Saturday, September 18, 2010

Love What Makes Us Wonder

Folks, it's been a sniffly, mopey week here chez Ali, as I do my best to sweat and sleep my way to good health in time for my partner's and my up-coming week-long Big Fall Wedding Tour 2010, during which we will be doing things like: driving all over creation, camping on the beach, praising the gods of the threshold, investigating potential vendors and venues for our wedding, and introducing me to my future mother-in-law and other relatives. Not to mention, yesterday a hacker-virus-thing made its way into my gmail, triggering an automatic suspension of my account and officially deleting this blog for an hour or two, sending me into panicked sobs and hysterical blubbering (overly-invested much?) before it was eventually restored, but not before thoroughly nailing into my thick, mucus-filled skull that it's definitely time to begin the long process of transferring this blog to its own official domain name (more on this a bit later in the month). So let's just say I've had a lot on my mind this week.

But all you loyal readers deserve a post before I head off into the great southern roadscape. So I'm going to do my best, despite my head-cold-muddled mind, to give you one.

What I'd like to talk about is mystery.

The subject is prompted most immediately by a post by a fellow who goes by the name of Ravendark over at the blog Atheist Druid, which I stumbled upon a week or so ago thanks to Heather of Say the Trees Have Ears. Both of these writers are well worth keeping your eyes on. I've been reading Heather for a while, enjoying her emphasis on art, science and observation of the natural world which is modulated by a certain humility about her own experiences and uncertainties — something that is quite refreshing when so many other writers out there in the Pagan blogosphere are so full of snark and self-importance (not that I mind a little snark now and then, don't get me wrong). Ravendark's atheist blog, quite a new venture it looks like, has so far been intriguing; I've always enjoyed engaging atheists and agnostics in conversation (which may be why I've dated quite a few of them in my time — that is, when there wasn't a good Zen Buddhist around), and so far Ravendark's musing on deity and organized religion have proved quite interesting. (We'll forgive him for skipping over the niceties with me and instead emailing my partner, Jeff, to commend him for his excellent Druid Journal, which he found through this blog. This is one of the effects of the Druid archetype, I'm afraid: the older man with the beard must surely be the wiser and more experienced Druid than the young woman with the Celtic armband tattoo — even if she has been practicing almost twice as long. But no, I'm not jealous of my fiancĂ©'s clout, not at all. I mean, he's like, what?, fifty or something? and his blog has its own domain name, so clearly he must be more qualified, Ali continues her plotting...[1])

••• Stars •••Where was I? O yes. Mystery. This is actually a topic that has been on my mind quite a bit recently. Ever since returning from my trip to Northern Ireland (I got to go to Northern Ireland a few weeks ago — did I mention that already?), I have been turning over in my mind what exactly a "Pagan-slash-polytheistic mysticism" might look like. There are, of course, Pagans or Pagan-ish people who are also mystics or mystic-ish. T. Thorn Coyle, to name the most well-known perhaps, as well as a few Wiccan folks (such as Gus diZerega, if I understand his spiritual views correctly, and Christopher DeGraffenreid, the gentleman who writes over at Mystic Wicca). Yet it seems that the mysticism of many of these beautiful folks is a kind of monism or monotheism, with emphasis ultimately on the practice and process of seeking (moments of) union and self-transcendence. This is how mysticism is traditionally understood, and what I think Evelyn Underhill means when she describes mysticism in her classic text: "Mysticism, in its pure form, is the science of ultimates, the science of union with the Absolute, and nothing else."

Yet to me, mysticism is primarily the experiential contemplation of and engagement with mystery (or, if you like, capital-M Mystery). I see no reason why this Mystery should not manifest and present itself to us not simply as an Absolute Unity, but sometimes also as a Myriad Many. The world is full to bursting with the concrete and the material in all its diversely and perfectly harmonized forms. Every form gives rise to (or arises from) it own limits with which it is uniquely and intimately associated. We may speak of "dog" as an abstract, but every single dog that exists and ever has existed is its own unique dog; perhaps even our ideas of the Dog Abstract are each their own unique ideas and not, as we so often take for granted, a single concept that we all share in common. There is, it seems to me, a great and awe-inspiring mystery in how all of these forms and limits fit together and move against and within each other, a mystery in how the world is utterly full of itself in every possible way. This is what intrigues me, and where I would like to begin my own investigations into the seeds of a "Pagan mysticism."

There is no question in my mind that modern science can be a great aid and tool in exploring the deeper aspects of this kind of Mystery of Multiplicity. After all, the hard sciences are quite explicitly concerned with the material, physical world — studying its many forces and interactions, delving ever more deeply into its patterns and peculiarities. Yet a problem that many scientifically-minded folks fall into, is the conflation between a "mystery" and a "puzzle." As Ravendark writes:

There is so much that science does not know, so much that is still mysterious, but the way I see it, mysteries are not there to be just gawped at, they are there to be solved. How much more satisfying to solve a mystery than to simply shrug your shoulders and say 'I dunno, it's a mystery innit?' Would anyone be satisfied with a murder novel that ended with the great detective saying 'I give up, it's a mystery'?

