Imagine what life would be like if lived, in May Sarton’s lovely phrase, with “joy instead of will.” That is what Beethoven imagined, and invited humanity to imagine, two centuries ago in the choral finale of his ninth and final symphony, known as “Ode to Joy” — an epochal hymn of the possible, half a lifetime in the making.
In the spring of 2012, the Spanish city of Sabadell set out to celebrate the 130th anniversary of its founding with a most unusual, electrifying, and touchingly human rendition of Beethoven’s masterpiece, performed by a flashmob of 100 musicians from the Vallès Symphony Orchestra, the Lieder, Amics de l’Òpera and Coral Belles Arts choirs. Watching the townspeople — children with kites, elders with walkers, couples holding hands — gather to savor the unbidden music in a succession of confusion, delight, and ecstasy is the stuff of goosebumps: living proof that “music so readily transports us from the present to the past, or from what is actual to what is possible.”
Couple with the remarkable story of the making of “Ode to Joy,” then revisit the neurophysiology of enchantment and how music casts its spell on us.
“Matter delights in music, and became Bach,” Ronald Johnson wrote in a stunning prose poem. How it did — how we became, in the poetic words of the physicist Richard Feynman, “atoms with consciousness… matter with curiosity” — may be the supreme mystery of existence. And yet here we are, each of us having triumphed over staggering odds in order to exist at all, all of us moving through the sliver of spacetime we have been allotted as material creatures animated by rich spiritual lives, governed by entropy, yearning for eternity.
Few people have given voice to this existential tension between our materiality and our spirituality more beautifully than the French paleontologist, Jesuit priest, and philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (May 1, 1881–April 10, 1955) — an uncommon bridge figure between the scientific and the sacred, who felt deeply at home in the world of gravity and gluons, and took part in the discovery of the Peking Man fossil that helped illuminate the evolutionary history of our species, but who also thought deeply and wrote beautifully about the most immaterial and transcendent regions of our experience.
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
An epoch before the poetic physicist Alan Lightman introduced the notion of spiritual materialism, Teilhard de Chardin took up these questions in The Heart of Matter (public library), titled after his long autobiographical essay chronicling his spiritual awakening to the wonder of reality and materiality.
In language of ravishing vibrancy and vitality, he contours his offering:
I shall try… to show how, starting from the point at which a spark was first struck, a point that was built into me congenitally, the World gradually caught fire for me, burst into flames; how this happened all during my life, and as a result of my whole life, until it formed a great luminous mass, lit from within that surrounded me.
This becoming, he argues, is available to every person fully awake to their own life and the life of the Earth:
Within every being and every event there was a progressive expansion of a mysterious inner clarity which transfigured them… Crimson gleams of Matter, gliding imperceptibly into the gold of Spirit, ultimately to become transformed into the incandescence of a Universe that is Person… The Diaphany of the Divine at the heart of a glowing Universe, as I have experienced it through contact with the Earth — the Divine radiating from the depths of a blazing Matter.
Art by Francisco de Holanda, 1573. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)
At the heart of this luminous totality, Teilhard de Chardin places what he calls “the sense of plentitude.” He writes:
To be completely at home and completely happy, there must be the knowledge that “Something, essential by nature” exists, to which everything else is no more than an accessory or perhaps an ornament… which it is impossible (once one has experienced it) to confuse with any other spiritual emotion, whether joy in knowledge or discovery, joy in creation or in loving: and this not so much because it is different from all those emotions, but because it belongs to a higher order and contains them all.
Looking back on the greatest discoveries of science — “the vast cosmic realities (Mass, Permeability, Radiation, Curvatures, and so on) through which the Stuff of Things is disclosed to our experience” — he sighs:
I find it difficult to express how much I feel at home in precisely this world of electrons, nuclei, waves, and what a sense of plentitude and comfort it gives me.
Observing that the culmination of the spiritual is to be found in “what is most tangible and most concrete in the Stuff of Things,” he reflects on his own awakening between the ages of thirty and fifty:
Even at the peak of my spiritual trajectory I as never to feel at home unless immersed in an Ocean of Matter.
Matter and Spirit: these were no longer two things, but two states or two aspects of one and the same cosmic Stuff, according to whether it was looked at or carried further in the direction in which…. it is becoming itself or in the direction in which it is disintegrating.
One of teenage artist Virginia Frances Sterrett’s 1920 illustrations for old French fairy tales. (Available as a print.)
Teilhard de Chardin closes his long reflection with a poetic “Hymn to Matter” — a kind of secular prayer for and to reality, in which he writes:
Blessed be you, harsh matter, barren soil, stubborn rock: you who yield only to violence, you who force us to work if we would eat.
Blessed be you, perilous matter, violent sea, untameable passion: you who unless we fetter you will devour us.
Blessed be you, mighty matter, irresistible march of evolution, reality ever new-born; you who, by constantly shattering our mental categories, force us to go ever further and further in our pursuit of the truth.
