Although primarily an invention of Western culture, the New Story has become the story of all educated peoples throughout the world. There is no such thing as European science, Chinese science, Navajo science; scientists of all cultures, religions and political persuasions exchange ideas freely and apply the same criteria of verification and falsification. Like most children, I was taught that my story was the “true story,” and that all others were false, or at best sweet fairy tales. Sometimes our so-called “true” stories gave us permission to hurt those who lived by other stories. But in a world of international air travel, instant exchange of information, and weapons of mass destruction, we can no longer afford to squabble over which of our many stories is true.
From the top of Mount Brandon the New Story unfolds all around me. In the crush of continents that heaved the mountains skyward. In the shaping of the hills by glaciers. In the tumbling atmosphere, stirred into motion by the spinning Earth. In the single-celled algae that grow in the well. In the vast bowl of the sea that draws our imagination westward, and in the water itself, cradle of life, forged in starry nebula, gathered by gravity with the body of the Earth. I am the meaning of the poem, sings Amergin. I am the god that makes fire in the head.
What does it mean to honor a God whose immanence takes precedence over his transcendence? How do we pray to a deity who eludes even the personal pronouns he, himself, and who, who absconds from the temples of our imagination and hides in the interstices of creation?
There is a tradition of Christian prayer that is open to mystery and yet attuned to God’s immanence. The Trappist contemplative Thomas Merton describes it this way: “When I am liberated by silence, when I am no longer involved in the measurement of life, but in the living of it, I can discover a form of prayer in which there is effectively no distraction. My whole life becomes a prayer. My whole silence is full of prayer ... Let me seek, then, the gift of silence, and poverty, and solitude, where everything I touch is turned into prayer: where the sky is my prayer, the birds are my prayer, the wind in the trees is my prayer, for God is all in all.” He might have added: the whirling galaxies are my prayer, the ceaselessly weaving DNA is my prayer, the folding of the mountains and the grinding glaciers are my prayer.
I was raised in a culture of prayer; it permeated every aspect of my young life. The school day began and ended with prayer. As an altar boy at our parish church, I served countless masses, benedictions, weddings, funerals. A not insignificant proportion of my youth was spent in church, listening to prayers, reciting prayers. Yet, looking back on my childhood, I wonder what it all meant. Most of the prayers I recited were formalistic; I might as well have been mumbling the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag or nursery rhymes. Many of the prayers were in Latin and therefore doubly inscrutable. Certainly there was nothing spontaneous or heartfelt about my prayers. The only prayers that were not formalistic were anxious petitions. In these earnest entreaties to a deity, I was not alone. A recent Newsweek poll found that 87 percent of Americans believe in a God who hears and answers prayers, and more than a quarter of Americans pray to such a God every day. For many people, the entire purpose of prayer is to invoke God’s intervention in the course of their daily lives, to adjust the tilt of the universe in their personal favor.
I am now more interested in the kind of prayer that I found on the mountain. If we accept, with the early Irish saints, God’s immanence, then prayer becomes an expression of wonder, thanksgiving and praise, not to someone outside of the creation who could and might intervene to redirect the flow of events, but to the creative agency within the creation — a God whom we intuit through the mind and heart but who evades all definitions (including the convenient pronoun who).
A corollary of belief in the efficacy of petitionary prayer is the so-called problem of evil: If God can redirect the flow of events in contravention of natural law, then why does a loving and just God allow bad things to happen to good people? One answer is hinted at in the Celtic notion of God’s immanence. I am the point of the spear, sang Amergin. He might have added, I am the wind that blows the ship upon the rocks, I am the wolf that carries the lamb from the fold, I am the pestilence that takes the child from the parent. The creation and the creator are all of a piece: light and darkness, happiness and sorrow, life and death. The creation is neither good nor evil, but Jesus and other great religious leaders have emphasized our freedom to act in ways that can nudge history towards the good. What Celtic pantheism advantageously received from Christianity is the Sermon on the Mount, and indeed the entire message of the gospels: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. In the broadest sense of this maxim we recognize a basis for moral action in the world and a concept of redemption in which our every action moves all of creation toward harmony.
Our quest for encounter with the Absolute goes arm in arm with our study of nature. The great Jesuit paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin: “Let us go on and on endlessly increasing our perception of the hidden powers that slumber, and the infinitesimally tiny ones that swarm about us, and the immensities that escape us simply because they appear as a point,” he wrote, extolling the atomic and the galactic. Each discovery plunges us a little deeper into the ground of all Mystery, he believed, leading us at last into contemplation of the ineffable, unspeakable deity who “through his Spirit stirs up into a ferment the mass of the universe.” Less and less, he said near the end of his life, did he discern a difference between research and adoration. If we are attentive enough, we will be led into encounter with the ineffable Spirit that stirs the universe into a ferment.
I am the wind on the sea. I am the ocean wave. I am the sound of the billows. I am the hawk on the cliff. I am the dewdrop in sunlight. I am the lake on the plain. I am the meaning of the poem. I am the god that makes fire in the head.
Chet Raymo, author of twelve books, is a professor emeritus of physics at Stonehill College in Massachusetts, a school also elevated by the Congregation of Holy Cross. This essay is drawn from his lovely book Climbing Brandon, and Chet his own self will speak of science and spirituality in BC Aud on Thursday evening, September 21, free as air, bring your friends. Info: 503-943-7202.