Monday, 8 October 2012

Spirals in Space

The Helix Nebula, from NASA's Astronomy Picture of the Day (a wondeful site, by the way). This photo, by Martin Pugh, appeared last week and I was drawn to the swirling spiral shape. Try looking at it full screen, and "walking" the shape as you would a finger labyrinth...

A photograph on a computer screen can only convey the tiniest whisper of the majesty of this nebula. Whether you walk inwards or outwards, you travel into a realm of extremes: the temperature of the dying star at its centre, or the incomprehensible distances of space around it. The nebula is seven hundred light years from Earth. I can write that quickly and easily, as I might the other facts and figures of the physics and geometry of this remarkable object. I can even have a notion of what those facts and figures mean - in one sense, I can know about it. But in another sense all I can really know is what has meaning in my own tiny frame of reference. Something is hot when it burns my fingers; it's far away when my legs are too tired to walk there.  If it's really true, as the ancient philosopher Protagoras and others after him claimed, that 'man is the measure of all things' how can we hope to measure anything beyond our own puny reach!

In my 'random musings' blog, The Love That Moves The Sun, I recently posted this poem by John Masefield. It's one I've learned by heart and often say to myself when lying awake at night.

The Unending Sky

I could not sleep for thinking of the sky,
The unending sky, with all its million suns
Which turn their planets everlastingly
In nothing, where the fire-haired comet runs.
If I could sail that nothing, I should cross
Silence and emptiness with dark stars passing,

Then, in the darkness, see a point of gloss
Burn to a glow, and glare, and keep amassing,
And rage into a sun with wandering planets
And drop behind, and then, as I proceed,

See his last light upon his last moon’s granites
Die to a dark that would be night indeed.


Night where my soul might sail a million years
In nothing, not even death, not even tears.

 
The language of the poem reminds me of the nada - nothing - and the Dark Night of St John of the Cross, when sense, thought and even feeling are swallowed up and swept away in the darkness of God. It reminds me too of the epectasis - the endless reaching out - of the Greek writers of the early Christian centuries. We can never grasp God, never know God. But we can reach, and be reached for, in love, and God will always have more - and more - and more to give and reveal. As the author of the Cloud of Unknowing puts it:
'For why? He may well be loved, but not thought. By love He may be gotten and holden; but by thinking never.' (Chapter 6)
We need our wits, that's to say our faculties of reasoning, about us when we walk a puzzle-maze with its tricks and dead-ends. Walking a single-pathed labyrinth plunges us into another sort of mystery where critical reason might well become a hindrance. Often people do speak of encountering a kind of 'silence and emptiness' in the labyrinth, even in the busy cityscape of Fen Court. The city swirls noisily around us; the spirals of the universe swirl silently above us. By love God is gotten and holden, and so are we.

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Please share your labyrinth experiences and reflections with the rest of us. Everyone's welcome - and remember that we are all on different paths on the same journey. Comment with courtesy!