Fullness of Life

This piece by Cynthia Bourgeault is the sixth in a series beginning with “A Surprising Ecumenism“, her response to Evangelical Fundamentalism and Catholic Integralism in the USA: A Surprising Ecumenism“, an article published by La Civiltà Cattolica. The second is “Abortion, Pro-Life, and the Secular State: A Modest Proposal“, the third is “When Does Life Begin?“,  the fourth is “The Developmental Soul“, and the fifth is Teilhard, the Personal, and the Developmental Soul“.


A brief poetic interlude before the final run-up on a conclusion.

The clear, simple truth: nothing can fall out of God. Where would it go?

God is not somebody (not me) – somewhere else (not here). God is the all, the now, the whole; the undivided, dynamic totality of form and formlessness. As Barbara Brown Taylor pictures it so vibrantly in The Luminous Web (p. 74):

Where is God in this picture? God is all over the place. God is up there, down here, inside my skin and out. God is the web, the energy, the space, the light – not captured in them, as if any of those concepts were more real than what unites them – but revealed in that singular, vast net of relationship that animates everything that is.

We are pouring from fullness to fullness here.

From the perspective of the cove, the tide rises and falls in great contrasting cycles. A wharf riding gently at sea level on the high tide may be perched fifteen feet above a mudflat when the tide has emptied out. The sea ebbs and flows; the cove appears as “full” or “empty.” But from the perspective of the ocean, the volume of water is always the same; like a great watery amoeba it simply extends and retracts its arms into the nooks and crannies of coastline from its own serenely undiminished magnitude.

When we think about life in terms of rising-and-falling, beginning-and-ending, we are betraying our finite perspective. “The individual drop that we are disappears in time”, writes Raimon Panikkar in Christophany (p. 130) [also see our audio set by Cynthia Bourgeault of the same name]. “But the personal water that we are (the drop’s water) lives eternally – if, that is, we have succeeded in realizing the (divine) water that we are.” If, in other words, we have succeeded in shifting our perspective from cove to ocean.

It’s not easy, for sure. Down here in earth-time, the fleetingness of duration weighs heavily on us. “The paths of glory lead but to the grave”, Thomas Grey famously lamented. So brief the duration of a human life; so quickly over and gone. And when that life is but embryonic, cut off before it is even born, the pathos seems doubly brutal. We feel it as an exception, a violation. We do not see – do not want to see – even the slightest continuity with the universal, impartial agency of those “Ways of Life” Teilhard speaks of – ingenuity, profusion, indifference (!!) – to which all lower orders in the chain of life are bound. Duration seems so precious to us when it comes to human beings; less so, perhaps when we try to extend it to virtual particles or stars exploding in-and-out of existence in distant galaxies – or for that matter, to the millions of un-germinated seeds for every fetus engendered; to the ants, viruses, butterflies, starfish washed up on a beach in a freak flood tide, abandoned pets, livestock en route to the slaughterhouse…Where do our hearts draw the line?

“Only from the spirit, where it reaches its felt paroxysm, will the antinomy clear”, writes Teilhard – “and the world’s indifference to its elements will be transformed into an immense solicitude – in the sphere of the person”.  But perhaps not quite in the way we are expecting. Personhood does not change the laws to which the entire created order is bound, but perhaps it gives us some perspective by rescuing consciousness from its captivity to duration.

So what about all those “souls” who don’t get a chance to live this life, spread their wings, even draw their first breath? Is something unbearably precious lost forever? As I ponder, from my own human perspective, the pathos of a life seemingly cut short in time, I find myself drawn back time and again to this haunting poem by Laura Gilpin (entitled “The Two-headed Calf”), which I first came across in Belden Lane’s spiritual classic, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes.

Tomorrow when the farm boys find this
freak of nature, they will wrap his body
in newspaper and carry him to the museum. 

But tonight he is alive in the north
field with his mother. It is a perfect
summer evening: the moon rising over
the orchard, the wind in the grass. And
as he stares into the sky, there are
twice as many stars as usual. 

