Thursday, October 30, 2008

Mortal soul 9 -- Words no man can utter

The novelist Virginia Woolf once wrote about "moments of being," elusive incidents of attentiveness and insight when we are lifted out of the "gray wool" of everyday life and permitted to feel an intense connection with the world beyond our selves. These are the same illuminations the poet Sylvia Plath wrote about in her poem Black Rook in Rainy Weather that come now and then unbidden, "thus hallowing an interval/ Otherwise inconsequent/ By bestowing largesse, honor,/ One might say love." We treasure these moments of illumination, and seek to increase their prevalence in our lives. How? A word that comes to mind is -- mindfulness.

How do we make our lives more mindful? The experience of a Virginia Woolf or a Sylvia Plath does not offer much guidance; their particular sensitivity was related to an untypical state of mind that led, finally, to despair. Nor is the Eastern experience of mindfulness of much use to me, a child of Roman Catholicism and Western science. I sought my spiritual enlightenment, such as it is, closer to home, in the Western monastic tradition, and the works of the great medieval mystics, such as John of the Cross, Julian of Norwich and Meister Eckhart. But even as a young man chasing after an unknown God I knew that nature -- the Thing Itself -- would be an important part of any spirituality I might discover or construct. In this regard -- and seemingly paradoxically, since science and spirituality are often seen as poles apart -- my science education offered valuable lessons.

A good science education teaches one how to pay attention, how to see what is there to be seen rather than what we want or expect to see -- homage to the Thing Itself. Each of us walks through the world in a gray wool of preconceptions and predjudices, some perhaps genetically disposed, others imbibed from family, teachers and friends. The beginning of a mindful life, it seems to me, is to make one's self transparent to the world beyond the self -- and for this a scientific education is useful training.

Like the poet and artist, the scientist wants the greater mystery of things revealed more clearly than the eye can see. And so, as spiritual pilgrims, scientists and artists together, we trek like Sylvia Plath "stubborn though this season of fatigue," trying to keep ourselves open to the illuminations that now and then prick the carapace of preconception, seeking as best we can to "patch together a content of sorts" -- the Thing Itself seen more clearly than the eye can see.

"Perhaps we are here only to say: House, Bridge, Fountain, Gate," says the poet Rainer Maria Rilke. He continues: "But to say them...oh, to say them more intensely than the Things themselves ever dreamed of being." So let us begin our approach to mystery, to the unspeakable, to the words no man can utter, with reliable knowledge of the world. Let us begin with the consensus knowledge of science. Then, having honored as best we can the Thing Itself, houses will float up from their foundations, bridges will leap into the air like birds, fountains will gush hallelujahs. And the gates of our senses will fling themselves open to the unspeakable and unspoken mystery of the world.