“A binding into sheaves of ‘non-properties’ of things’ — A harvest meditation

Outside the church this morning
Readings: Acts 17: 22-28

i thank You God for most this amazing. . . by e. e. cummings

From the entry of Thursday, August 27 (1954) Henry Bugbee in “The Inward Morning” [1st edition, 1958] (University of Georgia Press, 1999, p. 166) 

Yesterday it occurred to me to speak of the ideas in terms of which I have been thinking in the image of a reflective harvesting of experience, a binding into sheaves of ‘non-properties of things.’ As this last phrase suddenly came to mind and I fell to savoring it, I became aware that it smacks of E. E. Cummings, though I doubt very much if I have it from him as a ready-made. Is such a phrasing only a striking and perverse mannerism, or does it suggest a genuine style of thought?

From the entry of Saturday, August 29 (ibid. pp. 171-173)

It was in the summertime, at a summer resort, along the North Fork of the Trinity River in California, on a day like so many summer days of bright sun streaming down through the topes of the pines. Most of the length and breadth of that long, smooth, flowing pool lay translucently exposed to the bouldered bottom. Children played on the sandy shores, or splashed along fringes of the pool. The air was of ambient fragrance of pines, reassuring warmth and stillness, refreshing coolness of loving water, and frank with the murmur of conversation punctuated at furthest remove from alarm. The roar of the rapids below the pool might have been but a ground-bass of contentment, filling us all.
There came a cry for help, seconded with a cry of fright, and I turned toward the tail of the pool just in time to see a young man desperately, failingly, clinging to a great log which had been chained as a boom across the lower end (to raise the water level in the pool). No one could reach him in time. An enormous suction under the log had firm hold of the greater part of his body and drew him ineluctably under. He bobbed to the surface in the first great wave of the rapid below, but there was no swimming of gaining bottom to stay what seemed impending execution on the rocks at the bend in this mill-race, some hundred yards down. But it chanced that the river was abnormally high, and as it carried this hapless man doom ward it swept him just for an instant under the extremity of a willow which arched far out from the bank and erratically trailed its branch-tips on the heaving waters. With a wild clutch the young man seized a gathering of the supple branches and held. Everything held, that grim grip and that rooted willow, while the rush of the river brought him in an arc downstream and to the bank. He had barely the strength and the breath to claw himself up the muddy shore onto the firmament.
I had run across the log and arrived on the opposite side below the willow, where he now paused, panting and on all fours, unable to rise. Slowly he raised his head and we looked into each other’s eyes. I lifted out both hands and helped him to his feet. Not a word passed between us. As nearly as I can relive the matter, the compassion I felt with this man gave way to awe and respect for what I witnessed in him. He seemed absolutely clean. In that steady gaze of his I met reality point blank, filtered and distilled as the purity of a man.
I think of Meister Eckhart’s “becoming as we were before we were born.” I think of what Conrad says of the storms visited on sailors far at sea as chastening them. I think, too, of Camus’ remark at the close of The Stranger about a woman in her last moments of life before death: “No one, no one in the world had any right to weep for her.”
Some ten or fifteen minutes later, as we lay on the warm sand having a smoke beside the pool, I noticed that this young man had commenced to tremble, and I trembled with him. We had returned to our ordinary estate, and I cannot remember anything unusual about him or the subsequent conversations we had.

—o0o—

Our harvest table this morning
“A binding into sheaves of ‘non-properties’ of things’ — A harvest meditation

Imagine yourself in a field full of wheat sheaves. What do you see?

[. . .]

As your answers reveal, generally, our first gleanings are the properties (characteristics) of wheat sheaves. But, as our readings indicate, the American philosopher, Henry Bugbee (1915-1999), wanted to engage in “a reflective harvesting of experience, a binding into sheaves of ‘non-properties of things’.”

I love e. e. cummings (a son of a Unitarian minister) and I can see what Henry Bugbee meant when he said his phrase somehow “smacks” of cummings — and we’ll briefly come back to cummings later on. I can also see why Bugbee instantly asks “is such a phrasing only a striking and perverse mannerism, or does it suggest a genuine style of thought?”

