The Ancient Modern
Return To The Elixir / Joshua Alan Sturgill
I’ve been at the edges of my life for too long, neglecting the center. So I went again to see the Sage who had discovered the Elixir of Life.
The Sage always has something to say, some healing word for me. But I have to take time and search for him. Sometimes he is difficult to find, because the path to his house gets overgrown.
But this time I found it still familiar, with a late-Summer disarray that suggested a verdant Spring, months back. A proliferation of leaves, seed-pods, a smell of compost and abundance. The Sage was well-aware-of and well-prepared-for Winter.
I rang the old iron bell by the door, waited, counted the yellow leaves falling singly from a lazy willow in the yard. No answer. I rang again.
“How great is Silence, and how small is sound,” I thought. There are no sounds in outer space. Sound requires breath, breath requires an atmosphere. Maybe Gravity is a type of sound? The continuing echo of the Word spoken into that first Silence? This is a theory I’ve been working on for awhile.
I don’t know how long I stayed by the door, counting and thinking and listening. It became very dream-like. The smell of the garden and the heat of the afternoon sun. The Sage was not at home, or choosing not to answer.
A wraith-like temptation to be annoyed passed through my mind. But when I examined my heart, I felt strangely peaceful. All things are as they should be. Besides, I had broken my long absence, and I knew it wouldn’t be long before my next visit. I’d shaken myself out of routine. Routine by itself is deadly, but routine with observation is life-giving. What we hoard eludes us, but we possess what we observe.
When I went again ten days later, I didn’t have to wait or even ring the bell. The Sage was out in his garden, stacking tomato cages and securing beds. He smiled when he saw me, and immediately I was full of joy. There is so much power in a father’s smile.
We spoke about my depression and its connection to my busyness. Sometimes I just want to stop moving, to have the arms of someone strong around me, someone I can fully trust. “But who can I trust?” I asked.
He said, “The world is increasing in sound without music. If you find a few genuine friends, hold on to them with your whole soul. Carry them with you.”
We talked about the state of the world, about population growth and politics and racism and global health scares. There is more conversation, but what is being said? More invention, but what is being made? More exploration, but less discovery.
“Is the world getting better or worse?” I asked. This question started us on a long conversation from which I only remember needle points and flashes. I tried to write down what the Sage told me, but it came out in proverbs. He said:
The proliferation of cures
is evidence of disease
The proliferation of teachers
is evidence of ignorance
The proliferation of entertainment
is evidence of despair
the proliferation of morality
is evidence of hypocrisy
the proliferation of freedom
is evidence of slavery
“But shouldn’t the proliferation of morals be a good thing?” I asked.
“Laws are meant to reveal Truth to the young and the impaired,” he said. “Laws do not establish boundaries, they only mark them. But today we make laws to protect us from the consequences of trespassing against Truth. Even religion can disguise avoidance of God.”
As we talked, I helped with the gardening. The chard and kale were emerging from their Summer dormancy. We removed withered leaves and stems and pulled weeds. A few robins followed our progress and stopped to dig for worms wherever we had been weeding. A shy, doe-eyed rabbit watched us from a patch of ivy by the corner fence.
“Things in our culture seem so prosperous,” I ventured. “In America, everything works and everyone is well. We are involved in wars, but they’re all far away. We have economic concerns, but the grocery stores are always well-stocked. The price of gas goes up and down, but it’s always reasonable.”
He considered this for a moment, and said:
An abundance of prosperity in one place
depends on foreign war
An surfeit of food in one place
signifies a distant famine
An extended lifespan in one place
signifies suffering elsewhere
Comfort of living here
depends on the sweat of those far away
“This is not simply a matter of geography or economics,” he continued. “We can steal from the future as well as from neighboring nations. It may be that, even now, we’re borrowing from the future
to live at ease in the present. They say that Americans and Europeans today live longer than any other people in history. Could it be that we are stealing these extra years from our grandchildren?”
“They attribute our long life and our prosperity to science,” I said.
The Sage looked up at the darkening sky and said, “the measure of a culture is this: who dies so that others might live? In the early centuries of Christianity, the Christians said, ‘we will die.’ In the days of the great Emperors of China, many noble soldiers gave their lives to defend civilization. We must ask ourselves if anyone, any group, is currently being done away with in order to maintain our culture.”
“I can think of several times recently when one group has killed another group in an attempt to bring about a utopia — or just to maintain the status quo,” I said. “World War II. Legalized abortion. Unwanted races, unwanted views, unwanted dependants. There are probably a lot of examples. I understand that one person may sacrifice another for worldly gain. But here’s another dilemma: I know many people who are currently destroying themselves because of depression or dissatisfaction with culture. They don’t necessarily want to harm others. What is going on?”
The Sage said:
The highest authority is God;
the nearest authority is our own body.
For the wise man or woman, the body
— with all its pains and flaws —
is an indispensable part of the Path.
But those who abandon the Freedom of the Spirit
will soon rebel against the laws of the flesh.
Thus, hatred of authority begins in rejection of Tradition
and ends in the mutilation of one’s own body.
As I thought about these words, the Sun settled down among the willows and the sky blushed velvet and a flock of starlings with their murmuring song like a stream flowing over smooth stones alighted somewhere in the meadow behind us.
And behind it all the Tranquility was palpable.
How long did I stand motionless, lost in thought? I felt rooted to a world outside of time. I felt immortal. But awareness of this feeling appeared only as the feeling itself faded.
I was alone in the garden. The Sage had gone again, perhaps into his house for his evening prayers. I could see a single candle burning inside the window.
I left slowly, thinking about the importance of each footstep as I walked along the path to the road. When I reached my car, I had a strange reluctance to get inside. Why? Then I guessed it: the sound of the engine. I didn’t want to break the silence with such a violent sound. I didn’t want to hear the ignition and the roar. An image of artificial fire came to mind.
What is a car but a carefully contained Hell speeding me back into a homeless world.