It was the bane of my middle school years – a perennial, Sysiphean task. One year, for the final stretch of summer vacation, I was sequestered at my grandmother’s house, sentenced to what constituted a forced march through the reading list.
Each June, when we received them from the next year’s teacher, the lists looked mildly interesting and the thought of leisurely making one’s way through them on rainy afternoons carried a certain appeal. Inevitably, however, the distractions of summer conspired with a procrastination likely rooted in what now are identified as dyslexia and attention deficit disorders to confound any progress to which I might have aspired. Even when an hour or two was set aside for the task, reading time too easily devolved into naptime, interrupted only by the jolt of the book falling from the couch to the floor.
In this current chapter of my life, I long for more time to read. Perhaps like you, my reading list manifests itself in the stacks of books that accumulate in my study and at my bedside. I am still jarred to consciousness from time to time by the occasional volume dropping from my hands as I doze off, but I return to the printed word eager for the next narrative twist or intellectual adventure.
This summer, two books that ended up on my reading list have stood out, both autobiographical reflections of a sort. Meredith May’s The Honey Bus is the memoir of a young girl growing up with a beekeeping grandfather. In this book, suggested to me by Susan Vodrey, a parishioner at St. Paul’s, Cleveland Heights, May weaves the story of her painfully difficult family life with the biology and sociology of honeybees and the introspective disciplines of beekeeping. She beautifully recounts how the honeybee colony’s order and communal purpose and the science and art of beekeeping provided a framework for understanding her own life and how to relate to the world within and the world around her.
The second book presented itself to me unexpectedly. In a store that carries exclusively the creations of artists who live on islands in Maine, I came across Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine by the Harvard and MIT physicist and philosopher Alan Lightman, the author of Einstein’s Dreams and other notable books. Through remarkably accessible descriptions of the nature of the universe from sub-atomic particles to deep space, Lightman explores the human yearning for “Absolutes” – absolute truth, absolute meaning, absolute good – and the sometimes challenging juxtaposition of our innate need for certainty with the uncertainty and impermanence of the physical world.
Both of these volumes scratched an incessant itch to experience more fully the divine mystery through understanding better the creation itself. Simply by calling it a creation, we express a yearning for an absolute, for a creator. Bees and stars and galaxies help us experience, if not understand, the Absolute whose existence provides stability and security in our insecure and ever-changing material world.
Until recently, we lived next-door to the Director of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. An astrophysicist, her particular field of scientific expertise is deep space, and we had numerous conversations about the natural world and the science of the universe. I once described to her that, while I understand how we can detect the edge of our universe and I can accept the notion that the universe is constantly expanding, what I don’t get is, “Into what?” Her response was intriguing.
She began by explaining how the human eye is a remarkable organ. Even so, it can only see a limited section of the full spectrum of light. (Other creatures can see different parts of the spectrum. Bees, for example, can perceive ultraviolet light. Mosquitoes and some snakes can perceive infrared light.) Likewise, my neighbor explained, the human brain is a remarkable organ, yet it, too, has limits to what it can perceive. There are concepts that exceed its capacity to understand or to “get,” as I described it. And so, we develop the language of math to build a framework in which to explore that which exceeds our ability to see and comprehend, though not our capacity to imagine.
Theology is quite similar. Our thoughts are not God’s thoughts, scripture teaches us. Our minds, souls, and spirits, while able to experience the mystery of God’s love and divine intention, are not able to comprehend it fully. We see and feel expressions of it, tangible manifestations and consequences of a goodness that is beyond explanation, so we develop a framework and language to express our experience. Theology: words (logos) about God (Theos).
While the sciences are principally used to deepen our practical understanding of the physical nature of things, in a sense to further certainty, they also beckon us deeper into mystery, deeper into that which perhaps will always be beyond certitude, moving us from fact to faith. Perhaps that progression is simply the result of our need for absolutes, for some fundamental and eternal grounding amidst what modern physics reveals as the continually emerging impermanence of the physical world. Or perhaps that progression stems from the desire that God puts in each of us to be united with all in the cosmos, that divine creation out of which all matter and, I would argue, all love originates.
Bees and stars and galaxies are made up of the same exact particles as we are, as is everything in creation. Lightman writes, “It is astonishing but true that if I could attach a small tag to each of the atoms of my body and travel with them backward in time, I would find those atoms originated in particular stars in the sky. Those exact atoms.”
For some reason, I find great comfort in that notion. It helps me surrender to that for which Jesus yearned when he prayed that we all might be one, “just as [he] and the Father are one.” Physically, we are one; the question is whether or not we will choose to live as one.
In hopes that your summer reading has been fruitful,
The Rt. Rev. Mark Hollingsworth, Jr.
Bishop of Ohio