The Ancient Modern
My Impressions on Safari: The Infinite and the Absolute / Joshua Alan Sturgill
The safari experience has altered my relationship to the world in two related ways.
First: big animals are not big in their proper setting. The bull elephant blocking our road and the giraffes standing under these acacia trees—and even the gargantuan blue whale—are not large, they’re simply fitted to their environment. The elephant looks big in the zoo because it’s out of place, cramped, congested. The elephant on the Savannah looks like living earth. Monitor lizards look like cool afternoon shadows come to life. Hartebeests in migration look like the wind personified.
Second: a simple reminder—I am not other than the world. We are taught from an early age to think of ourselves as outside observers, that our thoughts and choices are mostly inconsequential. We use the word freedom to mean unconnected, and often unconcerned. But spending a few days in a very wild and unaltered location has affirmed the intuition of my union with nature.
Putting these two ideas together (size/fittedness and union/relationship), I am compelled to consider that the size of my body and the “size” of my soul and intellect also must be fitted to the environment. My soul is as great or small (or sizeless) as the universe. My body is limited only in the way the aperture of the hourglass is limited: as the perfect lens for gathering together lines of meaning that would otherwise be untraceable and ungrasped.
I think the two-dimensional religions and philosophies of our culture are not different in kind from the times-tables and simple sentences of our early education. The difference is that we know from the start that 2+2 and “see spot run” are going to lead, later on, to extraordinary ways of communicating. Which they do.
Conversely, our childhood religion, morality and politics are presented as a completely closed and simple sets of propositions. Which they aren’t.
Why should learning to read lead on to great thoughts and philosophies, but learning about God lead to boredom and irrationality? Shouldn’t the bigger “physics” lead to the bigger metaphysics? Of course, in our culture, we don’t like mystery and we don’t like transcendence. We box them up with tidy labels. The greatest things—justice, meditation, philosophy, truth—get the smallest boxes because they’re the most beyond our control.
But just as the animals on the Savannah are fitted to their environment, the human soul has as its environment the Infinite and the Absolute. We are fitted to them. We are desperately restless and unhappy in the 2-D zoo we have made for ourselves though recent technology. Every computer screen is like the bars of a cage we look into to see our captive selves.
Yet we have the ability to look outward, to the Real, in study, prayer, conversation, intimacy, longing.
Out on the Savannah, I encountered something that I thought would be bigger than myself. But what I found was a self that now must expand to fit a newly enlarged environment. I don’t know how to expand, and I am a little frightened. Are the Infinite and the Absolute frightening in themselves, or am I frightened to step out of limitation into the as-yet-unknown Home I am made to inhabit?
As I write, I see a full Moon rising. In Tang Poetry, the Moon gathers and reconnects long-parted friends. This week, She is bringing a message from Africa.