I offer this poem as a kind of dark solace in the face of that sickening, “punched-in-the gut” feeling that arises whenever we try to fathom a life that will never know the grace of duration in time. All life is one life, ultimately, and this one life is in the hands of God and is the hands of God. As humans, we properly feel grief and immense pathos when a potential life trajectory is suddenly cut off, either intentionally or by accident, and it is right that we should; that is the nature of our human sentiency. But to the extent that we can open our hearts and learn to feel all of life – in all its myriad yet particular forms – as the seamless sentiency of God, then perhaps we can loosen our grip on individual duration and let the unbroken wholeness of life flow according to its own mysterious deeper rhythm. The antidote to hardness of heart (from which our culture certainly suffers) may not lie so much in exaggerating the rights of the unborn as in opening our hearts more deeply to the unity – and free fall – that is divine love.

Nothing can fall out of God. Each and every created essence – whether plant, mineral, animal, human – participates in the symphony of divine self-disclosure in its own way and knows the fullness of divine mercy according to its own mode of perceptivity. Even a stone. Even a blade of grass. Most certainly a fetus. Most certainly at the hour of our death. Duration does not affect that holographic fullness, presumably even in a virtual particle. Even – sometimes especially – in brevity, the intensity of the whole is conveyed in a heightened form – twice as many stars as usual!

Granted, the gift of time gives us the window of opportunity to do some pretty amazing stuff – like developing a soul, for one! But the soul is for cosmic service. Cosmic fullness is something else again. It is the free and gratuitous birthright bestowed by God on every quark and particle of the created order. And we get to participate in it freely, fully, here and now, simply because each one of us is a tiny shareholder in the divine aliveness.

Nor does even an “interrupted life” ever pass out of the knowingness of God. “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you,” says Psalm 139 – and if we turn that promise just slightly sideways, we can see in it a deeper assurance that has slipped by us on the first pass. Each individualized life is a trajectory – a probability wave, quantum physicists would call it – of divine self-manifestation that already exists in the heart of God. The heart of God is the infinite abyss of all possibilities. Its time will come round again.

8 replies
  1. Angela Maves
    Angela Maves says:

    German theologian Jurgen Moltmann also has something to say here: “The resurrection of the dead does not say merely that the past is open to the future, and that it is pregnant with future. It also talks about a future for those who belong to the past, and in so doing it reverses time’s direction. We might say that God’s future will unroll the whole scroll of the past once more, from the last hour to the first……in the historical retrospective the past prospective must be perceived and made present. It is only then that the maimed, neglected or suppressed hopes of those who are past can be brought into relationship with the hopes of those who are living in the present, and can be absorbed into the present project of the future.” Moltmann: The Way of Jesus Christ pp 239 and 240.

    Reply
    • Ron Starbuck
      Ron Starbuck says:

      Whatever happens – at whatever hour it does happen – or does not happen. I would propose that it takes place outside of time & space, within the eternal – however you may imagine that for yourself. We are but a speck – less than a small blue dot – in an observable universe that is only 93 billion light-years in diameter and still expanding. Then again we might easily say that “salvation” – however you envision it – simply is – it works and is at work as part of a greater mystery that flows in an with and through all of creation – as does God. And that it you think about it too much – in too literal of a way – you might just miss the big event altogether. I want to go back to the simple thought that “God is Love” – and those who – abide in love – abide in God. Love is a verb – by and with and in and through loving – salvation is revealed – and the “Fullness of Life” is unveiled. The unseen and invisible becomes seen and visible – this openness of creation opens up to you and you are transformed.

      Reply
  2. Ron Starbuck
    Ron Starbuck says:

    FULLNESS OF LIFE: Long ago I came to realize that all our sacred scriptures and writings – our wisdom traditions – are grounded in poetry – grounded in the Word. Grounded within and arising from our own humanity – as human beings came to experience what we call love divine – in many forms – by many names – across many cultures and faiths. Poetry is an intimate part of humanity’s history and development. Cynthia – I love how you ended this piece – I believe this answers my questions from your previous Teilhard essay in the series.

    “Each individualized life is a trajectory – a probability wave, quantum physicists would call it – of divine self-manifestation that already exists in the heart of God. The heart of God is the infinite abyss of all possibilities. Its time will come round again.”

