Friday, August 17, 2007

An anniversary (and a commercial)

The jacket illustration of the Irish edition of Honey From Stone shows an almost full moon rising beyond an alignment of megalithic standing stones. A meteor streaks the sky. Why did my Irish publisher chose to leave off the jacket is the subtitle of the American edition: A Naturalist's Search for God. Too religious? Not religious enough?

The word "God" appears only twice in the book. Once at the end of the Introduction:
This is not a work of metaphysics or theology. It is instead a kind of serendipitous adventure, a spiritual vagabond's quest. I have tramped the landscapes of the Dingle Peninsula, studying the rocks, the sky, the flora and the fauna, and I took whatever scraps of revelation I could find. I sought the burning bush and did not find it. But I found the honeysuckle and the fuchsia, and I found the gorse and the heather. When I called out for the Absolute, I was answered by the wind. If it was God's voice in the wind, then I heard it.
And in the very last paragraph of the book, where I have been talking about the star Vega:
A grainy stuttering of light on a photograph -- knowledge condensing from a sea of mystery, extending the shore along which we might encounter God. (Can that ancient, much abused word still have currency in an age of science? Perhaps not. But let it stand, like a distant horizon, like a foreign shore.) Este saber no sabiendo, "this knowing that unknows," is what John of the Cross called it, the knowing that takes place just here on the surface of the eye where Vega and the thought of Vega are one. Photons of radiant energy stream across the light-years, wind-whipped whitecaps of visible light and the longer swells of the infrared, to fall upon the Earth out of the dark night -- denying, revealing, hiding, making plain. I am soaked by starlight; I am blown by a stellar wind. I am bent low in that downpour of revelation.
Those words first appeared in print twenty years ago, in the beautiful edition of the book published by Dodd, Mead (just before that venerable company went out of business). If I were writing the same book today, I would surely tone down that last paragraph; as a more experienced writer, I have greater respect for steady, unadorned prose. But the ideas I developed in Honey From Stone (which has recently been reissued by Rowman & Littlefield) remain at the heart of my work. Seeing is revelation, Description is praise. A Naturalist's Search for God was the subtitle. Did he find God? Nope. Nor does he hope to, if by God one means a personal supernatural being who hears and answers prayers and intervenes in the creation. But twenty years on I still hold true to the book's epigraph from St. Bernard of Clairvaux (alluding to the Old Testament in a letter to a young monk): "More things are learnt in the woods than from books; trees and rocks will teach you things not to be heard elsewhere. You will see for yourselves that honey may be gathered from stones and oil from the hardest rock." The search was always more important than the finding.