I remember a story I heard once, about an angel who was ordered by God to descend to the earth and become human. It was his time. The poor angel was frightened. He had no desire to go to such a dangerous place- a place of blindness and passion and grief, of confinement and limitation. But one day the angel heard the most beautiful sound coming from the world below, the sound of a flute playing the sweetest music. He was enchanted and drawn in. He couldn’t help but follow it, forgetting his inhibition. He was drawn into the world of form , into a body of clay, through the lure of beauty.
I have thought of this story many times in my life. There is something in it that speaks to a deep question, a question that I have never fully articulated, but that circles continually through my innermost mind. It has to do with the recognition of a seeming contradiction: that we humans are drawn to beauty and are endowed with a richly feeling soul, and yet we find ourselves in a dangerously fickle environment which seems to mock us in our quest for meaning, love and beauty. We belong to the realm of the angels, but are bound to the senseless heaving, the constant rising and falling of the world of clay. I want to know what this world is made of…is it made of love, or indifference? Meaning or chaos?
These two things I know:
1) This world is a dangerous and unpredictable place, where seemingly chaotic things happen to people every day, things that derail one’s sense of meaning and undermine any sense we might have of order and underlying goodness. Bad, bad things happen on this earth that seem to defy any story we might tell ourselves to answer the Why question. Explanations like the law of karma, God’s will, the idea that one’s soul needed the experience in order to grow, etc., all fall miserably short of reckoning with the obliterating and soul scorching experiences of violence, cruelty and suffering that human beings endure here. When inquiring about the nature of life with the rational mind, this is the reality that one comes to inevitably. It might not represent the whole picture, but it certainly is an undeniable aspect of reality.
2) Love and beauty and goodness are just as real as the chaos and suffering. Think of the experience of love in all its varieties—the thrill of romantic love, the warmth of friendship, the tenderness of caring for one’s children, the beauty of sexual union, all the daily acts of care and devotion that are enacted by billions of people every day. When seen this way, the reality of love seems to outweigh the much scarcer reality of cruelty and violence. Likewise beauty and inspiration is abundant in this world…think of all the music composed, the art, poetry, dance, the genius of invention, the constant flow of ideas and ideals that humans strive toward. These truths are experienced subjectively, within the mind, imagination, and heart of a person. To experience the fullness of love and beauty is to have an awakened faculty of perception, it is a gift that not everyone possesses. When inquiring about the nature of life with the heart, the feeling capacity, this is the reality that one comes to inevitably. It might not represent the whole picture, but it certainly is an undeniable aspect of reality.
I have been walking between these two poles, these two aspects of reality all my life, trying to find some reconciliation, some way of understanding this life and what it is made of. There are those who never seek to find a resolution, they are content to let life be an unknowable mystery. Perhaps they are the wiser for it. I have certainly envied these people and have even tried to emulate them at times. But I cannot help seeking… I am restless and unnerved by these two truths. Does one trump the other? Which is more real? And most importantly, how can I trust the reality of love and beauty and goodness when this other reality is always lurking close behind and can strike, randomly and with indifference, at any time?
It is no wonder that my inner world has been a terrain of sublime inspiration and chronic anxiety, in equal measure. These responses to life cannot be diminished by psychologizing them, because they are not the result of my individual life history, they are ancient and belong to human experience. Human beings have grappled with the questions of what life is for and what rules govern it, for as long as humans have existed. In their searching they have felt both inspiration and anxiety, or put another way, faith and doubt. These questions have been walking beside me since I was a child, since I was able to perceive what was happening in the world as well as within me… the welling up of love, wonder, reverence, and beauty, the dawning of a relationship to what I would call my soul. I have grown in my conviction of the soul, only because this is where I have lived, where I have spent my actual days and nights. This is what I have used my words and actions for, and it is how I have connected with others. I have spent my life so far nurturing and seeking toward love, trying to reflect the truth of love and goodness, as well as create it. I have wanted it, despaired for its absence, given it out freely. Because I am so aware of the other reality always looming, my insistence upon all things beautiful and good becomes even greater. It sharpens my senses and my inner focus. I know what is at stake.
I have learned that ultimately it does not matter what the nature of reality is. All that I have domain over is the reality that I experience when I walk through this life: how I see, what I feel, the thoughts I give attention to, how I spend my life energy. Having a life is infinitely creative. Even without doing anything special, I am making constant choices in how I live. I can make my life take the shape of my highest ideal. The truth that I want to affirm is that a human life is precious. We truly exist. We are not just our bodies but multifaceted souls, the depths of which we can hardly fathom in this life. Above all, I want to affirm the reality of love. Love, the purpose and the source and the culmination of this life.
I will always be grateful to a woman named Etty Hillesum, who lived during the second world war. I came across her journals recently and it gave me a profound piece of insight to complete my spiritual puzzle. She was young Jewish woman living in Amsterdam who watched as her community gradually lost its rights and freedoms bit by bit, until finally they were rounded up and sent to concentration camps. She was a perceptive, sensitive and searching young woman, very much like myself. Her journals describe a gradual process of spiritual maturation, as she grapples with the horror of the truth that is descending upon her: that there will be no escape for her or her people. That they will be destroyed. Amazingly, as Etty begins to accept this truth, she grows in strength and inner clarity, and is able to help others in the camp. It is then that she makes her profound declaration: I know now that there is no God that will save us. But we must save God.
She describes how she felt such a tender care, like a mother’s love, toward all the small and unseen things around her. To her, the goodness of life was a tiny, fragile thing that needed her love and protection. Etty Hillesum created and stood for the reality of love, even in the midst of incomprehensible suffering. This is a lesson to us all, a lesson about the power we have to create reality. We can use our lives to create the world that we want. We can insist upon the life of the soul, and live it fully even in the midst of realities that shock and confound us.
The angel does not rise above the clay, rather she delves more fully into it. She inhabits her life so fully that it becomes alive. Something that was consigned to death and futility now tastes the fruits of eternal life. This is the only answer I can find, when I dig to the very bottom of the question…. not what is life made of, but what are we to do with it? What is our task here?
To know where we come from. To let our wings lift and rise, even as they get scorched by fire. To fill this body of clay with the breath of spirit, and make it dance.