So, what does his phrase mean? And, perhaps more importantly, does it help us identify a style of thought that is both available to us and worth attempting to cultivate ourselves?

One of the things that concerned Bugbee in his book, “The Inward Morning”, was our general tendency to privilege the idea that we know things best of all when we have analysed them and, as thinking subjects, understood all of a thing’s properties (characteristics).

Bugbee suggests that what we display when we see a thing in this way we can call “empirical thinking”. Now, as far as it goes, there's absolutely nothing wrong with this kind of thinking. After all it has proved to be a very useful and powerful tool for humankind; all our modern sciences rely upon it and so many of the things that make our contemporary life what it is — both good and bad — could not have come into existence without it. Because of the dominance of science in our modern culture it should come as no surprise that empirical thinking is the way that, today, we so often privilege.

But Bugbee reminds us that there is another way of thinking, one that he calls experiential, and it is this kind of thinking that begins to help us move towards the style of thought that — whatever it turns out to mean — would allow us to harvest and bind into sheaves, “the non—properties of things”

So, once again, imagine yourself in a field full of wheat sheaves. Now ask yourself what it is you feel?

[. . .]

With these kinds of experiences we begin to move a little closer to what Bugbee is trying to get at with his cumminings-esque phrase. But we are not quite there yet because we are still in the everyday world of subjects and objects; I hope we can all see that, as distinct and complex “subjects”, we are still having experiences about distinct “objects” over there, namely sheaves of corn.

To help us get closer to what Bugbee is on about it's helpful to return to the striking story he told about the young man who fell into the North Fork of the Trinity River. Let’s recall the moment immediately after the young man has, against the odds, pulled himself out of the torrent:

“I had run across the log and arrived on the opposite side below the willow, where he now paused, panting and on all fours, unable to rise. Slowly he raised his head and we looked into each other’s eyes. I lifted out both hands and helped him to his feet. Not a word passed between us. As nearly as I can relive the matter, the compassion I felt with this man gave way to awe and respect for what I witnessed in him. He seemed absolutely clean. In that steady gaze of his I met reality point blank, filtered and distilled as the purity of a man” (Inward Morning p. 172).

Notice the moment when compassion gave way to awe and respect. Compassion is an emotion that relies upon the continued existence of the kind of subject/object relationship that you used when I asked you how you felt about the sheaves of corn. Broken down into its component parts, “com” and “passion” it means, of course, “with-suffering”, “suffering-with”. It’s a vital, powerful and necessary experience without which our daily lives together would hardly be worth living. But for compassion to exist it is “you” that must have com-passion for the “other”.

Awe and respect on the other hand can, at first sight, seem to be experiences that, rather than bringing us closer to things, actually increase the distance between us and them. We are tempted to say that the things which create in us a sense of awe and respect “stand there before us” as powerful, wholly other, presences. But let’s not get caught up by this thought and notice instead the actual felt experience of awe and respect. In that experience things “stand there before us” in a way that completely overwhelms us — to the point where the subject-object distinction disappears. Think of your own experiences of awe and respect, say, in the presence of a high and mighty mountain, a deep chasm, a powerful storm, the power of the sea or the sheer size of the cosmos. In that moment “we”, the “I”, just disappears, and we seem to be experiencing presence in its most pure form — or, as Bugbee puts it, “reality point blank”.

Bugbee has a helpful illustration to help us see what’s going on here. He suggests that in these moments of awe and respect, in . . .

“. . . our experience of things as presences, reality conveys itself and permeates us as a closed electrical circuit in which we are involved with things, the circuit is charged with finality. But in so far as we take things, and think of them, as placed over against us, i.e. objectively, we break the circuit” (Inward Morning pp. 168-169).

Bugbee was well-aware that we could be misled by the word “closed” and take it negatively (as opposed to the more positive sounding word “open”). But the point he wants us to grasp here about an unbroken, “closed circuit” is that it is energised, alive with racing energy and one that is whole and complete, in which all parts of the circuit are freely and constantly flowing into all other parts. As Bugbee notes, when we break the circuit — when the circle becomes open — what results is the creation of the “separateness of dead poles”. He is suggesting, of course, that whenever we are inhabit the world only via empirical thought the circle is broken and everything, subjects and objects, become as dead poles.

