“IT FLOWS OUT of mystery into mystery: there is no beginning —
“How could there be? And no end — how could there be?
“The stars shine in the sky like the spray of a wave
“Rushing to meet no shore, and the great music
“Blares on forever …”
(“How Beautiful It Is,” from “The Beginning and the End”)
This day in early August is as good a day as any to consider the mystery and wonder of life and being.
And this is as good a day as any to consider what one of our greatest modern students of world mythology and religion Joseph Campbell believed was the first function of religion and myth, namely, to awaken and maintain in the individual a sense of the wonder of life and being.
“Think how mysterious it is,” Campbell said to Bill Moyers in the popular six-part PBS series, “The Power of Myth,” “that anything should be.”
To be truly human is to be shaken — and awakened — by the fact that there is anything at all; it is to be seized by the rapture of being alive.
What a tragedy if mentally and spiritually you slept your life away and never woke up to the wonder of being.
Religion’s first role, thus, is to help us wake up so we don’t sleepwalk our way through life, but instead that we develop a spiritual connection to the reality about us and the mystery of our own reality.
Campbell names this first function of religion the “mystical” or “metaphysical” function.
It’s the most basic of all, he says, not necessarily in time or in terms of personal development — indeed, sometimes it is years before we wake up at all — but first in priority, for it has to do with simply beholding being and wondering at it.
Campbell writes that you can regard anything in its “metaphysical” aspect.
“In India,” he told Moyers, “I have seen a red ring put around a stone, and then the stone becomes regarded as an incarnation of the mystery.”
“Usually,” he continued, “you think of things in practical terms, but you could think of anything in terms of its mystery.”
“What is the meaning,” he asks, “of a tree, of a butterfly, of the birth of a child? What is the meaning of the song of the rushing stream, or of the universe itself? Who can answer? Such wonders simply are. They precede meaning, though ‘meanings’ can be read into them.”
So what is it that calls to you on a day like this in early August?
Draw a red ring around it.
Consider it not in terms of any practical value it might have but simply that it is.
Behold it as an incarnation of the mystery.
Behold it in the “suchness” of its being.
Consider that what you have brought into your focus did not have to be, yet here it is.
And here you are privileged to behold such a wonder.
I conclude with one of my very favorite poems on this theme, a poem by Denise Levertov titled “Primary Wonder.”
“Days pass when I forget the mystery.
“Problems insoluble and problems offering
“their own ignored solutions
“jostle for my attention, they crowd its antechamber
“along with a host of diversions, my courtiers, wearing
“their colored clothes; cap and bells.
“once more the quiet mystery
“is present to me, the throng’s clamor
“recedes: the mystery
“that there is anything, anything at all,
“let alone cosmos, joy, memory, everything,
“rather than void: and that, O Lord,
“Creator, Hallowed One, You still,
“hour by hour sustain it.”
(Denise Levertov, “Primary Wonder,” Selected Poems)
Issues of Faith is a rotating column by five religious leaders on the North Olympic Peninsula. The Rev. Bruce Bode is minister emeritus of the Quimper Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Port Townsend. His email is [email protected]