Reflection 201: Handprints

April 26, 2010

(Copyright © 2010)

With this post, I am laying my blog to rest—at least for the time being. I intend to go back over what I have written so far with an eye to rearranging the content in less hectic order, better to convey my cumulative understanding of conscious experience. And to reveal gaps that need filling-in. Maybe a book will result, maybe not. I invite you to explore and ruminate on what is on offer. Check out postlinks (above) and look around.

In Reflection 121: Spirituality, I wrote of witnessing over the years a cartwheel display of northern lights, two dancers atop Cadillac Mountain at sunrise, a male goldfinch singing, and an aurora seen above an island joining with its own reflection to form a cosmic green eye. Of these sorts of experiences I wrote:

To me, spirituality is a felt connection with all that is, including (to shorten a long list) northern lights; amethyst jellyfish; Earth, our habitat in space; common and remarkable Earthlings of every sort; wetlands; lichens; old-growth forests; the Milky Way; and the universe as revealed by the Hubble space Telescope.

Yes, that intuitive feeling of connectedness is a big part of what I call spirituality—but it is not all. An explicit feeling of thankfulness at being fully present to such moments also contributes to spirituality, a giving of self in gratitude for being alive to participate in yet another memorable instant of existence. Beyond feelings of thankfulness, often food and sex serve as vital dimensions of our relationship with partners, family, friends, and community. Without such driving values as food and sex, we would not be alive to enjoy the fruits of consciousness.

Lately, I have been trying to imagine myself crawling into a cave—say, Altamira or Lascaux—to witness images of animals such as bison, horses, lions, and mammoths painted by upper-Paleolithic peoples some 30 to 10 thousand years ago. My search is for purely visual patterns of experience so that I can stand before them without laying any preconceived meanings upon them, determined to claim the experience of uninterpreted (uncategorized) sight as if for the first time. How would it be to hold a dim, tallow lamp close to the walls of a cave to discover those hand-drawn animate forms? In my own era I am jaded by having seen a thing many times before so that I know immediately what it is, seeing more with my conceptual memory than my eyes. Recognizing a sight as representing a class of similar sights is not really seeing.

So I picture myself entering a cave in my mind, watchful over my little lamp, led by one who knows the way, stooping, crawling, expecting, yet not picturing what I will find. My hope is to see something so strange and wonderful that I am forced to reinvent myself to take it all in. Categorization makes me no bigger than I was; I want to live a life that grows larger every day. I need fresh visions and discoveries to feed my hunger for sensory experience, understanding, and to whet my curiosity about what might yet be possible. Celebration is what I’m after, of my fleeting self on my winding, serendipitous path through the universe. But that is an idea; I’m not after ideas: I want sensory evidence as proof that I am fully alive where I am, when I am.

In a grotto, by the glow of my tallow lamp, I am awestruck by what I find. It is nothing I know or recognize. The patterns are intuitively familiar, but like nothing I have seen before. There are no landscapes with grasses, shrubs, or trees. No sunlight beyond my little lamp. No clouds in the sky. No trickling streams, no birds. Not even rock walls. Nothing is moving, yet the scene seems to gallop through my head. I am sure I hear hooves rushing by, snorts, whinnies, growls. Startled, I look around, but quickly return to the scene just inches in front of my eyes. The essential core of the animate world is here, and I am connected to it and part of it. This is my world. Yes, I feel it, my little life depends on this scene, on these particular beasts—woolly rhinoceroses, mammoths, horses, reindeer, bison, bears, stags, lions, ibexes. Without them, I wouldn’t be here in this cave—or anywhere. I never realized it before, but now I climb above my daily grasp of things and join the higher life beyond. These forms give shape to a transcendent grasp of reality, which I can only call spiritual because it is not of my everyday world. I owe every thought and experience to the scene that opens before me deep in the cave of my mind. This, truly, is where I live. In this scene, with these animals. Nothing else matters. This is the ultimate vision, seen by my ultimate self. I have risen; now I can die.

But before I do, I want to register my own presence. I have no votive offerings. Only a small piece of charcoal. What trace of myself can I leave? I have no sense that the patterns before me are drawn by human hands. They are primeval, here before the people came, here after we go. But one before me has made an appropriate gesture in response. A handprint to show he was here—and is still here—has become part of the scene. Intuitively, I bite off a small chunk of charcoal, grind it between my molars, mix it with saliva. Raising my free hand against the cave wall above the back of the horse, I blow black pigment around my pressed hand, leaving, when I take it away, a silhouette of my presence—my hands-on contribution to this magical scene.

Spotted Horse and Handprints

That mental excursion suggests the state of my mind this week when my son and his wife returned from New Mexico and gave me a gift from Bandeliere National Monument near Santa Fe. It was a long-sleeved T-shirt bearing a Native American design which the park service adopted as the emblem of Bandeliere: the four directions (suggesting their totem animals, such as golden eagle, mouse, bear, white buffalo) placed against the face of the sun, with a small handprint in the center—extending toward—as if to touch or bless—the bright solar disc.

