Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Contemplation in Science

Anthropologist Jeremy Narby’s book, Intelligence in Nature: An Inquiry into Knowledge, which I referred to two weeks ago, reminded me of the role of contemplation in the scientific quest.

I’ve written before about Einstein’s famous “thought experiments” by which he developed explanations for natural phenomena, comparing them to the imagination Saint Ignatius felt was needed in the contemplative life.

In a chapter entitled “Plants as Brains,” Narby reports the work of Anthony Trewavas, a biologist at the University of Edinburgh, which he summarizes:

Plants have intentions, make decisions, and compute complex aspects of their environment. … When attacked by herbivores, some plants signal for help, releasing chemicals that attract their assailants’ predators. … When a plant is damaged, its cells send one another electrical signals just like our own pain messages [p 83-4].

Trewavas prefers to use the word “compute” to “think” when applied to plants [p87] and disputes the long held scientific position that plants are passive because they do not move, explaining “it requires an equating of movement with intelligence. Movement is an expression of intelligence [p85]” speculating that “plant communication is likely to be as complex as within a brain [p93].”

I will leave all of that for scientists to hash out. What interests me as a contemplative wannabe is Trewavas’s process developing such thoughts, “I find it’s only by long periods of doing nothing but think that suddenly facts start coming into your mind [p90].”

Half of Narby’s book consists of detailed footnotes that undergirds or sometimes questions his text. I find these details occasionally hard to understand, as I am clearly not a scientist, but I can appreciate their gist. I’m not a footnote kind of guy, but I find these footnotes awesome and well worth the read. It’s there that I found these thoughts from W. I. B. Beveridge, written in 1950 under the title The Art of Scientific Investigation:

The most important prerequisite is prolonged contemplation of the problem and the data until the mind is saturated with it. … The mind must work consciously on the problem for days in order to get the subconscious mind working on it [p 206].

Diversions and distractions are to be avoided, but idle time can be useful and fertile. This made me think of Vincent van Gogh’s idle time after being dismissed from his pastoral position by church hierarchy dismayed at his lack of social distance from his parishioners. It was then van Gogh thought he might take up drawing and painting, hoping his paintings would have the same consoling effect the Christian faith once offered.

Beveridge continues:

Most people find intuitions are more likely to come during a period of apparent idleness and temporary abandonment of the problem following periods of intensive work. Light occupations requiring no mental effort, such as walking in the country, bathing, shaving, traveling to and from work, are said by some to be when intuitions most often appear… [p207].

That’s the way I work, by spending a little “idle” time that allows thoughts or feelings, patterns or analyses to “bubble up.” In college I read process philosopher Henri Bergson, who suggested that along with rational thought we needed intuitive thinking. Intuition may simply be the subconscious mind offering an insight or solution from its hidden depths.

To me, that’s the gift of contemplation in the spiritual life as well.


For Thanksgiving in the U.S. tomorrow, please see last week’s post: Thanksgivings

My friend and blog reader J. Barrie Shepherd is offering a holiday chapbook:

A Poetic Pandemic Christmas Pudding “a plump and spicy concoction of words, phrases and images to evoke the many flavors and aromas of the yuletide feast. P.S. Add brandy to ignite.

Proceeds go to food pantries in his area of Maine. $10 per copy plus $2 postage. Send check made out to J. Barrie Shepherd to 15 Piper Road – K325, Scarborough ME 04074. Copies will be signed and can be inscribed by request. Or order though his email:

Donations to Progressive Christian Reflections may be given safely by clicking here and scrolling down to the donate link below its description. Thank you!

Copyright © 2020 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.  

Wednesday, November 18, 2020


As we huddle in our homes, alone or with immediate family and/or pets, fearful of the usual gatherings that Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s bring because of the coronavirus, it may be more of a challenge to feel gratitude this year.

Whenever I feel cause to complain, as happened in the calamity described in last week’s post, I immediately think of all those people who have far more to complain about throughout the world. It makes me feel that I have no right even to mention my “suffering,” as if I am whining like a child in a grocery store denied a treat.

The spiritual writer Henri Nouwen declared that we should not compare sufferings, saying, “Your suffering is your own.” I am not so sure, but in the moment of loss and deprivation and pain, the focus is on your suffering or my suffering or the suffering we witness daily in the news. Our individual experience of suffering opens us to understanding the suffering of others.

Many of us believe that to be a spiritual person is to practice compassion, literally “suffering with” one another. It is a practice, not always a feeling, though the practice may lead to feelings as well as actions to assuage the suffering.

Jesus was the first spiritual founder to teach me this. But it’s also true of the Talmud and the Buddha and the Quran and the Vedas, to mention a few spiritual paths that sensitively deal with suffering.

Our sufferings could be, as I’ve written in other contexts, our “wounds with a view,” our opportunities to be thankful for the people and things, events and opportunities we are missing for now as well as our window onto others’ suffering.

