In our ongoing spiritual infancy it seems to me that we have developed three distinct tools for coping with the certainty of death and the uncertainty at what proceeds afterward. Thus, we could construct a design that would depict this trinity of adaptations. In its most earthy form, we could imagine a human seated on a rock near a fire holding a long spear. A wolf is curled up on the other side of the fire. Surrounded on all sides by thick forest, the repose of which is punctuated only by the croaking of ravens and trills of thrush. Taken independently, we could allot certain virtues to these various implements of humanity.
Proposed: That the long spear serves to repel and subdue predators of far superior size and strength.
Proposed: That the utility of this weapon is well represented in the beneficent effect of Religion upon our Societies when living in high concentration.
Proposed: That the fire serves to illuminate the forest around us, deter attackers and keep us warm.
Proposed: That the utility of this weapon is well represented in the beneficent effect of Music upon our Societies when living in high concentration.
Proposed: That fact that the recumbent wolf has chosen to share our fire serves to benefit both parties on an equal level.
Proposed: That the utility of this relationship is well represented by Literature since the ancient art of story-telling married and inspired our ability to communicate via text.
Concluded: That this state of affairs well represents our abilities and limitations as we make our way, regardless of our technological advances.
In my own view this depiction of is highly reminiscent of extant illustrations of Óðinn seated with his wolves and ravens. The birds, we are told represent Thought and Memory and a moments reflection will make clear to anyone their importance in the overall scheme of things human. Everything works together and independently. When combined like three strands of a strong rope, this technology can be used to create many useful things by the human wielding it.
As mankind’s primary tools, these three are particularly prone to exciting a desire in a certain portion of the population at any given time to monopolize and control them, such is their power. It is important symbolically to note that Óðinn is wearing a patch over one eye and that this physical impairment was a necessary sacrifice in order to gain knowledge beyond what can be seen in the mundane world.
I am personally reminded of another elder Father of our species, one much closer in time to us than Óðinn and that man is Ludwig van Beethoven. In spite of and perhaps in some measure because of his deteriorating sense of hearing, he left us in much better shape than he found us in. To back up my statement, I would like to quote from two sources.
The first is from a letter written by Beethoven himself to Bettina Brentano and subsequently quoted by her in a letter she wrote to Goethe.
"When I open my eyes, I must sigh because what I see is contrary to my religion, and I must despise the world which never understands that music is a greater revelation than all wisdom and philosophy. Music is the wine that incites us to new creation, and I am the Bacchus who makes this glorious wine for mankind, and grants them drunkenness of spirit. When they are sober again, they will have fished up much which they may take with them on to dry land. I am not anxious about the fate of my music. Its fate cannot be other than happy. Whoever succeeds in grasping it, shall be absolved from all the misery that bows down other men."
The second quote is an excerpt from Beethoven’s funeral oration and was written by his friend Franz Grillparzer.
"He was an artist, but he was a man as well. A man in every sense, in the highest sense. Because he withdrew from the world, people called him a misanthrope, and because he was aloof from sentimentality, people called him unfeeling. Ah, one who knows himself to be hard of heart, does not shrink! The finest points are the most easily blunted, or broken. An excess of sensitivity avoids a show of feeling! He fled from the world because in his loving nature, he found no weapon with which to oppose the world. He withdrew from mankind after he had given them everything and had received nothing in return. Thus he was, thus he died, thus he will live, until the end of time. "
To Ludwig, Óðinn and myriad other spiritual scouts we owe a tremendous debt of gratitude. Their paths could not have been altered whether we recognized and appreciated them or not. Fortunately we have methods for storing and retrieving literature, music and religion. In my opinion the least we can do is to see to it that these methods receive continuous use, refinement and that our fellows and our children are taught their worth, utility and the importance of keeping these things free of any constraints.
As the scene by the fireside painted above serves as a memory aid to the words that accompany it, here is another such illustration that I think well depicts the reality of our species current state on the road to becoming worthy of our potential in the universe. I see a young person, perhaps a boy with uncut hair ascending a steep rocky path to an unknowable summit. He has a strap over his shoulder that is cinched around three books with no names. He is smiling over his shoulder at the observer and one can discern that there is a sling-shot protruding from his hip pocket.
To flesh out the symbology inherent in this illustration, let me say that the boy is mankind and his way is necessarily uphill. Indeed, it is this sense of struggling up against gravity and avoiding the easy way of things that is our surest guide when our sight is robbed by the dark of night or the dark night of the soul.
The three books with no titles represents our species records, not only of facts scientific but also of our thoughts, observations, lessons, ideas, disappointments, aspirations and most importantly, our growing body of questions of increasing caliber.