Bandeliere Sun with 4 Directions & Handprint

Suddenly I get it. Reaching out in gratitude for the gift of radiant energy that supports life on our planet. No matter in what form it is made manifest—animal, plant, mineral—it is the same energy. Solar radiation. The gift of sunlight that feeds almost all life on Earth. Certainly the life forms we are familiar with, especially those we depend on as our life-support system. 

Cut to Jesus at his last Passover meal breaking bread and drinking wine with his companions. What was it he said? According to Matthew 26.26-29 (New English Bible, Oxford Study Edition):

During supper Jesus took bread, and having said the blessing he broke it and gave it to the disciples with the words: ‘Take this and eat; this is my body.’ Then he took a cup, and having offered thanks to God he gave it to them with the words: ‘Drink from it, all of you. For this is my blood, the blood of the covenant, shed for many for the forgiveness of sins.’

This is my body, this is my blood. These words are in keeping with the symbolism of vegetative renewal that is at the core of the Jesus story. Bread from grain; wine from grapes. Both  miraculously renewing themselves about the time of the vernal equinox and the Passover feast held shortly thereafter. In the rites of Dionysos-Attis-Adonis held at that time of year, seeds were buried in soil held in small baskets, sprinkled with water, and when in three days they sprouted, celebrants cried the local equivalent of “He is risen, he is risen!”

“Palestine is a fertile land,” writes E. O. James in From Cave to Cathedral: Temples and Shrines of Prehistoric, Classical, and Early Christian Times (Praeger, 1965):

Having a temperate climate . . . agriculture flourished, and . . . the people for the most part were peasants with an agricultural economy, dependent largely upon the seasonal sequence as in Mesopotamia.

. . . . Normally in April the hillsides in Galilee are decked with a profusion of wild flowers with the green corn waving in the cool breezes on the fields below, the north especially being ‘a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and depths that spring out of valleys and hills . . . a land of oil, olive and honey.’ . . . From the end of May there is constant anxiety about the condition of the grain during the dry season, especially when the seasonal rains are pending. This found expression in a Canaanite myth and ritual of the Tammuz type and a seasonal drama (page 167).

Over thousands of years, Paleolithic hunters morphed into latter-day agriculturalists. Again, in the words of E.O. James (Seasonal Feasts and Festivals, Barnes & Noble, 1961):

As food-gathering dropped more and more into the background until finally it was abandoned, . . . the fertility of the soil and the succession of summer and winter, springtime and harvest, together with the associated pursuits—tilling and ploughing, sowing and reaping—became the centre of interest and of the ritual organization. . . . Nature was no less precarious for the farmer than for the hunter, consequently at the critical seasons an emotional reaction to the prevailing tension called forth a ritual response to ensure success in the food-producing activities at their several stages, and overcome the unpredictable elements in the situation outside human control by natural means. . . . Around this cultus a death and resurrection drama in due course developed (pages 33-34).

The union of Sky-father and Earth-mother symbolized the sacred marriage of spring rains with fertile soil, resulting in the birth of the divine child—manifest in the crops that sustained human life. As W.K.C. Guthrie tells the story in The Greeks and Their Gods (Beacon Press, 1950):

The young god who stands primarily for ‘the whole wet element’ in nature, as Plutarch describes Dionysos—that is, not only wine, but the life-blood of animals, the male semen which fertilizes the female, the juicy sap of plants—meets us under different names all over the nearer parts of Asia and in Egypt, as well as in Thrace, as Dionysos, Zalmoxis, Sabazios, Attis, Adonis, Tammuz, Osiris and many others (page 156).

Whether based on the historical record or the mythic tradition, Jesus-as-portrayed is one representative of that distinguished company. As other gods did before him, he at first symbolized the hope of seasonal renewal to early farmers at the eastern end of the Mediterranean. Very much an essential link in the chain from upper Paleolithic cave art to today’s fascination with the one-time offer of eternal life, Jesus was swept into high office on the reputation of his distinguished predecessors. But the organized church wasn’t satisfied with merely seasonal renewal. It wanted an all-time guarantee of life everlasting so that all we need do is die—and we will be born not just again but forever. Nothing short of eternity will do. No problem—as long as our indulgences are paid for in advance.

In focusing on the mythic symbol himself instead of the vital seasonal renewal Jesus initially symbolized, the Roman church cut itself off from its roots in Earth’s annual cycles of vegetation, disparaging the worshipping of such cycles as pagan and heretical—even though they provided the experiential grounds of its own metaphorical teachings. The priesthood was looking St. Peter's Basilica, Romeafter itself by centralizing its authority in urban basilicas—great stone galleries much like caves built aboveground. It proved far easier to manage abstract symbols from such central edifices than to engage widely dispersed farmers tending herds and tilling rural fields—those on the forefront of belief, but who were not within easy reach from comfortable apartments in the city.

