Physicists have been looking for some time for the ‘theory of everything’. The theory of everything is a hypothetical framework explaining all known physical phenomena in the universe.
Basically there are a set of scientific rules that explain very large objects (relativity) and there are another set of understandings (quantum mechanics) which ‘explains’ how very small objects behave – I use the word ‘explain’ with caution because quantum mechanics is incredibly hard to get your head around. Weirdly though you’d expect these two sets of explanations to dovetail, they don’t, in fact they are at odds with one another. Hence the search for overarching big ‘theory of everything’. Forgive me if this is a non scientists idiot version of the situation.
It makes me want to ask: if you are really going to have a ‘theory of everything’, why should it only be everything that is physical phenomena? The world is full of plenty of things that are very real and vital but not physical: love, altruism, justice, compassion to name a few.
Spiritual reality is another whole other realm which doesn’t come within the definition of physical phenomena.
This short blog post is really just the putting together of two poems and a thought – all of which suggest that there is one thing that does in fact hold us all together.
Here is the first part of the first one – you can look the rest up online and it’s worth it. It’s a poem by Parker J Palmer called Everything Falls Away and I promise you it gets much more optimistic by the end. (By the way he has written another stunning poem on sudden loss called November 22nd, you can read it here ).
Sooner or later, everything falls away.
You, the work you’ve done, your successes,
large and small, your failures, too. Those
moments when you were light, along–
side the times you became one with the
night. The friends, the people you loved
who loved you, those who might have
wished you ill, none of this is forever. All
Of it is soon to go, or going, or long gone.
Everything falls away, except the thread
you followed unknowing, all along.
The thread that strings together all
you’ve been and done ….
Palmer was maybe spring boarding from a poem by William Stafford which I have mentioned previously in this blog : What faith means to me.
The Way It Is
There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it, you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you can do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.
So maybe faith in God is like a thread which we follow?
But here is another metaphor which I also find to be very helpful. It comes from David Runcorn’s book Fear and Trust and he is reflecting on his own distressing experience of tinnitus.
He told a companion that although he was praying for relief from this condition, his only sense of God’s response was that it would in some way become a song.
His friend, obviously someone with musical knowledge, said that he knew what that sound might be: it would be an ‘ison’. I quote from the book: “In ancient Byzantine worship the ison is the continuous bass note held in the background by the choir. The cantors improvise and weave the worship and prayers of the church and world around it. Theologically the ison represents the sound of God-divine song that holds all creation being, makes all other songs possible and gives them their freedom and extraordinary diversity. The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer called it the ‘cantus firmus’. Writing within the darkness and turmoil of Nazi Germany, he urged his friends, ‘do not fear. Pin your faith in the cantus firmus‘.
… If life is to have any nurturing depth and meaning, the ability to distinguish signal from noise is the biggest challenge we face. That requires that we learn to be truly present to ourselves, to our world and to God“.
To be truly present to ourselves means not running away, ignoring or burying those things that cause us pain – but the really difficult part in doing this being able to acknowledge, hold and accept the pain but for that pain to not overwhelm us. It’s a difficult balancing act. This is when we need to be able to hold on to the thread in the dark.
So whether we are listening for the ‘cantus firmus’ or holding the thread, remember that the Christian view is that is not an impersonal note sounding like a gong, nor a set of principles or beliefs that are impervious to our actual human experience. The thread is Christ himself. Everytime I read about the ‘theory of everything’ I am reminded of Colossians 1: 17 and wondered if St Paul wrote more than he could ever imagine
“He is before all things, and in him all things hold together“. For anyone feeling on the edge of falling apart that’s a good verse to hold onto.