That the boy is hauling them up the mountain shows that we have made our choice to pursue being a sapient species and that education is a personal responsibility ultimately, notwithstanding that from time to time in our designed societies it may be provided by our rulers for purposes of control rather than for our liberation. Since many a good woman and man has taken the trouble to write down everything from philosophy, to mathematics to music to holy scripture; there stands no excuse for not arming oneself with the best of what went before we arrived. The deciphering of the symbols can be learned at any time by those who don’t posses that ability and modern technology has helped to convert entire libraries of knowledge into audio files that may be played while one drives, walks, works or sits on a beach.
Finally, the sling-shot has to do with the underlying reality of nature that quite simply, it is incumbent upon each of us to defend ourselves rather than give up our liberties in return for such protection. Of course, in the modern lifestyle and also by the arrangement of villages in non-urban areas, we have long ago decided to give up some liberty in order to enjoy security provided by the leaders of the groups we belong to. Rather than call for a going backwards to a more primitive arrangement, I am merely highlighting the fact that to nature and the universe itself there is no allowance made in the balance of things by the arrangements of man. That is to say, there are many pitfalls that a man or woman can encounter at precisely those moments when the police are not around, the priest is unavailable and something wants to eat you. It is best not to forget that.
I will talk of the long spear of religion for a moment. Clearly, the various codes of conduct and the values underlying them have made the concentration of people possible to a larger extent than any other single reason in my opinion. At the same time, the conundrum of paying protection, be it physical or spiritual and the attendant loss of sovereignty and liberty still remains. Therefore, I would deem it wise to study at least the spiritual instruction which came to you from your parents and those other systems with which you must abide by as neighbors. From this process, each person should be able to forge a code by which they can personally live that is not dependent upon man-made infrastructure.
A few wise men and women have gone into the dark closets and under the beds only to find out that the perceived monsters lurking there were extensions of themselves. These demons were slain in due course by the personal long spears of those hardy individuals. The lesson here is that the spear is a necessity and you may make your own or take up one of the many provided for you but without this weapon your chance of arriving to your death bed with a clear conscience grows exceedingly slim. It is all part of being human and not to be feared or avoided, it is plain common sense to just be cognizant of the fact.
I have been learning about music recently as pertains to the history of modern music in the Western world. One of the first things that resonated with me was a chapter explaining the early connection of the Christian Church and how music is written and performed. It appears that first there was the words of the text that were to be transmitted to the congregation. What we call notes were these words turned into sounds or sounds to accompany these words when chanted.
From this base of practice and usage, there emerged different formats that all reflected the type of service and the language used, such as Latin, Italian and eventually German and English. It was noted long ago by brain doctors that a person can remember a musical jingle for a lifetime with no effort and the same person faces dire challenges when asked to memorize a set of numbers or pictures or words. It stands to reason that combining the brains preference for remembering musical notes serves as a handy aid to memorizing the words that those notes stand for. Anyone may employ this technique and I am sure many of do so without even realizing it.
In history there have been people who studied deeply into the mechanics of memory or mnemonics, if you will. One such person was Giordano Bruno, an Italian man of the sixteenth century. I came across his writings many years ago and after taking nearly a year to read them all I was delighted and surprised to find out that a colleague of mine at Canada Post was a direct descendant of this extraordinary man. By the time I found out about the connection, Giordano had become a hero of sorts to me. My reasons were not limited to his incredible intellect and unique abilities but also his bravery and integrity.
As a very young man, seventeen years old, if I recall correctly, Mr. Bruno became a Dominican monk. By age 24 he was ordained a priest. The young man was an avid reader and aimed to hone his intellect by absorbing all the cutting-edge philosophical literature of his era and come up with his own synthesis, which vehicle he could take farther, perhaps than had been the case up to his own birth.
Due to the stringent rules at the monastery, Bruno had to keep certain books hidden in the out-house rather than his cell. This he did and he read them while engaged in the most mundane of all possible human activities. I do not know if another monk turned him in or if a particular book by Erasmus of Rotterdam was discovered in the loo by accident but the upshot was that Bruno left in haste to escape the wrath of his superiors. This began his traveling life.
I will leave it for the interested party to read upon these travels and make no pretense to have memorized them in exact detail. Let it suffice to say that Bruno went to Switzerland, France, England, Czechoslovakia and Germany. He amazed people everywhere he went particularly for his unmatched memorization skills which he had honed via his own discovered methods. These methods he wrote into books and he also committed his philosophical, theosophical and scientific explorations to the printed page.
He studied theology in Toulouse and later taught philosophy there. He also lectured and taught at several universities including Oxford, Wittenberg, Helmstedt and eventually in Padua. He applied for a chair in mathematics at Padua while teaching there and was unsuccessful in this bid. The job went a year later to a Mr. Galileo Galilei.
He attempted to rejoin the Catholic fold but was denied absolution by the Jesuit priest he had approached in France. His talents attracted the benevolent attention of the king Henry III. The king summoned him to the court.