    Allow me please to add this poem – to your words – as poetry – as something more that touches on the mystery of creation and our place within creation – as something that awakens & touches on the indwelling––interconnecting spirit that flows in and with and through us all.

    THE BODY AT REST by Thomas Simmons

    In the evening we are all of us our children,
    Frightened of unconsciousness, the story’s end.

    This is the end of the story. Rest now.
    We are inside human history, that infinitesimal

    Shaft of light not yet past the Milky Way.
    Forget the all in motion, forget that what we see

    Shifts because we see it. Past Newton, who dreamed
    Einstein but, too horrified at what he saw, dreamed

    Aristotle in return, who liked things as they stayed.
    The igneous rock outside his door could not be assayed

    Except in its native stillness. Our stillness now.
    We have fallen a long way, but see, now, how

    Our mutual light recedes as our diminished sun
    Appears to set. Some days it is enough to have done

    Simply what we have done, and in our night
    Begin to dream our journey past the speed of light.

    From “NOW” by Thomas Simmons © 2016
    Saint Julian Press, Inc.
    http://saintjulianpress.com/the-body-at-rest.html

    Reply
  3. William Ryan
    William Ryan says:

    My son, Carlo, died a few days short of his first birthday after his body’s short but pain-filled demise at the hands of Acute Myelocytic Leukema exactly 37 years ago this week. Did he have an incomplete soul? Did he not qualify for personhood? Was his death a tragedy cutting short an unfulfilled potential? No, it was all completion and full, even in that very short life. I wrote in my book, “Breathing Yeshua” of this experience at the time of his cremation:

    “At the time of his cremation with my wife and my spiritual mentor, Doug, I sat in silent meditation in the crematorium. Within me was a great struggle as waves of anger, bitterness, and despair passed through my mind. The challenge of emptying and releasing was great. At a certain point when it seemed nothing was left, a peace arose in me of calm and quiet. Looking at one another that it was time, we rose together and left the room and walked outside into the light of a September day in late morning. The morning mist was lifting. I looked around at the trees and the brown hills of late summer. For just a moment the physical world suddenly disappeared and there remained a pure Radiance shining through everything, a Life, a Presence of Fire and Love. A wordless communication spoke from this Fire, “He is my beloved child, he is forever one with me and one with you.” The Radiant Life has never left me and I have never left It. At that moment the scales fell for me and the circle of the Light of Christ became my vision.”

    Reply
  4. Barb Miller
    Barb Miller says:

    Ok. I read it twice and twice it brought tears. Especially the paragraph that begins “Nothing can fall out of God” This is what sings in my heart, something known but perceived, almost but not quite, as an unknown.
    The poem “The Two-headed Calf” is one of my favorites also. I heard for the first time in the Benedictine Spiritual Formation Progrsm. I don’t remember if the teachers presented it or if a student brought it in. What touches me so deeply is the endless possibilities of other perspectives and the unexpected beauty of a moment in time. Once, when I was walking my dog, I saw a beautiful flower by the side of the road. I stopped and admired it for a while. I could have left it for other walkers. I could have brought my cushion and sat and meditated in it’s presence. But I did what us humans do, I went back, retrieved it and planted it in my garden because I wanted to prolong it’s life. It turned out to be a morning glory, dark blue with a deep purple star. It thrived and after a while I had lots of morning glorys. What was gone was the poignant beauty and specialness of the lone and unknown flower by the side of the road. We are invested in and attached to duration, as Cynthia points out. Knowing in my heart that “nothing can fall out of God” helps loosen the grasping I sometimes feel. These blogs began about the dilemma arising from the conflicts around abortion and they have become a beautiful teaching about the unity of all that is. I have so appreciated this series.

    Reply
  5. Lawrie Okurowski
    Lawrie Okurowski says:

    Thank you Cynthia,
    With deep, deep awe – Yes. ” It’s time will come around again”, and know it’s Soul’s course and pulse in God’s Now.

    Reply
    • Barb Miller
      Barb Miller says:

      Kathy,
      I’d love to hear more of your thoughts on that. It makes sense. I’ve never thought about it that way and am wondering.

      Reply

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