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Roots and Wings

Author(s): Margaret Silf

ISBN13: 9780232526271

ISBN10: 0232526273

Publisher: Veritas Warehouse - Ballycoolin D 11

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  • There is a story growing inside you , a story as big as the universe, and as mind-blowing and as beautiful. And you are growing inside that story. Your personal story is an essential strand of the Big Story. Lifes story begins, we are told, from elements released into space in the death of a star. But what of our destiny? Does that speck of stardust also hold within it a spark of God? Is life evolving towards levels of consciousness that we cannot begin, as yet, even to imagine? This is a book full of questions. It invites you to participate in the great conversation about our origins and our destiny and what it might mean to become fully and truly human, and to discover your own response to that challenge. Here science and spirituality meet, and a bold new synthesis emerges between them.
  • Margaret Silf

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    A wise creation
    Everyone wants to know about their roots. Whole industries have grown up around this deep-seated human need to know where we come from. Usually a dig around the family tree, going back perhaps a few generations, satisfies our curiosity. But actually, the roots go down much, much deeper than that. So we begin our delving by stretching our horizons and our imaginations just about as far as it gets - back to the beginning of time itself. This is a Big Story, but dont let the billions and millions put you off. The purpose of the exploration is to discover - or rediscover - a sense of wonder at the sheer miracle of our being.

    I have a photo that I cherish of our daughter taken when she was a small baby in her pram, gazing at a fuchsia blossom, as if the entire cosmos existed solely to bring forth this flower for her delight. Thats the kind of wonder that awaits us too, if we enter into the story of life with the open eyes, hearts and minds of the very young.

    As we journey, we can hardly fail to become aware of a deep wisdom pervading all that exists. You can discover the traces of this wisdom wherever you look.

    Go to Alaska, and see how the bald eagle knows exactly when to mate so that the chicks arrive at the same time as the homecoming salmon; see how the salmon, who have spent four years in the vast Pacific Ocean, know how to find their native river, and swim back to the exact location of their birth to mate, and die; see how the grizzly bear knows exactly when and where the salmon will be found. A circle of life, a web of inter-dependence.

    Watch an ultrasound scan of an unborn child, and marvel at how each cell knows what its purpose is, as tiny limbs and organs take shape, each new cell taking up its unique role in the making of this living miracle. This is the wonder of the self-organising principle upon which life depends, and another manifestation of the wisdom that undergirds and permeates creation.

    Stand beneath a starlit sky and soar outwards on the wings of science and imagination to the dawn of time, the gathering of galaxies and the pouring out of the Milky Way. Stand at balance between the forces of gravity holding everything together and the centrifugal forces thrusting everything apart. What deep wisdom balances these opposites?

    Is it all down to chance?
    Where do we human beings figure in such a vast cosmic story?
    Are we here by accident or by design?
    Is the deep wisdom of creation interested in us?
    Who, or what, is the mystery within and around it all, and by what name shall we know it?
    Will life prevail, whatever catastrophes befall, or are we on a trajectory towards inevitable extinction?
    Are we the end of the line, or is there more... ?
    If these questions resonate with you, then the journey we are about to make might offer you an opportunity to explore them, without fear, and, if you feel able to do so, to share your thoughts and feelings with other spiritual explorers.

    The world is a grain of sand
    It was New Years Day and we had a friend staying with us. After the excesses of the Christmas period, we were in danger of dropping into a vacuum of lethargy, and the cold, grey weather wasnt helping. So we went into hibernation mode for the morning, lit a fire, snuggled into easy chairs and switched on the television to watch the New Year concert from Vienna. I had inwardly decided it would be a day for vegetating. In fact it has become one of my most memorable mornings, because I was to find myself dancing to the music of the spheres almost before I realised where I was!

    Is that an exaggeration? Judge for yourself. . .

    The transmission from Vienna began in a fairly conventional way. We watched the orchestra tuning up, and the audience taking their seats in an atmosphere of excited anticipation. The music started. The familiar Viennese waltzes resounded round the concert hall and our own living room, but what really brought the whole thing to life for me was the way the film crew and presenters interspersed coverage of the concert itself, with fascinating footage of other things going on in Vienna that morning, and of the city itself.

    So we were treated to scenes from Vienna life at large. We watched people of all ages, skating joyfully round the outdoor ice rink. We joined people meandering around the old city streets. We saw ballet performances going on in other parts of the concert hall. We were introduced to some of the citys fine architecture, and we roamed her beautiful parks with their shy wintering wildlife. And we zoomed in with the TV cameras to observe the faces of various musicians in the orchestra and individuals in the audience, each one hinting at the secrets of a specific human life, and revealing a unique response to the music. The whole programme was a huge celebration of life.

