Sunday, 7 April 2013

To Enjoy the World

I recently came across an awe-inspiring time-lapse video of the earth, taken from the International Space Station. In a previous blog post on “Infinite Beauty,” I quoted from the Anglican poet Thomas Traherne (ca. 1636-1674). Perhaps unsurprisingly, as I watched this video, it reminded me of yet another of Traherne's beautiful descriptions of what an enchanted worldview looks like.

So, as prelude to the video, I present to you Thomas Traherne on enjoying the world:  

Your enjoyment of the world is never right,
till every morning you awake in Heaven;
see yourself in your Father’s Palace;
and look upon the skies, 
the earth, 
and the air 
as Celestial Joys:
having such a reverend esteem of all, 
as if you were among the Angels…

You never enjoy the world aright,
till the Sea itself floweth in your veins,
till you are clothed with the heavens,
and crowned with the stars…

Till your spirit filleth the whole world, 
and the stars are your jewels;
till you are as familiar with the ways of God in all Ages as with your walk and table:
till you are intimately acquainted with that shady nothing out of which the world was made:
till you love men so as to desire their happiness, with a thirst equal to the zeal of your own:
till you delight in God for being good to all:
you never enjoy the world.

(Centuriesof Meditations, First Century, Sections 28-30)

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Moved to deal kindly

It seems as though it’s always easier to assume the worst about someone else’s motives, and to underestimate his or her capacity for goodness. I find myself falling into this path of least resistance far too frequently.

Why is that? Why isn’t it just as easy to expect the best from others and to assume more noble motives?

Some have learned how think differently. A world-renowned paleontologist, PierreTeilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) was also a Jesuit priest. Somewhere along these two paths, de Chardin learned to see humanity differently. In his essay “Mass on the World” (which you can get here), he writes:
One by one, Lord, I see and I love all those whom you have given me to sustain and charm my life. One by one also I number all those who make up that other beloved family which has gradually surrounded me, its unity fashioned out of the most disparate elements, with affinities of the heart, of scientific research and of thought. And again one by one — more vaguely it is true, yet all-inclusively — I call before me the whole vast anonymous army of living humanity; those who surround me and support me though I do not know them; those who come, and those who go; above all, those who in office, laboratory and factory, through their vision of truth or despite their error, truly believe in the progress of earthly reality and who today will take up again their impassioned pursuit of the light.

But how does one get to this vantage point? Perhaps the answer lays in understanding the goodness and capacity that lie dormant within each of us, and which each of us wrestles with from time to time.

This idea reminds me of a stanza from Mormon Apostle Orson F. Whitney's "Elias: An Epic of the Ages" (1904):
Greatness, true greatness, mightiness of mind,
And greater greatness, grandeur of the soul,
Tell but one tale — capacity, not place;
Capacity, whose sire, experience,
Whose ancestors, innate intelligence,
Original, inborn nobility,
As oft in hut as mansion have their home.

‘Tis not the crowning that creates the king.
Man's proper place where God hath need of him.
Naught can be vain that leadeth unto light ;
Struggle and stress, not plaudit, maketh strong ;
Victor and vanquished equally may win,
Climbing far heights, where fame, eternal fame,
White as the gleaming cloak of Arctic hills,
Rests as a mantle, fadeless, faultless, pure,
On loftiest lives, whose snowy peaks, sun-crowned,
Receive but to dispense their blessedness.

I think Whitney describes well the struggle that many (if not all) experience in life, as well as the beauty that can emerge from such struggles. I believe that the more we are sensitive to the fact of other's struggles, the more love we can have for them.

I recently heard a quote that seemed to express this idea: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” It was attributed to Plato, but when I tried looking it up to read it in context, I discovered that the quote has also been attributed to a number of other authors.

It appears as though the germ of this idea actually comes from a fellow by the name of John Watson (see here for the full story). In his 1904 chapter on "Courtesy" in The Homely Virtues (available in its entirety here), he writes:
This man beside us also has a hard fight with an unfavouring world, with strong temptations, with doubts and fears, with wounds of the past which have skinned over, but which smart when they are touched. It is a fact, however surprising. And when this occurs to us we are moved to deal kindly with him, to bid him be of good cheer, to let him understand that we are also fighting a battle; we are bound not to irritate him, nor press hardly upon him nor help his lower self (p. 168).
The idea, then, is to try to understand the lives of others – their hopes, their fears, their accomplishments, their losses, and their struggles. Watson goes on to say, in quite charming language:
So far as we break the bonds of self and project ourselves into the life of our brother man, we are bound to be courteous, because we shall now be interested in what is dear to him. This man also has a family and a business; this man also has had sicknesses and trials. Imagine! We must not therefore talk without ceasing about our children, our interests, our afflictions, our life. This man also has a church, and a creed, and opinions of his own, and a history. Remarkable!
It seems silly when phrased in this way, but it is nonetheless true. When we choose to invest ourselves in the lives, thoughts, and feelings of others, we “break the bonds of self” and enter another world. And the more we try to understand that world, the more we can come to see the beauty of that unique and preciously fragile world.

Citizenship in such a new world can be difficult to attain.

The views from such a new world, however, are remarkable.