O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.
From W. B. Yeats, “Sailing to Byzantium”
It was a cold autumn evening as I waited on some friends to show up. I pulled my hood up and tugged it tight to keep the warmth a little closer. Its edges extended past my face, hedging out my peripheral vision. I could hear my breath inside the hood as I turned my body to look to the houses, pond, and trees, as I leaned back to tilt my face toward the sky. I had the sudden and visceral sense of being underwater, or maybe floating in space. For a few moments, I could imagine my life as one long dive.
That isn’t too bad an analogy for the interaction of our spirit and our bodies. So much of what we know and understand depends upon the body. Words and thoughts are remarkably material, composed of sounds and light, gestures and flashing neurons. Their materiality can surprise and compel us, as when we find ourselves caught in an old habit or an animal reflex.
One lunchtime walk, I came across bagworms emerging from their bundle and on a whim blew gently on them. They all raised half of their bodies into the air and began ticking it back and forth, as if in sympathy with an unheard metronome.
We can disentangle ourselves from some of that, but not all of it. What we do manage to disentangle usually comes by appreciating our animal reflex and conditioning it, training our bodies like we might train a seeing eye dog. Even then, when the wind blows right, we will still feel the twinge of reflex, even if it does not rise to completed reaction. I suspect it isn’t entirely different for animals, though the elastic bond between awareness and response runs more tightly it rarely seems absent. The deer may turn curious, the tiger gentle, though we should distrust the duration of such moments.
My partner and I have taken to affectionately talking about the ‘monkeysuit’ and when it comes to the interaction of the spiritual and material, this feels very apt. We need the monkeysuit to survive in this environment, to do our work, but it isn’t the most graceful vehicle. The speakers are grainy, the radio cuts in and out, the visor distorts the terrain, making it loom large. The gloves are thick, making us clumsy and ham-handed.
Maybe some of us have a better radio, or finer gloves, a clearer visor, but the point remains the same. With Simone Weil, we can admonish the man proud of his intelligence as we might admonish a prisoner proud of his larger cell.
There is grace to this monkeysuit, a peculiar grace proper to it, suggesting that for all of its problems, it offers us an opportunity. Part of that opportunity is, of course, life itself. To live as we live, to suffer and exalt as we do, depends on the monkeysuit. There is something else, though, more mysterious yet. It is as if the limitation of the suit itself is part of the point, that our struggles and accommodations change us on a deep spiritual level. There is a spiritual dignity that we can only come to possess by having lived.
The mission patch is cool, though: