Immediate tactile, visceral answers in the breeze—the mysticism of wide open eyes


What I Have Learned So Far by Mary Oliver

Meditation is old and honorable, so why should I 
not sit, every morning of my life, on the hillside, 
looking into the shining world? Because, properly 
attended to, delight, as well as havoc, is suggestion. 
Can one be passionate about the just, the 
ideal, the sublime, and the holy, and yet commit 
to no labor in its cause? I don’t think so.

All summations have a beginning, all effect has a 
story, all kindness begins with the sown seed. 
Thought buds toward radiance. The gospel of 
light is the crossroads of — indolence, or action.

Be ignited, or be gone.

Matthew 7:16-20

[Jesus said] You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits.


Immediate tactile, visceral answers in the breeze—the mysticism of wide open eyes

Last week, the central theme of my Lent-related address was about how we might learn, consciously and joyously, to celebrate the fact that when nature does what nature does (natura naturans), one of the things that continues to emerge — at least in our neck of the universe — is something we call life. Miracle of miracles it is that, out of the endless fluxes and flows of non-sentient matter, sentient life emerges and returns in continual cycles. I suggested that this way of looking at things offers us one, naturalistic, way we can (perhaps) continue to use the ancient Easter language of “the resurrection of the dead”.

A passerby caught by the wonder of spring blossom
Those of you who were here last week will remember that in the conversation following the address John Toye also reminded us all of another, important, resurrection theme amenable to us, namely the resurrection of the living, where the resurrection is perceived to be a moral or spiritual one. Thanks to John, the general theme of the resurrection of the living has very much occupied my own thoughts this week especially as, once again, I have watched spring begin to unfold, particularly in the form of the cherry, apple, plum and blackthorn trees blossoming across the city.

[In the photo here — click on it to enarge , which I took in Mill Road Cemetery on Friday afternoon, the young mum, as she walked by, was fully concentrating on her chattering children. But then, having passed the tree, its beauty seems to have got fully through to her such that she suddenly turned around properly to look and wonder at the blossom. I was lucky to have pressed the shutter at that precise, splendid, moment.]

However, perhaps as a simple consequence of now being in my mid-fifties, what has particularly struck me this year is that, although the image I most readily associate with the season of spring is new life as new life, when it comes to a moral or spiritual spring the images that most readily spring to mind are of certain kinds of new life appearing in mature and old lives.

Herbert Fingarette (1921-2018)
But I am getting ahead of myself because the genesis of this spring-time address really began back in the middle of February when I watched a newly released short film made about the American philosopher Herbert Fingarette (1921-2018) in which he reflected upon his life at the age of 97. He taught a friend of mine through whom I first discovered Fingarette's interesting body of work, particularly that on Confucius and his book called The Self in Transformation (Basic Books, New York 1963) some words from which have for a long time now appeared in the header of my blog because they seem to me to be a perfect expression of what I try my best to do with you week by week in my Sunday address:

These studies are outcomes rather than realized objectives. In making the journey, I have no aims. These studies are intellectual footprints, not blueprints.

The film, called Being 97: An ageing philosopher returns to the essential question: ‘What is the point of it all?’, is a poignant and, at times, apparently sad one. A perfect example of this surface mood is found in the following words which Fingarette speaks whilst sitting out on the deck of his house:

I look at the trees blowing a little in the breeze — and I've seen them innumerable times but somehow seeing the trees this time is a transcendent experience. I see how marvellous it is and I think to myself  I’ve had these here all along but have I really appreciated them? And, the fact is, I have not . . . until now. And, in a way, it makes the fact of death even more difficult to accept. It just brings tears to my eyes (at 14’51”).

Now, on a first viewing, I have to confess that it was almost overwhelmingly tempting to remain (and even wallow) in what appeared to be Fingarette’s sadness but, as my friend, Ed Mooney (himself a philosopher in his 80th year), pointed out to me on that same day:

For a viewer, there’s the simple kindness of [Fingarette’s] responses to his aide, and the evident power of his responses to music — his arms and head sway to the beauty quite beyond any question of whether there’s a point to things.  And he notices the leaves dancing in the breeze.  And he draws or paints. For me, quite beyond his irony in suggesting the big questions may not have answers, there are immediate tactile, visceral answers in the breeze, in the Schubert, in the presence-absence of his wife, in the “thank you” he addresses to his aide. I think the simple things speak.

I think my friend is absolutely spot-on here; yes there’s a sadness, but in the film we are also seeing an expression of a truth powerfully expressed by Kahlil Gibran who wrote (in The Prophet): “When you are sorrowful look again in / Your heart, and you shall see that in truth / You are weeping for that which has been your delight”. Gibran goes on to observe that, because joy and sorrow are inseparable, “Together they come, and when one sits alone with you at your board, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed.” As Blake also saw, “joy and woe are woven fine” and, about this, we can do nothing because it’s part of the structure of human life.

