Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Beware the Jabberwock!

`Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

"Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!"

He took his vorpal sword in hand:
Long time the manxome foe he sought --
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood awhile in thought.

So begins Jabberwocky, the famous nonsense poem by Lewis Carroll (of Alice in Wonderland fame) and a personal favorite. I want to say that this is one of the cleverest poems in the English language, but it’s not English! And that is just the point. The genius of Jabberwocky is that it convincingly imitates English while remaining firmly planted in the realm of the meaningless.

What’s the point? Beyond sheer entertainment value, I submit that the great upshot of this poem is that it’s possible to say a great deal without really saying anything. Ha!
In the last couple of posts we’ve been referring to this thing called “spiritual life.” But have we been saying a great deal that signifies nothing? I hope not. However, if we have, we would not be the first. It turns out it's fantastically easy for talk about the spiritual to devolve into something that's all icing and no cake.

Maybe you’ve noticed what I have. In recent years styling yourself as a “spiritual person” has come into vogue. And the reason for this is not far to find; As a self-description, it is at once non-threatening and helpfully vague. That is, it’s inoffensive because non-specific while maintaining a desirable air of profundity. Not bad. Not bad at all.

I will say that I think people who say this are on to something true. If by this they want to affirm that there is more to the world than meets the eye, that there really is some great transcendent reality behind the cosmos, then I get it. But we can’t stop there. If by “spiritual” we only mean that we get chills when we listen to Cat Stevens sing “Morning Has Broken,” or that we feel a sense of the sublime when we look deep into the night sky, I don’t think we’re really saying enough. To do so really is not to say anything that goes beyond a general description of the human experience, as significant as that is.

Other times people have something more definite in mind when they speak of “spiritual life.” They may think that it’s simply synonymous with an ethical life or high-minded way of thinking about humanity and our plight in this world. Or they may associate it with something altogether unworldly, people who ceaselessly ponder extra-mundane realities and see celestial visions - You know, unearthly creatures and wheels of fire and light set to an alternately dramatic and ethereal soundtrack. Think Wagner and Enya on continuous repeat.

But is any of this what “spiritual life” is really about? To be clear, I do think that it involves a belief in the transcendent, leads to a life that chooses the good and rejects evil, and that some people really have seen visions like the one described above. (Go read the first chapter of Ezekiel) Nevertheless, I don’t think that any of these lays hold of the essence of the spiritual life. But, more on that next time. For now, I’ll let Lewis Carrol play us out.......

And, as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! And through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.

"And, has thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!'
He chortled in his joy.

`Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

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