My friend, colleague, and spiritual guide, Dr. Charlie Palmgren, asked me a rhetorical but probing question that prompted some ponderous thoughts for me: Are children capable of learning on their own? Do they have an innate capacity to learn?
My mind went to my study of Piaget, back in my developmental psychology work. I distinctly remember us using the phrase “undifferentiated” as applied to the infant. There were cognitive structures that needed to be formed within the infant, and then child, so that they could comprehend the world, notably other objects. Piaget in cognitive development and Kohlberg in moral development had a very limited view of what infants and children were capable of grasping. Recent studies on the innate psychological and empathetic capacity of infants calls this prior theory into question. (See Gopnik, The Philosophical Child)
When Charlie asked the question, an old story from my days in Texas bubbled up from my memory. It was a Saturday morning, and I was seated in my study. Thomas, age of three and a half came ambling in, cocked his head to the side, a characteristic that we both do, and then offered his question, “Can you take me out back?”
“Out back” referred to our backyard that had a beautiful formal garden that the previous owners had maintained meticulously. At that point, I had not neglected it sufficiently to take the bloom off the flora. It also had a swimming pool, that was a major concern for me with a three year old son and an infant daughter. My nightmare was of one of them falling in, unattended, having wandered outside. To insure that would not happen, the backdoors were double-locked so that we could accompany them when they went outside. I had drilled this message into Thomas and so I was pleased that he had come to ask me to go with him.
But I was curious as to why ‘now’, and what was on his mind. So I asked him a pregnant question that was ready to burst open in the mind of a three year old, “Why?”
His response has stayed with me for thirty years, and still makes me smile, the kind of smile that explodes on a parent’s face, and has something to do with pride, but more to do with sheer delight.
“I want to go see what God is doing.”
That’s my son who said that. Where are the priests and teachers in the Temple? (oblique reference to Jesus in the Temple at the fresh age of twelve)
Thomas was enraptured by nature. His love affair began in our old backyard in Atlanta. There was a virgin forest that went all the way through from our house on Glengary to Peachtree-Dunwoody. We had a creek that ran over a granite outcropping, producing a constant lyrical gurgle. Thomas and I would cross the creek and sit and listen. I don’t know it as a fact, but I am betting that his sense of music and lyrics were birthed right there in those primal waters.
We had left our Atlanta Garden of Eden to find a more formal display of azaleas and jasmine in the Piney Woods of East Texas, and Thomas was seduced by the colors that played in our new garden setting. Birds and squirrels served as companions, along with our Springer Spaniel. I felt like a guest spectator in that primal Garden as Thomas discovered new beauty in God’s world. It did not occur to me to think it odd that he would talk casually to a plant or tree, remembering that I had been told that such a conversation was a practice of my teacher, Howard Thurman, a true mystic and civil rights pioneer. It was a gift to me to witness this primitive connection of my son to God’s Creation, before schooling, society, and I had a chance to mess it up. It was glorious, primitive, simple…..and fleeting.
I am pretty sure, and getting clearer, that this is what I am trying to get back to in my own spiritual journey. In my current backyard on St. Simons island, it is a nature preserve linked to the marshes of Glynn, the muse of poet Sydney Lanier. Here, in my own corner of the planet, a live oak tree stands to the left. It is draped in the very present Spanish moss, which I fell in love with many moons ago as I first traversed the wild beauty of Cumberland Island. I now have a ringside seat to nature as she moves, ebbs and flows, in my view each day. The moss seems to pick up the slightest wisp of breeze and accentuate my sense of the mysterious wind. I am fascinated by the oscillation of direction and its sudden gusts of what feels to me like Spirit. Have I mentioned that I have started talking with it?
I have been impressed by a call to get more in touch with my connection to the world. It’s part of the spirituality of St. Francis who saw the Creation as revelatory and, by the way, worth protecting. Rather than performing mental gymnastics in my brain, running mental marathons within my prefrontal cortex, can I connect with my embodied self, feeling and sensing my being within my physical body? To be honest, after all the years of academic training to center myself in the mind, it’s a big ask.
Just yesterday, I had a “Thomas moment” of sensing God’s presence. I had been sitting outside in my wooden chair, angled in relation to the railing on my deck. We have placed bird feeders just off the deck, surrounded by irises that are sporadically blooming, trumpeting the summer season. I was meditating as I do and have done for years, employing a method taught to me during my college days by a Trappist monk in Conyers, Georgia. My practice involves a focus on breathing, with a slow inhalation driven by the diaphragm descending, followed by the exhaling of the breath, slowly.
