Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Zuckerman's Barn

It is quite possible that an animal has spoken civilly to me and I didn’t catch the remark because I wasn’t paying attention. Children pay better attention than grownups. If Fern says that the animals in Zuckerman’s barn talk, I’m quite ready to believe her. Perhaps if people talked less, animals would talk more. E. B. White, Charlotte’s Web

...a mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels. Walt Whitman, "Song of Myself"

Stage magicians Penn and Teller caused a stir in the magic world when they began showing audiences how tricks were done. (http://www.5min.com/Video/Penn--Teller-How-to-Do-the-Saw-Trick-4988312) This worked because, contrary to what you might expect, taking the magic out of the trick didn’t actually…take the magic out. When the audience saw what was really happening, they were as amazed by the reality as by the illusion.

I believe that miracles work mostly in the same way: God allows us to see the depth behind the everyday existence of which we usually see only the surface. And the reality is more astonishing than the illusion.

Here’s an example, from 2 Kings:

And it came about when the LORD was about to take up Elijah by a whirlwind to heaven…Elijah said to Elisha, "Ask what I shall do for you before I am taken from you." And Elisha said, "Please, let a double portion of your spirit be upon me." He said, "You have asked a hard thing. Nevertheless, if you see me when I am taken from you, it shall be so for you; but if not, it shall not be so." As they were going along and talking, behold, there appeared a chariot of fire and horses of fire which separated the two of them. And Elijah went up by a whirlwind to heaven. Elisha saw it and cried out, "My father, my father, the chariots of Israel and its horsemen!" And he saw Elijah no more.

Elijah told Elisha that he would become his spiritual heir if he saw him—the clear implication being that Elisha might well not have seen a chariot and horses of fire come to take Elijah up to heaven in a whirlwind. If Elijah would have been taken up that way whether Elisha saw it or not, the miracle is not in the occurrence, but in the seeing. Like Penn and Teller, God allowed Elisha to see the way it was actually done.

Another, more recent example: the nineteenth century Russian monk Seraphim of Sarov, after fifteen years of austerities in a hermitage, moved back to the monastery when, because of his reputation for holiness and wonder-working, people began to seek him out in his retreat. He took on the role of a staretz, or spiritual advisor. One day, sensing that he was having trouble getting through to a disciple, he took the young man by the shoulders and said, “Look at me.” The disciple told Seraphim he couldn’t bear to look at him, because lightening was coming from his eyes and he appeared to be all aflame. Seraphim told the disciple that he was able to see him in that way because God had opened his eyes. Once again, it’s evident that someone else might have been in the room also and seen nothing unusual—the seeing was the miracle.

So when we read some pious legend about a friar surprising St. Francis at his prayers and seeing him levitating or whatnot, the relevant question, it seems, is not “what actually happened?” but “what did the informant actually experience, and what does it mean that he or she experienced it?” The spiritual reality is always active behind the visible reality--we are surrounded by a “great cloud of witnesses.” A miracle is when we’re enabled to peek behind the curtain.

Of course, what we can actually see every day is pretty miraculous, too. In Charlotte’s Web, Dr. Dorian gives Mrs. Arable his take on the “miraculous” writing in the spider’s web:

I don’t understand it. But for that matter I don’t understand how a spider learned to spin a web in the first place. When the words appeared, everyone said they were a miracle. But nobody pointed out that the web itself is a miracle.

The web is White’s symbol for the miraculous within the everyday. But what exactly is a "symbol"? Well, the word “symbol” comes from two Greek words meaning “thrown together.” When two friends were about to be parted, they would break an animal bone, each of them keeping one half as a symbol of the other. In other words, the symbol you hold in your hand is only half of a reality, the other half of which is elsewhere—and the two halves symbolically throw the two of you together. And I think the phenomenal world is sown with symbols of the spiritual world--effulgences of the hidden world that burst forth into the visible one. Why else should there be music? Or flowers? I think Christopher Smart was right: flowers are peculiarly the poetry of Christ. Notwithstanding all the valid evolutionary explanations about bees and pollination, the fantastic blue of delphiniums is here for us because God just couldn’t help himself. And the other half of that symbol is with God, and can throw us together with God if we let it.

So we needn’t be on the watch for something overtly extraordinary. A spider’s web or bird’s nest, photosynthesis, azaleas and the wonders of the human brain—we can explain them to an extent, but we can never explain them away. They are miraculous, and on our very best days, we can see that. There is a Zen Buddhist sutra that says, “Not knowing how near the truth is, we seek it far away. We are like one who, in the midst of water, cries out in thirst so piteously; we are like the children of a rich man who wandered away among the poor.” We often miss the miracles because we are looking for magic.

