Friday, December 11, 2015


I had a cynical friend in seminary who would remark in some splendid place like Glacier National Park or the U of Chicago campus that was thronging with people, “This would be a nice place if they just got all the people out of it.” We could say that in most cathedrals except that in off-hours, the people were really gone.

One of those Manhattan conceptual artists (was it Rauschenberg?) got to thinking along those lines. He bought excellent pencil drawings and then erased them. The result sold for big prices — with an explanation, of course.

In ethics class we saw a film about surgery that asked, “How much can be amputated from a person without destroying them?” The answer was a soldier who had stepped on a mine and lost his lower half up to the bottom of his rib cage. Legs and intestines are not just mechanical but do a lot of molecularelectrochemical things like secreting and digestion, so the man was being monitored and supported intravenously. He moved around by using a trapeze hung over the bed. After months, he asked to be allowed to die. The real amputation had nothing to do with his body.

This post by Rev Dan Catt, "Why, Minus Everyone" refers to Garfield, the comic strip, and a derivative which is Garfield without Garfield. Everything is there but the cat, not even his grin. The Catt’s emptied comics are very Zen, in a shallow way. 

In another, it made me think about a joke we used to tell about minimalism when all-white and all-black paintings were popular. We thought of an exhibit that was only frames, but someone had already done that. Then we thought of an exhibit of only nails with nothing hung on them. Then just the holes where nails had been or would go. Much more subtraction and there would be no gallery.

(Incidentally, I’m now very cautious about figuring out who people are. Rev Dan Catt is so cryptic that I won’t even try, but I suspect that “Rev” is just his first name and not a title.)
What all this exploits and explores is the human capacity to think of what’s not there, like Thoreau’s moose that was not present in a place so moosey that it was the same thing. And Peter Matthiessen’s snow leopard that was a powerful force you knew was there, even unseen.

Some people would take this ability to religion, but I wouldn’t because religion — as I define it — is not some theoretical idmiea at all. It is derived stuff focused on one culture that can be altogether too MUCH there. What people call religion is more about place, hierarchy and control — human institutions designed to persist. The Quakers tried to reduce that to silence. Various meditation practices move over to “spiritual,” meaning no dogma and a quiet mind. It’s not anthropocentric.

What if we applied this “minusing” to Christmas, what would it be like? The material culture of Christmas in the city as presented by those who want to sell things, is one of expensive decorations, gifts, parties, drunkenness, and the basic festival abandonment that was probably the basis of the original northern bracing for winter. Some of those historical winters were harsh killers, even for those who had resources in spite of summers so cold and dark that nothing grew. When reading about them, climate change becomes real. Luckily, most were temporary, due to volcanic eruptions that screened the sun out of the sky. But for illiterate people with short lifespans, the darkness seemed final.

In the desert Mediterranean where Abraham’s children lived when Jesus was born, the great concern was always water. There were stories of incredible plagues — frogs or blood falling out of the sky. They’re not included in Christmas. People are there: a population count, an overcrowded inn, and the addition of a new baby. It was a rigid, dominated time, but in that dry camel-and-donkey travel world where it was often best to travel by night, there was always sky. Where there is sky, there are stars, where there are stars, there are signs and flares and compasses. If the dogmatic content could be stripped from the experience, so that we could see the sky again, religion could be stripped back to the spiritual.

If the Christmas trees are plastic, why imitate real trees? If we take away all the Druid webs of meaning, what are the powerful symbols that remain? If our skies are obscured by smoke and light pollution, so that the birds smash into the skyscrapers at night, how can we read the stars?

Strictly in scientific terms, what we call Christmas is really the Winter Solstice and that, in itself, is marvelous if you happen to be in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Manhattan at the exact moment that the earth tips back towards spring and a musician from the Paul Winter Consort rides the Great Gong up into the high vault so as to strike it just then. You Tube has a lot of clips. There are a lot of people. But let’s remove them for a moment.
The equator doesn’t have a solstice you would notice because it is the poles where the tipping makes seasons, changing the angle of presentation to the sun. In winter whatever moisture is in the air falls out as snow, and what ever electricity is there shows up in great flashes seen from the space station. If you could rise through the layered atmospheres, so that you looked at the planet from far away, I don’t know whether you could see the planet tip. Maybe someone in the space station could do a time-lapse vid that’s a year long. But tipping is relative — what is the axis mundi — axle of the world — if all around is only the sun as the point of reference. Is the earth nodding to the sun? Or are we dancing on our plane of revolution?
Star nursery

We have seen, through our instruments, clear to the birthplaces of the stars and they are beyond description. We have seen novas exploding. We have seen to the beginning of the substrate of the cosmos. When we turn our instruments on ourselves, we see that we are made of stardust. Quite literally the elements that cleaved together and in time became us. None of us were there, and yet we were all there as potential and we continue that way, filling the world, exceeding the world, finding new worlds that are potential and possibly not corporeal.

Here’s my favorite comic strip for the moment, “Francis”. The Pope has to eliminate a lot of clutter before we get back to the Christian natal event. Maybe the Buddhists can help. 

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