I watched “GASP,” one of the episodes of This Strange Rock, a 10-part series from National Geographic. It happened! That numinous moment when the veil of conformity and taking-things-for-grantedness lifted. The realization that WOW! The complexity and interconnectedness of everything—the simple act of breath is an accumulation of several cosmic and chemical events. Oxygen the ability to hold oxygen in the atmosphere that thin layer made possible by ozone; the dust from the salt beds once sea beds filled for half miles with the carcasses of trillions and trillions of diatoms in Africa gets lifted up by mighty winds that transport it to the Amazon where it settles on the forest floor feeding it with the most luscious layer of fertilizer. How water is pulled through the underground networks and sucked through a trillion trees that make oxygen the product of photosynthesis. How fragile yet how complex life is for the simple fact that oxygen exists in the atmosphere. Too little and there would only have been one-celled creatures to make earth home; too much and oxidation would make earth a roaring bonfire. Salt deserts that feed rain forests, glimpses of flying rivers from watch towers higher than a skyscraper. 27 million tons of dust from the salt desert in Africa winds up on the Amazon basin. One tree produces enough oxygen to support two people. The Amazon so full of oxygen uses it all up to support the diversity of life there. Diatom blooms, microscopic up close, are seen as blotches of moving blue from space.
It is a miracle that we exist. The wonder of the creation when looked at by those astronauts from the space station. How we have evolved to the point where we can understand the unique place we hold in the cosmos.
And then I consider the daily competition for living. The pettiness of human micro and macro aggressions. How we live with our passionate brutality, vain strivings. Our mortality. I consider my life—the inconsequence of it. I have accomplished so little, my sphere of influence so narrow. I am a nothing who is granted but a short breath, a short walk over and over through a tiny tract of this strange rock. Who will remember me? Who will know me? I am but a mote on a speck on the churnings of time. Small-minded and miniscule, does it matter if I never exist? I am given to understand that we are so small, such specks on the floor of this strange rock.
This realization is enough to crush our egos into the layers of rotting diatoms. Our collective consciousness is just a blip on the primordial canvass, our individual consciousness is but a falling diatom of dust.
Yet at the same time, it is this smallness that makes me huge—that I count for so little but the very fact of my breath and this thought that I hold about my smallness in relation to the cosmos makes me huge. My God! Is it not enough to realize what greatness lies in a thing so small? When you come out of the menial myopic self-focusing and view the whole creation in its miraculous complexity, you realize—I am alive! This is the greatest miracle! How strange! How beautiful! What a gift! I am so grateful to understand this awe in the unfolding layers of knowledge science and technology with its space stations and photographs of the blue planet and space suits hissing oxygen
The awareness of the miniscule mightiness that governs creatures great and small reminds me of Juilana of Norwich, that 13th century English mystic I came across in my survey of English lit class. In her Revelations of Divine Love she has a vision: she looks upon a little seed in the palm of her hand and sees God’s whole creation.
“He shewed me a little thing, the quantity of an hazel-nut, in the palm of my hand; ; and it was as round as a ball. I looked thereupon with eye of my understanding, and thought: What may this be? And it was answered generally thus: It is all that is made. I marvelled how it might last, for methought it might suddenly have fallen to naught for little. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasteth, and ever shall for that God loveth it. And so All-thing hath the Being by the love of God.
In this Little Thing I saw three properties. The first is that God made it, the second is that God loveth it, the third, that God keepeth it.” (Revelations of Divine Love, Juliana of Norwich)
Perhaps I am taking a great leap of faith here but my poet’s soul cannot help but clutch my breast at the awesome mystery of this—that nowhere else in the cosmos would it have been possible to have just the right conditions, enough oxygen, for one, to allow for life and consciousness to evolve as we know it. And the miracle is this—that we can contemplate this little nut that holds the cosmos in the palm of our hand and know that Providence governs a thing so small just as the hugeness of the universe, our nut of a galaxy, in the palm of God’s hand.
We are everything, from the infinitesimal to the infinite, a manifestation of the Divine Presence in the cosmos.
How can anyone watch these documentaries and not get a sense of awe—that this Created reality we live right now is nothing short of miraculous, whether you attribute it to God or chance. The more I know about the working of the universe, the more I feel the presence of the Divine, that Spirit that ties it all together. Perhaps we as mankind in our dirty dealings with one another have shaped this world into the hell it is, but by God’s Providence it is not so. Look at it as Chris Hatfield the astronaut did from inside the space shuttle and it is a wonder, it is heaven on earth. The Creator must have had a soft spot for us indeed to have fashioned the conditions just right. “Without the energy from oxygen life couldn’t grow any bigger than a pinhead” the astrobiologist Dr Felipe Gomez Gomez cites in the documentary.
Gasp! The contemplation of this miracle leaves you holding your breath.