Life In An Expanding Universe
Our dwelling in the universe—in short, our humanity—is enriched when we pay attention to what’s outside ourselves and ask it in.
A previous post focused on the way photographer Lia Chavez sheds light on the interrelatedness of the physical and spiritual aspects of human relationships as both are stretched out through our experience of time. But while in that essay I suggested that—in contrast to Chavez’s work—photographic images of the heavens like those captured by the Hubble Space Telescope may obscure the elements of time and change, we may still rightly celebrate the astronomers’ careful analysis of such images precisely because they do allow us to peer into deep time as well as into deep space. Hubble’s Deep Field Survey, especially, brings the connection between time and space into view by seemingly picturing the very expansion of the universe, as well as almost-unfathomably old and distant objects. Here and in the essay The Fullness of Time, we continue to delve into the connections between time and space as a source of metaphors that can inform our understanding of the human place and role in the cosmos, today turning to poet Pattiann Rogers’ vision of the power perception has to create the world, not just record it.
A central element of the concept of cosmic expansion is that the stars, clusters and galaxies we see are not just fleeing apart and further into pre-existing space, like marbles scattering into an empty room; rather, space itself is expanding, carrying all matter along with it. Yet if we follow on with the suggestion that the essential nature of the cosmos is relational, in addition to being material, then we will also see that there really is more of the universe every second, not just more empty space between the clumps of matter: the “truth” of the cosmos is in the way the matter and not-matter speaks to each other, carrying on a conversation of distance, change, movement, gravity, light—a conversation we join when we describe those relationships with formulae, but also when we look into the dark night sky to experience awe and joy.
This sense of cosmic expansion—as something we can recognize everywhere we are willing to pay attention to relatedness—seems to be at the heart of Rogers’ poem “Life In An Expanding Universe,” given below. True to this “expansive” and generous understanding of the way matter makes it own meaning, Rogers begins and ends with celestial imagery, but centers her poem on the life-speech of creatures both nearer to home and less obviously grandiose: the crow, the bighorn sheep, and the poet, herself. Because all engage their worlds beautifully by flight, by speech or just by lovingly-careful observation, all participate in a kind of world-making that we must recognize as more than merely metaphorical. But, because we of all creation may also imaginatively engage with these others, re-expressing their worlds through song, or image or poem, the relational universe is expanded here and now, within us, not just out there or back then, without us. Our dwelling in the universe—in short, our humanity—is enriched when we pay attention to what’s outside ourselves and ask it in.
Finally, though, Rogers’ vision of attentiveness to the infilling universe is not only about creating or imagining, but most importantly about receiving what we perceive, regarding such insights as gifts from our fellow creatures, from the cosmos, and foundationally, from the Lord. Her words confirm that it is by receiving and responding that we, ourselves, become more full, and more fully who we were made to be.
Yet does the claim that the world really does (and we really do) exist more fully when we are attentive to it and participate in its relational, material community mean that none of it would exist without us, or that what we perceive as meaning is only illusion? No, as Christians we know that our participation matters deeply and has real consequences, but only, beautifully, because it is at the invitation of the first Creator who continues to be both present and active. Rogers’ receptiveness to the way she and all of us may have our own presence to the world expanded by “flutter-widths” and “lizard-slips” may remind us that though subtle and fleeting, consciousness is not merely a material epiphenomenon; rather, it is life’s loving response to the One who first loved, and who showed us in the person of Christ what it means to humbly enter into, be present for, and redeem even an ever-expanding cosmos.
“Life In An Expanding Universe”
by Pattiann Rogers
It’s not only all those cosmic
pinwheels with their charging solar
luminosities, the way they spin around
like the paper kind tacked to a tree trunk,
the way they expel matter and light
like fields of dandelions throwing off
waves of summer sparks in the wind
the way they speed outward,
receding, creating new distances
simply by soaring into them.
But it’s also how the noisy
crow enlarges his territory
above the landscape at dawn, making
new multiple canyon spires in the sky
by the sharp towers and ledges
of its calling; and how the bighorn
expand the alpine meadows by repeating
inside their watching eyes every foil
of columbine and bell rue, all
the stretches of sedges, the candescences
of jagged slopes and crevices existing there.
And though there isn’t a method
to measure it yet, by finding
a golden-banded skipper on a buttonbush,
by seeing a blue whiptail streak
through desert scrub, by looking up
one night and imagining the fleeing
motions of the stars themselves, I know
my presence must swell one flutter-width
wider, accelerate one lizard-slip farther,
descend many stellar-fathoms deeper
than it ever was before.
from Firekeeper, Expanded and Revised Edition (Milkweed, 2005). ©Pattiann Rogers.
Pattiann Rogers is an award-winning poet and essayist, the author of fourteen books including the most recent, The Grand Array: Writings on Nature, Science, Spirit. (Trinity University Press, 2010.) Born in Joplin, Missouri, she graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a BA from the University of Missouri before receiving her Master of Arts from the University of Houston. She has taught at the University of Texas, the University of Montana, Washington University of St. Louis, and Mercer University as the Ferrol Sams Distinguished Writer-in-Residence. She is the mother of two sons and the grandmother of three grandsons and lives with her husband, a retired geophysicist, in Colorado. A complete list of her work and honors may be found here, and a previous post featuring her poem “The Answering of Prayers” may be found here.
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