Category Archives: Spirit
A thin layer of week-old snow glistens with sparkles, each tiny pinprick an icy mirror angling out toward the sun blazing low over the southern horizon. Way down across the long arc of the deeply-tilted Earth our local star, the Solar Heart, is flashing bright and fractured through the dark, silhouetted upper boughs of piney woods while two tender nostrils tingle deliciously with each pulse of winter-chilled in-breath, fueling the fleshy heart that beats inside my chest.
Right now, these woods are rolling across the top side of our planetary ball, which is leaning back from the sun as fully as it ever does. The coastal plain here alongside the Gulf of Maine is spinning its way eastward toward that midday moment when it faces the sun, slipping along there among the branches, as high as it will get on this winter solstice day, this sacred day when the long waning of daylight turns and begins waxing toward summer’s fullness.
The winter solstice is prime time for being able to see and feel the eternally tipped earth beneath us. For one day, its 23½ degree tilt (more than a quarter of the way to lying on its side!) is perfectly aligned with the sun—the Antarctic bathed in 24-hour sunshine and the Arctic never glimpsing its light. Those of us living between these polar extremes also experience the full extent of earth’s tilt, revealed here in New England by the sun’s low arc through the sky. Today’s solstice sun is less than half as high as where it stood a three months ago on the equinox noon; the fact that the earth is leaning far back from the Solar Heart is inescapable—obvious to eyes and geometry as well as in the cold air and the soft light brushing across the landscape.
This shortest-day, lowest-sun, backward-tipped moment is not only a touchstone of the seasonal cycle. It’s also—amazingly and coincidentally—the turning point of our Galactic Year, for the winter solstice portion of Earth’s orbit around the sun happens to take us through the place in space that lies on the far side of the sun from the center of the galaxy. So today—and for the week or so before and after solstice—the Galactic Heart sits nearly directly behind the sun in our winter sky; the Milky Way’s glorious splash of diffuse light, that starry trail that on summer nights draws our spirits out into the largest of our visible bodies—the galactic body—is today shining invisibly alongside the sun, and for a brief moment at midday this Galactic Heart and the Solar Heart meet our hearts as each local landscape in turn spins at twelve miles a minute across the sunward edge of the earth to face them.
It may feel startling or unfamiliar, but don’t let this rapid expansion of the horizon disorient you: all this attunement to the planetary, solar, and galactic bodies is simply a broader view of our familiar ways of connecting with—and being a part of—the place where we live. When we really notice the shapes and forms of the land and life around us, and the natural cycles and enduring relationships that tie it all together, we begin to appreciate the larger rhythms within which life springs forth, and so also come to feel the mystery of our lives as a barely perceptible—and cherished!—glimmer within a larger majesty.
As always, it is our lived experience in the world that connects us to the spiritual heart of the matter. My neural-laced body—tender skin stretched around juicy meat and articulated bone—wakes each day as part of a blooming, buzzing collusion of soil, water, and embracing air wrapped close around its earthly ground, a just-right goldilocks world where creation flares forth with all of its inherent intelligence and symbiotic design, opening into pine needles and tumbling streams, root hairs and auroral ripples, hooting gibbons and seabottom vents, ant colonies and sky-shaking storms, moon-tugged tides and all the shapes and sounds of human societies.
We humans have long recognized our embeddedness within the natural world; this unity comes alive in a new and radically expansive way as I begin to see and feel my place on the earth spinning along in its eternal circle dance with the sun, each of my days enlivened by that generous, infinite source that has forever called the human spirit forth.
Just as my spiritual connection with the woods emerges from attention to the physicality of trees and leaves and seasons and weather and light . . . or my love for the American West grows out of the bodily experience of traversing the fantastic forms of its sprawling mountains and vast rangelands . . . or the patterns newly woven across the sand by each day’s receding waves shape the way my soul is soothed by the shoreline . . . and just as the solace of caring human touch can nourish a lifelong blending of hearts . . . so too do I attend to the dance of this lovely planet around our life-giving star and feel my way into the rhythms within which our whirling solar system revels us with its seasonal cycle of vistas into the embracing arms of our galactic home.