The rhythm of “in-out” has become familiar through time, embodying the native polarity in our very physical being, inhaling and exhaling, a primal rhythm that gives life. That practice settles my “monkey mind”, a term I learned from a Tibetan Buddhist teacher, as it chases any rabbit, or squirrel, of a thought. This “settling” then allows me to focus in a moment of sheer and blessed awareness of just being, freed from the furtive chase of my thoughts. To be in the moment, free from the clutter of thinking, is the promise of this Centering Prayer method. I try to do this twice a day for twenty minutes,
On this particular day, I had been sitting for my twenty minutes, sensing the humidity on my skin, the heat of a south Georgia day, and sounds of birds chirping in the lull before a coming thunderstorm. The breeze was refreshing, and quickening, as the summer storm approached, registering on my face and back of my neck.
With my eyes closed, I sensed a presence there with me. It was odd. It felt much like I experienced the presence of a wild horse once on Cumberland Island, looking at the back of my head as I sat in the inner dune area, I felt the stare of another creature.
I slowly opened my eyes to see a cardinal perched on the arm of my chair, directly to my right. He, with his bright red plumage, cued me to his gender, looking from side to side, much as I had observed the cardinals that inhabit my backyard and frequent our feeder filled with safflower seeds. No bird had ever come this close, literally at hand.
I kept my head still, trying not to blink, finally trying not to laugh at my surprise. My cardinal friend remained perched for three minutes, finally making his move to the feeder, grabbing a few seeds while I watched. And then he was back off to the wildness of the marsh. What a gift to me.
It sent me into a reverie, remembering my mother’s favorite bird. It provided a somatic connection, a feeling of closeness to her, even though she’s been gone for years. And yet, in that moment, she felt strangely present, connected. Is this just the crazy stuff that goes on in the mind of someone getting older, grasping at straws of ties to a past that is slip-sliding away, or is it more? Honest-to-God, I don’t pretend to know.
This is not my first rodeo with this sense of awe, of connection. As a young child, like Thomas, I had a sense of awe and mystery that I clearly remember in the backyard of my grandparents home, connected with a thunderstorm and a sweet-smelling, cleansing rain in the late afternoon. That’s when I first has a sense, a somatic sense of God.
Later, I remember a stained glass window at Oakland City Baptist Church, at the front. Baptists weren’t real big on stained glass. It was the only one in that brick church cavern. It was the scene of Gethsemane, of Jesus kneeling at the rock, praying for the cup of his death to pass him by. And I was shocked as I heard the story told, him sweating blood as his disciples slept, and him fatefully deciding to give himself to death on a cross. And the hymn testified that it could make a soul “tremble”, and I did. It has served as the icon in my life, at my Gethsemanes, even on a stage in Godspell.
In adolescence, after a tremendous rip-roaring storm, there was an sense of joy and connection I felt while walking in my front yard in East Point, the atmosphere feeling electric. There was an underlying bed of awe, something bigger than my weak-ass adolescent self. The sense of peace was palpable and profound, though I did not understand it. I still don’t.
And then, one evening, deep into the dark night, the gold-gilded box, referred to as the “sanctuary” containing the Reserved Sacrament, the priestly blessed Body and Blood of Jesus from the morning’s Mass, placed at the front of the Trappist church, seemed to glow as I sat before it, praying, emitting a feeling of peace and joy that I had not experienced prior. Ever since, I have felt that sense of the Holy present in these mere elements of bread and wine when blessed by the community, transformed into symbols of connection.
Were these moments of psychotic break, intuitions of an oceanic connection, an acute sacramental sensibility, or just something I ate? Again, I do not know.
Rudolf Otto called it a sense of the numinous, of the Holy. My Celtic ancestors referred to “thin places” where you sense a sheer, thin separation between this physical world from the spiritual realm of being. My McBrayer relatives found it in the Pentecostal fervor of unbridled praise. Mystics call it ineffable from within their solitary cave of contemplation, that which can not be put into words, defying description. I think I know something of this thing, and yet, it is clear that I know nothing.
One thing I do know. People in our time, in our world are hungry for a taste of that spiritual experience. No longer content to construct intellectual suppositions and propositions about God, or argue over dogma, or doctrine, they are more than ready to leave that to religious bureaucrats that seem satisfied in talking ABOUT God. They are desirous of an experience of a spiritual reality that gives them meaning and connection and purpose. I’m hoping that the disruption of this pandemic may prompt a moribund church to wake up, to unleash a Spirit that resists control and management and program. Control seems to rule our religious kingdom. Truth is, we were never really good at that, letting go. And yet that kenosis, that kenotic love of not grasping is the signature of the one who profess to follow. It hard to open one’s Self to this new way of Being in the world, and yet we have an incarnate example that shows us how to do it….as well as the cost.
And there was that cardinal. There was the wind, And, there was a felt sense of connection through the communion with this amazingly red bird who shared a seat with me, who re-minded me of my larger world, a creation of which I am a part.
I can’t wait to tell Thomas what God was doing.