Wilderness as Patiency — Exploring Advent with Henry Bugbee 1

Leaves and bark in the Botanic Garden
Readings: Matthew 3:1-3

From: The Inward Morning: A Philosophical Reflection in Journal Form (University of Georgia Press, 1999, pp. 154-155) by Henry Bugbee

Thursday, August 20 (1954)
I have dwelt on the idea of unconditional concern in the hope of positioning ourselves for philosophical reflection. It has seemed to me that we are unable to think in terms of finality and necessity except as our actual mode of concern in the act of reflection be unconditional. It is not an attitude which we adopt or deliberately acquire. But it is an attitude to which we may be recalled; it may reawaken in us and bring us to ourselves. And there are things one may read, such as we have from Kant or Spinoza; there are things one may hear, certain music — it may be; there are men who live again in remembered deeds of theirs which revisit one as true; one may be struck clean by sunlight over a patch of lawn, by clouds running free before the wind, by the massive presence of rock. What untold hosts of voices there are which call upon one and summon him to reawakening. He remembers, and is himself once again, moving cleanly on his way. Some measure of simplicity again informs the steps he takes; he becomes content to be himself and finds fragrance in the air. He may eat his food in peace. He does not wish to obviate tomorrow’s work. He is willing to consider: not to suppose a case, but take the case that is. He becomes patient. Things invite him to adequate himself to their infinity. The passage of time is now not robbery or show; it is the meaning of the present ever completing itself. It is enough to participate in this, to be at home in the unknown.
          Philosophy is not a making of a home for the mind out of reality. It is more like learning to leave things be: restoration in the wilderness, here and now.


There are many things about Advent, at least in it’s full blown Christian theological form, that we here are going to find unpersuasive and uncongenial. But, nevertheless, in the season there is an important theme that can, I think, still speak usefully and powerfully to us. It is the theme of patient waiting.

The value of exploring this struck me forcibly this week for two reasons. The first was that our church chairman and newsletter editor, Andrew Bethune, needed a few seasonally related words from me for the newsletter and something written by the German pastor and theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, writing from his prison cell to his fiancée on December 13th 1943, immediately came back into my mind:

“Waiting is an art that our impatient age has forgotten. It wants to break open the ripe fruit when it has hardly finished planting the shoot. But all too often the greedy eyes are only deceived; the fruit that seemed so precious is still green on the inside, and disrespectful hands ungratefully toss aside what has so disappointed them. Whoever does not know the austere blessedness of waiting — that is of hopefully doing without — will never experience the full blessedness of fulfilment.”

The second reason the theme of patient waiting pressed upon me was occasioned by witnessing, from a distance, the relatively new phenomenon for us in the UK of “Black Friday”. As most of you will know it is a commercial “event” imported from the USA when goods are heavily discounted. You will all have seen or heard reports on the extraordinary disturbances, almost mini-riots, as shoppers fought over various items on sale. We saw here many examples of a singular lack of patient waiting.

Anyway, I’m sure you can see why the theme of patience pressed in upon me. The season of Advent is, of course, understood by Christians as a period of preparation in which the faithful wait patiently for the appearance of something new and fulfilling, namely, nothing less than the kingdom of heaven and the Messiah himself, the chosen one of God, the Christ-child, “Emmanuel” or “God with us”.

But, as I intimated at the beginning, left in the realm of traditional Christian thought the apparent theological implications of Advent (and then Christmas) are likely to be, shall we say, unpersuasive and uncongenial. The idea that God once actually came down from heaven in the form of a child, re-ascended to heaven after the crucifixion from whence he is judging the living and the dead before returning again some bright but apparently somewhat more apocalyptic morn, seems to us today vanishingly unlikely to be true.

Cue some more patient waiting . . .

Henry Bugbee
I was in the Cambridge University Botanic Garden last week — some of you will have seen on the blog the set of B&W photos I took on this occasion. As is often the case as I walked at one point my mind turned towards the particularly vexing question of what on earth I might say to you all on Advent Sunday that was of any interest at anyone — including me (after all, this is the fourteenth time I've gone through the season with you). In this kind of situation I find it’s best not to respond to the problem by becoming overly active but, instead, to engage in a bit of mindfulness, to stop and let go of my thoughts and not to suppose any kind of case but, as Bugbee suggests, take the case as is. I try to take time to notice my breathing, to relax my body and then, as I continue to walk, slowly becoming mindful of the sounds, smells, sights all around me, the birds and conversation, the smell of damp grass and leaves, the bright colours of the few remaining leaves and their contrast with whites, browns and blacks of the bare branches. It has been my experience that is precisely in these moments of letting go and patient waiting — something over which I do have some control — that something else, new and unexpected, freely enters the world as a graceful gift and helps my thinking and living on its way.
As I quietly walked, letting go and being patiently mindful, what came over the horizon and disclosed itself to me as something that might be worth talking about with you was an experience that the American philosopher, Henry Bugbee, noticed.