Blessed be you, universal matter, immeasurable time, boundless ether, triple abyss of stars and atoms and generations: you who by overflowing and dissolving our narrow standards or measurement reveal to us the dimensions of God.
Blessed be you, impenetrable matter: you who, interposed between our minds and the world of essences, cause us to languish with the desire to pierce through the seamless veil of phenomena.
Blessed be you, mortal matter: you who one day will undergo the process of dissolution within us and will thereby take us forcibly into the very heart of that which exists.
I bless you, matter, and you I acclaim… I acclaim you as the universal power which brings together and unites, through which the multitudinous monads are bound together and in which they all converge on the way of the Spirit.
This I now understand.
If we are ever to reach you, matter, we must, having first established contact with the totality of all that lives and moves here below, come little by little to feel that the individual shapes of all we have laid hold on are melting away in our hands, until finally we are at grips with the single essence of all consistencies and all unions.
Raise me up then, matter, to those heights, through struggle and separation and death; raise me up until, at long last, it becomes possible for me… to embrace the universe.
Complement The Heart of Matter with Leo Tolstoy on science, spirituality, and our search for meaning and John Burroughs’s splendid century-old manifesto for spirituality in the age of science, then revisit the pioneering neuroscientist Charles Scott Sherrington on wonder and the spirituality of nature.
Whatever fundamental reality might exist, we live out our lives in a subjective reality defined by what we agree to attend to. “An act of pure attention, if you are capable of it, will bring its own answer,” D.H. Lawrence wrote. But we live largely in the territory of the unanswerable because there is no pure attention — the aperture of our attention is constricted by myriad conditionings and focused by a brain honed on millions of years of evolutionary necessities, many of which we have long outgrown.
How the brain metes out attention and what that means for our intimacy with reality is what the philosophy-lensed British psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist takes up in his immense, in both senses of the word, book The Matter With Things: Our Brains, Our Delusions and the Unmaking of the World (public library) — an investigation of how “the very brain mechanisms which succeed in simplifying the world so as to subject it to our control militate against a true understanding of it,” and what a richer understanding of those mechanisms can do for living in closer and more felicitous communion with reality. At its heart is the recognition that “the whole is never the same as the sum of its ‘parts’” and that “there are in fact no ‘parts’ as such, but that they are an artefact of a certain way of looking at the world.”
Art by the Brothers Hilts from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.
Punctuating his ambitious 3,000-page effort to braid neuropsychology (the way our brains shape our impression of reality), epistemology (the way we come to know anything at all), and metaphysics (our yearning to wrest meaning from fundamental truth as we try to discern the nature of the universe) is an ongoing inquiry into our way of looking at the world — the lens of consciousness we call attention. He writes:
The world we know cannot be wholly mind-independent, and it cannot be wholly mind-dependent… What is required is an attentive response to something real and other than ourselves, of which we have only inklings at first, but which comes more and more into being through our response to it — if we are truly responsive to it. We nurture it into being; or not. In this it has something of the structure of love.
This property of reality is what Iris Murdoch had in view when she observed that “love is the extremely difficult realisation that something other than oneself is real,” and what the poet J.D. McClatchy captured in his insistence that “love is the quality of attention we pay to things.”
One of artist Margaret C. Cook’s rare 1913 illustrations for Leaves of Grass — Walt Whitman’s supreme serenade to the art of paying attention. (Available as a print.)
McGilchrist considers the way our attention constructs our reality and becomes the beating heart with which we love the world:
The whole illuminates the parts as much as the parts can illuminate the whole… The world we experience — which is the only one we can know — is affected by the kind of attention we pay to it.
Defining attention as “the manner in which our consciousness is disposed towards whatever else exists,” he writes:
The choice we make of how we dispose our consciousness is the ultimate creative act: it renders the world what it is. It is, therefore, a moral act: it has consequences.
A century-some after William James insisted that our experience is what we agree to attend to, and two generations after Simone Weil asserted that “attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity,” McGilchrist adds:
Attention changes the world. How you attend to it changes what it is you find there. What you find then governs the kind of attention you will think it appropriate to pay in the future. And so it is that the world you recognise (which will not be exactly the same as my world) is “firmed up” — and brought into being.
Attention is not just another “cognitive function”: it is… the disposition adopted by one’s consciousness towards the world. Absent, present, detached, engaged, alienated, empathic, broad or narrow, sustained or piecemeal, it therefore has the power to alter whatever it meets. Since our consciousness plays some part in what comes into being, the play of attention can both create and destroy, but it never leaves its object unchanged. So how you attend to something — or don’t attend to it — matters a very great deal.
In the vast remainder of The Matter With Things, McGilchrist goes on to explore how “the type, and extent, of attention we pay changes the nature of the world that we experience,” shaped largely by the difference between the way the brain’s two hemispheres pay attention — “narrow-beam, highly focussed attention” in the left, “broad, sustained vigilance” in the right. Complement this tiny fragment of it with Mary Oliver on attention and love, then revisit cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz’s wonderful field guide to eleven ways of paying attention to the everyday wonderland of life.