Thinking about weather means thinking about air and about what’s invisible. Air, of course, being our most pressing physical need. We inspire – breathe in – as well as expire, or at least exhale, for now. It’s a rhythm, as are the seasons. While we don’t see it, we feel its presence as wind and view its action on leaves and open water.
Of the ancient elements, air was invisible and heavenly, countered by visible earth, fire, and water. The weather, of course, invokes all three. Fire, not just as sun but as lightning as well. Water, coming down as rain, snow, sleet, hail, fog; mounting across the sky as clouds, swirling, dissolving. Earth, absorbing them all. Everything, full of mystery.
Our hearts instill not just rhythm but constant drumming, working to bring these elements together – air in the lungs, with the liquid stream of life drawing food from the stomach and intestines, in turn to create body heat and the electrical impulses of thought and muscular action.
In one of my seasons of soul-searching, I finally came to address the “earthy” dimensions of spirituality head on. While the Quaker queries and advices touch on some of these as matters, they do so as points of conduct, without necessarily delving into the lingering and underlying dynamics. There’s a longstanding tension in religious teachings between the goodness of the Creation and the evils of “the world” or our “natural inclinations.” As I would find, the biggest conflict occurs deep within our individual psyches, as we attempt to resolve the fact that we are essentially animals, and thus doomed to die, while also being spiritually aware, with a knowledge of good and evil. The is, of course, the curse of the Garden of Eden, that the price of knowledge also imposes a continuing pain. Otto Rank, one of Sigmund Freud’s two principal disciples, delves profoundly into this dichotomy and argues that the fear of death, and not sex, is the central issue in the human condition. He also contends that religion provides the only sane response to this condition.
At the interface of the animal and the spiritual we can expect the most profound perceptions to emerge, and the further the perception reaches into both the animal and spiritual experience of a person, the stronger its impact. In this sense, mysticism does not withdraw from life, but offers opportunities to more fully encounter it. Once again, we find ways the Spirit becomes embodied in our lives and our world. How it takes flesh. How the abstract reveals itself in concrete decisions and actions, as well as thoughts and emotions.
One of the central themes running through the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and early Quaker teaching is that God has an alternative way of living – one that is at odds with general society or many human impulses. Conflicts arise immediately, of course, because we are essentially social animals who require other people for our own survival. How much are we willing to suffer to preserve this alternative stream, and how much are we willing to bend? Part of the answer depends on our place within a People of God, as Jews, early Christians, and early Quakers have all seen themselves through periods of intense persecution. (In fairness, let me acknowledge that the vision of drawing away from the surrounding society is also found in a number of other religious traditions, although not necessarily with the ideal of becoming a People of God or of embracing the “earthy” aspects of the human condition.)
In our own time, we sometimes speak of “parallel universes” that resemble our own. At a stoplight I glance over at the car next to mine and see the woman driver is scratching spots on a large lottery ticket. I have no idea what makes this so important to her at this given moment, why she didn’t take a few minutes when she first bought it, or whether she’s running late for her next appointment. For that matter, the attraction of lotteries largely eludes me, while Quaker discipline and frugality give me reason to avoid them. It’s one of those flashes where I begin to wonder if I’m living in a parallel universe within the United States of America, if not this planet Earth. I view military events, crowds in shopping malls, celebrity news, NASCAR racing, stadium concerts, new automobile showrooms, funeral home calling hours, McMansions, strip mining, and a host of other activities with the same bewilderment. On the other hand, I’ve begun to appreciate baseball and football, at least as they apply to New England, and once owned a used BMW that initiated me into car culture, of sorts.
That’s not meant to cast myself as “holier than thou,” but simply different – somewhere between American consumer society, on one side, and the Amish and old-order Brethren, on the other. If I begin sounding too cocky on the “holier than thou” front, my wife and children are all too willing to point out my failings. Humility is part of the earthy half of this spiritual equation. We are, after all, only human. In our own ways, at that.
For more of my Seasons of the Spirit reflections, click here.