23 October 2008

Faith and a Little Spider

What is faith? What does it mean to have faith? How does it affect what we do, as Quakers, members of the Religious Society of Friends, a group founded on the idea that God can and will lead us directly, if we let go and let him? I wonder about this a lot, because I have many years of training in hard-core reductionist empiricism, and I am continually faced with situations where empiricism doesn’t provide me with satisfactory answers. What exactly is faith? How do I live by it?

An old book I have summarizes it like this:

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen . . . . Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear.

This seems to be a description of a worldview, almost the Buddhist idea that the world is actually an illusion, one in which we should pay attention to a separate reality which is actually the true one. The Hindus have a little different take, because while they believe that the world is real, and physically present, it is actually an obscuring surface that distracts people from the truly significant underlying cosmos. Both views recommend detachment, a separation from the world as an ultimately unimportant distraction. They have a faith that there is something more important going on.

Now, Christianity also sees this world as less important than another, but doesn’t regard it as illusory, and doesn’t regard it as a distraction. This world is something of an overture, an opening piece of music designed to introduce the main performance, to prepare for a life that is very different, but not any more real. And what we do here is quite important, because it’s also a training ground, a place where we are conditioned in preparation for the next step. And we are directed to live here in faith, trusting in the substance of things we hope for, trusting in the truth of things we can’t prove, and in an underlying plan of which this world is the first part. Faith means to live as if you understood what was going on, whether you do or not, and to step forward in trust.

This is how I try to live my life. It can be a hard way to live, in some respects, because it means that I don't always know where the money for the next trip to the grocery store is going to come from. Right now the car is in the shop. I don't know where the money to get it out is, just yet. I try to live on the assumption that it will happen as it is supposed to happen, but it can be a stressful existence, in many ways. Just ask my lovely wife and five children

I had a lesson on this the other day. I was taking a break from picking Golden Delicious apples in the orchard of another member of my meeting. I can pick about 3200 pounds of apples a day if the trees are pruned right, and I had just taken a bin of apples and moved it over to where we would load it on the old F600 at the end of the day. This was almost the last block of apples, and when the Delicious and Romes were picked, I would be out of a job and out of money again.

I was still sitting in the decrepit seat of the John Deere, feet up and gazing off at nothing in particular. And then I noticed a small spider on the running board down beside the brake pedals. It was a jumping spider, one of those delightful little black furry creatures that live in the apple trees and jump from twig to twig in pursuit of lacewings, and caterpillars, and whatever else they can catch. As I watched, it climbed up the fender until it sat in the sunlight, in all its half-inch self-assurance of its rightful place in the universe.

I reached out and stuck my finger under its nose, and instantly it jumped up and onto my hand. It looked up at me with its little old-man spider face, bright green eyes, and a little red spot, staring directly into my eyes. A small, very self-confident piece of animated chemicals, secure in its world, and untroubled by the questions that always seemed to trouble me.

I transferred the spider from hand to hand several times as it walked calmly up and down my wrist, leaving an almost imperceptible stringer of silk behind it like some tiny furry Theseus searching for a Minotaur. If it chose not to leap up onto my other fingers, it would jump into empty space instead, and dangle there for a bit on the silk, then either lower itself down or climb back up, seemingly without a care in the world as to which way it went. Eventually it dropped down to the left-hand running board and when I looked again, it had disappeared. I went back to my own thoughts and forgot about it for a while, sitting in the sunshine on the tractor seat.

And then I looked up, and there it was again. It had climbed up the engine, onto the exhaust manifold, through the cowling and was resolutely ascending the exhaust pipe into a dead-end against the blue sky. The pipe was cool by this time, and I continued to watch as it passed the muffler, climbed up the tail pipe, and finally reached the iron flapper that keeps the rain out of the engine. At that point, it could go no higher—it had reached the limit of its world.

On top of the flapper, the little furry spider walked from one side to the other, peering over the edge at each side to see if there were other options. It circled the flapper several times, while I watched, curious to see what this little animal would do. I, of course, was observing from a higher vantage point, a position in which I could perceive a larger and more complex reality than this little spider could ever have conceived of. My extensively larger perspective made me its superior, but I was still curious as to how it would deal with this sudden imposition, to its discovery that its universe had a boundary, right here.

The spider ceased its circling, and crawled several inches down the flapper to the lowest point on the iron weight. Then head-down, it elevated its abdomen and stood completely still. It didn’t move at all, and after a minute I became puzzled as to what it was doing. And then, in a momentary shift of light, I saw that a tiny, almost invisible strand of silk was floating in the air from its tiny abdomen, trailing straight up into the almost undetectable breeze.

Holy moly, I thought, it’s going to balloon. And after a minute or two more, it did. Without an instant’s preparation that I could see, the little jumping spider let go of the tractor, tucked its eight furry legs under its body, and sailed straight up into the air. As it rose above the apple trees, I saw that the glinting thread of silk seemed about ten or twenty feet long. It was hard to see, almost invisible to my superior eyes, my superior brain, and my superior viewpoint. But it was substantial enough to lift the spider off the tractor and take it away without an instant’s pause or hesitation, once the spider let go.

As I watched, the spider rose steadily into the blue sky, legs tucked tightly in. It sailed under the wires on the power pole, and then sailed back over them in the other direction. I watched it rise almost straight up until I couldn’t see the little black body any more against the scattered light of the clear blue sky. And then it winked out of my vision entirely.

Where did it go? I have no idea whether it came down elsewhere in the orchard, in the township, or even in the same county. All that I knew was that I had been given a lesson in faith, by a little wizened face with green glinting eyes. The spider hadn’t a clue where it was going, but took off nonetheless, secure in the faith that letting go and leaping off in trust would be the correct course of action. Where the spider went was not the spider’s concern—the spider knew that the leap of faith was the important task.

So what do I do? Do I spend my life trusting that I am to follow the leadings, and that my task is to be faithful, rather than worrying about the destinations? Do I respond to the end of a particular journey by stepping off into space, trusting that I will be handed my new assignments at the appropriate time and place? I'm a Quaker, concerned about immediate revelation, about trusting God to tell me what to do, when it's time for me to do it. That’s what I try to do, anyway, but I always seem to be second-guessing my decisions, as if I was really the one in charge. And my own arrogance that I knew so much more about the universe than this little furry bundle of spider had been given a clear correction. In the end, the spider knew more than I did, and had faith in it.

Just a small story, Friends. One of the little lessons that God gives us all in paying attention and in being faithful.