Some of us are missing people who will never return, but we can yet be grateful that they have touched our lives, our bodies, our dreams, our hopes. I am the sum of all who have touched me, and I celebrate them whenever I think of them with love and joy and gratitude and whenever I touch others with love and joy and gratitude.

Despite our loss of five wondrous trees at the end of October, two from our neighbors’ yards and three from our own, the month began rather well observing Wade’s and my birthdays, our anniversary, and the anniversary of my lifelong-sought-for ordination. Our pastor Jenelle and her husband Chris (also a pastor) secretly hung the banner above on our front porch as a surprise from our Ormewood Church friends. (Their daughter tried to help, but she kept giggling, I am told.)

Our friends and neighbors Sonja and Jody and Cathie and CJ gathered with us for a socially-distanced outdoor dinner celebration under colorful parasols in Sonja and Jody’s yard. People driving by thought it was a fabulously festive new restaurant opening. (See photo below.) They also rescued us and Wade’s chili when we lost power on Halloween.

We received cards and calls and messages from family and friends. For all our “cloistered” experience, we never felt absolutely alone. And in a day and age of cellphones and flatscreens and tablets and laptops, we had Zoom church and conversations and plenty of programs to watch. Think of historic pandemics with none of these outlets (or maybe I should call them “inlets”)!

I had my blog to write and readers to correspond with while Wade worked online from home. I also led an online retreat on Henri Nouwen for Columbia Seminary’s Spirituality Program, synchronistically based on his book Reaching Out.

And God was always to be found as I daily prayed for humanity’s deliverance from this virus as well as for the election of compassionate leaders.

My hope is that we all make the most of our Thanksgivings!

That's Wade to the right.

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Copyright © 2020 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.  

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

In Memory of Trees

The tree that was (in spring)

A few days before Halloween, Wade and I were awakened one very dark and early morning by a loud swooshing sound followed by a thud that shook the house. A neighbor’s (and our pastor’s) very tall oak fell across the yard of the neighbor between us and into our backyard, taking out two fences (ours was brand new!) and a good portion of our only tree there, compliments of the winds and rain of Hurricane Zeta, which took down 350 trees in Atlanta.

The Bradford flowering pear, doomed eventually to split anyway by its very nature, was the sixth tree over 26 years that I have planted in the backyard. Each full-grown tree fell or was irreparably damaged due to a variety of natural circumstances, including drought, storms, and high winds: a maple, a cottonwood, a weeping willow, and two cypresses.

Our pastor's daughter and cat Luna
strolling toward our backyard in the distance.
Photo by Rev. Jenelle Holmes.

Probably related to the earlier storm, a very old and tall oak fell late afternoon on Halloween across our street to our front yard, demolishing our crepe myrtle and dogwood and burying our fountain and its flower bed. Thanks to the pandemic (how often do we get to use this phrase in a favorable way?), no trick-or-treaters were endangered.

In both cases, our yards got the top part of the trunk with all its branches, making quite a mess. Ironically, this season our lawns and yards had never looked so good, and now—! Where we live, where the tree lands is the landowner’s responsibility, and homeowner’s insurance doesn’t cover tree removal except at the very point it intersects with a structure.

Tree across Berne Street, our front yard on the right.

This event coinciding with the fearful pandemic and the contentious election, the biblical character Job came to mind. And, given how we were feeling about our yards, the phrase, “Pride goeth before a fall.”

Virtually all who saw our wreckage said it’s a blessing we were not injured and that our house was not damaged. A couple of passersby and several friends told us we must have had someone watching over us. One older black neighbor, Mary, cried to see the damage, grateful to find we were not hurt, and Wade realized she needed a masked-but-non-socially-distanced-yet-assuring hug.

Several neighbors/friends/members of Ormewood Church helped us clean up what we could before we brought in the “big guns” of a tree service to clean and remove the debris this week. One of them loaned us a generator to keep our fridge running during two periods without power. As Mister Rogers always said, in times of crisis, “look for the helpers.”

View from our front porch.

You know my penchant for observing synchronicity, what some call coincidence and others name miracle. When all of this happened I was finishing up reading Intelligence in Nature during my morning prayers, researched and written by anthropologist Jeremy Narby. He compares the wisdom of indigenous animist shamans in the Amazonian rainforest of Brazil with worldwide scientific research discovering intelligence in other animals (not just the human animal) and in plants and microscopic creatures.

God knows a virus can outwit much of our national leadership!

Another bit of synchronicity: friends recommended and we watched (and also recommend) a Netflix documentary entitled, My Octopus Teacher, about a relationship of an octopus with a South African diver. Narby reports that “Octopuses have the largest brains among invertebrates, and scientists have noted their intelligence (p73).”

Narby explains that “intelligence” comes from words meaning “choosing between (inter-legere) and implies the capacity to make decisions.”

