Archives for category: Creation

Today was my day to present in our seminar on Augustine’s Confessions; somewhat nerve-wracking, since everyone else had already taken their turn. Presentations this late in the semester are always problematic. On the one hand, you’ve had all this time to work on the material. On the other hand, you’ve had all this time filled with myriad other assignments and responsibilities. It isn’t like I would have been able to do this earlier, though, seeing as I presented on Book XI, Augustine’s musings and theorizations on time and eternity. Fitting.

I chose the topic of time because, as a procrastinator, it is not my friend. In recent years I have become more wary (and weary) of passing days, weeks, months. Studying time is a little like engaging in the art of war with a much larger and dispassionate foe. I know I won’t win, but I sure as hell won’t go down without fighting.

What I found refreshing in studying time with Augustine is that he asks me to get out of my own contemporaneity. It is impossible to understand him through the digital clock. Instead, I have to put the phone down, close the computer, and simply watch the sun pass overhead, the shadows change on the building, note the difference in air temperature as the day progresses. For him, too, music becomes a teacher of time and measuring time.

Long before treble clefs and 4/4 time signatures, Augustine reflected on measuring time by recounting hymns and songs of the church. Here he had Ambrose’s liturgical renovations in mind with imported tunes and chanted psalms. By inhabiting the song to God, Creator of all things (Deus Creator omnium), Augustine notes, we can know that one syllable is shorter than the next, we can perceive that this phrase is half the length of the one that follows. In this way, we measure time. The breath in our lungs as it pours over the larynx and resonates through the cords is running in time.

Our class discussion picked up on the challenges of defining time over and against its effects. Time is not defined through its measurements because it exists ever only in the present outside of measurement. Once a song slips through our teeth, it becomes past. We can repeat the verse, the line, the song–but to repeat is not to delete and redo.

This got us thinking about the periodization of time. Scores of music are broken into bars of time. Syllables denote length and frequency, forming patterns and periods. Waves of sound have cycles. None of this is purely linear, even when we graph along a straight line. Of course, this prompted our professor (also my advisor) to recount the experience of pregnancy and labor, when pain comes in waves.

I wish that I had thought then of infertility’s counterpart, where pain comes in monthly tides as, yet again, the blood flows. But I am in the habit of letting references to pregnancy wash past me.

The experience of time changes with waiting and non-expectancy.

I learned yesterday (Thursday) that this is National Infertility Awareness Week. I had seen penguins for World Penguin Day, and (daily, multiple) invitations to protest at the People’s Climate March, but infertility is one of those things that is simply difficult, if not impossible, to celebrate. I myself feel conflicted about speaking up. What are we inviting people into with Infertility Awareness? What would come if I were to say in class, ‘Well, actually, I will never know what it’s like to be pregnant. And I am in this class at this time because I could not get pregnant.’ Personally, I am not interested in pity. However, I recognize that the experience of barrenness, the fact that I cannot conform to normalized womanly identity, does in fact drive certain lines of theological inquiry for me. But, how do I insert such snippets into conversation so that others might understand, when I myself am still wandering in the wilderness of non-expectancy?

There was a time when I cried, How long, O Lord? That time is gone.

Near the end of Book XI, Augustine states, “without the creation no time can exist.” I know that time and creation are interlocking concepts, yet my bodily response is ‘yes, but, How?’ Apart from any signs of life within my organs, my follicles are sputtering toward death. So, what is the creation that will bring music to my soul, and help me measure the seasons with joy? For now I must lean on my old friend, Augustine, and pray with him:

You are unchangeably eternal, that is the truly eternal Creator of minds. Just as you knew heaven and earth in the beginning without that bringing any variation into your knowing, so you made heaven and earth in the beginning without that meaning a tension between past and future in your activity. Let the person who understands this make confession to you. Let the person who fails to understand it make confession to you. How exalted you are, and the humble in heart are your house. You lift up those who are cast down, and those whom you raise to that summit which is yourself do not fall. (Confessions, 11.31.41)

 

I often forget there’s a lake. People reference it, and I see it every time I pull up Google maps. But to see it requires walking, all the way over there, across campus, beyond the tall shady trees. It isn’t like where I come from.

Where I come from, instead of saying that the clouds have lifted we say “the mountains are out,” as if they had been playing coy behind a mottled grey curtain, then decided to bless us with their majesty. When the mountains are out, all one has to do is look up to see them. Certain street corners are better than others, but it doesn’t take long before even a half-caffeinated gaze wakes up to the nature just there, peeking between the buildings: snowy peaks, rolling foothills, the salty water lapping at the piers below. You’re never out of earshot of a wailing gull, nor off their radar for lunch scraps. To be confronted by nature in my city is simply to look up.

Living in the Puget Sound region forms a kind of contemplative practice of perpetually seeing nature. You learn to look for the bald eagle sitting atop the highway light that overlooks the estuary. Or watch the waves for the round bump of a harbor seal’s head. Every season yields its own icons. As a kid, I remember thinking what a hot summer it’s been when the Olympic mountains lost their snowy shawl by August. We could count on one week of glorious sunshine and buttercups in May, before a late spring chilling rain set back in until the 5th of July. Backyards and roadsides processed like clergy with their entourage—February pussy willows, March scotchbroom, April daffodils, May azaleas.

In June the salmon start the inland return to spawn, then die. First the Chinook and Sockeye in June and July, then Coho and Chum in August and September. They are the blood of the region, the pulse of the rivers. The waterways and arteries swell with hoards of silver and ruddy scaled creatures following some mysterious internal compass that directs them back to the very stream from which they hatched. This year a total of 58,585 Sockeye salmon navigated the fish ladder at Ballard Locks in Seattle. In the last decade, according to the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife, the numbers have ranged from 418,016 (2006), to 21,718 (2009).

Where the salmon run, there is life. When they are well, we are well. When they are in danger, we know it’s probably our fault. We move dams for them, provide ladders for them to jump. They feed our souls and our communities, blessing our tables and streams.

~~~

I moved from my city of Seattle to Chicago in 2015 for graduate school. While, technically, I remained within the same country, the landscapes and vegetative visual culture are utterly and completely different. There is no backdrop, but only foreground. Culture shock is defined as “a feeling of confusion, doubt, or nervousness caused by being in a place that is very different from what you are used to.” In this new land of Chicago tree names escape me, the birds and creatures scampering over the branches whistle question marks at me. Walking through the park sets me in a dizzying state of nature shock.

But the worst is when I go to the lakefront. I’ve heard folks use the term “third coast” for Chicago’s waterfront areas and beaches. That’s cute. Where are the kelp beds, the endless tangles of seaweed? Where are the jelly fish, the barnacles clinging to rocks and muscles exposed on the pier at low tide? Do sea lions bark out of boredom on a ship lane buoy in Lake Michigan? Perhaps my sea otter friends at the Shedd Aquarium can speak words of comfort.

I know, biologically and theologically, that where there is water there is life. Yet it still shocked me one day to look down at the lake shore sand and see small, perfectly tear drop shaped shells. Suddenly I felt gripped to know more—what do people call these little darlings? Are they native to the waters or hitchhikers? Whose mouths do they feed? Shells mean mussels, and mussels are mother nature’s wondrous filtration system, and filtration draws in creatures great and small to breathe deep.

Lake Michigan at Grosse Point

Lake Michigan at Grosse Point

Looking up and out across the water, the clouds jostling one another atop the lake, I see a hint of the Olympics amid their cotton peaks.

 

This essay was originally written for the Zygon Center Fall Seminar in Religion and Science at the Lutheran School of Theology Chicago.