Sunday, November 21, 2010

Life Lines 49


When I was an undergraduate taking a course on mediaeval and renaissance history, I got to read St Francis’s Fioretti (The Little Flowers). In it he describes a meeting of Brother Giles and King Louis of France who visited his monastery dressed as a mendicant. They embraced when they recognized each other and they looked into each other’s eyes where they read each other’s hearts, without exchanging a word. It reminded me of an incident in another book I had read, the Biography of Sri Ramakrishna by Vivekananda. Ramakrishna described a legend to some of his followers of baby Krishna who is being held in his mother’s arms and as Yashoda looked into his open mouth she saw the universe. I thought over the years how privileged a few humans are to have the opportunity to be at one with the universe and how rare this must be. But as I became more saturated in science, I realized that this was not necessarily so.

Our universe consists of hundreds of billions of galaxies like our own Milky Way. All of these galaxies had a common origin, if we accept the prevailing Bing Bang theory of the universe, from some “singularity,” as astronomers like to call it, that in a minute fraction of a second underwent a massive explosion some 13 to 14 billion years ago. All of the galaxies must then have the same type of atoms found in our Milky Way, including our own sun. So when we look out on a clear starry night we see stars trillions of miles away composed of atoms that once danced in gaseous swirls with atoms that are present in our bodies. Astronomer Carl Sagan made that image even more vivid for me when he pointed out in his Cosmic Connection that our earth was composed in part from the debris of a dying star that helped make our own sun and its planets so that we can consider ourselves “star children.”

Evolution, of course, makes us kin with all of life going back to the first virus-like genes or DNA that began to form from nucleotides synthesized by natural processes in a carbon and nitrogen rich earth. Even more remarkable is that every human who has ever lived has exhaled air and voided water that has recycled through all of humanity in the thousands of generations that have belonged to our human species. This means that some of my favorite people, like Socrates, Euripides, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Dante, Montaigne, Galileo, Mendel, Marie Curie, Goethe, Van Gogh, Mozart, Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and Martin Luther King, Jr have contributed atoms to my own body Not only can I commune with their words and thoughts, but I can resonate with a sense that they have been incorporated physically into my cells as well.

Unlike the mystic visions described by St. Francis and Ramakrishna, this state of being at one with the universe (or any object outside ourselves) does not require a spiritual trance, chanting a mantra, or inducing an occasional state of satori for a private experience that cannot be shared. Rather, science gives us an understanding of ourselves at levels of cells, metabolism, molecules, and atoms that all of humanity can learn and experience, sometimes with a mystic’s awe.

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