Saturday, December 26, 2009
The Great Abyss
Shortly will another year
Pass away and disappear
Set thine house in order, man
Life is but a fleeting span
The end of another year is usually the time to look back at the momentous events of the past 12 months. It is also the time to take stock of one's mortality, especially if that one is at the post-child rearing, looking-forward-to-retirement in another decade or two age. And with thoughts of mortality comes the question of what's next after mortality.
To fully explore my current state of mind on this subject, it is helpful to go back to the beginning of my religious indoctrination. We are all subject to this, every child in every society. It is a tradition and, like our political views, our religious beliefs are inculcated by our parents and then either accepted without question and clung to forever, or rejected. Or something in between.
As a child I was raised "Roman Catholic". This was my parents' religion, and it was of course, their parents' religion. But my mother had a falling out with some priest over some issue before I was born, so we didn't attend church regularly. My mother's mantra was "I believe in God, but I don't believe in the Church". Although I was baptized and went to catechism, my religious experience was pretty much limited to praying every night to a small statue of the Virgin Mary on a bureau in my room. I prayed the Lord's prayer and often added an addendum prayer to please watch over me and my family. Sometimes I would make a special request, such as asking to let me do well in a little league baseball game the next day. Eventually, I developed a social conscience, and my faith in religion as a force of good was severely eroded by the wars and suffering it caused. Then there were the unsettling questions like how there could be so many religions if there was only one God. The realization came to me that religion was a ritualized superstition, gradually discarded as I got older and more widely-read. Prayer was left unsaid except for an emergency, basically when someone's life was in danger and science and technology in their current state were being stretched to the limit. My faith had gradually been transferred to laws of physics as I learned of them and better understood them. The supernatural was still lurking there behind the curtains of the natural world.
So it remained until my final religious epiphany came. Fittingly, it happened on a mountaintop. A mountaintop dedicated to scientific exploration; Cero Tololo in northern Chile, an observatory overlooking the Pacific Ocean. With little humidity, far from any cities, and at several thousand feet elevation, the sky is dark. So dark that the Milky Way galaxay, our island of life and light in the vast and eternal darkness of space, casts a shadow on the ground when the center of the galaxy shines directly overhead. From this perspective, you can see our galaxy as any other more distant edge on galaxy. There are one hundred billion galaxies like ours, with one hundred billion stars each. The image presented is profound and awe inspiring to the very core of your being. What are the odds we are the only ones alive and that someone, somewhere else isn't looking back from this void? I was inspired to write a poem from this experience.
From solid ground I stare
Upwards through the Great Abyss
Asking the meaning of creation
Seeking acknowledgement of struggle
But this infinite power
Whose sparse molecules shined above
Gave nothing more of an answer than
Overpowering, Silent Ambivalence
I demanded redemption from the void
To have my nearly impossible random chance
of Existence given a momentary glance but
The gaze never shifted
It looked away and past
On parallel paths
Unable to receive me
And yet I felt not rejection
But the most profound acceptance
As part of Creation
And a part of the infinite
Love in a vacuum
Redemption in space
Our molecules, in fact all elements heavier than hydrogen or helium, were forged by the pressure and heat at the center of a long dead star. That, and many other wondrous processes described by the laws of physics, is how and why we exist. We need no other purpose than that we appoint to ourselves, for better or worse. The concept of religion became something new, and something very distant on the night I got my answer on that mountain.