Times and Seasons

Welcome, 2021!

I went to bed last night at 11, being very droopy; but found myself awake at midnight after all, as the city finally let good and loose all the artillery they’d been saving up for the moment. But soon after midnight the storm came in, and I woke much later to the sound of freezing rain against the windows. I may have written ice storms as a meteorological hero for convenience’s sake, but am not a lover of broken tree limbs and downed power lines in real life. However, it soon changed to snow, and it has been snowing steadily all day since.

Some years ago I encountered a passage of Evelyn Underhill meditating on the story of the disciples in the boat in the storm, in which she made the arresting assertion: “The universe is safe for souls.” This was more or less the opposite of what I believed, on a practical level. What I believed, pretty much, was that reality had it in for me. But if I believed this assertion, I thought, what would I do differently? It became a long-term experiment.

The universe is clearly not safe for our bodies, as we have daily proof on multiple levels. But our souls — our selves as a whole, expressed coterminously with the body, mediated through the mind — are affirmative things, as rightful as the universe of which they are part. It’s one of the truest things I can think of, and also one of the hardest to believe.

Last year started hard, and got harder. And the harder it got, the harder I got: in February I woke up one morning so angry I burst into tears; by the time the long course of the pandemic set in — another day, another loss, another day, another injustice — I clung to stoicism like a vine to granite.

2021 is not going to be easy. If there were any illusions to be had about that, they’re like curling sticky-notes, all but fallen already. But I think I need to be soft again. No, I think I need to be like a sword — hard enough to keep an edge, tender enough to spring like steel.

After all, I’m a soul, and I’m here: and that’s an affirmative thing.

May you be supple, strong, and true this year.

Advent calendar #8: The Cosmic Mandala

Good morning!

For today’s little Advent window, I bring our world, to hold up in prayers and intentions. The first image is from one of my go-to daily sites, the Astronomy Picture of the Day. For a couple decades now NASA has run this simple little site with amazing photos taken by individuals and by major observatories and gathered into a charmingly lo-tech archive.

But compare the photo of the observable universe to what’s called the Cosmic Mandala, and you’ll find a strange similarity. I’ve included a version by Hildegard of Bingen, composer, scientist, and polymath nun, for reference.

I think it’s kind of amazing what we know without knowing.

Some years ago now, I read a passage from a book of quotations from Evelyn Underhill, talking about the disciples in the boat in the storm. In the midst of her meditation on the presence of Jesus and the obvious dangers of the situation, she said something that took me aback: “The Universe is safe for souls.” Now, I mean, obviously the Universe isn’t safe in the sense that we are hedged and insulated from suffering, or that nothing can go wrong inside our minds and bodies, or that we can’t ever be exposed to that sense of bottomless danger that the wide, impersonal cosmos presents. But, well, exactly like those dangers, we’re here. There’s no revoking the fact that we have been here; there’s no denying the reality of our participation in the foundational goodness that the Universe is. And the more that rabid haters try to deny the human dignity of people they hate, the more obviously desperate they must be.

For the first time ever, I said to myself: “If I really believed that — if I really believed the universe was safe for my soul — what would I do?” It didn’t make an immediate difference, but the thought did introduce a change into the way I thought of myself in the world — and how I acted.

It’s a thing that’s worth remembering this Advent.