Monday, August 1, 2011

Mudballs That Glitter: More on the Body/Spirit

Near the opening of her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston refers to human beings as “mudballs that glitter.” For over thirty years I have carried this image with me as a kind of shorthand for the spirit-flesh embranglement that we call “human being.”

Hurston’s image came afresh to me last week as I was walking along the rocky northern shore of the Atlantic Ocean. I looked up out of my reverie and everything was shining. Everything. Even the rocks. I looked more closely. It wasn’t reflected light. The grains of sand, the waves, the seaweed, the skate purses, the rocks weren’t reflecting the light of the sun; they were shining from within, with their “own” light, a light answering the light shining from the sun, a resounding antiphony of light. I looked more closely. It was as if everything was made of light, formed of light—not simply the sentient beings, but every being, even the rocks, and I remembered my Ojibwe friends in Minnesota arguing (against the vocal disbelief of other students) that rocks, too, are alive.

Even the rocks on this beach I was walking through were alive. I could see, feel the light enlivening them. That light, that energy, that creative power, that palpable generativity was one, One shining in and through them all, each separate being. The shapes and colors and density of each individual shining was no more than and no less than a declaration of the infinite variety of the One that was even now bringing it into being, fashioning it, sustaining it, accompanying it faithfully on its journey of coming into being and perishing.

Walking through this riot of light, I thought of the many circles of mystics from all religious traditions—both orthodox and heterodox, both those I am at home with and those whose dualistic or other doctrines are far from my experience of the world—who have witnessed to the light in the creation. The Hebrew scriptures (Psalm 97:12) say “Light is sown for the righteous,” leading many who came after to cultivate and reap that light. Gnostics of many sorts speak of light/spirit trapped in the matter of our created world. The Zoroastrians focused on the path to a world all of light through purity and righteousness. Augustine reports that the Manichees ate cucumbers and melons to imbibe the great amounts of light trapped in these foods. Lurianic Kabbalists speak of the breaking of the vessels at creation, which scattered sparks of light throughout the created universe, and of repairing the world (tikkun olam) by gathering up these scattered sparks. The Hasids, too, speak of our task as human beings as finding the One everywhere one looks and gathering the light shining in all that exists.

Whatever the differences in their worldview—dualistic, non-dualistic, theistic, nontheistic, atheistic—these mystics have seen something, something real in our world, a vision that often bears fruit in a moral life that recognizes the connection among all things and all peoples, and that draws one away from forgetfulness and self-absorption and cruelty and toward humility, justice, and compassion. This insight, whatever its (sometimes wild) accompanying imagery or concepts, invites human beings, beings of flesh, mudballs, to live in such a way that we, too, shine. It invites us to remove the veils that cover that light in us, to stop hiding the light in us from others, to stop trying to extinguish the light shining in us because we cannot bear it, or cannot bear its often confusing and disturbing coexistence with our fleshly selves, to become more and more transparent so that it shines through us the way it shines through the rocks on the ocean shore, through all being, gracefully, naturally, joyfully, for anyone walking by with eyes to see. To become not simply mudballs that glitter, but mudballs that shine.

Even the rocks are shining
Shining with the glory of you

Passing through
from this angle and this one and
lost in ourselves
we miss their offering
speckled, pocked, pooled
scarified with light
declaring the wonder of being

If these, too, can shine,
why not this battered tent of flesh?