Wednesday, August 12, 2009
WHEN MY FATHER DIED
The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (11/6/09)
My father died when I was eleven, leaving my mother with three boys in the Great Depression. Everything changed. The country club membership was terminated. We moved from a large Spanish style house in the foothills to a small bungalow in the old part of town.
No longer "Dr. Tom's son," my biggest change, as I look back, was Oedipal. I drew closer to my grandfather Brynjolf, an intellectual mystic, and my uncle Rolf, an outdoorsman and mechanic. My mother heroically held the family together. I had to pay for my college education, cobbling together the G.I. Bill, savings, scholarships, loans, and work.
In college, a houseboy for a wealthy, elderly woman, I swept leaves and shoveled snow on her sidewalk, down from Albert Einstein's house on Mercer Street, named after General Hugh Mercer, killed at the Battle of Princeton (1777) and one of Johnny Mercer's forbearers.
I made sure I was on the sidewalk when Einstein took his walks. At first, he paid me no mind, then he nodded, after a few more times he smiled, and then he asked me if I were a student. Replying that I was, he asked me about my courses. I said, "Physics, Greek, Shakespeare, Plato, and Medieval history." "Ah, Greek?" he asked. "Yes, sir," I said, "With Dr. Goheen to read the New Testament." He smiled and said, "You tell Dr. Goheen that you can learn just a much about God from physics as from the New Testament."
Dr. Robert Goheen was a considerable person, OSS officer during World War II, Professor of Classics, President of Princeton University, and then United States Ambassador to India.
Dr. Einstein walked on, head bowed, and hands clasped behind his back, leaving me with the question, where is God encountered, or more accurately, where does God encounter? I was fired for spending too much time on the sidewalk.
Dr. Goheen once replied to a question about finding God, "My dear fellow, God is not lost. We are. God finds us, not we him."
After sixty years, I've concluded "everywhere," Jesus' point in Matthew 25, especially where least expected, not shrines or holy places, unless the poor, sick, and dying are holy places. It's not so much a finding as it is an awareness of having been found.
After spending six months off and on in a Dominican monastery
and a Jewish Seminary and studying with Jungians, Buddhists, and Native Americans, I found I meditate best when I'm working in a garden. While gardening is therapeutic, more importantly, it's spiritual, not so much centeredness, but a connectedness, an awareness of a presence.
Soil flowing through one's fingers, plants brushing against one's legs, watching budding seedlings, abiding the withering and death of a treasured plant, admiring a delphinium's beauty, and tasting fresh vegetables are all experiences of vitality, the vitality of God's Presence. Gardens abet an awareness of a Presence, not as an object, but as an aura, a shadow, a Presence, not specific or concrete, but a milieu.
Beyond syllogisms and complete sentences, God is neither an object nor a subject. Any such mindset is an attempted deicide, a fool's errand. What better place to experience the Presence than in a garden, enmeshed in life, the place to which Jesus repaired.
As humans we are limited to our five senses. The spiritual is experienced through the carnal. Gardening's carnal experience uses all of our five senses. It is difficult to walk through a garden, much less work in it, without seeing, tasting, hearing, smelling, and touching, all those carnal experiences freighted with the spiritual.
Some might say this is merely imagination. Albert Einstein would reply, "Imagination is more important than knowledge." Imagination is what makes a caress the experience of love. "How weary, flat, stale, and unprofitable" would life be without imagination. My mathematics professor, Dr. Alonzo Church, a deeply spiritual man, in an offhand remark after a class on symbolic logic,
said, "Mathematics demands clarity, especially the clarity to know there's mystery." We wonder as we wander out under the sky, holding infinity in the palm of our hands and eternities in an hour.
Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2009