The forward progress of the stars each month…
The slipping away of the moon each night…
What a marvelous mystery is made manifest
In this ever-present picture of the place we hold on earth.
As with any evident mystery,
The exegesis is engraved in soul-sentences over the centuries.
And in truth, it may never be fully fathomed.
These hints help by their modesty as much as their magnificence.
But it is the work of the soul on these mysteries
That lets these mysteries work on the soul.
Being. Becoming. Involution.
Not all of it can be laid out
In the black and white.
And so, I am once again reminded that
What works in me; my inner work,
That’s what’s being encouraged by all the simple mysteries out there.
There are places in Nature, that bring out the best in almost anyone. On the other hand, there are moods of soul that brings out the best in everything and everyone we touch, no matter where we happen to be. Both the outer place and the inner space, I refer to as sacred places. The story of this courtship, this dance between the Human soul life and its worldly surroundings, is what gives my life purpose.
When we come to experience sacredness in a natural setting, it immediately feels like the place itself has revealed its own glory. We are not usually inclined to sense our own responsibility for this sacredness. It speaks in a far greater language than we feel we could ever speak. We appreciate the given gift and are rightly humbled by it. To yearn to go back to that wonderful place and be nourished at Nature’s bosom when our soul feels impoverished, is as innocent an inclination as we cold ever know. We are not wrong to feel that the sacredness we experience reveals something extraordinary about our surroundings!
But most of us have experienced that the sacredness we once felt may not be there again on our return. This is especially true about the experiences of childhood. Approached with an adult frame of mind, places don’t hold the same glow. When we lack the awe we once felt, disappointment can set in. The contrast presses us to reflect that we played a part in creating both the childhood awe and the adult disappointment.
This sudden self-awareness may lead well beyond its intended purpose. With some people, the notion may arise that the Sacred can only be approached as an inner experience. They are convinced that their childhood memory was real, but only subjective. They want to hold on to the spirit that they once sensed, but see it now as only a personal reality, conditioned by some nebulous “magic of the moment”. This lonely outlook strips the “sacred place” of its own spirit, and by extension, reduces the natural world to being merely fodder for the soul, in the same pedantic way that we mindlessly consumer her food for our physical sustenance. A hidden pride prevails in this attitude that elevates the soul above the apparent limitations of a ‘merely’ natural world.
Other people carry it a step further. In their disappointment, they come to disbelieve in any sacredness. Was it only a childish illusion… the realm of the tooth fairy? This turn of mind may lead them to a complete loss of faith. Here, both the sense of soul and the substance of matter are reduced to superficiality. Bereft of awe, the mind begets its shallow surrogate, sentimentality, which is a veiled form of cynicism.
But we are neither mistaken about finding the sacred in the place itself, nor are we mistaken to feel that we have had something to do with its revelation. When we dig more deeply inward, we come to understand that this experience of sacredness reveals equally something about ourselves and something about the rest of the created world. I have come to realize that it is during this dance with the natural world that the sacred really comes to life. And the natural world is always ready to dance. It is up to me to make myself ready for that dance. As in any Human relationship, it takes work to make it work.
To dance! How do we prepare ourselves for this dance? I hear part of the answer ringing from distance dance-halls of my younger days: “Honor your Partner..” That is probably the first step of all. I look over and see that Nature is truly beautiful, truly handsome, and full of that sense of mystery that draws me into a budding relationship. I really want to dance. It “makes me want be a better man”. But what do I have to offer?
Well, for one, I have the ability to notice this beauty, honor this hidden depth. Appreciation is always appreciated, wherever it is given. The solo dance that nature expresses when we are not involved, is wise, poetic and epic, but these elements go unnoticed until you or I come along with our human capacity to appreciate them. This is what we have to offer as dance partners; selflessness appreciation in all its forms; studied observation, aesthetic recognition and devoted action: The path toward understanding…the experience of beauty…and commitment to goodness. The paradox is that this selfless absorption in the essence of nature is only made possible through a gradual dawning of the sense of our own being, our own self. “The world around us is filled everywhere with the glory of God, but we have to experience the divine in our own souls before we can find it in our surroundings.” (Rudolph Steiner)
To prepare for the dance?… Much of that preparation is already done for us. It is fruitful to think about what we would do without the natural gift of eyes that can see, of ears that can hear, of hands and mind that can grasp and work with the truth and beauty of the world. Nature herself has graced us with many of these characteristically human elements that make this preparation possible.