    As I watched the great cast of this performance, I found myself reflecting on how each one of them had, only a few short years before, been just a single cell. From that single cell had developed, over time, a person with the most amazing body, capable of growing, sustaining, renewing and reproducing itself, as well as skating, singing and dancing and a million other possibilities. From each cell had evolved a mind potentially capable of shaping cathedrals, composing symphonies, planting parks and designing televisions. From each cell had emerged a spirit fired with imagination and creativity, the desire and the ability to share its celebrations and its sorrows, and the amazing capacity to reflect upon its own origins and destiny. Life, indeed, had become conscious of itself and the wonder of its being, and each one of us was part of it.

    And the backto the performance was no less awesome. I thought back over the vast sweep of the story of life on this earth from four billion years ago, when the first living cells appeared, through to the astounding complexity of who we are today, and I found myself wondering about all that we still have the potential to become. I thought of how a primeval bacterium, infinitesimally small, had evolved into a being who could respond consciously to the wonder of life, and turn that wonder into notes of music, vibrations upon the string of a violin, intricate movements of an ice dance, and the love of another person, and of the world.

    And then my imagination took me even further back to the roots of my own being, and the roots of all human life. I reflected on how, according to present thinking in the world of astrophysics, the universe of which we are aware began around fifteen billion years ago as a single microcosmic seed, a pack of concentrated energy much smaller than a grain of salt, but containing the power to fling billions of galaxies into space and initiate the unfolding of everything we know, and ever shall know, of life.

    I gazed at the orchestra and audience in the Vienna Concert Hall, and across the room at my friend. Just single cells who, in a few short years have become players and movers in this dance of life, capable both of pondering and responding to this Mystery.

    You too are a player and a mover in this great cosmic dance, along with the stars and the ants, the astronauts and the violinists, the skaters and the shoppers. What is your own unique note in this symphony of life? How would you express it to yourself?

    Take a moment to reflect on how you too have grown from a single cell, and of all the potential that came delivered in that cell. How do you feel about how that potential is unfolding?

    Spend a little time amid the thrust of everyday life somewhere - maybe in a market place or a busy shopping centre, at a concert or at a fairground or in a park - anywhere where there is life! Just notice all that is going on around you, and ponder how all these activities, all these expressions of what it means to be alive, have emerged out of millions of years of evolution.

    Does this look like blind chance to you? Or does it bear the marks of a creating wisdom, drawing meaning out of chaos, life out of non-being? What do you really feel?

    That morning something wanted to burst inside me like its own big bang, and explode with the wonder of it all. It was an experience of deep-down, heartfelt awe at the vitality and vibrancy of it all. It made me want to take off my shoes and acknowledge that the ground I stand on this whole planet Earth, and the universe in which it moves and lives, is holy ground.

    Suppose that all of us, whatever our background or beliefs, could discover anew real and shared reasons to stand in awe before the holiness of life? The universe story gives us good reason to do so, and the energy that brought forth the universe we inhabit is the same energy that makes us desire to respond to it.

    In the beginning was a seed, the size of a grain of salt.
    The seed was packed with potential.

    The seed held the power to bring forth, to create,
    It held the power if life itself.

    And the seed released its power in a big bang,
    Giving birth to time and space,

    And the power flowed forth, and flows still, fifteen billion years later.
    And the power was, is and always will be about life.

    The seed contained everything that would bring forth
    Life in all its fullness.

    And the secrets of the seed revealed themselves,
    Through the silent reaches of the unfolding aeons,

    Seeding the stars and the galaxies,
    Shaping and sifting, gathering and dispersing,

    Energising space with the forces that both hold us together and urge us to grow,
    Each in the direction of our true nature,

    Bringing forth elementary particles,
    Holding all in perfect balance,

    Forming primeval relationships,
    Between particles and anti-particles, protons and neutrons

    Surfing the knife-edge of possibility,
    Creating everything out of nothing.

    What inspires you to stand in awe?

    What takes your breath away and makes your heart feel like bursting?
    Try writing, or painting, or singing or dancing your own hearts deep response to life, or simply share your feelings with a trusted friend.