Each of these glimpses of direct perceptual experience and bodily presence (of embracing woods, the expanse of a continent, the shifting edge of the sea, loving touch, earth and sky) opens doors through which my sense of self—my very identity—expands and joins in communion with the same mighty and generative force that knits together the cosmos, pours through the sun, and forever blossoms so subtly and wildly within this biospheric blanket of our precious planet.
And so today one receptive, attentive body looks skyward through the pines and honors the moment when these woods of home turn to face the solstice sun and the galactic heart beyond. Yet another fleeting instant among the days and seasons of a piece of land spinning once a day around the steadily-tilting axis of this planet traveling the great circle of the year around our mighty star within the vast expanse of its galactic home—all seen and felt through the limited senses and mind and the boundless heart and spirit arising within one fragile, resonant human being. Here on the edge of the world, all my hearts meet as one.
Open gaze swings down, narrows, relaxes into rippled, rolling textures; a softness eyes can feel. Across the undulating terrain, spindly bodies are tightly packed into a single sprawling presence emerging from the earth below; little leaves reaching up, rubbing neighbors—receptacles for moisture, for bits of breeze-blown detritus, for a passing wave of focused attention that slowly traverses this miniature, mighty realm. Mighty indeed: now a giant foot presses down upon supple stalks, covering half their expansive, communal body, then rises again and swings slowly past, settling next beyond these borders in the neighboring land of hard-packed soil. A neck, high above, swivels just as slowly—eyes still in gentle communion with the mossy mound as it recedes, a step behind and none the worse for wear in the wake of the passing intrusion.
Curve-billed Thrasher reappeared in the yard today, orange-eyed, alert, dashing away jays that deigned to also seek out some of the seed scattered there on the path. The entire yard is aflutter with winged ones, steadily stoking their inner fires at the feeders, here in the midst of what will likely be a full week of below-freezing days and several sub-zero nights. The valley is blanketed by six inches of snow—settled from the fluffy foot that fell two days ago—and the hillsides all around are a speckling of pine-green branches mottled with snowy white mounds.
This activity outside my door is but the local embodiment of a hemispherical pulse as our planet slides its way toward the point in its annual ring-around-the-sun in which we in the north find ourselves leaning far back, away from the Solar Heart, now skimming low and briefly over the southern horizon, unable to fully warm the air above and around us. And the nights, ever longer, so deeply chilled: stepping outside, we are—instantly, intently—aware of our skin, the insides of our nostrils, our eyes, these tender edges of our bodies through which we meet the world around us, now in a palpable, vulnerable relationship with the very air. No longer a benign emptiness, the air takes on a physical presence, a sharpness, a density, actively reaching into us through these permeable boundaries, the very heat of our bodies seeping out into the dark night. Ah, the vividness of deep cold!
And that’s not all. These long nights are aglitter again with the glorious starscape that we revisit at this time each year. As the deeply tilted Earth spins us into and through the sunset band of color, our one most sacred star is shadowed by the rocky water-world beneath our feet, and the sky opens wide into the larger local surroundings that spread away from Sol on the winter side of our orbit. . . Orion bright and wide around his belt and sword. . . the V of the bull’s face (red eye aglow). . . seven Pleiades sisters splattered high in the sky. . . while Sirius gleams low over the hills, sparkling magenta-now-teal-now-golden-now-white, following not far behind our sun as both are swept along in the great currents of the Milky Way’s slow turning. Joining the wintry delight this year is mighty Jupiter, king of our planetary brethren, outshining everything: so big, so close.
