Uni-Versitas: Start with Wonder

Albert Einstein and Augustine of Hippo are different people. They are also the same. Having now exercised remarkable powers of observation and obfuscation, allow me to explain.

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Einstein. A genius, obviously.

Albert Einstein of Theory of General Relativity fame was a troubled failure of a student who became a theoretical physics superstar. He began as Steve Erkel but later became the Tom Brady of the 20th century science world, although rather wanting in groupies I should think. Albert stumbled his way through grade school having revealed a rather less than stellar academic prowess. But his was a great mind waiting to bust out of the starting gate and take a stab at the big world he observed. Better than most as it would turn out.

We’ll call him a good candidate for the Ellen Show.

Augustine of Hippo was a troubled saint-in-training, a self-proclaimed failure whose frat-boy lasciviousness (constantly horny for the lay person) and subsequent coming to Jesus moment is wonderfully outlined in his Confessions. It was the first of its kind. Memoir and theology wed together in a single book. It happens all the time now. Not so much then, however, when even average brains were pushed around in wheel-barrows.

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Augustine of Hippo. Kinda has frat-boy written all over him, doesn’t he?

Frankly, as much as I love the guy, he needed to chill a bit on the whole self-flagellation thing. He commits pages to the ravages of soul he encounters from stealing some of his neighbour’s pears. Really, dude? No “boys will be boys” pass on this one, huh? Like, I’m not trying to justify thievery here, but let’s get a grip, shall we? I sin more before morning coffee than this guy ever did, and he gets to be famous?

He’s more Jerry Springer.

What Gus and Al bring to the table however is exactly the same. A stretch you say? Perhaps. But, in a non-dualistic world, where everything is allowed to be interconnected, the starting point for science and for spirituality are one and the same.

Wonder.

My love for science is birthed from the same place as my longing for God. Frankly, I think they work the same turf, just with different conclusions for different reasons. But, in this uni-versitas, one truth, wonder reserved for black holes and quarks feels tellingly like that which the mystics experienced in the throes of contemplation.

For the sciency types, wonder is of the curious kind. The more rational, sensory kind where eye-balls matter more than Bibles. Observation, experimentation, hypothesis, theory, deduction. Repeat. One can hardly look to the heavens without asking how the hell all that stuff got way out there. It really is quite stunning. Go deep-sea diving and one has both dinner and questions. Or perhaps gaze out across the horizon and discern just how flat or round the earth might be (I leave the conspiracies, snickering and finger-pointing to you).

The greatest explorers, scientists, and theologians all began with the same premise. Wonder. But, it is in rather short supply in a world more concerned with body image or retirement savings than all this silliness.

What’s needed is a healthy dose of children. Not by way of breeding (although not entirely a bad thing), but learning from them. If you’re looking for answers to quantum mechanics, modifying your car, or the latest stock tips, don’t ask children. They’ll just show up with enlightened curiosity and wide-eyed wonder.

And, what good is that? Our lust for all things pragmatic chews away noisily at us, forcing misplaced expectations. We wouldn’t want to get our hopes up too high just in case today sucks. Besides, who has time anyway, right?

Rush, run, push, pull, grunt, wheeze, talk, squeeze – and that’s just zipping up our jeans. The real business happens once we get into our car for work. Then we practice a lifetime of adulting, or at least adultifying our child selves, silenced years ago in the frenetics of bills and babies, dishes and disappointments. Our playlist at the ready, we fire up the car (light on style, heavy on sensible) and join the rest of the one-per-vehicle parade floats. None of us dares to look at each other unless it’s to offer that you’re-really-gonna-change-lanes-here?! look of exasperation.

It’s almost cliché to write about the curse of busyness. Everyone’s doing it. Both the busyness and the writing about it. We’ve learned little in terms of how interconnected the universe really is, chaos theory notwithstanding. We’re fragmented, frightened and frazzled, all before coffee break.

