Images of earth can take many forms: rocks, trees, plants, crystals, seeds soil. But in the Desert Meditation the image used was that of a bare branch. In this case, and in symbolic systems such as astrology, earth as an element symbolizes the necessities and commitments of our lives, which in one sense become our limitations, but in another become our possibilities, chosen from the range of infinite possibility (Air), to be developed and deepened by us. In this sense, we have the choice of viewing our situations in the light of limitation or of possibility, as poverty or as wealth.
However, tbe most difficult and inevitable limitation of our lives is death. In the section on Fire, where it was said that the pain of grieving must be succeeded by the pain of letting-go and continuing on with life this blithe ‘advice’ could very well be seen as cruel and unrealistic. The pain of grief cannot be assuaged or dismissed. This is quite true. No one can or should offer this ‘advice’ as ‘consolation’ to a grieving person. But nature can and does offer it. Taking one look around the world of nature, we see that death is everywhere. “Death is invisible united to all things.” Eloi Leclerc shares his reflections on Francis of Assisi’s attitude toward death:
Sister Death from whose embrace no mortal can escape.’ In this description the real meaning of the expression ‘Sister Death’ is revealed: it expresses a fraternal encounter with necessity, with the hard inexorable necessity of dying.
“The idea which I have of death and its necessity remains the idea of something completely opaque like soil itself. Something I cannot in any way lay hold of and explore. The ‘event of dying’ alwavs lies beyond the direct grasp of consciousness. Yet it is to this opaque necessity that Francis declares himself a brother. We might regard the words ‘Sister Death’ as merely the effect of poetic enthusiasm were it not for the fact that Francis speaks thus when faced with the event of dying. To greet death as a ‘Sister’ is to acknowledge a close relationship between her and the self; it is to discover in the total otherness of death something not really alien to us but a further dimension of ourselves.”
Leclerc calls this further dimension of ourselves, ‘a growing concern with all that has to do with Being in its fullness. We may not be able to comprehend the totality of ‘Being--in-its-fullness’, but along with Hartshorne in Chapter l of this project, we know that it must be unsurpassable by another, and that therefore it must include in its experience at least all that we can know or experience. And what we experience includes our physicality, our emotions and affects, our intelligence and capacities for self-transcendence, our sorrows, our hopes and joys, our spiritual aspirations and the quality of our imaginations.
The Earth as a planet is a subject of our experience, and is itself a symbol of this complexity, with its marvelous waters and clouds, rainbows and fogs, mountains and caves, deserts and forests, fires and bubbles, its animal and human creatures, and their products and artifacts as well. Leclerc writes,
“We must bear in mind that the proclamation of salvation out of which the Canticle arose used as a symbol ‘the whole mass of the earth changed into pure gold.”
Francis finds his goal, the Most High, by entering into the images of the earth. It was even his last wish before he died to be laid at full length naked on the bare ground.
“(Francis) does not despise the whole realm of the involuntary (necessity) or his own earthly eros. No, it is the whole man who encounters the transcendent God precisely by accepting his own totality and that of the world. This hymn to man’s brotherhood with all the elements is the poetic expression of his reconciliation with the totality of his own being and with Being itself in all its fullness; in this man opens himself to the mystery of the world, a mystery that is dark with the darkness of excessive light. In short, Being in its entirety is here encountered and celebrated as light.”
In the preceding section on Fire it was seen that there is a fire at the center of the earth, and that fire - which is also archetypally associated with spirit is a potential within all matter under compression.
Death and limitation are necessities of Earth, but there is more. From the opacity of the soil springs the life - the myriad forms of creation: the plants and animals, the water and fire and light, i.e., possibly even Spirit itself. LeClerc writes,
“We should reread the discourses of Jesus, especially the parables. In them, the images of the most humble everyday realities abound: the light from the lamp, the way, the tree, the house, the field and the treasure, the seed, the red sky at evening, the wind whose voice we hear without being able to tell where it comes from or where it is going; all these are there and much else. All these images reveal a man who humbly stays close to created things. He has the ability to look at them, imagine and dream them in a profound way, to the point of finding them strangely like the kingdom of heaven. ‘The kingdom of heaven is like’. . . is a favorite expression of Jesus. It is as though he were telling us that the kingdom is not somewhere beyond the clouds or in another world, but has come to us and is to be found at the very heart of everyday life.
