"If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel's heartbeat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence." (191)
- George Elliot Middlemarch
(New York, New American Library, 1980)
This quote speaks to what I often refer to as "naturalistic mysticism," an experience of the mystery inherent in the universe. Not 'mystery' as a 'problem to be solved' or a reference to things as yet beyond our ken; but mystery as an affirmation that, no matter how much we come to understand the Earth & Cosmos, it will still be ‘mysterious’—something awe-inspiring and wondrous.
Elliot speaks here of opening to the ordinary; experiencing the depth and profound import of the daily—something sought by religious mystics in many traditions.[i] The ordinary is a gateway into the mystery of all-that-is. The genuine experience of the ordinary contributes to wisdom and self-realization. If we are unaware of our environs – our actual lived context – then we cannot act effectively. As such, awakening to our place in Earth & Cosmos is necessary for a genuine spiritual praxis, which delineates proper action, thought and reflection.
Elliot – like so many of the mystics – intimates that if we became truly aware of our surroundings; really awake and alert to our context and what was happening all around us – that it would be 'like' hearing the grass grow or 'hearing' the beating of a squirrel's heart. These expressions are similes that speak to our 'deafness' to normal, everyday surroundings. They imply how much there would be to experience – and the wonder we would experience as a result – were we to 'wake up;' i.e., metaphorically, if the 'scales' would fall away from our senses, enabling us to perceive our environs with clarity of mind and heart.
As a result of such a 'waking up,' we might well become conscious of the ROAR OF EXISTENCE; I love this phrase! And this would inspire 'dread' – in that old mystical sense of being so overwhelmed by our experiential input that it would be 'like' a death. She says we would "die" of the "roar" that would resound from "the other side of silence." The ‘death’ she is speaking of here need not be literal; it alludes to the death of the ‘old self’ that was perfectly willing to lull-about in life, deaf, blind and dumb – completely insensate – to the wonders all around us. The ‘silence’ she is speaking of here is the result of our ‘muting’ of ordinary reality; the ‘quieting’ of our normal, everyday surroundings. This ‘quieting’ is to some extent necessary if we are to carry on with life and do the routine things that we need to do to survive. Too much input can be as deadening as too little! Yet while perhaps necessary in a limited sense, we need to enliven our senses to be able to appreciate the reality of Earth & Cosmos. In those moments when our 'vision' and 'feeling' become 'keen,' we may enter into a fuller apprehension of what-is. And this is the naturalistic dimension of mysticism; the experience of the mystery of What-Is; the flux and flow of being-in-becoming and an appreciation of the wonder of it all!
This experience is not something 'supernatural;' it does not depend upon superstitious belief. The mysticism Eliot implies here is perfectly natural; it is an emotional experience grounded in our neurology and interpretable by our intellect. It is an experience that we have been equipped for by evolution, most likely by accident (though I might argue that mysticism has an evolutionary advantage). However we came by the ability to have such profound experiences, it results in awe and wonder and can lead to such experiences as a ‘cleansing’ of our ‘senses’ and a radical realization of the ‘import’ of our surroundings—our being at-home in Earth & Cosmos. These experiences have been known to mystics down across the centuries – both religious and non-religious – and are a normal manifestation of our ability to engage with our surroundings in an open and accepting way.
An experience of naturalistic mysticism can also be transformative, regenerative and have a healing effect. You are never quite the same after such an experience. The mundane cannot hold sway over you; you know there is more to reality than what we experience in the state of “normal consciousness” as Abraham Heschel called it in The Earth is the Lord’s (1978):
“Normal consciousness is a state of stupor, in which sensibility to the wholly real and responsiveness to the stimuli of the spirit are reduced. The mystics, knowing that humankind is involved in a hidden history with the cosmos, endeavor to awake from the drowsiness and apathy and to regain the state of wakefulness for their enchanted souls.”
While framed in a religious worldview, I would suggest that this passage speaks to the same kind of 'awakening' as that to which Elliot was alluding. To nurture this kind of mysticism is to contribute to our wholeness in a perfectly naturalistic sense; a psychological, existential sense—one that can be thought of in spiritual terms.
[i] In the Christian tradition, Augustine, Brother Lawrence and other mediaeval mystics emphasized the importance of being in touch with the ordinary; of being able to appreciate the daily round and not allowing it to become merely the ‘mundane.’ Modern spiritual writers such as Joan Chittister (see e.g., Wisdom Distilled from the Daily, 2009) and Thomas Merton have also urged an awareness of the ordinary.