These days, in pursuit of spiritual development, I tend to read Stephen Hawking and Bill Bryson as easily as I might St. John of the Cross or Meister Eckhart (Uncle Wiggy as I like to call him). Their aims are different. Their yearning for knowledge the same. Their process is different, although a case can be made for observation and seeing as central to both. Their outcomes just as mystifying. Just as satisfying.

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Meister Eckhart (Uncle Wiggy). Brilliant spirituality I like to call Christus Cannabis.

Ironically, I gain as much from reading those whose aim it is to prove God out of existence as those who presuppose that existence. Doctors of astronomy and asceticism, gravity and gratitude, dinosaurs and doxology. They are different, and they are the same. For me, they all begin in the same place. In wonder.

It’s all of a piece. And, if you let it, all of a peace.

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Picture of Al found here

Picture of Gus found here

Picture of Uncle Wiggy found here

Glimpses, part III – thin places

Two people stand on either side of a white bed sheet suspended from a clothesline. As it billows and blows this way and that, you are given a passing glimpse of someone standing on the other side. The image never stays long enough for you to determine its shape or identity. Your curiosity is piqued enough however to move closer to the sheet. The breeze stops momentarily and you place a tentative hand upon the sheet, now still and waiting. Your hand feels cool fabric, thin and light to the touch.

To your surprise at first and then to your delight, a hand presses against yours from the other side, the side that hinted at an image impossible to confirm with your eyes, untrained for such visions. Two hands touch, finger to finger, palm to palm and there is recognition. It is the realization that something holy is transpiring. The sacredness of it hangs in the air like a heavy mist. You stand, breathless, waiting, uncertain – yet somehow…sure.

That is what the Celts have called, a thin place.

Peering out my hotel window onto the suburban Portland landscapes, a collaboration of grey sky with green horizon conspires against my equally somber mood and confirms that this overstatement of beauty is underrated. It is a melancholy scene uniquely designed for creatives and mystics like myself. It doesn’t parade itself, shouting in one’s face like the endless, overly peppy summer days my fellow Yakimanians insist upon.

No, this multilayered beauty lets me seek for it. There is the obvious beauty one sees immediately with the eyes. But there exists an indirectness, hinting at something still deeper, under the skin, as if to say, “if you think this is beautiful, just keep looking…” Here it is that Hopkins’ “dearest freshness deep down things”, for me, makes the most sense. One feels that to plumb the depths of one level of this spongy flora is merely an epidermis covering the heart of the matter many floors down where every living thing converges, colliding to become itself all over again.

See the following poetic inspiration from this same journey from Yakima to Portland.

The green of Oregon. A thin place.

I always say in such heavily wooded areas, as I do near the ocean, that the air has a finished quality to it. It lacks for nothing. As a family, we loved to spend a great deal of time on the beach when we lived in Oregon. Along with our two boys, our dog and a Frisbee, it was not uncommon for us to take lawn chairs and a host of reading materials, planting ourselves confidently on our tiny plot of sand. From there the wind, waves, body surfers, gulls, joggers and beachcombers would teach us of the God who makes sense of the small and great, loud and quiet, still and quick. One of those many times garnered the following poetic triptych posted elsewhere.

Thoughts from the beach…

To commemorate a beach walk with my wife.

1

Beauty.  Random squalor in effortless

wave deposits her treasure.

In our efforts to build that which

hand could never grasp we trade

Quintessential.  Queer.  Quiet for

Quantifiable.  Quick.  Casual.

Oh, such grand wordless words-

wonder, world-watched prayers

waiting…waiting.

That which is unseen – now

I see.

2

Wind-soaked beach-stained

dark; darker still where waves

kiss the sand of my imagination.

Flat boards float on round earth

playing with my finitude and finer still,

fill my earthen breath with

deeper wind.

3

Dare she flit on so light a wing,

fading into vastness, blue-

the sky and water, one;

where one defines what much cannot

in so many syllables contain-

the vast smallness of it all.

May 12, 2003

The ocean. A thin place.