The wisteria vine that surrounds my home’s back deck is smooth and bare right now. Looking at it, I find it hard to imagine the shock of white blooms that will burst forth from it in Spring, and then the lush green foliage that will completely cover the bareness in Summer. The renowned early 20th century writer and researcher into mysticism and mystics, Evelyn Underhill, defines mysticism – in its simplest terms – as “seeing things differently” and I often remember that little definition when I look at my wisteria vine. Beneath its nakedness the vine is full of life, full of potential, that will flower when the conditions are right. Great thinkers throughout history have dared to see things differently. Sometimes, they have had to wait a long time to be vindicated. Galileo is a good example. He dared to see the medieval cosmos in a very different way, going so far as asserting that, contrary to the firmly held view of the time, the Earth revolved around the Sun and not vice versa. Persecuted by the Inquisition for his views, he was finally exonerated in 1992 when Pope John Paul II officially declared that Galileo had been correct all along.
The medieval view of cosmology basically rested on the theories of Ptolemy and Aristotle. In this view the Earth was at the centre and was surrounded by the seven progressively larger concentric spheres of the Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. (And, by the way, this is where we get our expression, “in 7th heaven”). Beyond the planetary spheres were, firstly, the stellatum – the area of fixed stars – and then the primum mobile which was the boundary of the physical universe. In the medieval, Christianised version of cosmology, beyond this outermost sphere (and thus, literally outside the universe) was the Empyrean or Heaven, the place of God.
Of course, we are very unlikely to have the visionary and intellectual insights of Galileo but we can at least try to be more open in our approach to life. We can strive to “see things differently” by, in particular, accepting others’ points of view; we can try to step outside our comfort zones and reach out to people whom we might ordinarily avoid; we can embrace some new ideas and new technologies and see them as opportunities rather than threats. We can choose to grow rather than to stagnate and, then, to let our potential flower when the time is right. And, with any luck, we won’t have to wait as long as Galileo to harvest the fruits of our “new view”.