Sunday 11th October – Life, Meaning and Purpose

A short reflection by Rev. Duncan Voice

“Either you look at the universe as a very poor creation out of which no one can make anything or you look at your own life and your part in the universe as infinitely rich, full of inexhaustible interest, opening out into infinite further possibilities for study and contemplation and interest and praise. Beyond all and in all is God.
Perhaps the book of life, in the end, is the book of what one has lived and if one has lived nothing, he is not in the book of life.
And I have always wanted to write a book about everything.
That does not mean to write a book that covers everything – that would be impossible. But a book in which everything can go. A book with a little of everything that creates itself out of everything. That has its own beautiful life. A faithful book. I no longer look at it as a book.

Thomas Merton
(When the Trees Say Nothing: Writings on Nature, Sorin Books)

Reflection

Looking out of the window of my study I see a crane fly, or daddy long-legs, resting on the other side of the glass. It is that time of year when these gangly creatures appear, as if from nowhere. For a few weeks they fly about crazily outside, and straight into the house if the door is open; bumping into walls and ceilings and windows, before their short life ends. I usher them out if I can, but sometimes I come across a small body on the windowsill or floor. Is my crane fly waiting for the right moment to go search for a mate, or is it’s life nearly over? Any last thoughts? Was it all worth it?

The annual flight of the crane flies no doubt provides a food bonanza for some bird species, but some people are not so keen. A daddy long-legs bumping into your face, or hair, isn’t pleasant, but in truth they are otherwise harmless. It is easy to simply dismiss them as an irritant though, a pest or an inconvenience; and certainly not easy to understand their life. First as a larva, a leather-jacket as we call them, and then as an adult who lives for just 10 to 15 days. They have no human qualities; and they are not fluffy or cuddly or cute. No personality that we can discern, no uses to us. In other words, not easy to love. So we may see them as having little worth, but perhaps such a view just shows the limits of our willingness to understand, and the narrowness of our perspective.

Scientists believe the humble crane fly has been around since the early cretaceous period, which was about 140 to 145 million years ago. They’ve been a great success as a species, surviving many mass extinction episodes and outliving the dinosaurs by many millions of years. They can survive in a variety of environments and cousins of the crane fly on my window inhabit every continent on Earth, except Antarctica. Consider how many crane flies there are in the world. Think of their yearly life-cycle repeating for 145 million years. Imagine an ancestry that went back that far! The point is we can’t, really. We can’t really appreciate those time scales, the variety and scope of crane fly existence; and certainly not what it means to be a crane fly; a part of this wondrously successful species. And yet, life courses through them as it does us, we are connected.

I don’t know what a crane fly thinks when he looks at me. Probably not much as he has a very small brain, and this is considered to be a distinguishing feature between most animals and humans. Our larger brains enable us to undertake complex reasoning, problem solving and to reflect, to be aware of ourselves and the world around us to some extent. It’s tempting to therefore consider ourselves superior, but as the saying goes, this is like comparing chalk and cheese. Life is expressed in many varied ways and notions of superiority seem misplaced and irrelevant I feel.

This is expressed quite beautifully in the Tao Te Ching:

“Every being in the universe
is an expression of the Tao.
It springs into existence,
unconscious, perfect, free,
takes on a physical body,
lets circumstances complete it.
That is why every being
spontaneously honours the Tao.

The Tao is the natural order of things, the nameless essential life force, and every being is said to be an expression of this. In other words, everything has its own place in the great cycle of life and its own value. A crane fly does what is does, simply and naturally, as far as we can tell. It is not really for us to attribute meaning to its life, but we can respect it as being as being a wonderful expression of life. In our own lives though, we do seek meaning.

Unfortunately, another unique ability that humans have is for causing death and destruction to our own species and others on a huge scale. Sometimes through intention, sometimes through ignorance. Our activities so often seem to be contrary to the natural way of things, harming life and the environment. In order to stop these destructive cycles, we need take a clearer view and develop a greater awareness of all that is around us, and with which we are inextricably linked. All that is around us, not just the useful or the beautiful.

In our reading Thomas Merton invites us to consider the potential of the natural world for helping us with our reflections on our life’s meaning when he says, “look at your own life and your part in the universe as infinitely rich, full of inexhaustible interest, opening out into infinite further possibilities.” So perhaps we can use our ability, this gift that we have for reflection, to do just that. To seek understanding through a gentle curiosity and approach our interactions with the natural world with reverence, respect and wonder. To find purpose in caring, and healing the wounds of the world. A difficult task for sure, a struggle like life itself sometimes, but surely one that is of the greatest value.

May it be so.

The theologian Dorothee Soelle said, “What do prayer and poetry have in common? They connect us with our hopes. They take us out of hopeless misery. They remind us of our purpose.” (Dorothee Soelle Essential Writings, Orbis Books)
So, we close with a poem and a prayer.

Poem

Wild Geese by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high I the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting-
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
(From “Devotions: The selected poems of Mary Oliver, Penguin Press)

Prayer

The Light of day

So long as we enjoy the light of day
may we greet one another with love.
So long as we enjoy the light of day
May we pray for one another.
(A native North American prayer: Zuni)

I enjoy film music, and I found this version of a beautiful piece of music from composer John Williams. Used in the film Harry Potter and Prisoner of Azkaban, it is called “A Window to the Past”. I hope you enjoy it too.

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