“Christ does not defend himself against reality. He has no fear, no distrust, of nature. On the contrary, he is filled with wonder at the things of the world and gives himself completely to them. Isn’t nature, after all, the Father’s work? By approaching nature in this fashion, Christ opens himself to the ‘grace’ of imagination.”
In the Desert Meditation, when I look at the bare branch and see its disctinctive shape, and in it, the shape of my life as well - its characteristics and qualities, its situations, problems and solutions, challenges, entertainments, struggles and relaxations. I want to see its wealth and not focus on its poverty. When I look at the bare branch, I want to have the detachment, or poverty of spirit, which Christ and Francis and the branch have - this poverty is a power to accept my limitations and the necessities of my life, and yet at the same time to find and develop their possibilities as well.
This will entail the power of imagination. Leclerc writes, “In this context Paul Ricoeur rightly observes: ‘The discipline of reality is nothing without the grace of imagination. But imagination and vision are characteristics of this earth, and therefore they are mine.
“We know ourselves to be made from this earth. We know this earth is made from our bodies. For we see ourselves. And we are nature. We are nature seeing nature. We are nature with a concept of nature. Nature weeping. Nature speaking of nature to nature. The red-winged blackbird flies in us, in our inner sight.”
In our own Christian tradition, the pre-Christian and early-Christian Celts had a spirituality that combined nature and the imagination. Mary Aileen Schmiel, in “The Finest Music In The World: Exploring Celtic Spiritual Legacies” discusses the Celtic understanding of the relations between God, humanity and nature. She writes,
“The concept of divine power diffused through all nature forms the basis of the ancient religion of the Celts. The grace of creation sings through the world in endless ‘phantasiae’ (material images) which are re-created in the human soul as ‘phantasmae’ (memory-images, that is, creations of our imagination ). The Celtic mind acknowledged no dichotomy between reality and fantasy, between this world and the world ‘beyond’. The doors of perception stood perpetually ajar and all people were open to visionary states.”
Gerard Manley Hopkins is an example of a modern poet in the Celtic tradition, who, along with other “Celtic Christians were constantly talking of the natural grace behind running, flying, leaping, and in (the human) case, speech, (and whose) pantheism was rooted in a deep desire to know God with the senses, to participate in the essential oneness of all things both temporal and eternal.” In this poem he celebrates the temporal uniquenesses of earth:
“Glory be to God for dappled things -
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced - fold, fallow, and plough;
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim; He fathers forth whose beauty is past change:
The message of Earth, and of meditation on Earth images is: life is change, there is time and death, but there is also birth, and re-birth, and in-between a relative stability of unique form, a profusion of unique forms, a cataract of creativity, in which everything has its opposite; every choice implies both a limitation and a possibility.
“Once as they rested on a chase, a debate arose among the Fionna-Firin as to what was the finest music in the world. ‘Tell us that’, said Fionn, turning to Oisin. ‘The cuckoo calling from the tree that is highest in the hedge, cried his merry son. ‘A good sound,’ said Fionn. ‘And you, Oscar,’ he asked, ‘What is to your mind the finest of music?’ ‘The top of music is the ring of a spear on a shield,’ cried the stout lad. ‘It is a good sound,’ said Fionn. And the companions told their delight; the belling of a stag across the water, the baying of a tuneful pack heard in the distance, the song of a lark, the laughter of a gleeful girl, or the whisper of a moved one. ‘They are good sounds all,’ said Fionn. ‘Tell us, chief,’ one ventured, ‘What do you think?’ ‘The music of what happens,’ said great Fionn, ‘that is the finest music in the world.”