What kind of place is this world? Is it a planet governed by scientific laws and economic realities or is it a magical sphere that follows the artistic steps of a dance of its own creation? My mind tells me that it is the former and my heart yearns for it to be the latter, but is there a way to end this duality and blend my heart and mind?
When I was a child, religion accomplished this blending with time tested ease. I lifted my voice in song to praise the Lord at Sunday Service. I gazed with awe at the pictures of Jesus that my mother and great-grandmother hung in our home. I memorized long pieces for Sunday school recitation. Later in my youth, I embraced the clean slate provided by the confessional. I studied the lives of the saints. I cheered the election of a pope. I embraced the new mass. I felt the holy power of communion. But as I looked more and more at the things that were done in the name of Christianity, I became disenchanted first with the religion and then with the god himself.
What was the purpose of suffering in this world? Why were we all to be looked upon as sinful creatures who needed to blame each of our failings on ourselves and attribute each of finer qualities to a higher power? Why did the churches and the all-powerful God allow for injustice? Why did Christianity seem to have no relationship with the natural world of plants and animals and the forces of nature? Why were our natural instincts base? What about us was so flawed? If it were true that we were created in the image of God, didn’t that also mean that he was flawed?
I turned to the study of older faiths, those that were in tune with a natural world. Those faiths used the concept of deity to explain the power of this world. They personified nature. They created an anthropomorphic world where animals and plants possessed spirit and life as we know it. They did not have disdain for this life and use it as a trial that gets you to another world, invisible and everlasting but totally lacking in humanity.
These are not uncommon struggles for any thinking mind. They are quite the norm until one is overtaken by the day to day joys and needs of adulthood. However, I found an escape route. It was a love of literature and song and the acts of creating both. It was a love of teaching and knowledge and the magic of that temple that I came to know as the classroom. Here I was able to transmit a love of language and literature and glimpse at an eternity that was very human. Homer lives. Shakespeare lives. Confucius lives. Their glimpse of the divine was real. I wanted to become part of that divinity. I wanted to work my vision into that eternal mosaic. If I could just be a thread that wove its way into that fabric, the unrealized eternal joy of my youth would be satisfied.
The catch is that one can still go to a hell of sorts. Suppose your creations mark you forever as a producer of poor writing and song? Do you then wind up as eternally without real talent? Forever marked as a talentless wannabe?
In order to escape this fate, one had to learn one’s craft and then one had to have some sense of vision. But where did this vision come from? Was it just the way that the language sounded in certain combinations that created the magic of insight? Should fine sounding phrases and lines be cherished in their own right because they sounded so good? Would the insight provided come later? Was it the beauty of the combinations that actually produced the insight? Or was this an example of style without substance? Was there a way to weave the style into the substance without losing either but having each uplift the other?
Poetry found its way into my soul. I’m not really sure how this happened. It was the sound of it and the way that it resonated in my body when I heard it. I found that once in a while I had some talent for it. Talent is a strange thing. In athletics, you find your body moving with a certain slow motion grace that is going full speed. You throw a ball the way you’ve never thrown it before, and your body remembers the feeling. Something changes. You want to throw it that way every time because it felt so good and the results were a success. With poetry, it is much the same. Something that you didn’t know that you had inside comes out and you stare at it in disbelief that it came from you but at the same time you know that you found a way to express that something that you had never been able to express before and you want to do it again.
Of course all of this is the residue of hard work and deep experience but you know almost immediately that is not all that it is. Hard work and experience do not guarantee it. There is something else that is also at work. It helps you to believe in the magic of the world.
It does not feel the same as the power of the natural world but it feels akin to it. It is not the sea but it expresses the feeling of the sea and there is almost that sense that the sea is aware of what you have done. It surges inside of you like an emotional orgasm. You feel connected. You become part of the mosaic. You have your own unique thread.
The process of creation is a search for that sense of connection but it is the difference between the pretty girl who smiles in your direction and the lover with whom you wish to luxuriate forever. Having been in that place makes you yearn to return to it or find another like it, or even another that has as yet not been experienced, the unknown sense of connection that sets the world in tune.
These moments can also occur in the classroom when for that time you become more than who you were a few moments before and more than you will be a few moments after it is over. It is alignment. It is transitory. It leaves you wanting more until you have exhausted yourself and need to replenish so that you can have it again. It becomes that star that guides you.
When your faith in a magical world is shaken, you are thrown off balance. If you cease to believe that you can have that experience again or when you question the authenticity of what you have experienced you feel lost and empty. You are no longer connected. It is all as flat as a TV screen and you are a passive viewer. Instead of being the SCUBA diver you are staring at a fish tank.
Religion provides you with a portal into a magical reality but it also defines the nature and scope of what you can achieve. The picture has already been painted. You are singing a song that someone else wrote. This is not to say that it cannot be a beautiful song but once you have crossed over into a world that you create, it is no longer your song.
Is the world indifferent to these experiences? Does the world create them? Are both things simultaneously true? Are these experiences alive anywhere outside of our minds? Does the spirit actually exist as more than a manifestation of our thoughts and feelings? What is its nature? Are these questions that I will ever be able to answer?
The stock response to this is that asking the question is where the beauty is. Sometimes that is enough of an answer but other times it leaves me with the feeling of being pacified by a cliché. There is that voice inside me that says that I always want more and that I am never satisfied. But then the words of William Blake echo in my mind: A man never knows that he has had enough until he has had too much. These words frighten me.
So I come back, armed with my questions and bolstered by my faith in a magical world and gnawed at by the clinging doubts that whisper that faith begins in innocence and is what we fall back on when logic fails us.