When Episcopal priest John A. Sanford wrote in The Kingdom Within: The Inner Meaning of Jesus’ Sayings (Lippincott, 1970), “We have . . . in Jesus of Nazareth the paradigm of the whole person, the prototype of all human development,” he makes clear that he is speaking of an idealized concept of a perfect man, not any person who might actually have lived. Leaving the faithful yearning to connect with the living force that provides for them in producing the crops and herds they actually eat to gain nourishment for bodies that sweat, get sick, grow old, and fail, not with some idealized exemplar whose body and blood they might pretend to ingest as a ritualized diet for the soul. No calories, true, but no real nutrients for the spirit either. Leaving seasonal renewal out of the picture, church dogma became a hollow conceit taken on faith, not in the light of actual experience.

Of lands at the eastern end of the Mediterranean, E. O. James writes of one deity who stayed in touch with the people, a deity who provided the foil of anathema to orthodox teachings throughout much of Hebrew and Christian scripture:

Once Prince Baal “became ‘the lord of the furrows of the field’ responsible for the rain and the kindly fruits of the earth, a series of temples were erected in his honour in Palestine and Syria in and after the fourteenth century B.C.” (From Cave to Cathedral, page 169).

In nearby Egypt, the ankh was a symbol of eternal life, as the cross subsequently became in Christianity. But one cannot eat symbols; they are food for the disembodied mind. The mind Goddesses of budding flowers, offerings, and happiness, bearing gifts of long life. Fifth Dynasty.embedded in its mortal frame craves a more substantial diet bearing, beyond flavor, both energy and nutrition. It is that diet I am trying to get at in writing this post because such food, indeed, sustains us and makes us who we are. That is the universal food humans require to keep going, no matter where they might live aside from their respective mental caves. Organized religions give us preinterpreted symbols when what we are starved for is raw sensory patterns most strange and wonderful—something to celebrate, not to obey.

It is the role of consciousness to guide us toward such a food supply that we may nourish ourselves—we who are minds in bodies with emotions, senses, thoughts, ideas, judgments, and capacities for action—to make ourselves whole, caring, and wise. That is, to conduct our day-to-day lives in such a way to transcend the limited vessels we have become in order to place our personal handprints as a mark of full witness and approval on life as we actually live it and not the pretend life others would have us lead for their benefit, or we would lead to please them.

I am talking here about leading an original life worthy of our personal uniqueness bestowed on us by our genetic heritage, prenatal life, early experiences, schooling, training, job history, native haunts, and the times in which we live. No two of us are alike. Yet our culture sorts us into crude bins (e.g., True Believers and Heretics) and expects us to behave as we are profiled and sorted by others, regardless of who we know ourselves to be. With the sorry result that we become creatures of our run-of-the-mill culture and not of our unique, individually conscious selves. Instead of consuming more and more goods, we do better to savor the sensory evidence that is ours alone, so to arouse a sense of connectedness with a beautiful world, to stir thankfulness that we are fully present to that world, and to activate primal values to prove we are fully engaged and alive. In short, we want to reach up and blow a handprint from inside our minds onto the only world that will take us just as we are, adding our personal energy and fullness to the universe of all being.

I am aiming for transcendence here. A jolt of energy-releasing transcendence lifting us into that true and higher life binding us to all that is—principally to the Earth, our only home in the darkness of space, and to all of Earth’s peoples of every tribe—that’s what I’m writing about. Is that too much to ask or even contemplate? In spite of our frailty, we can reach that high if we choose to enter the cave of our minds and keep trending toward that goal. We all know more than our credentials seem to warrant, in very personal ways that build on our unique perspectives instead of denying or denigrating them. Our value on Earth lies precisely in our gifts to one another of our personal uniqueness, not our assumed sameness with everyone else. Lives suitable to our heritage and experience cannot be bought off the shelf. We have to tailor them from the scraps we are given, and keep sewing for the rest of our lives. Transcendence is that easy—and that hard.

I will end with an item lifted from an e-mail my brother sent me today:

Re Time Magazine in the dentist’s office [see Reflection 198: Of Heroics & Aesthetics]:  I remember covering a symposium on Canadian art in Washington DC and hearing the director of the Innuit Gallery in Toronto say, ‘There’s a communications satellite in the sky now beaming down American television on them [Eskimos] and in one generation the spiritual content of their artwork is going to be gone.’ Perhaps no single sentence I ever heard in my entire life depressed me as much as this one. I did the only thing I could—bought a piece of Eskimo sculpture and two prints before that happened.

Hunting FamilyWalrusesMary Igiu, People of the Sea 

 

 

Your Handprint in This space

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One Response to “Reflection 201: Handprints”

  1. David Phillips said

    Perrin is a family name of mine. I found you via W. K. C. Guthrie on iPhone. Just want to say “thanks” and “you are not alone,” for i, too, am in love.

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