How we actually employ these gifts to prepare for a sacred dance with nature, is the question of greater significance. The world-weary adult has not actually lost those natural gifts that were given to the awe-filled child. They are all still there. Awakening to our senses, we have focussed them on mastering nature around us. But it may be that the adult has only rarely worked to master himself. Our senses, as our unbridled habits, those servants of our soul, become our worst masters when left to their own devices. Not only are we impoverished by the neglected self mastery, but the world soon feels the effect as well. The greater part of our preparation for the dance takes place as we work on ourselves.
It may appear that the work starts when we look, and in looking, see the colors of a sunset, or the veins in a translucent leaf. If we look away without really taking them in, the very next sense-image, perhaps the flap of wings or the aroma of the sea, fills our attention, displacing all thought of what came before. And so it is from horizon to horizon. We are surrounded by the world which fills our senses, and would be overwhelmed by its distracting confusion unless we held that sunset in our mind’s eye, or the image of the leaf as a picture in our awaiting soul. It takes inner activity to resist the lure of the next impression. Without something that rises up from within, we would soon forget this one too, and would endlessly search with our senses for ever newer impressions to fill the void.
The comfort of a familiar sight or sound lets us pause in our senses’ search. The new impression has met a recollection that arises from some previous sense experience that we really took in, and honored by holding onto. In very unfamiliar surroundings, our senses don’t rest until we can make out hints of the familiar; lights in the darkness of the unknown. Those retained images in our soul are the lanterns by which we really illuminate the dark path through the forest of the sense world. But these lights shine almost without effort on our part. These impressions can hardly be considered as work. They come almost as naturally as opening our eyes in the first place. Making ‘sense’ of our surroundings comes naturally. We probably share this capacity, in some capacity, with all sentient beings. Our human uniqueness is that we can recall impressions at will. This too is an almost imperceptible effort for us. Recollection is light work, but real human work never-the-less.
It would be even easier, and almost as natural to jump to conclusions prematurely, or to let the impression freely associate, triggering the recollection of unrelated phenomena. But this is only another, inward form of distraction.
Only the caring overlay of impression upon similar recalled impression, in the quiet of the mind, can build understanding. And the uniquely human light of understanding is even brighter than the lantern of recollection. It casts an expanding glow in all directions. It has often been pointed out that the more you know the more you notice. Knowledge starts with recognition (literally re-cognition) of the details. Linnaeus elevated that notion by writing; “The first step in wisdom is to know the things themselves”.
The human partner in this dance can eventually offer nature the quality and fruits of wisdom; the capacity to see outside of our own frame of reference; to see what really stands behind the evidence of the senses; to see both nature’s details and its entirety, its means and its purpose, on its own terms. With wisdom, we truly shine one of our brightest lights on Nature’s greatness. When wisdom guides our steps in the dance, we really begin to honor our partner.
As a human being, I may be graced with many indispensable gifts, but not with inherited wisdom. Wisdom is won, not granted naturally. Wisdom only comes about gradually through lifetimes of human effort. And yet, it must be rediscovered by each generation, each person. It would do us no good today to adopt the nature-wisdom of native peoples, because our dance with nature steps to quite a different tune on a very different dance floor.
When it comes to understanding wisdom itself, I am more inclined to step back another 700 years before the time of Linnaeus, and heed the words of Solomon Ibn Gabirol: “In seeking wisdom, the first step is silence; the second, listening; the third, remembering; the fourth, practicing; the fifth, teaching others.” I recognize here that before we even open our senses to the nature in front of us, we have work to do. The preparation proceeds by developing the capacity for silence, both inwardly and outwardly. In a quiet of sufficient depth, the very music of the spheres might be heard. Before we look and listen, we need to shed our shallow inner prompting; those inner veils of personal coloring; those cloaks of bias with which we drape and further obscure the details that Linnaeus thought paramount. Only then can we immerse ourselves in the deeper sea of silence.