All this—pecking juncoes, snowy junipers, sun low over the shoulder of the valley, nights frigid and fragile and brilliant and vast, our own eyes and hearts taking it all in—is this not God made manifest? What more might we worship than the dance of life (co-evolution of a planet), within the miracle of the seasons (solar pulses spurring that dance into Earth), embedded in a galactic home that dazzles us with its expansive spiral embrace, itself a remote condensation of matter within a vastness of energy surging forth from a source beyond understanding? To see, and feel, and honor this dynamic and incomprehensible power and beauty—and intelligence, and yes, design—that pulses across these nested scales of creation’s embodiment; to walk a path through this world that acknowledges this grandeur while seeking simply to be a vessel by which it may live within our hearts and actions; what else does anyone’s God ask of us than this?
We are living beings within a living world in a living cosmos, a cosmos whose dynamism and beauty reveals patterns we recognize also in wave-lapped shorelines, wind rippling through woods, the slow surging forth of dawn across drifting clouds, and our own churning feelings, questing souls, and deepest longings. As has ever been the way, to see our small lives—giving and receiving, breath by breath and touch by touch—as expressions of a design and creativity so much larger than us is to bow before that mystery, our purpose becoming one of service, and care, and reverence.
Around thirty years ago, a new story began to be told, a story that continues to unfold and become richer, deeper, truer with each passing year and each added voice. It weaves together sciences and religions, history and today, our human bodies and the starry depths. In books by many different authors, several films, and conversations in churches, wilderness retreats, and living rooms, this new story is still coming into form, and has built quite an audience among leading environmental and religious thinkers.
It’s a Creation Story, the first such story to emerge from diverse voices from around the planet, rather than within a particular local or regional culture. For millenia, primal peoples the world over told tales of mythic beings and forces taking shape as sky, earth, humans, animals: Creation Story 1.0. Later, organized religions emerged and spread, with Asians honoring a pantheon of Gods while the three cultures of the Middle East each revered a single God: Creation Stories 2.0. Today, both animism and deism remain potent belief systems, while science stands apart, examining the matter and energy that gave rise to our world. It’s time for a story that can embrace each of these mighty threads of human inquiry: Creation Story 3.0.
Thomas Berry is a lodestar for this new story of the sacred universe, as is Joanna Macy. Many others have informed its heart and its tendriled edges: Gary Snyder and bioregionalism; E.O. Wilson, Lynn Margulis, Stuart Kauffman, and other integrative scientists; poets of intimate and expansive embodiment like Mary Oliver, Pattiann Rogers, and Jim Harrison; the list goes on, with multiple strands back in time to Whitman, Emerson, Goethe, Rilke, and so many more. Each of us has our own litany of others upon whose shoulders we dance, and reach, and dream.
The new creation story draws on what we’ve learned in recent decades about the common themes seen in the formation of the cosmos and our solar system, the evolution of biological life, and the emergence of human society and consciousness, yet it retains an allegiance to the sacred—the fathomless power and intention within the very essence of all creation. This new story doesn’t aim to replace anyone’s God or faith; it’s a place to gather together humanity’s diverse ways of seeking to understand this world. . . and so know one’s God more intimately and fully. Still, the story leaves room for all ways of seeing, feeling, knowing, and understanding the deeper source of the the beauty we see around us: a creator-being, complexity driving emergent properties, the spark of love, “dark” energy, blind chance (though this last one tends to be frowned upon in these circles!). All that the story asks is that we see ourselves as part of this world, rather than somehow separate from it, and that we acknowledge that there is something more than what we can see: a set of connective and creative principles and energies that underly and flow through all we know. The more spiritually inclined among us look beyond the principles, yearning toward their source: an unfathomable mystery and intelligence. Many know this as God; others simply acknowledge the presence of a life force or spirit of some sort.
