ISSUES OF FAITH: Simple questions lead the way to knowing one’s self

THESE “LAZY, HAZY, crazy days of summer” provide us with an opportunity to consider our lives from a different perspective.

Not the narrowed intensity and introspective focus the dark of winter invites, but by getting out of the house and lying in the grass the mind is allowed to lighten and loosen, to float and roam, and even to reflect on the very grass on which one lies.

Thinking and wondering about grass is what a child might do.

Indeed, in these mid-summer days we are called to return to the first questions we humans ask, such as, “What is the grass?”

That’s the question our first great American poet, Walt Whitman, posed in the book he spent his whole life writing and revising, “Leaves of Grass,” — “leaves” having the double meaning of being the paper, pages and poems themselves, as well as individual blades of grass.

In his most famous and far-reaching poem from that book, “Song of Myself,” he wrote: “A child said What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands …”

You can imagine a child doing that, can’t you? — pulling up some grass, bringing it to an adult and innocently asking, “What is this?” as if expecting an answer.

What is the grass?

If you could answer that question, wouldn’t you have the answer to all questions?

By asking a question about something so simple, common and ephemeral as grass, one is asking the ultimate question of being, the “ontological question,” as philosophers put it — the how, the why and the wherefore of being itself.

With such a question one is not asking about the constituent parts of grass, or of what it is composed. This is not that kind of question.

It’s not a question for the scientific laboratory, though a scientist studying grass might be led even more deeply into the child’s question: What is something really? How is it that anything is?

This is not a question to which a definitive answer can be given; yet it’s a question we should never let go of, for it is the question that makes us most human, and it begins already in childhood.

So, to return to Whitman and his adult response to the child’s question, “What is the grass?”

“How could I answer the child?” he exclaims. “I do not know what it is any more than he.”

But then Whitman goes into a reverie about grass.

He makes some guesses about what grass is.

He brings forth some reflections about grass, reflections that lead him from the ephemeral and ordinary into the eternal and mystical.

I don’t have the space in this column to take you further into his thoughts.

But, now, here, in the middle of these summer days, I’d like to encourage you to pick up Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass,” and turn in this wonderful book to “Song of Myself,” section 6.

And having done so, why not leave the shelter of your house, sit on the grass or lie in the grass, and begin to read where it says, “A child said What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands …”


Issues of Faith is a rotating column by five religious leaders on the North Olympic Peninsula. The Rev. Bruce Bode is minister of the Quimper Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Port Townsend. His email is [email protected]

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