O the dignity of that small speck of human dust Taken by the jewel of heavenly excellence To raise us from the clay of earth to heaven’s heights Gertrude the Great (1256-1302)
As of today, 17th June 2020, the United Nations Worldometer estimates the world’s population as 7.8 billion and growing at the rate of about 3 people per second. In the (population) scheme of things, a human individual is very insignificant indeed. And if that isn’t sobering enough, consider the fact that our Sun is only one of billions of stars in billions of galaxies in the universe. The total number of stars is calculated to be greater than all the grains of sand on Earth. Our Milky Way galaxy alone has about 400 billion stars. In effect, we’re a speck on a speck (Earth) in a spectacularly vast universe.
Julian of Norwich, the great 14th century English mystic was given a view of Earth’s smallness and insignificance in one of her ‘Revelations of Divine Love’. She explains that she was shown “a little thing, the size of a hazel nut, lying in the palm of my hand”. As she looked at it, she wondered what it could be and she was answered that “It is all that is made”. Julian admits that she was amazed that all of creation was so inconsequential and she was anxious about having the responsibility of holding it in her hand because she thought that “it might suddenly have fallen into nothingness because it was so little”. Julian’s anxiety was soothed when she was told that creation endures, and will continue to endure, because the Divinity loves it. It is a simple statement and yet it’s possibly the only answer that makes any sense: love enables us to endure.
Gertrude the Great (1256-1302) was a nun in the great Benedictine abbey of Helfta in Saxony. There she was one of a group of medieval women who later came to be known as ‘the scholars of Helfta’ because of their extraordinary writings and mystical insights. In one of her poems (see excerpt above) Gertrude brought together two paradoxical aspects of our human existence: our insignificance in the grand scheme of things, and the dignity that is each and every person’s right, regardless of colour, creed, gender, or economic standing.
In the face and aftermath of Covid-19 and the social upheavals being played out as a result of inequality, 14th century Julian and 13th century Gertrude might just be onto something for 21st century earthlings.
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”.
On Monday night (Australian Eastern Summer Time) the moon will be the closest full moon to Earth since 1948. It is a rare occurrence – we will wait until 2034 for the full moon to be this close to us again.
Earlier this year, in May, we were blessed with the less rare but still special lunar event of a “blue moon”. Astronomically speaking a “blue moon” refers to the presence of a second full moon in a calendar month. Such a moon is usually not “blue” (though prevailing atmospheric conditions can sometimes give it that hue) but as it occurs only once in approximately 2.7 years, it’s not surprising that we use the expression, “once in a blue moon” to refer to something that hardly ever happens.
We invoke our glorious night skies quite often to express something rare or wonderful. We might be “over the moon” when we’re extremely pleased. When we’re really enraptured by something we might say we’re “in seventh heaven” and that expression has its origin in a much earlier conception of cosmology. In medieval times, the (then known) universe was geo-centric . That is, while we now know that our Earth is just one of several planets (eight, actually, since Pluto was “demoted” from planet-status), the people of the Middle Ages believed that the Earth was the centre of everything and that the visible planets and stars (including the Sun) revolved around it. These concentric zones of revolution were called “spheres” or “heavens” and, in ascending order (moving outwards from the centrally located Earth) the “celestial bodies” were arranged as follows:
Beyond these bodies was the Firmament (the area of “fixed stars”) and encircling that was the Primum Mobile (the “prime mover” of the whole operation), and outside all of that was the Empyrean of God.
At death, it was believed that people left Earth and, after negotiating the other encircling elements of Water, Air and Fire, continued ascending through each planetary sphere until they reached the “Seventh Heaven” which was about as close to God’s Heaven, and thus “heavenly bliss”, as could be imagined.
Today, cosmologically speaking, we might have to journey quite a bit further to reach such bliss but it’s always good to “wish upon a star”.