    Made of stardust?
    I first came across this phrase during a visit to the observatory in the grounds of our local university. The phrase hit me in the eye, in the form of a large poster above the desk of one of the astrophysicists who worked there. It proclaimed: We are made of stardust.

    Is it a fact, or just a rather beautiful analogy?

    Lets take up the cosmic story. Some five billion years after the originating seedburst, a star died. It was a second-generation star, rich in the elements that we know and can name today: carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, molybdenum, calcium, magnesium, tungsten, copper, vanadium, phosphorus, sulphur, osmium, gallium, rhodium, silver, titanium, palladium, germanium, cadmium and many more. But this star was destined for a spectacular end, the explosive brilliance of a supernova - extreme violence and extreme beauty, releasing its abundance of elements into the ever-expanding realms of intergalactic space.

    The death of this star and others like it was the beginning of something abundantly new. The elements released in this moment of cosmic convulsion are the elements that now shape our physical bodies.

    So, not just a vivid image, but a fact: the elements that make up your body were generated in a star and were released into Life ten billion years ago by that stars supernova death.

    But, a beautiful analogy too, because it tells us something deeply true: death and destruction can be the gateway to unimaginable new life. Jesus of Nazareth tells us the same truth in different words:

    Unless a seed falls into the ground and dies, it will not bear fruit

    and then goes on to reveal the deepest human meanings of this fact in his own living and dying, as we will discover later in our journey.

    For now, lets just stay with the awesome fact that we are literally made of stardust, that the elements that make up our own bodies were present in time and space ten billion years ago, and that each cell of life carries, in some mysterious way, an imprinted memory of its ten billion year story.

    We might draw a comparison with a different kind of seed burst that was the precursor to our own conception. When a man and woman come together in sexual union, there is also a huge outpouring of potential, as millions of sperm are released to journey in search of a waiting ovum. Each one is like another grain of salt, carrying the potential to contribute to the coming-to-be of a whole new human life, with a unique configuration of gifts and characteristics, and able to become aware of, and respond to, the great sweep of life into which he or she will be born. Each sperm carries half of the potential personal universe of a person who is being dreamed into being, just as a supernova explosion carries the potential of a million worlds.

    At your conception, most of those sperm died, but one found its destination and triggered the beginning of you. In each one of us, at our conception, lies a potential universe of possibility.

    Your life is rooted in cosmic events that happened billions of years ago. You are made of the elements that were present in the supernova death of a star. Through you flows the stream of creative, restless energy that pulses through space and time.

    Take a moment simply to be present to these realities and notice, and perhaps share, your feelings.

    Dont be afraid to contemplate these vast timescales. If God is the source of the Wisdom that brings all this into being and sustains and grows it all, why would a vast God be any the less credible than the smaller versions we have tried to domesticate in our religious formulations?

    If you could express your feelings to the creating power shaping and energising all the stars in the universe, what might you want to say? Many people, of different faith traditions or of none, would call this creating power God. What name do you give to the life-generating and life-sustaining power and wisdom from whom you spring? What does it mean to you?

    Dark matter
    I live near a small market town in the midlands of England. If you were to walk around it by day you would think it was quintessentially English, with its market stalls and flower beds, its small shops and neat gardens, its clock tower and guild hall. I never thought of it as anything other than this, until I had reason to collect a teenage daughter occasionally on a Friday or Saturday night, after she had spent an evening with her friends in this inoffensive town. Then it was a very different story.

    The obscure little alleyways between the shops, that you would hardly notice by day, were actually entrances to clubs and bars that came alive at night, seething with youngsters beneath the glare of neon lights you never knew were there. The shops and gardens faded into the shadows, and the town took on a completely different, and almost sinister character. The Jekyll and Hyde effect of it all shocked me considerably the first time I encountered it, not least because the experience brought me face to face with the fact that here was a youth culture that felt completely alien to me. The place where I enjoyed meandering in daylight had become a place where I felt considerably threatened after dark, a place where I would not have ventured alone. I was a stranger on my own home turf.

    Darkness makes a difference. And maybe you have reservations about the awesomeness and the wonder of the cosmic story. Maybe what you feel isnt awe and wonder at all, but panic and existential alone-ness when you stand beneath the stars and ponder what its all about? Maybe your life experience has cast more shadows than sunlight, and life itself feels more like a threat than a promise? Maybe the sweetness and light take on God and Life leaves you cold and has even alienated you from traditional religious practice?

