long enough here, now, in this very place, you would discover who you are. And by discovering who you are, you would at last be free to discover who you yet also might be.
Can see any ways in which your attempts at self-improvement have actually blocked possibilities for growth? When Kushner talks about being “still” here and now, what do you imagine he is suggesting? Have you ever experienced “self-discovery” in prayer or meditation?
Page 143: God’s “I am” has the psychotheological force not of dissolving individual selves but of reminding us that we never were independent in the first place. . .
The layers of pretense and self-delusion fall away, leaving now instead the innermost essence that knows its origin and destiny. This at last is a self that knows its place among other selves, perhaps not “I am,” but “i am.” This “i” is the dynamic force behind personal change. Who are we? Really? Not the public personae, nor the images, nor the professions, nor the apologies. Not the past, for that can only produce pride or guilt. Not the future, for that can only produce hope or fear. The first utterance is in the present. All that is said is the personal pronoun in the first person singular form: “Anochi, I.”
How does this passage help you understand the difference between “I” and “i.” Can you see how learning to be in the present helps us to find ourselves? Have you ever tried to live in the past? How does that work? Have you tried living in the future? How does that work?
Page 149: One of my high school students once asked me if I could prove there was a God. Instead I asked her if she had a self. She thought for a moment and said, “Of course/”
“And is yourself important to you?”
“Very,” she replied.
“And where would you be,” I pushed, “without your self?”
“In big trouble.”
“Can you prove you have one?”
She smiled, “I get what you mean.”
The essence of spirituality is a return to the self, a redirection of vision of the one who asks the question, an almost serendipitous discovery that what is sought is, and has always been, right here all along. “It,” in other words, is never somewhere else. Could this stubborn insistence that God has no body whatsoever be another way of keeping this primary and holy truth alive? If God has no body, then God is nowhere. And I need go nowhere.
Can you prove you have a self? If something as important as our “self” cannot be seen, or heard, or touched or tasted, is it possible there are other intangible realities? Is it possible that the prohibition against creating images of God is pointing us in the direction of intangible reality?
Page 150: Spirituality is always in reference to two “I”s, two selves. The “i” of the person and the “I” of the Universe. It is religion in a personal mode, religion from the point of view of the “i” of yourself and from the point of view of the ”I” of the Universe. Spirituality is not about someone else or even about yourself in some cool, self-reflective, objective manner; nor is it about the past or the future. It is personal and immediate. Spirituality is the presence of God. And only rarely – once in a generation or even less — is the presence of God accompanied by a heavenly chorus or light beaming out of the recipient’s facial apertures. Most of the time that presence is very quiet, so quiet it can be drowned out by the slightest noise or lost to the slightest distraction. Indeed, God’s presence already permeates all creation. We name it when we are born with our first cry and whisper it as we die with our last breath. It wants only to be made tangible through our hands.
We are agents, instruments of God’s presence. We are not at odds with the Self of the Universe; we are part of it. And to be aware of this is to give our lives ultimate meaning and purpose. To realize that we are servants, through everything that we do, with or without our consent, is to be able to do anything; it is our empowerment and fulfillment. Spirituality is a dimension of living where we are aware of God’s presence. It is being concerned with how what we do affects God and how what God does affects us.
Once again in this passage we have the I and the i. The I waits to be made tangible by the hands of the i. Are you ready for such responsibility? Is this how you understand spirituality? Much that passes today for “spirituality” is about “feeling good.” Do you think there is an intersection between God’s presence and “feeling good?” Do you ever find the expectation that God’s presence will be accompanied by “special affects” or miraculous manifestations a distraction?
The Modes of Devekut
Page 152 – 153. . . . three forms of devekut that precisely correspond to . . . three kinds of religious personalities. . . . first come personality then comes theology. , , Aristotelian devekut. . . cognitive devekut. In this form of union, during the act of cognition the knower and the known become one. This is a description of the experience of the loss of self by a personality who is cerebral, rational, linear, left-brain dominant. Someone we today might call a head person.
A second mode of devekut is the devekut of behavior. In this experience, one seeks to . . . help God through specific actions. . . If one becomes a servant of God, then his or her deed is also God’s action. By repairing things here, we repair them above. A personality drawn to such cleaving to God is action-oriented, a doer, an achiever, a fixer, someone who wants to repair the world. If the first personality is a head person, the second would be a hands person.
The third form of devekut is the devekut of prayer. Concerned with reuniting the soul with its root, the focus of this third personality is neither cerebral nor behavioral but emotional. Such a soul is drawn to closing his eyes, losing herself in song, sitting in silence. I would call such a one a heart person. And thus for each type of religious personality (or different aspects of the same person) becoming one with God finds its unique expression.
We don’t want just to read about what God wants. We don’t want someone else telling us what God wants either. We don’t even want God telling us what God wants. We want our eyes to be God’s eyes so that we can see the world the way God sees it. . . Devekut: being one with God. At last the “little i, Anochi” and the Great I, Anochi, or All creation” are one.
Of the three types of devekut described by Kushner, which is most like you? Can you think of different times when you have experienced all of the types of devekut? Can you imagine or have experienced any other modes of devekut in union with God?
Hands of God, Eyes of Father
Page 166 – 167: Not long ago, while giving some lectures in a faraway city, my hosts lodged me at a nearby inn situated in the middle of a restored antique village. . . I stopped in front of one after another, (building) remembering my father, sad that we could not share the sight. And then it came to me. Since he no longer had physical eyes, I would have to look at each building with special care and twice as long, for from now on I would have to see the world for both of us.
Perhaps it is the same way with human beings and God. God’s eyes are not our eyes. God’s ears are now our ears. And God’s hands are ours. It is up to us, what God will see and hear, up to us, what God will do. Look at the world, you are seeing with God’s eyes. Look at your hands, they are the hands of God.
Have you ever experienced serving as an extension of a parent or grandparent’s life? Have you ever felt close to a friend or relative who is now dead? How far apart do you feel are the past members of the community and the present members of the community? If you were the hands of God, what would you be doing?
Eye of the Text
Page 181: It is not Jacob who says, “God was in this place and I, i did not know.” It is you who are reaching these words. You are the sacred text itself. The holy text is not about you. You are not even “in” it. You are it.
Do you get it?