Wednesday, 21 March 2007

God's Breath

“The whole course of things goes to teach us faith.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Today I’ve been pondering the cosmological notion of tsimtsum.

No, I did not do this while eating dim sum. I suspect that would not be a digestively sound thing to do. After all, how can one ponder the fine art of God crafting the universe whilst staring at a cart of chicken feet rolling by?

Tsimtsum (pronounced zimzum) is a Kabbalist term which, according to its corresponding dot com, “portrays God as inhaling at the moment of creation, diminishing himself to make room for the universe.”

Don’t ask me why I got thinking about tsimtsum when I should instead be doing what normal stay-at-home mom types do. Get buffed at the health club. Watch the daytime talk shows and fold laundry. Scrapbook two decades of photos. Have morning coffee with the PTA moms and chatter about the upcoming school auction. Or go shopping for bed and bath décor. (translation: what I should be doing rather than blogging).

But I think what started this train of thought was that I got to pondering the overt absence of God during my childhood years and began wondering if there is a kind of micro tsimtsum- osmosis that transpires at birth for all of God’s creation.

As above, so below, and all that.

I’m sure Rabbi Luria would be rolling over in his grave right now if he knew the extent to which I have metaphorically messed with his most sophisticated creation concept. He intended to introduce (or so I gather) the notion that because Ein Sof (God) was an energy source that existed as all that was, Ein Sof needed to contract and allow a space/place of nothingness for creation ex nihilo, before next crafting humans with both form and purpose.

Thus, the primordial Adam (not to be confused with Adam of Adam/Eve fame) became the first man in this chaos to cosmos tale. Lurianic Kabbalists then view God as an evolving Source in process and evolution; both Creator and Creation, Infinite and Temporal, Exoteric and Esoteric, Transcendent yet Immanent.

So that’s the extreme skinny on tsimtsum. There’s much more to it than that, obviously. This is Kabbalah and a metaphysical worldview, after all, and nothing in Kabbalah is simple, (except perhaps Madonna’s time goes by so slowly for those who wait lyrics).

One of my fave and perhaps the best-known modern portrayal of tsimtsum can be found with the Good Ship Tsimtsum in Yann Martel's Man Booker Prize winning tale, Life of Pi. If you have not yet read Life of Pi, what can I say? You really ought to. As one of my best-loved profs was so fond of instructing us with assignments, “read this: it will be good for you to do so.”

I read the book for my Nature of Religion self-study class and while it reads, at first skim, like a simple grade five, epic sea adventure, the book is actually an Überintertextual, religious allegory of man’s plight against, nature, self and God. To borrow a line from the Lucky Charms commercial, it’s magically delicious (if a bit tedious in spots).

And of course, it is no mere coincidence that the name of the ship our good friend Pi the protagonist was aboard happened to be the Tsimtsum. One could say that at the point that the ship sunk, Pi was born-again. Now before you start speculating whether I have perhaps been inhaling a bit too much of something or other myself, and have forgotten to exhale, consider the possibility with me for just a moment. Tsimtsum for everyone. What if?

What if we understood God, (or whatever name you wish to address God as), God’s grace and/or God’s breath, through this same lens, whereby we are each left to our own devices (scare quote emphasis on 'vices' for some of us more primitive beings) from the point at which our soul first attaches to us, be that in-vetro or during delivery. Things that make you go hmmmm.

He contracts and then tiptoes away, allowing each spark of ensuing creation the breathing room to expand and soul-make, which in turn, in this kind of process theology, helps evolve God and expand the cosmos. Now granted, that doesn’t explain the divine sensibilities of the enlightened few, who are veritably born wired for God as saints, nuns, priests, mystics and prophets. In these cases, I think God accidentally takes a deep breath in, but inadvertently breathes out a tiny gasp in the final moment; imbuing them with more than a few sprinkles of his divine spit. Which goes to show why only a small handful of babies are born attractive.

But for many of us, like me, who had only the faintest shards of divine light illuminate the cracks of our secular childhoods; this grand, God-toking and getting high on His/Her own energy process makes sense. It contains way more logic than the mythical stork tale. And it might well explain why babies cry when they get their asses slapped at birth. It is a metaphoric reminder of the tsimtsum trauma ~ when God first said, “see ya, wouldn’t wanna be ya.”

And it is an interesting worldview; this apparent absent, yet veiled presence of God business. I liken it to desert spirituality: creation must find its way back to the water Source while avoiding the mirages along the way. The desert analogy does not work perfectly for our friend, Pi, of course, who had no shortage of water to contend with, albeit of the salty variety. But the plight is the same, nonetheless.

As Pi states, “I was alone and orphaned, in the middle of the Pacific, hanging on to an oar, an adult tiger in front of me, sharks beneath me, a storm raging around me. Had I considered my prospects in the light of reason, I surely would have given up.” Rumi’s sage words, “do not seek water, seek thirst” ring true here.

Were it not for Pi’s transcendent faith and conjuring of Richard Parker ~ that mysterium tremendum et fascinans tiger and trusty raft companion ~ how might the tale have ended?

By the same token, were it not for his reason and bouts of religious naturalism, how might he have otherwise survived?

And what of the co-dependency between Richard the tiger and Pi the boy?

As above, so below.

O Lord, how manifold are your works!
In wisdom you made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures.
There is the sea, vast and spacious,

teeming with creatures beyond number—
living things both large and small.
There the ships go to and fro,

and the leviathan,
which you formed to frolic there.
These all look to you

to give them their food at the proper time.
When you give it to them,

they gather it up;
when you open your hand,
they are satisfied with good things.
When you hide your face,

they are terrified;
when you take away their breath,
they die and return to the dust.
When you send your Spirit,

they are created,
and you renew the face of the earth.
Psalm 104: 24-30


Anonymous said...

This is a beautiful thought and so wonderfully portrayed I can picture it easily. I am ashamed at the manner in which I read Life of Pi. It was for a bookclub and I was so busy with work and life that month that I waited until the final days to read it. Actually, I had borrowed it from the library and had to return it (they'll only let you check it out twice in a row) just days before the bookclub meeting. I sat outside the library in my cold car in the dark finishing as fast as I could the final pages under the streetlamp light as long as I could justify a quick drive to drop off a few things at the library to my husband. It became evident at some point that I just wasn't going to finish the book in time and so I skipped the final 10 or so pages and read the last two. The first and last time I'll ever do that with a book.

Anonymous said...

Ordering the book now. Hopefully I'll better be able to understand this entry when I've read it. Sometimes things just swing barely out of my grasp, no matter how hard I try to reach them.

Anonymous said...

such a great book! I'm on my 2nd or 3rd copy now. I keep loaning it out and not getting it back.

Hatrock said...

Wow sis! You're such an awesome writer. I always enjoy the way you craft words together so even a lowly laymen like myself can understand. You should start a blog or something.

Holy Thought of the Week

"To live fully is to let go and die with each passing moment, and to be reborn in each new one."

~ Jack Kornfield ~