Sunday, March 21, 2010

Songs of Void and Emptiness

As I reflected on the violence of organic life yesterday, and how oddly incompatible it is with the love of God and enemy, I found myself looking upwards into the refracted blue of the sky and thinking about all that which is not life.

Creation itself is mostly nothing. Even I, as I write this, am mostly nothing. Yeah, I'm an organic life form. But if you drill down to the atomic and subatomic level, the physical form that is currently typing this contains far more emptiness than neutrons and electrons. The keyboard onto which this is typed, for all of it's clackity solidity, is also mostly nothing. But we miss this, because our perception is so limited.

As we look out into the immensity of the cosmos, that emptiness finally strikes us. It is at a scale that we cannot grasp, of a vastness of temporal and spatial measure that goes well beyond our ability to conceptualize. We can get a bit of it, through metrics and analogies. But the reality of it is well beyond the capacity of our minds to grasp.

And it isn't just empty of mass. It's empty of measurable feeling. It is, to us, both terrible and beautiful...but is completely oblivious of those categories. Love and hatred and loss and joy are not words that have any relevance to the lives of stars, or in the aeons over which a nebula dissipates. Though the mechanics of physics govern this immensity, and they can be grasped rationally, those natural laws are not themselves "reasoned." They simply are.

The resultant interplay of those forces also cannot be meaningfully described in terms of interpersonal or social morality. When tectonic plates shift, and a city crumbles or vast waves scour the land, and hundreds of thousands die, it is not malicious. Or cruel. Or hateful. It just is. When atmospheric conditions produce intense tornadic activity, and a town is razed, it is not that creation is feeling peevish, or is angry with the town for not being tougher on crime. It simply is what it is.

The vastness of the heavens and the interplay of matter and energy aren't moral or ethical. The music of the spheres is atonal, jarring, and disinterested in the needs of it's audience.

This poses an interesting paradox to the contemplative person of faith. Why?

Because when one spends time emptying self of self, and letting awareness of all things silence the endless internal jabbering of thought for a while, when you return from that peak state you return changed. But you are changed in a way that does not seem to reflect the great cool amorality of physics. Mystics are not hard-nosed pragmatists, or mechanistically utilitarian in their approach to other creatures. It has a rather different effect.

Confronted with creation's vast, near-chaotic dynamism, one becomes calm. Immersed in it's amorality, other beings suddenly matter more. After embracing that which knows no care or love, deep compassion for others is stirred. It is...paradoxical.

St. Augustine once famously called creation the First Book. As he and Calvin both affirmed, it's a nearly impossible book to read and comprehend...thus the need for our sacred texts to guide our understanding.

But perhaps it's not a book the way the Bible is a book, written in symbol. Perhaps it's more like a song, which is best understood not through analysis and deconstruction and debate, but by simply being still and listening.