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What kind of place is the world?

What kind of place is the world? Is it enchanted or is it just drab? What might it mean to be enchanted anyway? A question must be theoretically determinate before its answer can be empirically determined. Already the term ‘enchantment’ suggests magic and therefore runs the risk of sacrificing rigor for mystery, terra-firma for fairy-land. The scholar perhaps most famous for describing what an enchanted cosmos is not was Charles Taylor.[1] In Taylor’s characterisation, the disenchantment of the world is the process whereby spirits resolve into Newtonian forces, and qualities of meaning become quantities of matter. I have no wish to dispute Taylor’s characterization, but I wish to offer another picture of enchantment: imagine a mustard seed. From an almost dimensionless point, it germinates and then burgeons into a leafy form. What was intensive becomes extensive, potential becomes actual, “the Word becomes flesh.” Photosynthesis is “creating form out of light” in a very concrete meaning. The etymological roots and the empirical fruits both point to this essential fact. Thus, when one considers a single mustard seed very objectively, it reveals its true being as a latent spell in the magic-book of Nature. Matter is itself an euphemism for “enchantment.”

When I experience the cosmos as disenchanted, as wrought work, natura naturata, dead matter, blind atomic billiard balls coming together and then splitting apart, bumbling about as lifeless “idols in Newtonian space”[2] that loiter idly until the universe disintegrates in global heat-death at the end of time, then I must remind myself that the cosmos is intrinsically enchanted—cosmos means enchantment, spirit bound into form by the spell of chemistry, photosynthesis, and electromagnetism. When Nature’s offerings appear as commodities to be exploited for the sake of pleasure and profit-margin, I may recall the poet’s admonition that “it is not the gods that have withdrawn, but our hearts,” and “it is only because of the weakness of our senses, that we do not see ourselves in a fairy world.”

Could I learn to “see into the life of things?”[3] Gazing at the mustard-seed, I perceive form and color. But I must intensify my perception if I hope to see not letters, but spirit. “Hodie legimus in libro experientiae”—“Today we read in the book of experience.”[4] Atoms, elements, forms, and substances and media are indeed mere letters, but they mean something. The letters join to spell out words, legible to the mind and intelligible to the spirit. The universe of words in turn spells out the Word. And this Word is boldly proclaimed to those with ears to hear et hominibus bonae voluntatis. What if I summon the courage to listen not to sound as noise, but as speech? The inner sun of my attention may awaken the seed from its telluric slumber. Now upon the stage of imagination, the seed, without becoming other than it is, begins to change. It begins to stir, gathering its vital forces, it finally bursts the husk that was its erstwhile confines. As it strives upward through the earth, pierces the ground with tender cotyledons, climbs an invisible ladder, mounting the incorporeal air on leafy rungs. I experience this activity not only from the outside as recollection from bygone summers, but also from within in eternity. As this being grows, it aggregates atoms and elements according to an implicit organising principle, its own breath of the spirit’s wind. Outwardly, I see only a mineral skeleton and scaffolding that life has recruited on its way back to the Sun, like the shed skin of an invisible serpent or the wake of a mystic vessel on the sea of physics. But now that I know where to look, I may also behold the living spirit behind this agency:

The Word is living, being, spirit,
All verdant greening, all creativity.
This Word manifests itself in every creature.[5]

as the great mystic of the Rhineland Hildegard von Bingen wrote. She speaks in words but of the Word, the Lógos that was “In the beginning…[and by which] all things that were made were made.” The Lógos fractures itself into myriad iterations, dies into form and substance, sacrifices itself enliven infinite beings. Nailed to the cross of letters, the Lógos resurrects when it recognises its image and likeness in the human spirit. What appears as cosmos is Word as spellbound in matter, the outer husk of aeviternal L ó g o s, “the Light of the World.”

With our eyes we see gradients and adumbrations of Light. Light itself is invisible. It sacrifices itself to make all things visible. Similarly, Life remains invisible to sensory perception. Bedight with an elemental raiment, Life conceals itself behind these trappings. In the way that an invisible river might form a riverbed by sculpture and sedimentary deposition, so flowing vital currents burgeon forth in supersensible ecstasy, and in their wake leave roots, shoots, leaves, stem, fruits, and flowers, etc…not to mention the organic human form. These creative currents then sustain the said creature until exhaustion at which point their organic enchantment is suspended and they disperse again into the cosmic ether. No longer maintained by the logic of Life, Gaia gradually recollects on the loan of mineral substance she so generously offered into the erstwhile organism’s stewardship, and biological death of the steward is the result. To recognise the inner nature of life and death is to appreciate a grand throb of generative activity—in systole, substance inhales the breath of Life, and in diastole the latter is released, the said substance falling back into the prima materia of terrestrial elements: And so long as thou hast not This: ‘Die and then become again!’ Thou are but a dark guest Upon this sullen Earth.”[6] The universe then appears as a cosmic heart, whose every heartbeat engenders form into primordial void to perennially call to life new creative marvels.

To follow the germination and growth of a single mustard-seed, or kernel of wheat, is to see the Lógos, bind itself to matter and quicken erstwhile inert substance, leavening it to form the bread of Life. In this fixation into form, I may recognise the original Crucifixion, modestly recapitulated, like a fractal iteration of the sacrifice on Golgotha. The Lógos must incarnate into substance, “the Word must become flesh.”[7] Eternal life must enter into time and bind itself to mortal form, nailing itself to the cross of perishable matter.[8] Centuries before the John Gospel captured this archetypal sacrifice in its purest expression, Plato wrote variously in Timaeus, Phaedrus, and the Republic, of the ‘X’ shape of the world-soul, which crucifies itself upon the world body. We can kindle our appreciation for this gesture when we consider that, as human beings, we receive all corporeal sustenance and nourishment from the perennial offering of Nature, which serves in turn as the receptacle (khôra[9]) and crucifix of the solar Lógos—“All things were made…and without [the Lógos] was not any thing made that was made.”

We are walking on hallowed ground. To walk on water was a miracle, and also a miracle is to walk on the green Earth.

 

[1] Cf. Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), 26.

[2] Owen Barfield’s delightfully evocative phrase from Saving the Appearances (Wesleyan University Press, 1957), 101.

[3] Quotations are paraphrases of Goethe, Novalis, and Wordsworth, respectively.

[4] The unforgettable words with which St. Bernard of Clairvaux opened one of his sermons.

[5]Hildegard von Bingen, Scivias, trans. Mother Columbia Hart & Jane Bishop (New York: Paulist Press, 1990).

[6] Goethe, “Seelige Sehnsucht.” My own translation.

[7] John 1:14

[8] Zóé (ζωή) limits itself to become bios (βίος).

[9] See Plato’s Timaeus; khôra is “receptacle.” German mystic Jakob Boehme similarly writes in Signaturum rerum: The signature or form is no spirit, but the receptacle, container, or cabinet of the spirit, wherein it lies; for the signature stands in the essence, and is as a lute . . . upon which the will’s spirit plays. (1:4)

 

Written by

Max Leyf is a certified Rolfer, a writer, an adjunct professor of philosophy, and a doctoral candidate in the Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness program at the California Institute of Integral Studies. He sees philosophy and Rolfing as reciprocally completing one another, as word to deed. He currently lives in Anchorage, Alaska, where he was born and which, despite having lived for extended periods of time in Sweden, Colorado, Brazil, and California, he has never ceased to call home. His favourite book is Hamlet and he is the author of Honeybees of the Invisible, But Now Face to Face, and Five Themes: Mind Live, Self, Truth, and Knowledge.

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