Bruno subsequently reported that, "I got me such a name that King Henry III summoned me one day to discover from me if the memory which I possessed was natural or acquired by magic art. I satisfied him that it did not come from sorcery but from organized knowledge; and, following this, I got a book on memory printed, entitled The Shadows of Ideas, which I dedicated to His Majesty. Forthwith he gave me an Extraordinary Lectureship with a salary."
His views were controversial in England, notably with John Underhill, Rector of Lincoln College and subsequently bishop of Oxford, and George Abbot, who later became Archbishop of Canterbury.
Abbot mocked Bruno for supporting "the opinion of Copernicus that the earth did go round, and the heavens did stand still; whereas in truth it was his own head which rather did run round, and his brains did not stand still."
Excommunication by the Lutherans of Wittenberg sent Bruno to Frankfurt. There at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 1591, a rich Venetian gentleman invited Bruno to come and teach him memory techniques. Giordano went there in 1592 and after two months of instructing the man, Bruno decided to leave Venice. When he told his benefactor of his plans to travel, he was denounced by his employer to the Venetian Inquisition and arrested on the 22nd of May, 1592. He was held in prison pending the recantation of his published beliefs and observations, for eight years. He defended himself and refused to recant.
According to the correspondence of Gaspar Schopp of Breslau, he is said to have made a threatening gesture towards his judges and to have replied: Maiori forsan cum timore sententiam in me fertis quam ego accipiam. ("Perhaps you pronounce this sentence against me with greater fear than I receive it").
He was turned over to the secular authorities. On Ash Wednesday, 17 February 1600, in the Campo de' Fiori (a central Roman market square), he was hung upside down naked and burned at the stake. His ashes were thrown into the Tiber river. All of Bruno's works were placed on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum in 1603.
The Vatican has published few official statements about Bruno's trial and execution. In 1942, Cardinal Giovanni Mercati, who discovered a number of lost documents relating to Bruno's trial, stated that the Church was perfectly justified in condemning him. On the 400th anniversary of Bruno's death, in 2000, Cardinal Angelo Sodano declared Bruno's death to be a "sad episode" but, despite his regret, he defended Bruno's prosecutors, maintaining that the Inquisitors "had the desire to serve freedom and promote the common good and did everything possible to save his life." In the same year, Pope John Paul II made a general apology for "the use of violence that some have committed in the service of truth."
One of the main things that infuriated people about Bruno was his habit of publishing his thoughts which sometimes disagreed with previously published and accepted works. An example was when after reading a treatise by Fabrizio Mordente, a mathematician who invented a type of compass/calculator, Bruno used the compass to base 120 theses against Aristotelian natural science and also published a pamphlet praising Mordente’s work and leveled criticisms where he felt they were due. Mordente was angry at this and replied, whereupon Bruno published a satire entitled The Triumphant Idiot. Mordente took employ with the powerful Duke of Guise whereupon Bruno left for Germany.
It is instructive to look at the fresco by Raphael, The School of Athens. We see a depiction of Aristotle gesturing to the earth, representing his belief in knowledge through empirical observation and experience, while holding a copy of his Nicomachean Ethics in his hand, whilst Plato his teacher, gestures to the heavens, representing his belief in The Forms, while holding a copy of Timaeus. These men disagree but remain friends and allow each other latitude to expand their minds. Plato’s teacher Socrates had to drink hemlock and his pupil Aristotle went on to teach Alexander of Macedon.
My friend at the Post office who is a descendant of Bruno is a musician and an artist. Over the years we have had lengthy discussions on a variety of topics and don’t always agree. Once in the early days, he gave me a book that in his words illustrated his current spiritual beliefs. I took it home and read it straightaway. No sooner had I finished it that I began to write a refutation of the entire document with great zeal, anger and conviction. By the time I was done, my text was twice that of the original and I had taken no prisoners nor used moderation in expressing my arguments.
This reaction surprised me somewhat but nevertheless I put my response in a manila envelope and left it on my friend’s desk at work the next morning with the full understanding that either he would see things my way or come to consider me a spiritual enemy of the first magnitude. I really didn't care which, such was my conviction that the book in question was unmitigated poison.
I happened to mention this to another postal friend. He listened to my tale and then tore a strip off me a mile wide. He admonished me for having the poor taste to denigrate what someone had willingly shared with me as a representation of their own personal religion, for lack of a better word. So strong was his lecture that I passed by my other friend’s desk and removed the document I had written before he opened it and left only the original text with a wee note that said, “It’s not my cup of tea.”
Ironically, when I look back on this now, I think I know possibly how Giordano felt at times when he was driven to respond to things that appeared in print in his day even when doing so caused much trouble for himself. Deep inside I also know that Giordano would not have removed the manuscript as I did and it is his courage and integrity wedded to a strong intellect that inspires me about that man.
