Catching sight of the “world bud”—An Advent meditation

A short thought for the day” offered to the Cambridge Unitarian Church as part of the Sunday Service of Mindful Meditation


An important, secondary theme in my piece of two weeks ago was that the visible characters of the Advent stories — namely, Mary and Joseph, Elizabeth and Zechariah, the Angel Gabriel, the shepherds, the Magians or Zoroastrian priests, and King Herod — obscure from our view the narratives’ two invisible, unborn characters, namely, John and Jesus.

But, once I finished that piece — in which I primarily explored what lessons those two (and, indeed, all other) unborn children might be saying to us — I quickly realised that in making these unseen babies visible to our modern imaginations, the amazing sight and lessons of a still growing child in the womb can then easily serve to obscure something else important from view, something absolutely central to religion. What this something else is I hope you will get a sense of by the end of this short piece.

Anyway, thanks to ultrasound technology, all of us can now see that after the initiating event of sexual intercourse (or, of course, after intra-uterine insemination or in vitro fertilisation) a mother begins to bring-forth — remember this term “bring-forth” — a mother begins to bring-forth in her womb something we might poetically call a “child bud.” Over the next nine months this child bud grows and grows until finally, on the day of birth, it blossoms forth in the form of what we call a new born child.

Now, the Greek word for “bringing-forth” is “poeisis” (from which we derive the English words “poet” and “poetry”) and, as the philosopher Julian Young points out, ‘[t]he model for poiesis is . . . the blossom rising forth out of its bud.” It’s important to see that the blossoming of a bud (whether a rose bud or a child bud) is something that happens within the world (Heidegger’s Later Philosophy, Cambridge University Press, 2002, p. 41).

Now this is, of course, all very uncontentious.

However, now ask yourself this difficult question: What is the bud of the world itself? We need to ask this because, as Young also notes, at its “most fundamental level . . . poiesis is the sense of [something] as a blossoming forth, an ‘upsurgent presencing’ out of, as it were . . ., the ‘world bud’” (ibid p. 41).

As I hope you can already intuit, the rose bud and the child bud are very, very different from the world bud because, as Young points out, “[w]hereas the rose bud [and the child bud are] visible and known, the ‘world bud’ is utterly mysterious, incomprehensible. And in the majesty of its overwhelming creative power, it is breathtakingly awesome” (ibid p. 41).

The key thing to see here is that the world bud — even though we can name it — is not a thing that is either visible or known. However, although it’s a no-thing, it’s most certainly not nothing! Yet, for all that it’s a “something” that remains utterly mysterious and incomprehensible both to religion and science because, unlike the rose bud or the child bud it is not within the world. Despite this it is something we perceive to be mother-like in its operation and one of the most memorable expressions of this is found in the first chapter of Tao Te Ching:

“Nameless: the origin of heaven and earth.
Naming: the mother of ten thousand things.”

(Trans. Stanley Lombardo and Stephen Addiss)

In the same chapter the ancient author has little choice but to say this is “deep — Deep and again deep: The gateway to all mystery.” I’m sure we can say “Amen, amen” to this.

This world bud, this nameless origin of heaven and earth, always remains an utterly dark and impenetrable mystery and according to the great thirteenth-century mystic Meister Eckhart it’s most approriately named not God but the Godhead. As some of you will know, in Eckhart’s sublime theology God exists only when we creatures invoke God, whereas the Godhead is the origin of all things that is wholly beyond even God.

Now, two weeks ago I hope you were able to see how easy it has been for the visible, traditional colourful characters of the Advent stories to obscure from our view the yet to be born characters of John and Jesus and so cause us to miss the opportunity of hearing their important lessons.

This week I hope you can see my attempt to see the amazing sight of the unborn children in the womb and to listen out for their unspoken lessons can itself serve to obscure from view something even more amazing, awesome and fundamental, namely, the dark and mysterious no-thing that is the world bud and so also miss the opportunity of hearing its important lessons.

And what, you may ask, are those lessons? Well, I think they are many and various, but I’ll finish with the one that strikes me as being the most important.

In the presence of the utterly dark and impenetrably mysterious world bud our tragic human tendency to hubris — which again and again has lead us to think we can know everything and control everything — is challenged at the most fundamental level. And, in consequence, we are forced to begin to employ what the poet John Keats (1795-1821) called our negative capability, that which help us remain creatively alive, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason, in the presence of “uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts.”

To be sure we can and should continue to address all kinds of uncertainties, mysteries and doubts — many of which can genuinely and usefully be explored, solved and overcome through the wise employment of fact and reason. But, but, but, as we do this we must never forget the profound limitations of our particular species that ensures we remain ignorant of so, so much of reality. Yes, we are creatures whose lives depend upon the deployment of reason and fact, but we are also creatures whose lives are always already embedded in a greater reality that remains to us stubbornly uncertain, mysterious and doubtful.
Today, more urgently than any human generation before us we, as a hubristically-inclined species, must find ways fully to acknowledge our utter dependance upon the world bud or the Godhead, about which we can know or say nothing except that it, and not we, brings forth all things.

And to return to where I began this piece today, this is the something I mentioned that is absolutely central to religion that can all too easily be obscured from view in a world jam-packed with so many amazing characters and things.

It seems ever more clear to me that if we wish to survive as a species we must learn once again the need simply to stop and to bow before the awesome and holy absence-as-presence of the world bud or Godhead. And then, in an attitude of reverence, to give profound thanks for being itself, for being here right now as the unique but wholly dependent creatures we are, and, as Henry Bugbee once beautifully put it, for being here together in “the sustaining sea . . . bound up with the sense of communion with all the creatures swimming or floundering in it, as may be” (Henry Bugbee: “The Inward Morning”, University of Georgia Press, 1999 p. 123).