When I can’t sleep, I tune in to “Coast to Coast AM,” an all-night radio show that dwells on such matters as alternative universes, psychic phenomena, UFOs and the like. The same station that runs “Coast to Coast” by day runs the politics-as-entertainment shows — it’s where Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck and the like shovel out the paranoia, with the intent of heaping blame on Obama and “big government” for everything wrong with the world.
To my way of thinking, these daytime bad boys are less in touch with reality than the nighttime speculations about ghosts and astral projection, but, hey, that’s just me.
Recently the nighttime focus turned to “third generation” night vision goggles, which can see into the invisible spectrum of infrared. Those who’ve used them report seeing everything from UFO formations to the imminent approach of wormwood — a predicted asteroid in the Book of Revelation that will destroy a third of the Earth.
Our limited ranges of perception by sight, sound, smell, taste and touch have been enhanced by centuries of technological breakthroughs, and as a result, concepts of our place in the universe have been overhauled again and again. The telescope revealed to all that Galileo was right and the pope was wrong about Earth’s place in the solar system.
The microscope revealed a world of good and bad bacteria, and the particle accelerator demonstrated atomic substructure.
Unfortunately, the more we know about nature, the more we get our grubby hands on it; hence, the atomic bomb, germ warfare, genetically modified crops and air fresheners that make dirty rooms smell like flowers.
Today we’ve reached the point where scientists can engineer lies more effectively than Limbaugh ever dreamed could be possible. Inventors report that Harry Potter’s cloak of invisibility is close to being perfected; at some point we won’t be able to see the person standing next to us. We’ve already lost the ability to taste food as a measure of its freshness or nutritional value, since chemical additives fool our tongues and noses. The devil, they say, is the prince of liars, and this is his kingdom, after all.
Our senses are easily fooled by scale and dimension.
Take small, for example. Recently the micro-sculptor Willard Wigan was interviewed on National Public Radio, in which he described sculptures he creates in the eyes of needles. Working with a microscope, he has carved the Obama family, characters from the Wizard of Oz, and even the Mad Hatter’s tea party on such a tiny scale that each figure is about the size of the period at the end of this sentence.
Or take large. An amateur astronomer just announced that an asteroid, perhaps big enough to have destroyed the Earth, was sucked into Jupiter on July 19. Who cares, you say? Well, if Jupiter weren’t there with its massive gravitational field to attract such space debris, the Earth could have been wiped out millennia ago — or a few days ago, for that matter. What we don’t notice can have profound consequences.
It’s important, essential even, to open our eyes to new ways of seeing. A poem I heard recently, about a father using sign language to talk to his deaf wife, contained the line, “On his shoulders sits a little boy whose hands, above the father’s head, are making up a second story… .” (from “At the airport baggage claim,” by Charles Darling). On his father’s shoulders, the boy who tells the second story is the second story. The twist of a phrase, like music or a dream, can open our senses to multiple meanings.
Or take Picasso. In June, I happened into a Chelsea gallery with a collection of paintings from the last decade of his life. Picasso painted portraits our senses want to call distorted — eyes, noses, breasts where you think they shouldn’t be. His genius was to add time and motion dimensionality to the medium of flat, still life painting.
But even at the outer limits, our five physical senses alone cannot appreciate the full spectrum of reality, any more than our eyes can take in the full spectrum of light. For that reason, our spiritual senses are more vital today than they’ve ever been.
Unfortunately for too many of us, those senses have grown weak from lack of use. Time once spent in doing God’s work in community with others has given way to time spent on the Internet; while time once spent in prayer and meditation has given way to time spent with TV and video games.
By overloading our physical senses with trivial pursuits, we’ve numbed the spiritual eyes we could be using to discern truth from fiction, love from lust, kindness from exploitation, wisdom from willfulness. We were given spiritual insight that can see through the myriad cloaks of invisibility, but only if we practice using it.
By neglecting our spiritual equipment, we may start to believe the world of the spirit isn’t there. Many of us wait until we are dying to begin to shed those scales from our spiritual eyes. In my work in the hospital, I watch people at the end of life begin to see through the flat, superficial perceptions of this reality to the spiritual reality that is always there, but hardly ever acknowledged.
Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is within and among you,” and many who have undergone near-death experiences know what that means.
If we spent as much time training our spiritual eyes as we have our physical senses, we’d see, feel and know we are within and among heaven already. For most of us, though, it’s only when the physical senses begin to fail us that new windows open, new visions present themselves, and the soul sense within the dying body begins to come into its own.
Lee Witting is pastor of the Union Street Brick Church in Bangor. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Voices is a weekly commentary by Maine people who explore issues affecting spirituality and religious life.