    It was once thought that if we could get our heads around everything in the visible universe, we would come close to understanding how it all hangs together. Particle physics put an end to that, revealing that at the underlying, sub-atomic level, the only thing that is certain is uncertainty, and nothing we can observe is reliable, because the very fact of observing it can make it change.

    And as if that wasnt enough, astronomers began to observe that the visible universe wasnt working according to their predictions. In fact the only way to explain the movements of the stars and galaxies we can see is to assume the presence of a great deal of material that we cant see. This is the dark matter, and it may constitute 90 per cent of the universe. if the estimates of its gravitational pull are correct.

    This is extraordinary news. It means that an enormous proportion of what we thought we understood reasonably well turns out to be completely mysterious - as yet scientists have no real idea about what dark matter really is. Martin Rees (in Our Cosmic Habitat) points out one of the psychological effects of this: Particle chauvinism has to go; were not made of the dominant stuff in the universe. We, the stars, and the visible galaxies are just traces of sediment - almost a seeming afterthought - in the cosmos; something quite different (and still unknown) controls its large-scale structure and eventual fate.

    But there is another kind of dark matter that affects each of us more immediately. Which of us has never said, when reflecting on a reaction or response we have made: I really dont know where that came from? So much of what we do and say, at the surface level of our existence, or think with our conscious minds, is actually just the tip of a huge, invisible iceberg. We are shaped and affected by everything that has ever happened to us, and the influence of all those we have ever been in relationship with. Deep unconscious layers of ourselves and of each other guide and steer us in ways we cannot begin to understand.

    Thinking about this can be at least as scary as contemplating the vast tracts of the unseen universe and all its mysterious potential. We tend to see the sinister side, just as I saw the sinister side of my Friday-night-afterdark home town. It appeared sinister to me because it was unknown, and what is unknown is usually felt by humankind to be threatening. In fact that nocturnal life was seething with young people, full of energy and potential, even though that energy appeared to me to be chaotic.

    Perhaps the dark matter of the universe is a bit like this: fear-inspiring, because we dont know what it is or what it might be doing, but also full of energy and potential that we dont understand? Can we trust it? Do we have a choice?

    In the same way, the dark matter that shapes us (and all those we know and live with) so profoundly in our unconscious depths has energy and potential. How can we trust it? How can we live with it when we dont know what it might be going to do next?

    Trust, whether of God, of the cosmos, of other people or of oneself, cant be manufactured. It can only be experienced. You might like to try this little exercise:

    Wherever you are, when you have a few minutes to be quietly reflective, just sit or stand still and become aware of the force of gravity holding you to the earth. Nothing can undermine this (unless you rocket yourself deliberately out of orbit). Every moment of your life you take this fact completely for granted. You never worry in the morning when you get up that today you might fly off into deep space. You dont put weights inside your shoes, just in case. Just let that awareness of the pull of gravity deepen in you for a while.

    Now let this awareness turn into meditation. Very often the patterns of nature point to the patterns of the soul. This suggests a big question. .

    Can you also trust that at the core of your being, the essence of your spiritual self, your true identity, you are likewise held by a force even more powerful than that of gravity - more powerful, because it is the wisdom of the universe of which gravity is only one manifestation?

    Can you relate to this deep wisdom and trust that it is holding you not only in place, but in a unique place that only you can fill, a place of personal destiny?

    In the cosmos, the dark matter exerts a gravitational pull that scientists can measure. It is a large part of what makes the cosmos hold together. Can you trust that the dark matter that shapes your unconscious self is also an essential, though mysterious, part of who you are and who you are becoming?

    You cant force this kind of deep trust in the mystery of things, but you can allow yourself to be open to its possibilities, and perhaps share your feelings with a trusted friend.

    A dream takes shape
    Over the years I seem to have gathered a number of treasures - often objects that people have given me, that have taken on particular meanings for me. Let me introduce you to two of them.

    The first is a musical instrument from East Africa. It is ageless - simply a dried jacaranda seedpod, half a metre long, with its seeds still inside it. When shaken, it produces a rhythm that can carry you away to the scenes of ancient tribal dances. Such instruments have been used for millennia, and have never lost their power to entrance.

    The second is an Ethiopian cross. It was given to me by a group of pilgrims with whom I shared a retreat weekend. They told me the story of a little girl from Ethiopia, who had been adopted by a couple in their community many years ago, when she was an orphaned toddler in Addis Ababa. The child had grown and flourished among them, and her presence had made them acutely aware of the great need in her homeland. And so a special relationship has sprung up between their two communities.

