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On Advent: "We Are All Lying in the Mud, But Some of Us Are Looking at the Stars"

The caption at NASA’s “Astronomy Picture of the Day” page reads: “Atlantis to Orbit.”

The filename of the picture reads: Nightlaunch.

And I am moved by the poetry of this most modern of images, not by the triumph of Reason which it seems to enshrine, but by that which is beyond Reason yet within this Nightlaunch all the same.

In thinking about this brief essay I could not help but think of a longer one by Doctor Bob at The Doctor Is In about a “civilized” European nation that cannot stop itself from taking the next step down into the pit; its people driven, as “reasonable” people always are, by the inexorable demands of “what is reasonable.”

In the work of Goya we see how that great soul, having walked the carnage cloaked landscapes of his era, came to understand the deepest cry of the Enlightenment: El sueño de la razon produce monstruos. [“The sleep of reason breeds monsters.”]

Ah well, the bones of the Enlightenment lie buried in a shallow grave somewhere along the Western Front. It had some nice ideals, but left us living rapt in the spell of Reason.

And now we are a “reasonable” society. Now we are a “scientific people” swaddled in a million theories of management — convinced that all of creation can be, somehow, managed through the limitless employment of Reason. Many of us, as we have seen in the past month, worship “intelligence uber alles,” that strange and deadly viral god of the mad mind that kills the soul long before it kills the nations that embrace it. We see the apotheosis of this worship leap up from the dazed lands of Europe. We see it arc across our own skies. We feel the sting of its acid rain on our upturned, stunned faces.

Reason. Its gifts are many. It enables us to raise “Atlantis to Orbit.” The poetry of that is only exceeded by the reality of it; by all that lies behind the sheer raw ability of the smart monkey to organize itself to achieve it — the mathematics and the metallurgy, the pulses in the silicon chips that hold and control the fire that slices up and beyond the sky. And the systems and wires and waves that bring these thoughts from my fingertips to your eyes now.

All these, and whole Alps of others, are the gifts of Reason.

But there are darker gifts of Reason; gifts revealed by the languor with which a whole people fall “half in love with easeful death.”

Why? Why abort this child? Because it is reasonable.

Why kill this old and feeble person? Because it is reasonable.

Why take from them according to ability and give to others according to need? Always because it is “reasonable.”

Reason commands it and Reason has, in this modern era, become a vengeful and a jealous god.

If it is true that the sleep of reason breeds monsters, can it not also be true that the constant wakefulness of Reason breeds its own peculiar hallucinations; its walking horrors?

We depend on Reason when we flip a switch, step on a brake, or seat ourselves in pressurized thin metal tubes that hover 40,000 feet above the earth and move at 500 miles an hour. This power would seem to argue that Reason should be trusted in all things, that the intelligence that runs up and down the synapses of our brains in an endless flickering web of electo-chemical space-time events is the ultimate arbiter, the final judge, the self-obsessed lodestone of our lives.

And yet… and yet…

And yet, hovering outside of Reason, we still somehow sense Immanence; we sense there is something more going on here, something vaster unfolding all about us, no matter how sternly Reason rules.

We sense Immanence, no matter how many times we are told the opposite; we sense that myth, legend, soul, magic, miracle and mystery still hold us, and that

The palm at the end of the mind,
Beyond the last thought, rises
In the bronze decor,

And that,

The palm stands on the edge of space.
The wind moves slowly in the branches.
The bird’s fire-fangled feathers dangle down.

As we now move more deeply into Advent, we move — in our long sweeping orbit about our home star — closer to the moments when that which is most deeply our gift and most certainly our curse is made manifest in the music of our being in a manner beyond all reason. And no matter what our faith — even if that faith is that there is no faith to be had — this turn of the year, this Advent, will inexorably bring us once again to the memory of the miracle made manifest all about us in every moment if we could but pause to see the forever present revelation.

Our Impossible Here.

Our Impossible Now.

Our Impossible miracle.

Impossible but actual.

Our impossible but actual existence on this most unlikely melding of earth, air, fire and water, fused far ago in a forgotten eternity from starstuff, and now circling a single sun swimming in some out-of-the-way arm of a second-class galaxy, where we lift Atlantis into orbit; where we seek to populate the stars in our searching.

On the one hand, it is clear that Reason demands that “We shall not cease from exploration,” while on the other it may well be that:

“… the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”

And while nothing in our Book of Reason can tell us why, its endless banal chapters on irony would need to be excised were we to discover that all “Enlightenment,” all our “Age of Reason” has wrought is but a frail and flimsy ladder to the stars where we could at last put out our feeble hands “to touch the face of God.”

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  • Valerie Smith December 3, 2017, 7:19 AM

    This is the most beautiful presentation I have seen of this most beautiful sonnet. I have a calligraphed and illustrated copy of this hanging in my house, a legacy of my grandmother, who received it as a gift from a talented friend. I have always loved the poem and have increasingly found it inspiring and uplifting. You have added to that effect with this beautiful presentation. I’m so glad to see it come alive again, that it hasn’t been forgotten.

  • Eskyman December 3, 2017, 1:05 PM

    Reason has let us reach up and touch the sky. Reason also allows us to perpetrate the basest evils in its name.

    We have among us not only the scientists who enable ships made of dreams to penetrate the heavens, but also the modern barbarians who do not understand, but who appear to practice science; they are constantly paraded before us in the media.

    Alfred Bester wrote about them long ago: “Quant Suff!” The Scientific People roared. “Quant Suff!”

  • Howard Nelson December 3, 2017, 1:06 PM

    Nicely, nicely rendered. Your excellence in essays is a gift to all.

    And to we Earth-bound yearners, to kiss the face of God gently kiss the face of a sleeping child.

  • DeAnn December 3, 2017, 1:51 PM

    I love that I got to read this. Thank you for sharing your gift.

  • Dink Newcomb December 3, 2017, 4:58 PM

    As usual, I enjoyed reading your commentary but MY currently overly cynical mind can not ignore the rest of the perhaps implied truth that you left from the title.
    ” … of Us Are Looking at the Stars” while some see it as reasonable to wallow like swine.

    Socialism: mostly almost none for most and mostly the most for a few!

  • Donald Sensing December 3, 2017, 6:10 PM

    Love that you post this every Advent 1! Never tire of it!

  • Howard Nelson December 3, 2017, 7:58 PM

    Reason is getting a bum rap by equating it in some instances to unreasonable irrationality.
    As a species, what could be more reasonable than being cooperative for all of our benefit?
    And if we don’t have all the answers to all the questions, ask wherefrom the equanimity of Buddha and Jesus in their service to those in sorrow and ignorance. And pursue the answer, for it is in our sincerity that we receive.

  • Joe December 4, 2017, 6:55 AM

    Was the image of the person to the right of the arc in the original photograph?

  • Vanderleun December 4, 2017, 8:47 AM

    Good catch. Never noticed that. Hummmmmmm…….

  • Chris December 4, 2017, 8:06 PM

    It appears that we are creatures of extremes. It would be nice if Christianity tempered us better, but historically, that has not been the case. And now that most Christian religions stand for nothing, it certainly won’t hold any sway over most people to prevent them from the next reasonable final solution…