The Known Universe

I remember first communion lessons as vaguely creepy.  Yet, as Father Elgin described Christ at the table, imagination bested me—bread the weight of body, viscous wine, and the strange smell of airborne electricity blossoming at the moment of Jesus’ transformation.  My thoughts settled into deeper and deeper possibilities and, as precipitous as my thinking became, something shadowy still lay below.

Father Elgin taught me the world’s invisible order. Everything solid was mysterious (and vice versa) because, if a man might be made bread and eaten, then strangeness always accompanied me.  Sitting in a pew beside a stained glass window, I’d shift to see the church yard through different colors—red, blue, yellow, Mars, Venus, Jupiter—each fresh world as there as anything I knew.  At every moment, entirely other universes existed.  My mind could travel anywhere.

Some secret I had yet to learn might bring discovery.

But thinking isn’t the same thrill ride now.  The questions that sent me spiraling—“What was before God?” and “Where is Christ right now?”—erode with use.  They become silly, more fetish than sensation.  We can only prod ourselves so many times before poking our imaginations is habitual, familiar, forgotten.

I miss mystery and wish deep questions still stirred me.  Father Elgin wanted to awaken amazement in us and did.  Now I’m jaded and swing between thinking only simple minds can sustain wonder and envying simpler minds.  Along the way, I’ve tried to convince myself I might reach enlightenment through the alchemy of study, soupy mysticism, or chemical spurs.  Nothing worked long.

Other people seem to find astonishment in science—photos crowded with galaxies or lenses focused so tight they threaten to penetrate the skin of atoms—but in science every “Wow” is knowledge.  It promises to make order visible, not to suggest something unseen or unknowable.  It tells us we will eventually learn it all, not that the bottom has no bottom or that time can’t reconcile with itself.  Science defines as it explains.

I’m not at all religious and resist the plot of every God story.  Though I enjoy them as tales, they defy belief.  I might will my six-year-old’s wonder back if I could but, as Anne Sexton said, “Need is not quite belief.”  I wish it were.  The absence of Father Elgin’s absolute and endlessly unaccountable mysteries impoverishes modern life.  The miraculous was once the spark of being in the world and kept us awake.  But what now?

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1 Comment

Filed under Buddhism, Doubt, Essays, Jeremiads, Laments, life, Meditations, Memory, Modern Life, Recollection, Thoughts

One response to “The Known Universe

  1. Peter Newton

    David Marshall,

    Your recent Signals to Attend post sparked a response. I thought I’d send it along by way of thanks. You made me think about mystery, miracles and the imagination all in one sitting. And I was on my way out the door to go to work.

    The best way I’ve found in recent years to jump-start my imagination is to clean house, so to speak. De-clutter the mind.

    What I discovered was that I am more alive than dead. The imagination is an accurate gauge as to a person’s vital signs. Buddhist teachings suggest that we detach from the human drama. I try to, in hopes that I might see myself more clearly, understand my role in the drama I must return to. An unexpected bonus is that everything else becomes clearer as well.

    I might notice the unique shade of blue in a cornflower or that the space between the leaves of a particular tree I’ve been watching is shaped like the continent of Africa. A mystery? A deep question? Probably not but more of an answer to a question it never occurred to me to ask. Simple questions like: Now what? What now? can be wholly unexasperated ways to view the world. The miraculous is all around us and I mean that in a non-religious way. All we have to do is see it.

    But it takes practice. And a lot of air, one breath at a time. A clear mind. Mornings are best for me. When I find I’m closest in my orbit to childhood rememberings. That natural state of simplicity that was so rich with wonder when I was a kid. It seemed everywhere I walked when I was seven I couldn’t swing a stick without hitting a home run.

    Like you, a fellow writer, I turn to words to help me. Specifically, haiku.
    I return to haiku most mornings not to remember my childhood but as a reminder of a way of looking at the world—through the eyes of wonder.

    A water-swept stone in a river is nothing more and nothing less, though I may imagine it as the perfect shape of a flying saucer, that imagining came from noticing it to begin with. These noticings happen all the time among kids. Simple minds think alike. It’s just that along the way on our path through adulthood we forget our previous innate ability to see what is around us. The internet and all manner of hand-held devices does not help matters much but that’s a subject many have blogged on about.

    What I think happens as we get older is we lose track of our tools. Our innate tools of survival that make up our imaginations. They get away from us. Get left behind. And we don’t realize we can make more tools. We forget how to work with our hands. How to build a life. A spontaneous resurgence of tree house construction would do wonders for many people I know, myself included.

    I miss mystery too, like a beloved pet we used to do everything together. What a loyal bond we shared. My suggestion: it’s still there. Call it. And it will come.

    racing
    kids from the bus
    racing leaves

    –Peter Newton

    Thank you, Peter—I’m overwhelmed at what a tremendous gift you’ve given me, a stranger. There’s much in what you’ve said that I ought to hear, but one of my favorites passages is:

    I might notice the unique shade of blue in a cornflower or that the space between the leaves of a particular tree I’ve been watching is shaped like the continent of Africa. A mystery? A deep question? Probably not but more of an answer to a question it never occurred to me to ask. Simple questions like: Now what? What now? can be wholly unexasperated ways to view the world. The miraculous is all around us and I mean that in a non-religious way. All we have to do is see it.


    I needed reminding. Thanks again. —David

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