Dear God, be good to me; the sea is so wide, and my boat is so small.

Breton fishermen’s prayer

I was born January 23, 1947. That means two or three survivors of the Civil War were still alive; when I was a child of five or six, I’d see survivors of the Spanish-American War as well as World War I marching in holiday parades. My great-grandmother Rosalie lived down the street; she was born in Sicily, in 1881. I have a few memories of my great-grandfather William Francis Wynn (who lived in the next town) visiting when I was a toddler; he was born in Illinois, in 1871. Today I see families with their toddlers at church, and realize they will be here long after I’ve gone to dust. An abyss of time opens into the past, stretching back to the beginning of time; another abyss opens into a future that will be bereft of me stretching forward to the end of time.

When I was in my late sixties, I started experiencing what one might call a temporal vertigo: knowledge of the passage of time and the weight of years would rise up and overwhelm me. My last experience of this was some time ago: I woke up from sleep in a sort of existential terror, full awareness of the liminality of my life: that I lay on a knife’s edge between the abyss of the past and the abyss of the future, only the bright light of the present keeping the fading light of the past and the darkness of the future at bay.

If I avoid the perilous immensities of time, there are still immensities of space all around me. When things are silent late at night except for the ticking of the clock in the next room, I sometimes look into the featureless dark and wonder where we are in the two hundred and fifty million year rotation of our galaxy. A galaxy which is itself a grain of sand among many other grains of sand in a universe that dwarfs the largest things we can imagine, and me in my bedroom trying to ponder the meaning of these things with the three pounds of grey jelly mounted at the top of my spine. We try to believe there is Something out there that will hear us. I clutch at the bed in a kind of panic, holding on for dear life. Tick, tick.

The unfathomable immensity of time and space come crashing into the room then, an enormous wave that leaves me gasping for breath. Creatures of the deep and random debris float by, doubts, fears, losses, deaths, hopes. Our lives are flashes in a Bonfire lit at the beginning of time. Chaos is the wave waiting in the darkness just outside the light, waiting to quench it. Everything that is is on the way to a tepid and featureless dark that awaits (so we are told) when everything is done. Whether the fire will kindle after that in a new and Eternal blaze is a matter of faith rather than reason. We are ants on a sidewalk in New York City trying to apprehend it all with our limited capabilities. In terror, all we can do is cry out for mercy.

When I was a child, I was afraid of the dark in my room and in my closet. Terrible things waited for me there, and I could see their forms in a shirt draped across a chair, or the window’s curtains. I feared even more the silence between my breaths, and could not convince myself that I would continue breathing while I slept. Or that the Thing in the closet would not come out while I slept and silence my breathing forever. In the morning, I would wake to faces of gnomes and trolls in the burl veneer on my beds headboard. The world of a child is haunted by his limited understanding of its meaning and structure.

My dreams were sometimes full of immensities, great spaces and depths inhabited by unimaginable beings; at the age of nine, I saw the Ten Commandments and had a dream that I was in an ancient Egyptian temple, and there was something ancient and evil that was coming for me. In retrospect, I suspect it was my terror at seeing the Destroyer coming to take the first born — and I knew with a dawning horror that I was the first born in my family! In another childhood fever dream, I was falling toward the surface of an enormous metal carving of the head of Christ wearing his crown of thorns that I came to understand was as big as a galaxy, as big as the universe, and a choir was singing supernal music more beautiful than anything I’d heard. Than anything I could imagine then, or since. I woke terrified and crying inconsolably (unable to tell my mother the source of my terror), not at the presence of an ancient evil, but at my first confrontation with what Rudolf Otto named the mysterium tremendum, and my dawning realization of my smallness in the presence of the Eternal.

Around seventy thousand years ago, it appears at least some of our Neanderthal cousins were burying their dead with mortuary practices, suggesting an awareness of death and mortality, and grief for those who have died. Someone thirty five thousand years ago made a statuette of a man with a lion’s head out of mammoth bone – a god perhaps, a were-lion, or a denizen of the spiritual world. Twenty three thousand years later, at the end of the Pleistocene glaciation, hunter-gatherers in what is today Turkey built an enormous complex of temples to whatever gods they worshipped; wooly mammoths, cave lions, cave bears, and aurochs were still among the living fauna of Eurasia. These ancient ones looked out into the dark with awe, and understood they were in the presence of the numinous — and the immensity they saw around them was its dwelling place. They built their temples, painted their cave paintings, prayed to whatever gods they saw in the skies and the landscape around them. Today, we know nothing about them except these bits and scraps of their lives. They have been lost in the immensity of time.

Most of the time we succeed at avoiding the terrors of immensity. We wake up and go about our daily business; we go back home and prepare for another day of the same. It is afternoon, and I am making a cup of tea. My house plants are watered and appear to be happy, and the afternoon sun is bright on the hollies outside my window. I write this as I look at them. Later, I’ll go out among the ten thousand things and for a while live in the moment, only this moment, this place.

Stand at the brink of the abyss of despair and when you see that you cannot bear it anymore, draw back a little and have a cup of tea.

Elder Sophrony of Essex

Image: Lion-man statuette, found in a cave in Hohlenstein-Stadel, Schwaben, Germany, 33,000 BCE

Copyright © 2020 Vasily Ingogly. All Rights Reserved.

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