On the cover of the latest issue of Parabola, “Science and Spirit,” there is a beautiful angel, gazing down at the world with grave compassion. While the publisher says the angel is a he, I am more than certain this particular angel is a she. She looks so much like the apparition I describe in my story “Elizabeth” that I find myself freezing every time I pass the table where the brand new copies of Parabola are stacked.
I am not saying that I wrote about personally encountering an angel (a tradition-breaking female angel) in venerable old Parabola. What I’m moved to say today—what I know from ordinary everyday experience as well as from the reminders in “Science and Spirit”– is that the universe is alive, radiantly and responsively alive. We see and touch and influence and reflect each other. To paraphrase Whitman, we are so interconnected we each contain multitudes, molecules, memories, the stuff of stars–and maybe the gentle impact of angels. The hardest scientific heads among us—those who would scoff at any talk of love being a real force like gravity cannot deny the evidence of generosity. On every level this is true: the more we open, the more we receive.
Sometimes, as in the act of really seeing someone or something—really taking them instead of looking at them—we can realize that giving and receiving are aspects of the same organic action, like breathing in and breathing out. In such moments, we realize that we are made to live in such a way—that we do not need to remake ourselves after all. We just need to patiently note all that distracts us from our natural capacity to give and receive, from our natural capacity to give attention with heart and mind, to breath with life, to come out of the isolation of our thoughts and participate in the moving, luminous, moving, living whole.
I’m just back from the Catskills, where I spent four days as a guest at a conference that included venerable teachers from the Gurdjieff foundations in London, Paris, New York, and Caracas—along with many people from many places, new friends and old friends. The gathering reminded me of the extraordinary power of what the Buddhists call sangha, spiritual community. It gave me an inkling of why the Buddha insisted that noble friends (or fellow seekers) are not just part but the whole of the spiritual life. In spite of the predictable human comedy—i.e. problems with the sound system, so that one meditation leader who wouldn’t give any instructions ended up giving us just his amplified breathing (which I tried to reframe as an instruction but it sounded too much like Darth Vadar to my sleep-deprived ears). Another leader, the English-born Paris-based theater director Peter Brook, didn’t have his sound system switched on, so that he sounded a little like Hamlet’s ghost—I mean, you would hear a grand and elderly Shakespearean accent intoning “this solid flesh…” then fade away (I have enormous respect for both these leaders, dear readers. My subjective experience takes nothing from their brilliance). But in spite of this and the 10,000 other sorrows and discomforts this flesh must endure, the group of us held and reflected to each other a very special kind of silence. We formed a human satellite dish, helping each of us receive an energy that usually seems as far away as the most distant stars (but as I said, we have star stuff in us, like calls to like).
On the way home yesterday, I drove around Bear Mountain and across the Bear Mountain Bridge. It was a blue sky day and the leaves blazed orange and red and yellow. I spontaneously thanked God for creation, for my life, for Noble friends like you. Now I am visiting my 93-year-old father, who recently entered hospice. I realize there is nothing really to do, under all the busyness, just accompanying each other, just allowing ourselves to give and receive, to breathe.