It happened again today. That sudden "bottom falling out from under me" feeling, sort of the mental equivalent of being startled by an elevator going into free fall.
I like the feeling. It's the most genuine sensation of spirituality, not really an apt word, but best I can come up with, that comes over me in my churchless way of looking at the world.
What it is -- and I'm also struggling to find the right words here -- is awe that existence exists.
(Other attempts I've made to describe that marvelous mystery can be found scattered through this search, by the grace of Google.)
I was walking along with one of our dogs on a pleasant rainless mild Oregon day, enjoying the early spring sprouting greenness on a trail that leads through woods to a nearby lake.
I'd been thinking about how nature has no straight lines, no obvious rigid order, no firm demarcations between this and that. Only the human-built structures along my way possessed those features.
Then my vision of nature became much more cosmic. In an instant I was swept past all the various manifestations of nature into a void of mystery which was as much an ultimate fullness as an absolute emptiness.
Down the rabbit hole. Cut the elevator cable. Dive out of the balloon with no parachute. Exhilarating.
Time stood still. Or rather, time no longer existed. I was face to face with what is for me the only unarguably true spiritual sensation:
Existence exists. Always has. Always will. Is now.
I've also been fascinated with the seemingly related question, "Why is there something rather than nothing?" But this strikes me as a conceptual notion, one that fires up a less primal feeling of awe.
When I'm in my existence exists state of wonder, I feel a kinship with every member of Homo sapiens who has ever marveled at the simple truth that things exist to marvel at.
This morning Netflix informed me that "The Tree of Life" has reached the top of our queue and the DVD will be in our hands shortly. That spurred me to read what Roger Ebert had to say about the movie. His blog post was called A Prayer Beneath the Tree of Life.
His words, though not consciously remembered during my dog walk, probably helped spur the sensation of cosmic mystery I felt later in the day.
Terrence Malick's new film is a form of prayer. It created within me a spiritual awareness, and made me more alert to the awe of existence. I believe it stands free from conventional theologies, although at its end it has images that will evoke them for some people. It functions to pull us back from the distractions of the moment, and focus us on mystery and gratitude.
Not long after its beginning we apparently see the singularity of the Big Bang, when the universe came into existence. It hurtles through space and time, until it comes gently to a halt in a small Texas town in the 1950s. Here we will gradually learn who some of the people were as the film first opened.
In Texas we meet the O'Brien family. Bad news comes in the form of a telegram, as it always did in those days. Mrs. O'Brien (Jessica Chastain) reads it in her home, and gives vent to grief. Mr. O'Brien (Brad Pitt) gets the news at work. We gather a child has died. It is after that when we see the universe coming into being, and Hubble photographs of the far reaches.
This had an uncanny effect on me, because Malick sees the time spans of the universe and a human life a lot like I always have. As a child I lay awake obsessed with the idea of infinity and the idea of God, who we were told had no beginning and no end. How could that be? And if you traveled and traveled and traveled through the stars, would you ever get to the last one? Wouldn't there always be one more?
In my mind there has always been this conceptual time travel, in which the universe has been in existence for untold aeons, and then a speck appeared that was Earth, and on that speck evolved life, and among those specks of life were you and me. In the span of the universe, we inhabit an unimaginably small space and time, and yet we think we are so important. It is restful sometimes to pull back and change the scale, to be grateful that we have minds that can begin to understand who we are, and where are in the vastness.
Many films diminish us. They cheapen us, masturbate our senses, hammer us with shabby thrills, diminish the value of life. Some few films evoke the wonderment of life's experience, and those I consider a form of prayer. Not prayer "to" anyone or anything, but prayer "about" everyone and everything. I believe prayer that makes requests is pointless. What will be, will be. But I value the kind of prayer when you stand at the edge of the sea, or beneath a tree, or smell a flower, or love someone, or do a good thing. Those prayers validate existence and snatch it away from meaningless routine.
Yes. This is the only sort of religion we really need. A sense of awe at what surrounds us, and is us. Eyes wide open before the mystery of existence.
Explaining that mystery away through made-up human fantasies is the business of religion. Standing before that mystery with the "prayerful" attitude Ebert talks about -- that's genuine spirituality.
This is what one of the commenters on Ebert's post said. Wise words.
"We are born in mystery, live in mystery and die in mystery" is a quote I came across years ago and it has stuck with me.