At the outset we were introduced to and invited to reflect on the amazing journey of this universe that we inhabit. For those in An Tairseach there was the opportunity to do this physically in the form of a cosmic walk set into the ground in the shape of a large spiral with hand painted stones representing some events, arbitrarily chosen but designed to give a sense of the universe’s unfolding process. Unlike a labyrinth the cosmic spiral begins at the centre from a point that represents the Flaring Forth of life and takes the pilgrim through significant moments in evolution, giving a sense of the unfolding universe story to the last and outer stone which brings him or her to the present day. Luckily, I had been able to experience this cosmic walk in an earlier visit to An Tairseach but on this retreat had to be content with reflecting on each of the stages set out for us in the cosmic walk booklet.
This didn’t feel like a second-hand experience because if gave me time to reflect on each stage and stay with any one for as long as I wanted. The universe story is amazing and wondrous. Even more wondrous is that it is also the story of each one of us and is part of us. At that moment of the flaring forth of light and energy when the universe came into being 13.7 billion years ago it held the potential for everything that would come to be, including me and you, the reader. The hydrogen and helium set forth at that moment is still with us, the universe is still expanding, evolution continues its journey. From that moment of flaring forth stars, galaxies and planets have been formed, our own planet earth forming an atmosphere that sustained life. From the formation of simple cells, the earth has developed in many diverse and complex ways resulting at this moment in time in conscious human beings who have been described as the universe conscious of itself.
Two moments in this journey have stayed with me. One happened 3.9 billion years ago - the process of photosynthesis when the earth learned to take nourishment from the sun, when plants and simple celled organisms learned to capture solar energy, convert it into chemical energy and store it for further use. This is a process that powers the planet’s living systems, this is what gives us the oxygen that sustains us, that set out the pattern for all future life forms where each receives and gives nourishment from and to the other. Giving and receiving is intrinsic to how we do live and should live in our daily interactions. What if it hadn’t happened? There would be no life as we know it, a refrain that could accompany each stage of evolution. The second significant moment that has stayed with me is 1 billion years ago when life was drawn towards union and simple-celled organisms began to reproduce sexually, a process that meant they relinquished their immortality to facilitate the growth of multi-celled organisms. What if that hadn’t happened? Well sex but also death might not have become a condition for the creation of future life. For me this makes death meaningful. We cannot live forever even though some artificial intelligent experts talk as though it is one of the last barriers to be overcome. There would only then be stagnation. For life to continue and develop we must die, we must learn to let go when it is time for new and younger generation to contribute.
Thomas Berry has said we, and he’s talking to Christians, need to know and live by the story of the universe. I also think we need a spiritual practice to help us realise that we are indeed children of the universe, part of this great evolutionary journey, interconnected with all life. One of Thich Nhat Hanh’s mindfulness gathas could help with this. The one I like is, “I have arrived, I am home in the here, in the now”. Often, I begin by reminding myself that I am a child of the universe, become aware of my family and religious ancestors, pray they may be well, may be happy, may be free from suffering. Then as I breathe into ‘I have arrived I am home’, I am aware of how I hold that evolutionary journey and those ancestors within me to arrive at this present moment, aware of where I am both physically and mentally. As I breathe into ‘in the here and the now’ I am aware that the here and now in the world in which I live is both a loving and painful one with wars, conflicts, violence, greed, pollution, climate change etc and I pray for all sentient beings, our wounded planet, and its warring nations that they may be well, may be happy and free from suffering. This is a practice that works for me. It links me into the universe story, connects me with the rest of life and hopefully awakens my compassion and desire for the well-being of future generations. Perhaps it would work for others too.