The other day, I heard a piece on the radio about an old German cemetery that had been converted into a playground for a nearby school, with one headstone only remaining out back behind the swings, where the departed could keep rest.
As I listened, I was put in mind of a point I found slightly difficult in the Chapel’s reading for Chelanya—the idea that the “Dark Mother … can truly be called the ‘Earth Mother’ if we can free ourselves of all the materialistic interpretations … and understand Her as the metaphysical Ground of All Being.” This idea, as the article points out, is looking ahead somewhat to Cuivanya, but so are we (this is, after all, a belated reflection), and it is not at all a point out of place.
So while I vexed my blonde head about how we are to understand that seemingly most material of elements—earth—beyond all materialistic interpretations, this story came to me on the radio and, in a flash, I saw it as a lovely metaphor…
While we live, we know a cemetery. Perhaps it is a place our own foremothers are buried; perhaps it is a place we visit at Tamala. We can well imagine what manner of being we shall have when we are lying in it as well, visited by our own daughters.
Dea volente, we are indeed visited, generation after generation, and, through those returns, our memory is preserved while the earth keeps space for us—a plot marked and held apart. And yet, in a sense, this is cheating us, for the individual we were has reached the limit of its potential and must now reach for a potential beyond herself. Such limitlessness is the soul’s birthright, as the Scriptures tell us that “all were Her daughters… for each was a reflection of some boundless fragment of Her unbounded Spirit.” (Creation 1:14, AAV)* Yet we fear this, because we cannot be limitless and our bounded ego-selves at the same time.
While there is memory, there is a constraining measure of actuality. In the memories of others, we are held in thrall to the time of one manifestation, like the adult whose parents still see her as a child, or the country whose living culture is subsumed beneath reverence for its ancient past. So long as a stone bears our name, we are bounded by it, and the marker that preserves us in memory succeeds, at the same time, in setting our abandoned body apart from the openness of the soil to which it is meant to return. “What is remembered, lives,” goes the old saying, but this is a blessing and a curse. In a certain sense, to be buried with a grave marker is to be buried alive.
While I am still alive and unburied, I visit the cemetery. I draw the brim of my hat down against the rain and I weep into the wind. And then, because I am not dead yet, I light a cigarette against the cold when my weeping has subsided. Perhaps I think of the “weeping philosopher,” Heraclitus, best known for asking if a man can step into the same river twice. In a certain sense, the river is the same, since the flow is continuous, but in another, equally important, sense, the river has departed by the time the second foot arrives, replaced by new waters. And so it occurs to me that this rain in which I stand will never weep with another, this wind will never carry another’s sob, this fire will never warm another hand. But what of this earth? It does not flow away; its stones and its soil remain. It will bear the footsteps of many more mourners than I, and will wear many more dresses than this cemetery.
This is the paradox of earth—that, while it is often seen as the most material and solid of the elements, its very endurance makes it the most pregnant with unmanifest potential. Wait but a moment and there will be, very truly, a new wind and a new flame and a new river, but the field will be the same, and will have the opportunity to manifest new potential from its same self in a way that neither wind, nor water, nor blaze can do.
Perhaps this may lead us to the threshold of understanding earth free of “materialistic interpretations,” for when we look past the (still esoterically significant) fact of its solidity as a symbol of substance, we find in it a path to the apprehension of essence. We come to it seeking not the structure of the manifest, but the limitless potential of the unmanifest. Within every boulder we behold the uncarved block of the Taoists; within the loam, the womb to which a maid returns to be born a second time, of the Spirit.
So when, at last, the field is ploughed up and ploughed under, and the place where I was buried becomes something I could not have imagined while alive, the cemetery has not been abolished, but fulfilled.
Perhaps it is not dissimilar—the way that we come again and again to this world through many incarnations, revisiting ourselves and keeping a space apart as distinct fragments of Her laughter until, one day, every fragment finds its way back to Her bosom. She draws a new breath, and the old peals ripple out as their medium is gathered in. New laughter on new breath makes a new world—but never again with precisely the timbre and the tremor of the vibrations that were ours.
Some may find this too sombre a reflection for such a happy occasion as has just passed. They may ask whether we can speak of meaningful existence in potential, across an event horizon where all information is destroyed. How can we live forgetting, and forgotten?
Rebbe Nachman once said that forgetting was a great gift from God (no matter how it might vex the assiduous Torah student) because, if we did not forget, we would become too burdened by the memory of our sins to serve God. In the parlance of the East, we might say that we would become too attached to our ego selves to transcend them. We cannot be our little selves and be limitless, and we also cannot be limited and be our true Selves—for our true Selves have their being in Her limitless joy and love. Our Lady taught us not just that we are separated from God, but that we are diminished in ourselves, by having frowned on the laughter of Our Mother’s heart (Secret of the World, vv. 10–12). What choice do we have, then, but to put off the faces that bear these scowls? The Reformed churches teach that, once a man has accepted Christ, He is remade inwardly in Christ’s image, so that while the unconverted man sinned out of the baseness of his nature, the Christian, sanctified, sins against his nature—out of character, if you will, with the new nature he has been given. In this is his hope for change. So, too, Our Lady warned us: “Seek not to conquer Khear alone nor cleave alone to Good, but open your heart to Me, and let Me live through you, for I shall open the way to your true soul, your laughing soul, all robed in white, more lovely than the sun…” (v. 19)
Let us not, then, scry the event horizon of inbreathing seeking the image of our little, frowning selves, for we shall not find it, and let us not seek our headstones in a cemetery that has become a playground, for they are gone. Let us not ask what has become of us, or where we are, for the Lakota used to say that every visible stone is a place where God has stopped.
When a headstone is erected, it is customary to carve “Rest in Peace,” but Jesus told Nicodemus that a man must be born of water and the Spirit to be pervasive as the wind, whose sound you hear, though “you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going,” (John 3:5–8) and Our Lady, likewise, told us that we must descend (Temple of the Heart, v. 24) into the deepest earth, beyond all materialistic interpretation, to blaze with all the glory of the sun. It is not our tradition to seek rest, but rather the wisdom of a little child laughing on the playground that, at one time, was a cemetery.
*An idea reinforced in 2:9, when we are told that the first maid’s “energy was no longer boundless” after embracing the Snake.