Anthropologists have pointed out that some cultures have no concept for intelligence, while others define it in ways surprising to Westerners, for example in terms of good listening skills, or a strong sense of ethics, or the ability to observe, interpret, and negotiate the social and physical landscape (p44).

In my view, then, intelligence is what spirituality is all about, especially “good listening skills.” For me prayer and meditation require good listening, not just for God’s “still, small voice” but to ourselves and one another in our own decision-making.

I grieved for the lost trees. The one in back outside my office window especially served as my “axis mundi” during morning prayers, my center of the universe. Just as trees send chemical warnings to other trees of impending predators, I’ve wondered if these fallen trees were trying to warn us of how we are endangering our climate, we who are the most invasive predatory species.

Sitting on the back-deck seconds before the tree across the street came crashing down, something jumped on my sleeve, grabbing my arm. Startled by either its talons or claws, I jumped up, dislodging whatever it was, a bird or a chipmunk. I never saw it. Then I heard Wade shouting from inside the house as I heard a splintering groan.

I wonder if the creature on my arm was simply escaping the disaster or was flung over our roof.

Or was it trying to warn me?

Damaged tree from my office window.

Related post: I Live in a Forest Called Atlanta

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Copyright © 2020 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.  

Wednesday, November 4, 2020

"Take Heart, It Is I, Do Not Be Afraid!"

The anxious uncertainty of the U.S. elections coupled with the anxiety of the worldwide pandemic prompts me to reprise the February 1, 2017 post entitled “You Can Walk through a Storm.” I schedule posts on Tuesday for Wednesday publication and thus have no idea how the election will turn out, but there may be a protracted process calming the electoral waters, thus the need to reach out to One who can “still the waters.”

There’s a wonderful biblical story about the disciples seeing Jesus strolling on a stormy Sea of Galilee. Peter decides to join him, only to falter, frightened by the strong wind, and begins to sink. He cries to Jesus, “Lord, save me!” Jesus comes to the rescue, chiding him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

I was helping with a spiritual formation course on discernment the week of the U.S. election in 2016. The morning after, sensing the downcast feelings of many if not most of us, instructor Marjorie Thompson (Soul Feast) began the class with a rhetorical question, “Does God still reign?” As I recall, she repeated it a couple of times for emphasis, smiling. “Does God still reign?” To the participants, however we felt about the election results, the answer was obvious. Yes, of course, God still reigns.

It reminded me of a visit to the Capitol Hill office of Mary Jane Patterson, the Presbyterian Church lobbyist in Washington, D.C., during the Reagan presidency. An African American longtime activist on behalf of all kinds of progressive causes, the plaque prominently displayed on her desk grabbed my attention, “This too shall pass.” My inquiry about it brought a mischievous smile and a twinkle of an eye to her face, and without a word, she communicated her hope about future administrations.

Teilhard de Chardin, whose essay “A Note on Progress” was the subject of my post last week, did not come to his faith in the future in a storm-free place, but rather, as a stretcher bearer in the trenches of World War I.  In Christ of the Celts, J. Philip Newell reminded me of that:

As Teilhard wrote after the harrowing Battle of Ypres in 1915, “More than ever I believe that life is beautiful.” … As he agonized over what was happening between the nations and personally despaired about the direction of the world, he heard himself being addressed by Christ, “Ego sum, noli timere (It is I, be not afraid).”

These were the words the disciples heard when they witnessed Jesus walking on the waters of the storm on Galilee, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

Fellow Jesuit scholar John McNeill (The Church and the Homosexual) experienced Christ also on the battlefields, that of World War II.  As I wrote on this blog on the occasion of his death:

Being silenced by the church and then ousted from the Jesuits gave him the opportunity to fulfill a greater calling than he originally anticipated when, as a starving prisoner of war during WW II, a slave laborer, at risk of death from a vigilant SS guard, tossed him a potato, making the sign of the cross. John dated his priesthood from the moment of that courageous and compassionate act.

During the spiritual formation course on discernment, a participant came to me, her fear palpable, wondering what the election of Donald Trump and Mike Pence could mean for her and her partner. I had met this couple when they attended my course on Henri Nouwen earlier in the fall. I tried to assure her, but I’ve found similar apprehension among all kinds of people, even among likely Trump voters, who fear what this administration bodes for us.

It deeply troubles me how my hopes and so many others’ hopes in the future have been dashed.

“You’ll Never Walk Alone,” was my high school principal’s favorite song, and, with the school choir, The Chanters, I would sing it with passion and pride whenever we performed it for him. James B. Taylor, an African American, was very popular with students, faculty, and parents, but had been prevented from buying a home for his family in the neighborhoods surrounding the school, and this was in “liberal” California in the 1960s!

“When you walk through a storm, hold your head up high, and don’t be afraid of the dark,” the Rodgers and Hammerstein song from Carousel begins, and “though your dreams be tossed and blown,” concludes with the assurance, “You’ll never walk alone.”

“Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

“Does God still reign?”

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Copyright © 2017 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.