Such Singing in the Wild Branches - being a meditation upon the openness of the world and the fruits of inhabiting the constellation of truth

I'd like to begin today by reminding you that everything I say from this lectern (and in this blog) is guided by a central thought which has been well expressed by the author Iain Thomson that:

'. . . what makes the great texts "great" is not that they continually offer the same "eternal truths" for each generation to discover but, rather, that they remain deep enough — meaning-full enough — to continue to generate new readings, even revolutionary re-readings which radically reorient the sense of the work that previously guided us.' (Figure/Ground Communication interview).

Normally, of course, the word "text" would imply that this passage refers always and only to books. But the greatest of "texts", and I think the video interview above shows that Iain Thomson would agree with me, is the natural world. This thought was explicitly expressed in our culture as early as the fourteenth-century when nature began to be described by some as being itself a kind of book - "the book of nature" (cf Konrad of Megenberg) -  a book, which someone as influential upon our culture as Galileo believed, could become "readable and comprehensible."

Megenberg's "Buch der Natur"
Now, I am fairly sure, Galileo believed that reading the book of nature would eventually reveal to him *only* certain kinds of secure, eternal truths, a belief that remains worryingly prevalent today in scientistic circles. However, if the book of nature is in fact the deepest of all "texts" then, more than any humanly produced book, it is also able constantly to generate revolutionary re-readings which radically reorient for us the sense of how nature can guide us. Today I'd like to offer you a personal example of how such a re-reading shows up and offer us renewed sense of meaning, hope and joy.

(After I gave this address it became clear that at this point in proceedings I needed to add this note. It is very important for me to say that the apparent theological/philosophical content of this address - a kind of Spinozistic pantheism (though it’s really just a Spinozistic-like story and a not piece of Spinozistic metaphysics) - is NOT the reason for/point of this address. Here I simply wish to draw your attention to a certain understanding in what truth consists.)

Let's start with the thought that we who are writers and readers of texts are, ourselves, clearly part of the natural universe. Now let's consider the well-known aphorism which says: "The most radical thing you can do is introduce people to one another." It should be clear that what is true of people is, therefore, simultaneously true of our texts and so we may also say: "The most radical thing you can do is introduce one text to another text." Introducing different texts and people to each other who, without this church and its activities would otherwise not meet, is my job as both a theologian and a minister and what I do for other people I also do for myself (or, perhaps better, I try to open myself to it happening to me). So here goes . . .

My own initial sense of the meaning of life showed up within a liberal Christian cultural tradition (as it did for the church tradition in which we stand as a community) and this gifted me with amongst other things a knowledge of the Biblical texts and a certain shape to the unfolding year. So, in this season of Lent in the approach to Easter I (we), naturally, take time out to re-read the various stories in the Gospels connected with the events in Jesus' life immediately before his crucifixion:

John 17:20-26 (NRSV)

‘I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. ‘Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.’

Thrush in the Manse yard last summer
The second text in today's mix is taken from the book of nature. The day upon which I began consciously to get ready to write this address began with me sitting in the Manse kitchen idly looking out into the frosty back-yard with my Bible open, the words from Chapter 17 in my imagination, and a warm cup of tea in my hand. All of a sudden (and, of course without any of my own planning or control in play) a beautiful thrush landed on the head of Venus who stands serenely and beautifully just outside the glass paneled back-door. The glorious singing of the thrush joyfully reminded me that, despite some indications to the contrary, we had entered upon the season of spring.

As nature pushed back at me in the arrival of the thrush I was brought to my third text because the bird’s singing immediately made me think of Mary Oliver as it is just the kind of event she writes about. Since being unexpectedly introduced to her work by both my old philosophy teacher and another visitor to this church I have learnt to go straight to her texts when so prompted by nature in order to see what might show up. However, my copies of her books are kept in my study and I didn't have them immediately to hand. Instead, I opened up my computer and did a quick Google search for "Mary Oliver" and "spring poem". I let the natural mathematical working of certain algorithms play out and push back at me. At the top of the proffered list was a poem I had not until then read, "Such Singing in the Wild Branches" and so, quite unplanned, I found myself in the presence of second singing thrush.