Now, when Bugbee and the young man looked into each other’s eyes on that river bank it seems right to say they were “partak[ing] in thought of the closed circuit of reality in which we live and move and have our being” (Inward Morning p. 169). It is in such moments that we experience directly, without mediator or veil (Emerson), the wondrous presence and mystery of being itself, reality point blank, the extraordinary truth that there is something not nothing. As Bugbee reminds us (quoting R. P. Jouve) “Mysteries are not truths that lie beyond us; they are truths that comprehend us.”

It seems to me not inappropriate to use here God-language — after all the idea of God, like Bugbee’s “closed circuit” is a word charged with finality. In the presence of this mystery, this “comprehending truth”, it seems wholly natural to say, along with cummings, something like “thank You God for most this amazing day” because, in that very moment — in a wholly non-empirical way — you suddenly find that your ears of your ears are awake and your eyes of your eyes are opened and you know in a quite certain way that subject and object are always-already comprehended in the mysterious, lively energised closed circuit in which we all live and move and have our being. Is it inappropriate at these moments to give this the name “God”?

In getting us to see in his story a moment of meeting “reality point blank filtered and distilled as the purity of a man” Bugbee doesn’t, of course, want to persuade us never to use empirical thinking; nor, of course, does he want us never better to cultivate a sense of compassion with its meaningful and powerful subject/object relationship. All he wants us to do is to add to them our own “reflective harvesting of experience, a binding into sheaves of ‘non-properties of things’” — that is to say to gather up our own sheaf of recollections of those mystical, mysterious moments when we experienced a simple, purifying unity and could “affirm our togetherness with fellow creatures” (IM p. 123).

Bugbee experienced this as he gazed into the young man’s eyes and, if I may borrow a phrase from E. M Forster, the whole of his “sermon” at this point is surely “Only connect! . . . Live in fragments no longer” (Howards End, Ch. 22).

Now all this is, of course, a great theme within our own Unitarian and Universalist traditions. Indeed, only last week (and those of you who regularly read my blog will already be aware of this) I was reminded by my old minster, Cliff Reed, of a poem by the nineteenth-century Suffolk Unitarian minister and Chartist, John Goodwyn Barmby (1820-81), called “UNITY" in which he explores this theme. It can be found in his 1864 volume "The Return of the Swallow and Other Poems". It clearly reveals his pantheistic tendencies and it’s mention of circles resonates powerfully with Bugbee’s image of the closed circuit:

Existence is composed of circles, all 
In one great circle, and the centre — GOD. 
There is one common life for star and clod,— 
The clouds which rise, again in rain must fall. 
All things are one, in progress and in end; 
And as the individual man must be 
Free to form part of free society, 
Before in truth he calls the king his friend, 
So must each nation, crowned with liberty 
As with a glory, dwell in its own light, 
By others hindered not; until, God-led, 
Of its own free will it longeth to be wed. 
And joineth hands with others. Glorious sight! 
One world, one people, and one common Head!  

As this poem reveals — and I hope Bugbee’s story and cumming’s poem also reveals — to harvest and put into sheaves the non-properties of things is not to gather up some merely abstract, theoretical idea but to begin constantly to be in direct touch with something unified, energised and living which has profound ethical and moral consequences for the harvester.

Holding these sheaves of recollection close to our hearts can help us begin to experience, with full pathos (belief) and a clean heart, the comprehending truth of something said by one of our great forbears, the eighteenth-century Universalist George de Benneville (1703-1793), namely, that we must:

Preach the Universal and Everlasting Gospel of Boundless, Universal Love for the entire human race, without exception, and for each one in particular. . . . Proclaim and publish to the people of the world a Universal Gospel that shall restore, in time, all the human species without exception. . . . The Inner Spirit makes men feel that behind every appearance of diversity there is an interdependent unity of all things.

Jesus said, “surely the harvest is great, but the laborers are few” (Matt. 9:37). His words remains true today and it seems to me that both our individual lives, and the life of the whole world, may well depend upon how successful we are in bringing this wondrous harvest of unity home.

Amen.
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