Anyway, Fingarette’s words about the trees came powerfully back into my head and heart when, during a conversation a couple of weeks ago with Don Cupitt — another philosopher consciously coming to terms with the approaching end of his life at the age of 84 — we talked about some of the playwright Dennis Potter’s words spoken in a memorable interview with Melvyn Bragg in March 1994 just three months before he died. At one point he speaks of the plum-tree blossom outside his study window:

Looking at it, instead of saying ‘Oh that's nice blossom’ . . . it is the whitest, frothiest, blossomest blossom that there ever could be, and I can see it. Things are both more trivial than they ever were, and more important than they ever were, and the difference between the trivial and the important doesn’t seem to matter. But the nowness of everything is absolutely wondrous, and if people could see that, you know, there’s no way of telling you, you have to experience it. But the glory of it, if you like, the comfort of it, the reassurance — not that I’m interested in reassuring people, you know, bugger that — the fact is, if you see the present tense, boy do you see it! And boy can you celebrate it! (at 6’40”).

To my mind, in both Fingarette and Potter’s utterances, we are seeing examples of the resurrection of the living in a late-life blossoming. True enough, Fingarette’s blossoming is expressed in what we may call a generally minor key whilst Potter’s is expressed in a more major key, but this is, surely, only to say something like that the blossom of a cherry-tree is different from the blossom of a plum-tree. Fingarette is not Potter nor vice versa and so, inevitably, each of their late-life blossoms are different in colour. But make no mistake flowerings they are.

But I realize that to some people in certain moods (including Fingarette), such late-life blossomings can be seen as, and felt to be, merely examples of ultimately pointless, sentimental and empty acts of self-reassurance with no practical, meaningful content that can genuinely provide a certain kind of answer to the question “What is the point of it all?”

But it strikes me at this point in proceedings that one can usefully extend the metaphor of the blossoming tree a little further to show that this need not be the case and that there can be real, practical and meaningful consequences of such, mystical late-life blossoms.

One of Jesus' most memorable sayings is his proclamation that a good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit and that, therefore, we best know trees — and by extension, people — by their fruits (Matthew 7:16-20).

So the question I want to ask, as I begin to draw to a close, is what real summer fruit might follow on from Fingarette and Potter’s spring blossoms?

Well, in the first instance, one meaningful fruit is, surely, the personal, life-enhancing transcendental wonder they, themselves, feel in the presence of the simple things of life experienced by them — sometimes truly for the first time — fully in the present tense. It’s a feeling that is often best expressed in the feeling of having been set on fire. I’m minded here of the atheist, writer and activist Barbara Ehrenreich’s description of a walk in Lone Pine, California that she made when she was aged seventeen:

At some point in my predawn walk — not at the top of a hill or the exact moment of sunrise, but in its own good time — the world flamed into life. How else to describe it? There were no visions, no prophetic voices or visits by totemic animals, just this blazing everywhere. Something poured into me and I poured out into it. This was not the passive beatific merger with ‘the All,’ as promised by the Eastern mystics. It was a furious encounter with a living substance that was coming at me through all things at once, and one reason for the terrible wordlessness of the experience is that you cannot observe fire really closely without becoming part of it. Whether you start as a twig or a gorgeous tapestry, you will be recruited into the flame and made indistinguishable from the rest of the blaze (Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever's Search for the Truth about Everything, Granta Books, 2014)

But notice here how the deeply personal experience of being set on fire like this simultaneously recruits a person “into the flame” in which they are “made indistinguishable from the rest of the blaze.” The personal is suddenly revealed to be, at one and the same time, corporate. It is here, I think, that we begin to understand the experience that the German feminist theologian Dorothee Soelle (1929-2003) memorably referred to as “the mysticism of wide open eyes.” It is where and whenever we begin to intuit the ethical and political consequences of personal, transcendental (even mystical) experiences such as those pointed to by Fingarette and Potter as they both meditated upon, amongst other things, their trees. To my mind, no one has put this better than Mary Oliver (1935-2019) in her poem, What I Have Learned So Far, which you heard in our readings.

I would argue that when seen and received from certain perspectives (or, as Oliver put it, when “properly attended to”) Fingarette, Potter, Ehrenreich and Oliver’s meditative thinking always buds toward radiance and, via the seeds found in their words, their thinking can serve to open our eyes and ignite in us — not merely an  inward, personal fire — but also an incendiary, ethical and political fire which illuminates the truth that one can never simply be internally aflame about the just, the ideal, the sublime, and the holy then without going on to commit to labour in its cause.

There are times of life — especially when one is very old and knowingly close to death — when to labour in the cause of the just, the ideal, the sublime, and the holy is simply to let the simple things speak, whether through the enjoyment of leaves dancing in the breeze, in drawing and painting, in the enjoyment of Schubert, in the presence-absence of those whom we loved in the flesh and still love in our memories, in the thank-yous we address to the helpmeets we find everywhere around us (human and non-human). But there are other times of life — especially when one is young or in middle-age — when the labour for the just, the ideal, the sublime, and the holy is to engage in an obviously harder and, superficially anyway, less immediately enjoyable kinds of religious, political, social, economic, cultural and environmental activisms. But, of course, both responses can, and often do, overlap in important, mutually informing ways.

But, in the end, whether young, middle-aged or old, is not this ignition and recruitment into the flame where we are made indistinguishable from the rest of the blaze the point of it all?

The “mysticism of the wide open eyes” is to be ignited, or be gone, and trees covered with spring blossom seen in the present tense can often be — for young and old alike — the very spark we require to be resurrected into new lives full of mystical religious and political meaning and purpose.

Be ignited, or be gone.