Personally, I blame bookstores. For years now, they have stacked shelves of books about detectives and criminal investigations — in which some ingenious and scientifically-minded individual solves a perplexing puzzle to thwart the bad guy and save the day — in the section of the store titled "Mystery," in the same way they carelessly file erotica fiction full of throbbing members and heaving bosoms under the misnomer "Romance." But romance is not mere erotica, and mystery is not mere puzzlement. I might also blame Edgar Allan Poe, one of the earliest writers of the "mystery" genre — except I think he got it right. In Poe's stories, the mystery lies not only in piecing together the clues and figuring out the crime, but in shuddering in wonder and horror at the twisted, pathological human creature in all its perverse cravings and repulsive secrets. Long after the puzzle of the crime has been resolved, we are left to gawp at and ponder over the mystery of the human psyche.[3] Even the most genius detective cannot ultimately solve the mystery of the criminal mind.

In the same way, even the most intelligent and thorough scientist, even the progress of science carrying on indefinitely into the future, will not ever ultimately solve or resolve the mystery of the universe (whatever Hawking says). It's not that kind of mystery. And yet the puzzlement that engages so many scientists to explore and engage with the world in the way they do — that puzzlement, what Ravendark calls wonder, is a part of mystery. Here, Ravendark is right on the mark: without wonder, the world is boring. A mystery that does nothing more than overwhelm, shut down and deaden our sense of engagement with the world is a poor mystery indeed. This is the down side of quietism that contemplatives in the Christian mystic traditions often have to struggle with, as well as the danger of forms of both cataphatic and apophatic prayer, though in different ways. For some folks, the theologies of a transcendent creator God seem simplistic and therefore deadening, cutting off or cutting short the process of wonder and engagement. This is the problem that Ravendark has with such religions:

A god who created the universe for one species on one planet is a very small god. A god who cares about how we dress, who we sleep with, what we eat and how we respond to the universe is a very petty god. To look at this vast complex universe and say 'God did it' is unsatisfying. It does not deepen mystery, it closes off inquiry and provides an easy answer to a difficult question.

Trigger-Happy Star Formation (NASA, Chandra, 8/12/09)For my part, this never bothered me. Even as a Catholic growing up, the mystery of Christianity never resided in the idea of a transcendent creator God, but in the vulnerability and suffering of a human God in the person of Christ. The mystery of Christianity was, for me, the mystery of the empty tomb on Easter — the relationship between life and death, presence and absence, and the tension of these in the self-awareness of the human being-becoming. That such a god might exist who would concern himself with the utter depths of human consciousness and fear, and the ultimate heights of human love and compassion, did not seem to me petty or small at all. But this is me, these are the things that make me wonder and ponder, that puzzle and engage me. On the other hand, Ravendark is "moved and overjoyed when I look up at the stars and know that every atom of carbon in our bodies was forged in the heart of one of those stars, and spread across the universe" — it is the facts discovered by science, rather than the mythologies of religious traditions, that fascinate and engage him. That's definitely all right by me.

And I suppose that's all I really wanted to get at, in the end, is this idea that we all have different things that make us wonder, that leave us full of awe, and that inspire us to engage with the world in meaningful and beautiful ways. For some, these are the stories, myths and folktales of religions both ancient and modern. For others, they are the facts of science and its processes and methods of discovery. Still others fall head-over-heels for the aesthetics and power of art, or the turning mechanisms of social and political patterning with their fulcrums of justice and liberty, or the philosophical investigation of ethics or ontology or phenomenology. And I am totally down with that.

In all of these things, though, I think it's important to remember to love what makes us wonder. To cherish whatever it is that amazes and inspires us, and to preserve that wonder and inspiration as something special, dare I say sacred, in shaping the way we live with and in the world. The puzzle-solving of science, devoid of this wonder and love, can become a kind of colonialism of the material world, obsessed with manipulation and control for the benefit of human comfort and convenience. Don't say it can't, because it can and has and does. A world that is only valued as long as it has puzzles to solve may also one day become dull and boring, the puzzles grown tedious and repetitive. Life is not one long Sudoku, friends.

Ultimately, the activity of puzzle-solving that wonder can provoke in us is only one part of the role that mystery plays in our lives. What mystery does — like love — is inspire both movement and stillness within us. It is the tension between the two that makes mystery so intoxicating, ever-new and ever-deepening for us as we go through life. A love that seeks to possess the beloved wholly and fully will either be forever frustrated to the point when it becomes unbearable, or it will succeed, only to find itself in possession of something now reduced and deadened. In the same way, mystery that drives us only to the frenzied activity of puzzle-solving will eventually take us to the limits of our energies; we may come to find that we hate what has obsessed us and ensnared us, that it has become a monstrous thing which we feel driven not to engage with in wonder, but to conquer out of fear or disgust or perhaps merely fatigue.

