Since my computer is on the fritz (I have a sweet date with a Mac genius in an hour or so), today’s post will be brief. And in the meantime let me invite new readers to sign up for my RSS feed, or else to add me on Facebook or Twitter, if you enjoy what you find on the blog. And of course bookmarks are nice.
Since typing anything is an excruciating process on this netbook (at least for untrained fingers such as mine), I am merely going to pull together some thoughts I presented at Patheos.com quite some time ago, here and here. This will be more devotional than the typical fare here at Philosophical Fragments, but it does contain a few philosophical distinctions that I find interesting and useful.
All my life I have been fascinated with the monastic life, and this fascination has compelled me, from time to time, to spend my days and nights in monasteries where my soul can expand and contemplate God. I studied the history of monasticism with a fantastic scholar at Oxford, and a monastic herself, Sister Benedicta Ward – and two of my later mentors, Diogenes Allen and Sarah Coakley, were masterfully skilled at drawing out the beauty and wisdom of the monastic traditions.
The monastic life was designed to be filled with “habitual reminders,” ordinary sights and scents and sounds that served to point the monk’s thoughts toward God. These reminders might be composed of meager and mundane material – the wood and canvas of paintings and icons, the sonorous sound of the bells in the cupola, the splintering wood of a cross atop the chapel – yet they served a sacred purpose. The secret of prayer is the art of attention. In order to pray well, we must harness our attention and direct it toward God and let it rest upon him and within him. The intention was that, if the attention can be continually recaptured and set again upon God, eventually the moments of distraction in-between become lesser and lesser, and ultimately the monk is able, no matter what he does, to contemplate God or rest in constant mindfulness of him.
This is all well and good for the monk or nun. What is the use for us? We are not surrounded by icons and candles, incense and crosses. We are more likely to spend our time in office parks and strip malls, trapped in the cubicle labyrinth with our noses in computers and cell phones and fax machines.
Growing up in California, I cannot count the number of times that I was transported to prayer by the staggering majesty of the Yosemite Valley, or the swaying cathedrals of the redwood forests or the towering cliffs of the northern coast. I spent two nights atop Half Dome, years apart, and on both nights there were meteor showers; watching the brilliant lights slice across a glowing canvas that was pierced in a thousand places by the flickering radiance of billowing balls of flame billions of light-years away, it was almost impossible not to marvel at how powerful God must be to create such powers, how beautiful to create such beauty.
Yet I can tell you how many times I was transported to worship by the sight of computers and bridges and skyscrapers – because the number is zero. Or, at least, it was zero until I received a change of perspective.
An interesting teaching descends to us through the traditions of the church. Some of Christianity’s great teachers in the early and medieval eras, when they preached to common craftsmen and laborers, emphasized the sacredness of their “techne” or craft. An aqueduct may pale in comparison to the beauty and subtlety of an oak tree, but even the tree cannot compare to the wonder of a creature than can craft a bridge. A mountain is extraordinary, but more extraordinary is that there are creatures with the sense-faculties capable of perceiving the regularities in nature, with the minds to penetrate those regularities to the mathematical laws underneath them, with the imagination to make use of those laws through the invention of technologies, and with the freedom and power to create what their imaginations have imagined.
Perhaps we do not look upon the microchip and magnify the Lord because it seems as though the microchip is our creation, is cause for celebrating the ingenuity of humankind. Yet even our own “creations” bear witness to the greatness of God in at least two ways – for it is God who gave us the powers to understand and reorganize the world, and God who fashioned a creation capable of being understood and reorganized. Francis Collins deserves our applause for penetrating the mysteries of the human genome; but that is just a drop in the ocean compared to the astonishing feat of creating a being capable of penetrating those mysteries, and creating mysteries that can be so penetrated.
In other words, it is one of the most astounding feats of divine omnipotence that the Creator should create creative beings, should give them the freedom and intelligence and power to craft objects (techne – technology) that make life in the world better and more beautiful. Certainly we can use those powers for evil, but that is a subject for another time. For now, the next time you see a computer – in fact it’s highly likely you’re looking at one now – try thanking God. And try it again the next time, and the time after that. When you cross a bridge, ponder the intelligence of the being who created the intelligences that fashioned the bridge.
Perhaps in this way we can find habitual reminders in our technological world. All of Creation, even those parts we have reorganized, bear quiet but eloquent and compelling witness to the greatness of God.