On the surface
I pretend not to teach, but to inquire; and therefore cannot but confess here again,–that external and internal sensation are the only passages I can find of knowledge to the understanding. These alone, as far as I can discover, are the windows by which light is let into this DARK ROOM. For, methinks, the understanding is not much unlike a closet wholly shut from light, with only some little openings left, to let in external visible resemblances, or ideas of things without: which, would they but stay there, and lie so orderly as to be found upon occasion, it would very much resemble the understanding of a man, in reference to all objects of sight, and the ideas of them.
- John Locke - Essay Concerning Humane Understanding (II,XI,17) (1690)
Locke’s understanding of our existence was likened to a dark closet with only pinholes and door cracks to let in light. These, he gathered, could be likened to our perceptions of things via the various senses we have at our disposal; the five physical senses, and the innumerable mental and spiritual senses that define our inner reactions and predilections. To me, this sense of the world always triggers memories of Plato’s allegory of the cave. Everything we can know and understand is just a reflection on the wall of some perfect nous that is forever out of reach.
Neoplatonists later built upon the image in their dissection of the order of the heavens and used it to define many levels of the gods that were known to them. The Demiurge, hyper-cosmic and cosmic gods, and of course, the “One” were all built into their mythos by way of this logic. Who knew that describing perfection could become so complex.
Plotinus, one of the most famous neoplatonists, had a particular visual analogy used to describe the celestial spheres and explain our relationship to the sacred that stands out quite clearly in my memory. Our world is a great crystal sphere in which each person is a single facet facing outward toward the void. Deep within that sphere is a world filled with perfect beings, and at the very center, God. Of course he doesn’t use those terms. In fact, in my inprecise memory I think it might have been St. Augustine that made the connection to God. Somewhere in that metaphor I lose track of what was Plotinus, what Augustine, what Locke, and what parts come from the other floating bits of disconnected philosophy that make up my daydreams.
In my conjoined vision, I see the light from God pouring outward through the sphere. The perfect bodies in the center let that light fill them and pass through unbiased to us, but we, the imperfect children are turned away. We watch the outer world with rapt attention and marvel at our shadows. The world for us becomes this dancing puppet theater of shadows on the wall even as we are bathed in God’s light.
It’s an incomplete vision, but a helpful one. I’ve used it time and time again to put certain theological questions into perspective. In fact, it was instrumental in helping me come to terms with and believe in the doctrine of the trinity.
In the light of my recent discernment, the metaphor has become a tool to help me in the Jesuit way of finding God in everyday life. I try to see it not in an abstract way of floating in space, but rather to picture this physical space that I embody as the my facet on the crystal. All directions for me on this world are outward from the sphere, and everything I see is a reflection upon creation. I imagine that to look inside and past myself is like trying to turn around and glimpse back into the crystal, toward heaven. I try it at times but often find myself standing in the way. Though, some places have been more successful than others.
Resurrection Bay in Seward, Alaska, was one of the most beautiful and thought provoking places I’ve ever been. I found the opportunity to kayak on the bay twice while I lived up there, and both times were filled with lengthy introspective trips across my metaphorical celestial sphere. At first I thought it was just the natural beauty and unending wilderness that surrounds everything that put me into that mood and let me step out of the way and feel God’s presence wash over my face. In retrospect, I think the act of kayaking may have had a much larger place in that equation that I originally thought.
Skimming across the surface of the water, glancing into the depths, gently dipping my fingertips; on a kayak the metaphor seems more real than the physical world. I squint into the sky and watch an eagle floating in place on invisible currents. Even without the paddle in the water I can feel the pull of my own currents. On that great surface there isn’t a need to close my eyes to picture the crystal anymore.
In the waking dream, floating on my tiny vessel, the world is alive with signs and omens. The eagle is more than a bird. Each body becomes perfect, and my sense of God is omnipresent.
I really like kayaking!