Yet even the atheist and the materialist and the scientist can appreciate this dual nature of mystery, and cherish it as a source of tension. When Ravendark describes his experience as he gazes at the stars, his wonder is not one of puzzlement, but a resting within knowledge. The realization that we are "literally all made of stardust" is not necessarily one that incites us to a particular action or activity — it is an occasion to be still for a moment and simply participate through our presence and awareness in this understanding of the world. For it is an understanding that overwhelms and overjoys us, that leaves us for an instant simply gawping with gratitude and love at the starscape of the night sky.

Okay, so. Movement and stillness. Wonder, love, awe, understanding, presence, engagement, tension and mystery. Science and religion, myth and fact, even art, politics, justice, prayer, Stephen Hawking, Edgar Allan Poe, the Abstract Dog, and erotica. I think that about covers it, folks.

I'm glad we had this little talk. See you on the other side of next week.

[1] The little known fact is that I am marrying this man not for his money, not for his looks,[2] but for his clout and his good name. I mean that literally — don't you think "Alison Leigh Lilly" has an excellent ring to it? Almost as good as "Emma Restall Orr" and "Philip Carr-Gomm" and "Ellen Evert Hopman" and "John Michael Greer".... (All great Druid authors need three names, right? Isn't that like a rule or something?)

[2] Okay, also a little bit for his looks.

[3] Okay, and also, definitely, his brain. Reading over this essay before I posted it, Jeff commented: "I particularly like your analysis of mystery stories. I think what really makes Holmes (and House) such classics are not the mysteries, but the Mystery in the character of the detectives themselves." Yes. A thousand times yes.


  1. Spiritual harmony may be hidden from us for a while, but it cannot be taken away because sooner or later everyone will be healed and have the ability to see through this illusion of duality and materiality.

  2. Hello!

    I was waiting to think of something appropriately deep and meaningful to say to respond to your excellent blog, hence the no contact! I read through your posts markes 'best of the blog', and all I can say is wow, really. I find your pagan/Christian/poetic take on things really fascinating, and I intend to spend an afternoon one day looking through your blog in more detail.

    Thanks for mentioning me in this post, and I appreciate the difference you draw out between mystery and puzzle. The wonder of being alive in this universe is more akin to mystery, even though I do love scientific puzzles too! For me they are two sides to the same coin: You can seek to understand the universe through science, or you can experience it through contemplation and spirituality.

    Nature, the living world we find ourselves in, is what makes my heart skip a beat and give me an almost transcendent experience. I would totally be willing to call that 'sacred' or even 'holy', despite my atheistic discomfort with overtly 'religious' words.

    I would be very loath to suggest that science is the only valuable pursuit in life, or that the universe is a giant Sudoku! It is the call for a deeper, holisitic response to the universe that I find in Druidry, and which I hope to explore further as I learn (and I do have a lot to learn!). I guess we differ only in what it is that makes us have that response of wonder.

    Personally speaking, I find it hard to understand how a god, especially a transcendent, wholly Other creator, adds anything to this sense of wonder or mystery. That is not to deny its power to those who do find mystery and awe in contemplating a deity, but it's just not my cup of tea really!

    Thanks for this thought-provoking piece, it is truly brilliant!

  3. "Love what makes you wonder." I really like this... as I move further and further away from embracing any type of -ology or -ism, I find that I am freer to embrace what moves me, what brings me closer to the GBWII* - whether it's the intense community of worship at shul, the spirit(s) whispering in the trees and water, or the simple(!) fact that the tuneful passage of air over vibrating vocal cords can change hearts, minds and lives.

    Love what makes you wonder, what sets you free to love.

    *Great Big Whatever-It-Is

  4. Ali, yet another brilliant post from you. Thanks for the link-love. Love your musings on m/Mystery, and am impressed with Ravendark's musings on the smallness and pettiness of God as well. When I meet atheists, I always love to say, "Tell me about the God you don't believe in; chances are I don't believe in that God either." Of course, not all Christians are quite able to be so vulnerable, but that is an indictment of us, not atheists. As a Christian with alarming Buddhist tendencies, I tend to locate mysticism in relationship, working on both the Ultimate Mystery-to-creation axis, and the human-to-human (or human-to-environment) axis. The Mystery is, ultimately for me at least, the Mystery of Love. As someone who is watching my 17-year-old marriage continue to unfold like the most amazing blossom, not to mention the continual expansion of my relationships with others (and with the Divine Mystery), I don't see why any other mysticism is necessary.