This Unfathomed Secret

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 “At the gates of the forest, the surprised man of the world is forced to leave his city estimates of great and small, wise and foolish.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Nature” (1836)

What do I know?

Is what I know back in the city — outside the gates of the forest — more “knowledgeable” than the knowledge of the forest and the farm? Is knowing different from imagining? What is the relation between knowledge and imagination? Are they opposites, kin, companions, enemies? Is one kind of knowledge superior to another? Is one more civilized than the other? Are they of equal value, each in its own right? Or is it all relative, a fool’s question in this world of relativity where one person’s perspective and opinion is as good as another’s, one person’s truth and wisdom another person’s fanciful imagination and foolishness?

Publishing “The Bovine Chorus” yesterday brought the questions to mind. After a day seeking knowledge about the loud mooing that overwhelmed the bird calls on the wetland, I realize my imagination got the better of me. The last conversation was with a retired dairy farmer. “Probably needed to be milked,” he said. “They’ll let you know! Or the farmer was taking a calf away. They can be really loud!” Memory flashed back to my dairy farmer friend Bruce, who showed up on Sunday with a broken hand from having punched a cow. What does a city slicker know about cows and the life of a dairy farmer!

I wasn’t always a city slicker and I’m not much of one now. If I were, I wouldn’t prefer this remote cabin on the wetland. It’s less civilized here. Some would say it’s less knowledgable. Others might say, more given to faulty imagination. Like imagining a bovine herd singing Friedrich Handel’s Magnificat to celebrate a cow birth in Bethlehem only to learn from my old musicologist friend Carolyn that Handel never composed a Magnificat, so far as she could recall, and from my new retired dairy farmer friend that the mooing was probably a protest by cows whose udders ached or who lamented a calf being kidnapped from the holy family.  

“Woe am I!” say I, like Isaiah overwhelmed by the smoke that filled the Temple. “I am a man of unclean [stupid] lips!” [Isaiah 6:5a]. I know nothing worth knowing. My imagination has deceived me. Remember Carolyn back in the city, and the retired dairy farmer. And then there are the books I’ve brought here from the city. Birds of Minnesota and Wisconsin and Colin’s Birds of North America and Greenland with pictures that help identify the Brown Thrasher feeding on the ground and train the eye to distinguish the Trumpeter Swans here from the Tundra Swans, and Mute Swans. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essays on history, nature, experience, politics, et al., and The Book of Common Prayer bring the wisdom of the ages that ground me in both nature and tradition, knowledge and a better imagination, a pair of spectacles alongside the binoculars next to the wetland in the time of climate change. I read Emerson again.

“We nestle in nature, and draw our living as parasites from her fruits and grains, and we receive glances from the heavenly bodies, which call us to solitude, and foretell the remotest future. … Literature, poetry, science, are the homage of man to this unfathomed secret, concerning which no sane man can affect an indifference or incuriosity. Nature is loved by what is best in us. It is loved as the city of God, although, or rather because there is no citizen.” 

God will not be found in our mirror

I crave solitude.

I’m tired of public conflict. Tired of politics. Tired of the parades of vanity. Turned off by the newspaper headlines. Turned off by the stories that pop up when I turn on the internet. Tired of visual and verbal assaults that dissipate the capacity for solitude and ridicule losers.

Ralph Waldo Emerson must have felt something like this when he wrote

“The people are to be taken in very small doses. If solitude is proud, so is society vulgar.” – Society and Solitude (1870).

We pick our poison: the pride of solitude or the vulgarity of society. Today the vulgarity of society is driving me deeper into the pride of solitude.

Views from the Edge is a title that seeks to balance society and solitude. The views are from the edge of society. It is a proud title that assumes a place apart from the vulgarity of mass movements of society’s collective madness.

But so often lately the voice that seeks to speak from the edge echoes the whirlwind into which I had sought to speak. My voice is proud in its solitude and as vulgar as the society to which I wish to speak. It’s a rare accomplishment to do both at the same time!

Pondering Emerson’s aphorism led me to think more about pride. Pride is vanity. Vanity is pride. The equivalence of pride and vanity led me to one of the Ten Words Moses brought down from Mr. Sinai: “You shall not take the Name of the LORD (YHWH – the Name that cannot be spoken aloud because it is too holy, too sacred, too hidden from human knowing, for human naming) your God in vain.” ‘Vain’ as in proud?

The commandment about vanity is commonly misunderstood as a commandment against vulgar speech, i.e, You shall not curse. That would be easy. Just use the word “God” carefully and you will have fulfilled the commandment.

But the Ten words of Moses are not that cheap, this one perhaps least of all because it speaks to how, and whether or not, we honor the Reality that is beyond every reason for human pride, individually or collectively, in our solitude or in society itself.
Solitude is proud and society is vulgar, not the other way around, according to Emerson, and we need to get away. “The people are to be taken in very small doses.”

Elie Wiesel’s story of a Hasidic Rabbe’s conversation with his grandson Yahiel expresses the dilemma of solitude and society (Four Hasidic Master sand Their Struggle Against Melancholy, University of Notre Dame Press, 1978).

Yahiel comes to his grandfather in tears. He’s been playing Hide-and-Seek with his friend. “He cheats!” says Yahiel. “I hid so well that he couldn’t find me. So he gave up; he stopped looking. And that’s unfair!”

“Rebbe Barukh began to caress Yahiel’s face, and tears well up in his eyes. ‘God too, Yahiel,’ he whispered softly,. . . God too is unhappy. He is hiding and man is not looking for Him. Do you understand, Yahiel? God is hiding and man is not even searching for Him.’”

Yahiel had been playing the game our society loves to play. His friend had left him alone in solitude. His friend was a cheater because he abandoned the search.
Meantime, we in 2017 play our own games of Hide-and-Seek. We seek to balance solitude and society, self and nation, individual liberty and national security, personal responsibility and care of the neighbor. So often the voices are proud and the society is vulgar.

Vulgarity and pride are Siamese twins. They go together. Pride point to Vulgarity as sinful; Vulgarity shifts the blame to Pride. Each is the mirror image of the other. They spend their time looking in the same mirror. All the while they abandon the search for the God whose Name is used and abused by mortal Pride and mortal Vulgarity alike.

God will not be found in our mirror.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Feb. 5, 2017.