Friday, March 21, 2008

Experience--Terror of sheer nothing

Here is a quote from a book called "The Ember and the Stars: A Philosophical Inquiry Into the Moral Sense of Nature" by Erazim Kohak. I was stunned reading this passage, it so echoed experiences I have had in which we suddenly get a glimpse of the utter mystery beneath all of life. A philosopher and writer, he has gone into the woods to live for an extended period. He built his own cabin and he is living alone, and literally, off the land...

So I sat on the third night of the January full moon. The evening comes early: it could have been no more than a single stroke past seven when the full moon swung past the uncurtained window in the peak and cast a cone of cold white light into the room. Preoccupied with my doings, warm between the stove and the lamp, I hardly noticed it at first. Only gradually I grew aware of the immense, intergalactic emptiness bearing down on my house, leaning into the windows, pressing down on the frozen forest and deep into the snow. The familiar things of my daily work disappeared, swallowed up in the vast emptiness. Only the moon remained, and the vast, cold emptiness of the space, the deep all-devouring cold, freezing all life, pressing down on me and demanding its own.

Something like a panic seized me. I sat, paralyzed, blinded by that vast emptiness. The warmth of the stove, the warmth of my body suddenly seemed utterly anomalous: the eternal emptiness of the cosmos, freezing all life, seemed the dominant presence. There was nothing. Somewhere in some inaccessible corner of my mind I was not unaware that deep under the snow were the humble denizens of the forest, the woodchucks, the beavers, the gentle brown mice; that in their season they would reemerge, the sun would melt the snow and the green world of summer spring forth once more. But that was theory. The present reality was the vast cold emptiness, leaning hard on the frozen world from the infinitely distant stars, demanding its own.

Suddenly it seemed an immense effort to restoke the fire. Why? I was living alone. I could not strike the spark of the divine eros, I could not renew life. Only when there are two, sleeping side by side, sharing dreams, does life renew itself. I could only live it down as fire burns down, stick by stick, burning up a scant supply of dreams until there are no more and the cosmic cold reclaims its own. A man alone is a waste of good firewood, unable to resist the cosmic cold. It would be so much easier to stop the clock, douse the fire, and open the door and windows wide, letting in the immense cosmic cold. There was nothing. Let there be nothing, let nothing be.

The moon passed by my window and the experience passed on with it, as suddenly as it had come. The familiar objects of my world reappeared, the cup with the flower design, the embroidered pillow, the old clock, and my stove. I got up, selected a length of fragrant cherry and put it on the fire. There were once again things to look after, page proofs to finish, lentils to soak for the morrow. I walked out into the moonlit night. Even the moon was the familiar brother moon once more, lighting up my path to the orchard, outlining tiny tracks by the wood pile with sharp shadows: a wood mouse had been there before me. I walked slowly along the path, pausing occasionally to hear and to remember, giving thanks for the miracle of warmth, the miracle of life, for the fullness of Being. For what I had seen in the light of the cold January moon was the terror of sheer nothing--and it is not convertible with Being.

Oh, Mr. Kohak, thank you. You expressed this so well....

3 comments:

Jan said...

Katherine, this gives me insight into you. From the Academy, I remember you saying bits and pieces about your experiences of death/nothing. This is beautiful, but achingly so.

Katherine E. said...

Hi Jan. Yes, those two years at Academy were the years in which I had more than one really profound and scary experiences like Kohak describes so well. You have such a good memory!

Rev SS said...

Wow!