Such Singing in the Wild Branches from Owls and Other Fantasies: Poems and Essays

It was spring
and finally I heard him
among the first leaves -
then I saw him clutching the limb

in an island of shade
with his red-brown feathers
all trim and neat for the new year.
First, I stood still

and thought of nothing.
Then I began to listen.
Then I was filled with gladness -
and that's when it happened,

when I seemed to float,
to be, myself, a wing or a tree -
and I began to understand
what the bird was saying,

and the sands in the glass
for a pure white moment
while gravity sprinkled upward

like rain, rising,
and in fact
it became difficult to tell just what it was that was singing -
it was the thrush for sure, but it seemed

not a single thrush, but himself, and all his brothers,
and also the trees around them,
as well as the gliding, long-tailed clouds
in the perfectly blue sky - all, all of them

were singing.
And, of course, yes, so it seemed,
so was I.
Such soft and solemn and perfect music doesn't last

for more than a few moments.
It's one of those magical places wise people
like to talk about.
One of the things they say about it, that is true,

is that, once you've been there,
you're there forever.
Listen, everyone has a chance.
Is it spring, is it morning?

Are there trees near you,
and does your own soul need comforting?
Quick, then - open the door and fly on your heavy feet; the song
may already be drifting away.

I was powerfully struck by a family resemblance between the song of her thrush and the words of Christ found in John. What this was I'll come back to in a moment but, firstly, I need to note that a family resemblance was also showing up in connection with the contents of a fourth text, namely me. At the start of every service I invite you to join with me in the presence of God-or-Nature (Latin: Deus-sive-Natura). Although this might sound to some as if I can't make up my mind whether we are standing in the presence of God or Nature, please remember that the "or" (the "sive") in this term is one of *equivalence*. It's Benedict Spinoza's term and I introduced it into our liturgy some five years ago because it spoke to my sense that that somehow God and Nature cannot be pulled apart and that in some way God *is* Nature and Nature *is* God.

The family resemblance I noticed between all these texts has for me been no better expressed than by the eighteenth-century Universalist George de Benneville (1703-1793) who said; "The inner spirit makes us feel that behind every appearance of diversity there is an interdependent unity of all things."

Is this not something like what John seems to have believed Christ’s inner spirit was feeling when he uttered his farewell words to his disciples and which John's own community came to see and feel about Christ? Namely, that in some meaningful way we may say that Christ is in us and, because Christ is in God we, together, are all one in God. Christ teaches us this - or so it feels - that we can come daily to live our lives more truly loving God and our neighbour as ourselves; to see God (or Nature) in the other regardless of apparently insuperable differences.

Is this not something like what Mary Oliver senses in her own inner spirit as she encounters the singing thrush? A feeling that there was not just a single thrush singing but "all his brothers, and also the trees around them, as well as the gliding, long-tailed clouds in the perfectly blue sky — all, all of them" and, of course, so it seemed, Oliver herself. Out of that experience she finds that the thrush, like Christ, wants us to live loving Nature and our neighbour as ourselves; to see Nature (or God) in the other regardless of apparently insuperable differences.

And what of the text that is the book of nature - this actual, existent thrush that showed up outside the Manse back-door whose presence pushed back at me? Well, in the wholly unexpected meeting of texts that was occasioned by the thrush's arrival I found that, like Oliver, I "was filled with gladness - and that's when it happened" - when I saw something I had never seen before nor could ever have imagined I would see.

I looked up and the thrush singing outside my back-door was suddenly being read by me as “Christ the Thrush”, singing to me that God-or-Nature is in her, that she is in God-or-Nature and she is singing this song to me so that, together, we may know that she and I are both one in God-or-Nature. In the lighting strike of this moment it felt as if the very glory that God-or-Nature has given the thrush and Christ was being given anew to me and, at the end of this cold and long winter in which every spirit upon earth had until a few moments ago seemed fervourless as I, my own life suddenly began to shine again, refulgent with meaning.

As Oliver notes, although these are fleeting moments, "One of the things they say about it, that is true, is that, once you've been there, you're there forever." So from this moment onwards the whole world shows up to you, begins to shine, in a wholly new way - and, as the words on the little bronze plaque that hangs on the back-yard wall above Venus' head (see picture) says, I felt powerfully that, Yes! "Bidden or unbidden, God is present."

However, although *I* feel I can live forever by the truth of this encounter with the Christ the Thrush, it is important to realise that I do not (cannot) receive this truth, nor pass it on to you, as an 'eternal truth' of the kind so often sought by both religion, philosophy or the natural sciences. I neither can, nor any longer feel the need to, justify this truth to you either metaphysically or scientifically. If the resonance within me that was triggered by this mix of texts triggers a similar resonance in you then all well and good - and those of us who in our different ways (and with different texts) feel such an “interdependent unity of all things” can perhaps talk further about it - it is, after all a classic Unitarian and Universalist intuition (the religious tradition in which this church stands and I minister).