    Why these two treasures in particular? Well, they have their roots in two special places: Tanzania and Ethiopia. These two lands lie, like two sentinels, a Gog and a Magog, to the south and the north of the Equator respectively, in East Africa. They are (to me at least) lands shrouded in mystery - ancient lands, whose stories stretch way beyond the reach of the hand of history and whose soil was to become the cradle of human life. Their equatorial location resonates with their central role in our story - the Big Story.

    Lets listen in to an early instalment of that story now. Listen with the ears of imagination, knowing that what you are hearing is also the voice of history - the kind of history you read not in books but in fossils.

    The place is Laetoli in Tanzania; the time, three and half million years ago. There has recently been a volcanic eruption, and the land is covered in volcanic ash. Flash floods have turned this ash into a sea of mud. Two, or three, (opinions vary) hominid creatures, possibly two adults and a child, make their way through this mud field, and leave their footprints behind, as they seek to escape from the devastation.

    These footprints were - by happy (for us!) chance - buried under further volcanic ashfall, and thus became fossilised, to be discovered in 1978 by a team led by Mary Leakey, when they would amaze the palaeontologists with their revelation. Known as the Laetoli Footprints, they tell us that early hominids were bipedal as long as three and a half million years ago. The journey towards becoming human was definitely underway.

    Why would this early history of hominid development have anything to do with our spiritual journey? Well, walking upright had certain effects, one at least of which has honourable mention in the book of Genesis. The creature that walks upright needs to modify its skeleton. Walking on four legs functions well enough when the internal organs are safely housed within the ribcage. Not so, when we raise ourselves to bipedalism. At this stage in the journey towards becoming human, the pelvis becomes narrower and more like a bowl so that it can support the internal organs to make bipedal walking possible. A side effect of this is that bipedal creatures experience much more pain in giving birth than their four-legged forebears.

    An intuition that this reflects something of the earliest chapters of our becoming human comes across in the archetypal story recounted in the book of Genesis:

    To the woman God said:
    I will multiply your pains in childbearing,
    you shall give birth to your children in pain. (Genesis 3:16)

    Traditionally, we understand this matter of pain in childbearing as some kind of punishment for wrongdoing in Eden - but what if it were actually a sign of our progression, from an earlier to a more advanced stage of physical evolution?

    Punishment or progress? Maybe we can hold on to that question, because it will come up again ...

    Walking upright brought other possibilities in its wake. It enabled us to keep a better lookout for possible danger in the savannah, and to spot the lions before they spotted us. It freed us to use our front legs for other things, like carrying tools, and children, and using our new-found hands to shape the world around us. And it was the preamble (if youll excuse the pun!) to our next great leap forward - the Bigger Brain, as we shall soon discover.

    So, those footprints in the volcanic ash may have been just a small step for three creatures fleeing from a volcano, but they were a huge leap towards humankind. And the Genesis writers seem to have had a hunch about this, as they try to describe the wonder of our becoming in the creation story.

    Even so, the ape who walks upright is still a long way from human - still very much simply a physical entity, part of the food chain, living from hand to mouth under the ruthless law of eat or be eaten.Yet those footprints point the way ahead, to a being with its roots in these early stages of evolution, but its wings spread to fly far beyond these horizons. Those footprints point forwards towards you and me.

    Before we take flight, however, we might just pause to reflect on our feelings as we ponder these ancient beginnings of our human story.

    How do you feel about your own physical being - your bodily presence in this world?

    Humankind evolved from creatures who were purely physical, long before we can speak of something like mind. Many of us now tend to regard our bodies as an unfortunate extra that we have to carry around with us, while our minds get on with important matters and our spirits soar to higher things. This raises questions about our whole relationship with our physical self:

    Do you think of your body as a friend or an enemy of your soul, an ally or a hindrance on your spiritual journey? A gift to be cherished, or a problem to be fought and overcome?

    Depending on your answer, how would you now choose to treat your body? Is there anything specific that you would want to change in your present lifestyle? Do you ever feel like saying thank you to your body for all it does for and with you? What kind of thank you might it appreciate? (For example, regular walks, healthier food, a bit more rest, a change of air, liberation from some addictive substance, a chance to unwind at least once a week?)

    But the child who learns to walk soon reaches the terrible twos, when he is convinced that the world should revolve around him and she is determined to have her way in all matters. The becoming-human being also has to learn that nothing has meaning, except in relationship with everything else. We are created to be we. We are part of the great web of being.


Roots and Wings