My back deck is a sometimes soul laboratory. Ostensibly, I may have on a quiet morning taken myself there with a book. I assure you, though, that these days my book is often just a cover. Having lived into my ninth decade, I find myself frequently interrogating that swirling amalgam of mind-stuff that has been and is the totality of who I am. Don’t think this is an exercise in narcissism; I am not Narcissus in love with myself. Rather, these back deck reveries are an exercise in enlargement of being taking me into the precincts of that Edenic place where man and God familiarly meet.
The playwright Eugene O’Neil wrote somewhere testifying to what I am about: He said he was little interested in the modern plays where the focus was on just the relationships of people. He was much more interested in the relationship between a man and his God. If it is as we Christians believe that God values each person singly, then I want to know why. What is there about any of us that the Psalmist should declaim, “what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” Taking such words to heart, it would appear that you and I are much more than the plain selves most of us imagine ourselves to be. Scientist Chet Raymo, in his book “Natural Prayers,” allows that we spend a lifetime cultivating the five senses in order to distinguish ourselves from the buzzing, blooming confusion of the world to the end that we might discover with confidence who and what we are.
Somewhat rudely, philosopher Soren Kierkegaard’s bald ruminations reveal the same passion that perhaps characterizes any serious person’s musings respecting this quixotic quest for a right perspective on the self. He too chased unanswerable questions: Who am I? How came I here? What is this thing called the world? Why was I not consulted? How did I obtain an interest in this big enterprise they call reality? And if I am to be compelled to take part in it, where is the director? I should like to make a remark to him. And wouldn’t we all! To what end have we been asked to act in this drama, never knowing the plot nor seeing the script? The question has followed me all my days and is always answered with a holy and regarding silence. Holy, I say, as I am persuaded God intends I should live with my questions, which in this world shall always outdistance my thinking.
Meanwhile, I bring to this eternal silence the ephemeral musings that come to me. I am persuaded that in and through my body the spiritual world is opened up. Here my body rests within the blessings of the world: sunlight and shade, blue sky and scudding cloud, flowers gracing the parapet of the deck, the song of birds and the enveloping air I breathe. So I watch the honey bees prowl over the hydrangeas, thinking how it is that something so small should be wedded to necessary purposes making life possible on this planet. What has the poet said: Pluck a flower and you trouble a star? Everything is connected. Secret purpose underlies the creation. Goethe, that bard of another time, once commented to a friend, “that fig tree, this little snake, the cocoon on my window — still quietly awaiting its future — all these are momentous signatures.”
And us! Are we like that cocoon on the window sill, ourselves quietly awaiting some unimagined future? Is this “ingrained urge” to raise questions about who and what we are and where we are tending a kind of momentous signature? I watch the honey bee a while longer. Its perambulations a reflection of my own: I too prowl about my life-setting, ever grateful that I am nurtured by all that life offers me. Here I live as a receiver of bounties calculated to fulfill the needs of my body, spirit and my mind. Questions there may be, and yet in spite of them my deepest musings regarding my life ever engender in me a profound thanksgiving for this gift of being.
The poet Rilke, in his “Duino Elegies,” frames wonderfully both the passion and the poignancy of where my interior reflections always end:
… but because truly being here is so much; because everything here
apparently needs us, this fleeting world, which in some strange way
keeps calling to us. US, the most fleeting of all.
Once for each thing. Just once; no more. And we too,
just once. And never again. But to have been
this once, completely, even if only once:
to have been at one with the earth, seems beyond undoing.
— Translator: Stephen Mitchell
The Rev. Merle G. Steva is minister of visitation at the First Parish Church in Saco.