A month or so ago, I stumbled upon an on-line company that made Giordano Bruno tee-shirts while searching for graphics for an article I was writing. I smiled and contrary to my usual practices, I immediately ordered one. Within a week or so, I received my awaited package. I was very happy to know that there was still a fan club for the man from Nola.
A few days after receiving my shirt, I was invited to a house warming. It was to be a very small affair with my wife, my self, the hosts and only one other family. I wore my Giordano tee-shirt with pride. When I got there I went into the back yard where the barbecue was being cooked until summoned into the house by my wife.
When I got inside, there was a man, a priest, splashing liberal amounts of Holy Water in all the rooms of the house and praying for blessings and protection. He seemed a friendly guy and when the blessing was done we two wound up sitting on two sides of a coffee table and eating together. He told me a bit about his own background and I did the same.
At some point, when the talk turned religious, I became hyper aware of my tee-shirt and wondered if the man in front of me knew Bruno’s story. If he did he didn’t let on. After an hour or so, his talk cut to the chase. With a practiced flair, I was treated to an accepted explanation of the Trinity, a main point of bitter divergence and bloody dispute in the history of Christianity. Ironically, an issue of not much concern for the day to day life and ethics of the practicing Christian. One of the handful of accusations laid against Mr. Bruno in the Inquisition had to do with this very point of theology.
As I watched, the priest fortified his wonderfully simple rendering of this complex topic with what I will have to label neuro-linguistic programming. That is, for those unfamiliar with the term, hand gestures, mudras or actions. It appears that first there was the thought, the Idea, in God’s mind. This was illustrated by a hand gesture akin to a light-bulb being lit over the head. Next came the Word. This was illustrated with an incredible gesture. I can best describe it as someone miming the pulling of a peeled banana through a mail-slot wherein the mail-slot is a human mouth. Careful not to break the moist excrescence, a downward curve is maintained throughout the operation. Lastly, the Word becomes Flesh. This was illustrated by a sudden clapping of the hands in front of the observer’s face. I was treated to three repetitions of this.
Shortly after that I spoke for a time, using my hands extensively as I did so. I said that we could go on like that or just enjoy our food and the hospitality provided by the family whose house it was. I had a feeling that I had held my own but just so. I also felt a chilly breeze from four hundred years prior blow through the room, redolent with the dogma hammered out at councils long past by powerful men whose offspring have a lot of gained ground to hold and protect.
I walked into the lunch room at the Post Office one afternoon and saw the Australian born child of one of my work-mates sitting at a table watching TV. As I heated up my lunch in the microwave, we began to chat. When I had sat down to eat, he sheepishly asked me if I might happen to have enough change in my pocket to buy him a soda from the pop machine. I thought very highly of this boy’s father and really wanted to treat the young lad.
I dug into my pockets and alas, couldn’t make up the price of a drink for him. I did happen to have some very special acorns taken from a tree in Queen Elizabeth Park. It was a variety called a Cork Oak and true to its name, the bark was exactly the consistency of fine Portuguese cork. Many years ago, I had visited the Theater of Epidaurus in Greece. Up near the top seats grew a stand of ancient oaks. I gathered a few acorns with the intent to bonsai them in Vancouver. They were confiscated and destroyed at the airport security check and I was very sad but understanding of the reasons for this.
As this memory flashed across my mind, I told the young fellow that although I didn’t have enough money for his soda pop, I had something much more valuable that I would give him. I placed three acorns in his little hand and told him that if he were able to get them through the Aussie customs, he would be able to plant some trees that would make a connection to Canada, where his father toiled for his welfare. Over time they would grow, as he himself would and that they would likely be standing when he was older than myself. On top of all that, I said that they would provide a home for birds, squirrels, a tree house and maybe even a koala.
The little man took the three acorns and gripped them tightly as I spoke. He opened his hand afterward and gazed at them with what I thought to be an imagination pregnant with all possibilities. I took my seat and began to finish my adobo. After a pause of some three minutes, still standing where he had received my gift, the boy walked over to the trash bin and eyed me like a cat does just before disappearing around an obstacle.
“I think,” he said in a dulcet tone, “I’ll plant them here.” He then let them drop one at a time for full acoustic effect all the wile holding me in a steady gaze.
In our ongoing spiritual infancy it seems to me that we have developed three distinct tools for coping with the certainty of death and the uncertainty at what proceeds afterward. Thus, we could construct a design that would depict this trinity of adaptations. In its most earthy form, we could imagine a human seated on a rock near a fire holding a long spear. A wolf is curled up on the other side of the fire. Surrounded on all sides by thick forest, the repose of which is punctuated only by the croaking of ravens and trills of thrush.
If you are listening to or reading this, you are welcome to share my fire. Bring your own spear and just let the wolf be at peace. He doesn’t generally bite.
Michael Hawes was born in Texas, raised in Louisiana and lives in British Columbia.