What was this experience? Well, to get a sense of it I need to begin by noting Bugbee’s take on patience is found in the context of our receptivity and response to nature — to the sublime attraction that all of us have felt when we have taken time to consider or encounter the natural world. Bugbee’s thinking is very rich and detailed here and I can’t go into all the detail I would like to but, in outline, he thought that one of the best ways of being made receptive to nature’s call is through the kind of walking which he called “a meditation of place” (Inward Morning p. 139). Bugbee writes:

“During my years of graduate study before the war I studied philosophy in the classroom and at a desk, but my philosophy took shape mainly on foot. It was truly peripatetic, engendered not merely while walking, but through walking that was essentially a meditation of the place. And the balance in which I weighed ideas I was studying was always that established in the experience of walking in the place. I weighed everything by the measure of the silent presence of things, clarified by racing clouds, clarified by the cry of hawks, waters of manifold voice, and consolidated in the act of taking steps, each step a meditation steeped in reality” (The Inward Morning, p. 139).

Daniel W. Conway, writing about this passage, says:

“Walking is not [therefore] merely a calisthenic propaedeutic to the heroic labors of philosophizing. Rather, walking functions as the engine of immersion, which enables him to take the phenomenological measure of the wild he temporarily inhabits" (Wilderness and the Heart: Henry Bugbee's Philosophy of Place, Presence and Memory, ed. Edward F. Mooney, University of Georgia Press, 1999, p. 6).

Taken together Bugbee’s words and Conway’s comments feel to me like a very good expression of what is so often going on when I’m walking in the Botanic Garden (or anywhere else for that matter) and working on something that I might bring before you on a Sunday morning. But, although this kind of walking clearly immerses a person in nature this immersion is only half the story. What needs immediately to follow is a response. Now, the way I have set it out may, at first, make it seem as if the patient waiting theme I want to talk about today is going to be found in the apparently passive, quiet patient and meditative walk whilst my response is going to be something else, something involving my active agency — some other kind of obvious doing. But that’s not quite right in this context because, as Conway notes, Bugbee wants to encourage in us a kind of response that might initially appear contradictory, namely, to engage in “an active receptiveness”. Conway goes on to say that this “suggests a condition we might call patiency, whereby the sauntering philosopher, having received the call of the wild, now invites wilderness to express itself through him” (Wilderness and the Heart, p. 12).

With the idea of patiency we have now arrived at the real theme of my address today. Patiency is the word which describes a certain kind of active response that Bugbee is encouraging us to engage in — it's not just an activity reserved for so-called professional philosophers. I’m bringing it up now, not only because I think it is obviously relevant in the season of Advent, but because I feel it may well be the most important, central activity a church such as this should be encouraging all the year round. In brief, Bugbee feels, as you heard in our reading, that:

“Philosophy is not a making of a home for the mind out of reality. It is more like learning to leave things be: restoration in the wilderness, here and now” (Inward Morning, p. 155).

I clearly now need to add a word or two about the wilderness which is, of course, also an Advent theme, for as you know John the Baptist does his waiting for Christ in the wilderness. What is the wilderness, the wild or wildness for Bugbee? It seems that the wild is Nature itself in all its endless movements in and through all things; it is something like natura naturans, nature naturing. For Spinoza, whom Bugbee admired, natura naturans  may also be thought of as God — Deus sive natura, God is nature, nature is God.

Conway notes that for Bugbee patiency restores to a person this wildness that is nature naturing and it is this that helps a person see not only the ultimate unconditional value of all individual things but also the falsity of the idea that somehow we as humans have some kind of privileged status within the natural world. Indeed, Conway goes so far as to suggest that for Bugbee wilderness is patiency (Wilderness and the Heart, p. 13) and, by extension, this must mean patiency is also wilderness.

Patiency helps us gain a “sense of communion” with all things and also to experience “a concrete understanding of reality and our togetherness in reality” (Inward Morning, p. 123). Patiency helps us experience the many and the one, the one and the many.

To reintroduce a clearly Advent and Christmas thought, I want to say that patiency helps us see something that our final Advent hymn, written by the Unitarian minister Don Wayne Vaughn, speaks about, namely that that for which we are waiting with active receptiveness — given in the Christian myth the name “the Christ-child” — is, in truth patiently to develop the ability to see the divine in everything as it is and that, “with each new life, all life anew will start”. Together all this should help us see that all things, birds, trees, you me, flowers, rivers, mountains, nails and squeaky doors really are all in this together.

This insight, when fully internalised and lived daily has, of course, profound implications for our religion, philosophy, politics and commerce.

But we simply cannot get to see and experience all this if we are charging about in a frenzy of activity. Which thought brings me to a close today because it seems to me that, at this very early moment in our species’ history, religion really should be spending most of its time and energy in encouraging patiency. For too long religion has acted as if it knew the secrets of all time and space and has encouraged in us a destructive frenzy of intrusive activity far more unseemly and violent than anything we saw on Black Friday. Surely we need to learn how to leave things be and to do this in an actively receptive way that helps us move together gently and supportively with the whole of nature.

I think Bugbee's words about philosophy bear repeating but with reference also to religion. Religion, like philosophy, "is not the making of a home for the mind out of reality. It is more like learning to leave things be: restoration in the wilderness, here and now."

I wish you all a wild and patient Advent.