Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The path to heaven

May I add a few observations to my Sunday Musing about Philip and Edmund Gosse, father and son? I suppose what I had to say there left the impression that growing up in the Gosse's fundamentalist Christian household was unremittingly grim. Not quite so.

The father, as I said, was a zoologist, and during, most of Edmund's youth the family lived on the south coast of England. There, father and son would happily explore together the shallows and tide pools in search of the sea creatures that the elder Gosse would describe in his History of the British Sea-Anemones and Corals, a book that had the misfortune of coming out at the same time as Darwin's Origin of Species.

Edmund writes in Father and Son:
It was down on the shore, tramping along the pebbled terraces of the beach, clambering over the great blocks of fallen conglomerate which broke the white curve with rufous promontories that jutted into the sea, or, finally, bending over those shallow tidal pools in the limestone rocks which were our proper hunting ground, -- it was in such circumstances as these that my Father became most easy, most happy, most human. That hard look across his brows, which it wearied me to see, the look that came from sleepless anxiety of conscience, faded away.
Here, in the pleasures of scientific collecting and the beauties of nature, Philip Gosse was almost able to forget the burden of imagined sin that he bore in the face of a stern and demanding God. Here he was almost able to forget the onus of righteousness that his faith imposed upon him, the terrible responsibility of being one of the elect in a world in which most people labored in error and were damned. Writes Edmund of his father: "With all his faith in the Word of God, he had no confidence in the Divine Benevolence; and with all his passionate piety, he habitually mistook fear for love."

What sort of God forbids enjoyment of his own creation? I think of few lines of the poet Mary Oliver:
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You have only to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.
And again:
Of course! the path to heaven

doesn't lie down in flat miles.
  It's in the imagination
    with which you perceive
      this world,

and the gestures
  with which you honor it.