I’ve been deeply struck by Eleanor O’Hanlon’s wonderful book Eyes of the Wild.Her insights as she describes the impact of her encounters with grey whales in the Bering Straits strike me with truth and beauty. Her thinking is profoundly affected and transformed by the grace and gentleness, the endurance and strength, of these huge animals.
One of them even nudges its baby towards her boat so that she can touch it. Eleanor understands this as a gesture not only of trust towards her, but of forgiveness towards the human race in general, which has hunted its own kind almost to extinction. In the presence of the whales she feels an overflowing sense of partnership, of ‘life meeting life, consciousness meeting consciousness, in recognition and peace’.
In the arctic lagoons, where even the powerful summer sun cannot melt the permafrost beneath the thin layer of briefly fertile soil on which she stands, she experiences the return of an inner awareness and expansiveness. It is so very different, she writes, from that relentless activity of the mind, arguing, judging and comparing, which so quickly overwhelms us in our contracted city lives.
She apprehends the divine, not as a voice calling from somewhere up in heaven, but within all life and embracing all life, and within her own self too. She feels what one might call teshuvah or ‘return’, in the genuine sense of ‘coming home at last after long unhappy wandering to your true belonging in the stillness’, to ‘the deepest reality within,’ which is also the deepest reality of everything which exists.
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Awaking from his dream of angels on the ladder which reaches into heaven, Jacob cries out ‘Indeed there is God in this place, ve’anochi lo yadati – but I had not known’. It’s one of those sentences from Scripture which follows one round for the whole of one’s life. How often, maybe always, it isn’t the absence of God but the absenteeism of our own consciousness which leads us to miss the essence or the beauty, the poignancy or the wonder of the moment. For God is in all being and in every place, – unless, the mystics also say, we drive God away.
Or perhaps we look for God in the wrong direction; I don’t mean in the north instead of the north-west, but rather in the wrong dimension, amongst the wrong coordinates entirely. Maybe we want god to fit an image graven in our mind of what god is supposed to be, all-powerful, all-knowing, a voice from heaven calling down with audible instructions in our specific language. So perhaps when Jacob says ‘I hadn’t known’ what he meant was that he had been deploying the wrong kind of mental sensors. ‘I had no awareness’, he acknowledges; but now something has awoken in his consciousness. Or maybe what he means is anochi, ‘I’, had not known; when I was all focussed on ‘I’ and ‘me’ I did not find God. But now life is speaking and, at least for this moment, my ‘I’ has been dissolved in listening.
It isn’t solely in terrains of great beauty that one can find oneself saying ‘But God is on this place’. One can sense it too in situations where there is great pain, but also great compassion, among nurses, with carers, wherever there is attentiveness, attunement. For, in the words of theologian and scholar of Jewish mysticism Art Green, whom we’re privileged to host this Shabbat, ‘God is the innermost reality of all that is’. That is what Eleanor O’Hanlon rediscovers among the whales and dolphins, wolves and reindeer, to whom she hearkens as she researches their needs for protection:
And though I had worked for several years in conservation, whatever I believed I knew about the living earth was only a shadowy thought before this living radiance, this overwhelming presence – of sacredness.