When Elijah was hiding in the cave, God told him to watch, because he was about to pass by the cave. An earthquake came, but God was not in the earthquake. A great wind came, and God was not in the wind. A fire roared by, and God was not in the fire. Then came the sound of “a still, small voice”, and that was where God was.

That voice is the one I’m waiting to hear. I have become like the grownups in The Polar Express, who cannot hear the silvery tinkling of the sleighbell. When the miracle comes that will show me what I’m supposed to be doing with myself, it may come as a symbol, or it may come as a revelation, but it will surely not come as a magic show. All the stuff that got me this far down the wrong road—that was the magic, the illusion, the trickery. Perceiving the miracle will require attentiveness--which is not my strong suit—and waiting for it will require patience, of which I have never had much. I am too prone to trying to force things--too much like the frustrated child whose parents have said, “We’ll see.” As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t really have very much faith.

With the summer about to end and the prospect of the fall semester beginning without my having anything to teach, I recently looked into enrolling in a trade school, with an eye toward making a career change. A number of people have told me I’d be good at the thing I’m looking into doing, and though becoming certified to do it would require a big investment of time and money, it would allow me to have at least a part-time job to go to.

But my wife is cautioning me against committing to any course of action I have picked out for myself. She thinks I should spend at least a semester neither teaching nor doing anything else to fill up the void. Rather than Finding Something to Do just for the sake of having it, she thinks I should wait attentively until just the right thing presents itself, applying myself in the meanwhile to figuring out who I really am and what I really value.

I’ll still need to curb my fearful, grasping nature in case that miracle, or fortuitous chance occurrence, or outcome of penetrating discernment comes along. When God rained down manna in the wilderness, he cautioned the Hebrews to gather only what they needed for each day. If they tried to force things by gathering extra and keeping some in reserve, on the next morning they would find it rotten and full of maggots. Instead of grabbing at something just because I think I need it or ought to be doing it, maybe I should apply that energy to cultivating attentiveness and trust.

And even if I didn’t think of this as waiting for a miracle—even if I thought I was waiting for something revelatory to happen by chance—chance, as Louis Pasteur pointed out, favors the prepared mind. And maybe if I talk less, the universe will talk more.


  1. "We often miss the miracle because we're waiting for the magic." Okay, that gave me chills.

    You do a fantastic job of articulating the frustration I feel when listening to the tongue-clucking, head-shaking anti-science folk who believe that a literal interpretation of scripture is necessary for belief in God. The idea that evolution and string theory and a hundred other scientific explanations for how the universe works are heretical makes me want to ask, "Why is trying to understand God's methods a threat to your awe in his creation? Why can't you fathom a God that exists above the science, not in place of it?" I don't understand how they can only be turned on by hocus-pocus, when the actual evidence points to something so much more wondrous.

    Good luck as you wait for the manna. It will come.

  2. Karen Peissinger-VenhausAugust 11, 2009 at 9:43 PM

    So grateful for Scott's entry *and* Jennifer's comment. So much to ponder. And I have the time to ponder ;-)

  3. Your wife is probably right. When was the last time you had time to just find out what road you're on, and which is the next turning to make? Most of us are forced by circumstance to take the very next intersection regardless of how well we'll do there; if you have the wherewithal to explore the road a ways, do it--you can always come back to this one later. You can be the rare person who belies Robert Frost... "knowing how way leads onto way/I doubted if I should ever come back."

    Roads, in my opinion, are rarely wrong. They may divert us for a while, or lead us a winding path away from our goal, but from every way I've ever traveled, I have brought with me valuable information, lessons, treasures to take with me when I find the road that leads back to my goal.

  4. I love the way this both wonderfully articulates the way I feel about miracles, and also furthers my understanding of them. I didn't know the origin of the word "symbol", and your exposition is really great - "the fantastic blue of the delphiniums is here for us because God just couldn't help himself. And the other half of that symbol is with God, and can throw us together with God if we let it." This is just how I feel when confronted with natural beauty, but I couldn't have explained it until now.

    I really like reading your thoughts - don't make the mistake of thinking you aren't teaching just because you don't have a class...

  5. Scott, I get something wonderful from each of your blogs.

    I have to agree with your wife, there's nothing wrong in taking some time to sort though your own mental attic. It's very rare that we get the opportunity to do that.

    Contemplation, contrary to what many people would like to think, is not a passive act, it's a process, a very dynamic one, and a very healthy one.

    Doing something, just for the sake of having something to do, isn't always the right choice. I think that very often, the Divine puts us where we NEED to be, regardless of whether or not WE think we need to be there. I have the distinct feeling that right now, you're exactly where you need to be, and that one of the lessons you need to take away fromwhere you're at is learning how to surrender to the moment, and how to accept, rather than rail against the storm.


Anyone may comment.