Monday, January 05, 2004

Greetings on Theophany

Once upon a time, many years ago, when I hadn't chosen a number of the roads I've since chosen, I thought I would write a book about the Orthodox view of the cosmos. As a hiker and backpacker, a lover of solitude and the songs of rivers, I thought the Orthodox view of the cosmos could thread through the polarization over the environment. Maybe it could.

I came to a crossroads and chose to finish my first novel rather than write that book, and after the first novel came the second, and short stories and more learning of the craft, and whatever I had invested in that idea about the Orthodox view of the environment has leached away, like juice from a rusty can.

The Great Blessing of Waters brings this back to me again this year, because it captures the core of that idea. It comes down to the notion that human beings can take a high view of nature, because God takes so high a view of man. If man is a "damned mass," as some medieval theologian is accused of calling him, then there's no room below us for anything of value. If man is truly the apex of creation, then what is below him can be very high indeed.

Here's a passage from the Priest's Prayer at the Great Blessing of the Waters
All the reason-endowed powers tremble before Thee. The sun singeth Thy praises, and the moon glorifieth Thee; the stars, also, stand before Thy presence. The light obeyeth Thee. The deeps shudder with awe before Thee; the water-springs do Thy bidding.

I urge you to go to the text and look at the whole thing. I've left out some of my favorite stuff for the convenience of those who are just checking in. But look at the activity in nature here: The sun sings; the moon glorifies; the stars stand; the deeps shudder and the watersprings do God's bidding. A little further on, it says, "All creation singeth praises unto Thee." Nature is ascribed will, intention, and the power of obedience, gratitude and praise. It's easy enough to dismiss it as "just a metaphor," but I don't think that's true to the essence of the work.

For one thing, the phrase "just a metaphor" is part of the verbal sickness of our age. Because we allow our metaphors to lose their meaning, we have to keep jacking up the shock value of the next metaphor to get anyone's attention. Suddenly, everything has to be about rape or Nazis or the f-word, and even they are gradually drained of their power.

But what if--an effort of the imagination here--what if, it's not a metaphor at all. What if the sun really does sing? the moon really glorifies? the stars stand before God's presence? There's a scene of this in The Silmarillion, in which all the powers of heaven, which are stars and not exactly stars, sing together in music that is music and not music, like the music of the spheres, which was mathematics and yet not mathematics.

Coming back to something that requires less imagination, what if it's not metaphor but symbol--a drawing together of two realities, physical and something beyond physical--I could call it spiritual, but I don't know if the meaning most people think of would capture what I'm trying to say.

Anyway, what if the trees really sing, the crocuses really raise their heads in joy? Would it make a difference in how we walk on the earth? But I don't know that I'm capable of threading the polarized environmental debate, and I don't want to do it here. I only wanted to say, what if . . . .

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