But via this telling of my story I am today much more concerned that I pass on to you a better understanding that we need to live by a more structurally important truth, namely, that everything in our world (you, me, texts, thrushes and the whole of nature) is as Thomson pointed out "deep enough — meaning-full enough — to continue to generate new readings, even revolutionary re-readings which radically reorient the sense of the work[s] that previously guided us.” I am impelled by this encounter primarily to impart to you NOT it’s apparent contents but the thought that the structure of our world, of God-or-Nature, is never closed and fixed but rather always-already radically open and infinitely deep. This means that truth - the insights by which we find we can live flourishing, confident, joyful and ultimately hopeful lives - is not fixed and eternal but rather a constellation in which four elements are constantly moving about us and capable of revealing radical new readings to us as we live together in community. (I am deeply indebted to Julian Young for articulating the basic fourfold constellation of truth that follows - it can be found in his excellent and inspiring book "Heidegger's Later Philosophy". I, however, take responsibility for presenting it in the way and context I do.)

1) Firstly, truth about the world’s openness is revealed to me in the encounter with the ever-undisclosed, eternally creative and generative mystery of B/being itself - the profound, dark mystery of why there is something and not nothing. (Here “darkness” is understood as being like the darkness of the earth which nourishes the seed and enables it to move up out into the realm of light)

2) Secondly, truth about the world’s openness is revealed to me in the encounter with the actual natural universe in which, out of the mystery of B/being, are disclosed to me extraordinary shining natural entities such as Christ, the thrush and the bare trees in whose wild branches she perches and sings.

3) Thirdly, truth about the world’s openness is revealed to me (and everyone else) only within the horizons of meaning we have been gifted by being born into a particular culture. In my case this has gifted me with a memory of Christ along with countless poems, and many philosophies, theologies and scientific world-views. Without these precious gifts, these fragments of holiness, these glimpses of eternity and brief moments of insight neither you nor I would never have got going in the world in the first place so as to be able to see and speak about anything at all.

4) Fourthly, truth about the world’s openness is revealed to me in my encounter with other human-beings who are themselves deep, living and ever-unfolding "texts" who are continuously able to disclose new meaning. I meet people desirous of seeking the truth of life primarily in this intentional liberal religious community as we consciously search together for meaningful and fulfilling contemporary ways to live in this extraordinary world we share.

Engaged in the search for this kind of truth this is why as we gather together each week we light the candle on our communion table and say:

Divinity is present everywhere: the whole world is 
filled with God, but in certain places and at certain 
times we feel a specialty of presence. May this be 
such a place and such a time.

We make this such a place and such a time by consciously entering into this constellation of truth, not only singing our own songs but by actively being open to the songs of our brothers and sisters and to the unexpected, Christ or Thrush like arrival of other songs of God-or-Nature. By so doing we entertain angels unaware (Hebrews 13:2)/

Anyway, in the same way the thrush perched on Venus’ head and gently pushed back at me in her song, all I have tried to do today, perched here on this step and behind this lectern, is sing back to you what I heard in her song which, like Thomas Hardy's “Darkling Thrush”, spoke to me of "Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew and I was unaware."

The Darkling Thrush by Thomas Hardy

I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-grey,
And Winter's dregs made desolate
    The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
    Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
    Had sought their household fires.

The land's sharp features seemed to be
    The Century's corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
    The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
    Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
    Seemed fervourless as I.

At once a voice arose among
    The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
    Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt and small,
    In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
    Upon the growing gloom.

So little cause for carolings
    Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
    Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
    His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
    And I was unaware.



Having mentioned George de Benneville above I went back to look again at the book about him. To my delight and astonishment (though not surprise!) I found the following illustration. I add it here for your delight!


Justin said…
I liked this post but for one thing: my opinion is that the scriptures were written for those who lived at the time. They do not have the timeless quality that we should expect if God had an influence on their texts. One simple example is how men were regarded as superior to women and many times Paul writes how men are the Head of the household as Christ is the Head of the church. You can see very clearly that in our present time women can often be found as Head of their households. My opinion is that Paul (if he is indeed the author of such 'texts') simply used Christ to endorse the prevailing custom and this is only one example of taking the 'text' of the Bible out of context! Dinos Constantinou