So: this new creation story is rooted in profound personal experience of—and relationship with—the world around us, and an equally profound openness to the divine, the core driver of our reality, however we may each see it. The story, while enlivened by this direct, lived experience, is expanded and informed by an ever-richer understanding of the synergies that drive growth and change within physics, biology, and culture—recognizing especially the ways in which science’s understandings are yet still laced with unreachable Mystery. The sacredness of all life grounds the story, while the eternal desire to know the world and our place in it is the breath that gives it voice.
The new creation story need not replace our many local and cultural stories, with their established foundations of purpose and meaning. But it would serve us well—in this time when modern communications and global challenges are both pulling us closer together as a planetary culture—to also weave a larger story that can hold all of humanity’s rich histories and cherished beliefs within its embrace.
These musings—today’s reflections you just read, and all the glimpses shared throughout this site’s witness to the years—are bits of my own ways of hearing and telling this new global creation story (my particular fascination has to do with becoming more concretely attuned to the nested physical scales within which we live, and to the relationships, the giving and receiving, found within and between scales). These few paragraphs, more specifically, bubbled forth after listening this afternoon to a recent hour-long talk by Michael Dowd and Connie Barlow, which is one of the best and most concise distillations I’ve heard of this thirty-year collaborative global endeavor; this little essay borrows part of its title from one Michael’s themes. Michael and Connie have been weaving their versions of this great story for over a decade, and Michael in particular is especially interested in bringing it into churches (he’s a former evangelical minister); this talk frames some of the key themes of the new global creation story in ways that aim to bridge the scientific and the religious ways of looking at both creation and the choices we make in our individual lives. He, and many others, see this new story as one that can be embraced by followers of many religious traditions, while also adding an appealing depth to the modern secular worldview. I highly recommend this talk both to those looking for an introduction to these ideas, and to those who’ve been following these themes for years. The first 25 minutes will give you the nut of Michael’s recent new framing of what this may be all about (try to listen at least until the Thomas Berry quote about honoring the earth); the second half explores many of these fascinating ideas in more depth. Again, here’s the link.
Photo: Jim Cummings
With no warning and no surprise, three sturdy wingbeats slide suddenly from on high. Settling, now still. Here you are. Strong breast, speckled; eyes vigilant, crown aglow from low sun behind—avian apex of the valley.
A peripheral suggestion casually slips up the bank, into piñon shade. Settling, now still. Here you are. Gorgeous coat in mottled sun; relaxed, feet front, head high—strong, sure morning sentinel of the valley.
Hawk perched alert in the center of the yard, until lifting surely back to its aerie. Coyote lounging amidst the trees, now strolling languidly through shining gramma, poking into low boughs, and dropping back into the arroyo from whence it appeared. In this way, into the quiet space at the heart of the solitude that I’ve chosen and cultivated, which has broadened and deepened with time, with attention, with care, here you are. Spirit tangible. Palpable. Embodied.
Gentle, rich presence: cool clear water soothing a valley’s parched heart. . . soft insistent breeze stirring each sun-seeking tendril. . . winter’s dazzling stars piercing the soul’s cold night. The wind and water, sun and stars—ever arriving, never lingering. Always touching, stirring, warming, lifting.
And so I walk on, here in the outskirts of the heart of this all-living world. Carrying questions. Keeping faith. Reaching deep. In the layers of wind whispering across the land, and this noontime moon-slice in soft blue sky, here you are. As the search discovers its path, here you are. Alongside flowing waters, here you are. In the sharing of kindred souls, here you are. In each breath and every touch, here you are.
Image: Colleen Pinski, Smithsonian Magazine
The voice used here addresses specific beings and/or or a divine realm
as a separate, though at times extended, “other.”
It occurs to me: perhaps it would be interesting
to revise it by changing “you are” to “I am,”
reflecting an expanded self-identity with the other,
and/or a fuller embodiment as or identification with
what’s being experienced.
Ah, such a coarse reversal doesn’t fully work
with the presence being explored here.
But the gesture is still worthwhile!
See the next post (above) for Merton’s musings on this theme.