One of the many strange aspects of being a ministerial student at Oxford is knowing that the city you live in is mirrored by a vast underground city. A city of books. The Bodleian library is a vast interconnected series of tunnels reaching miles out of the city. This city is populated by a mysterious species of house elves who spend their lives zooming about on bumper cars collecting books for voracious readers and delivering them to various reading rooms around the city, the hubs on this array of spokes. No-one ever sees them, no-one ever overhears them having conversations in pubs. No-one is socially acquainted with a Bodleian elf or knows someone who knows one. A stack request is placed and several days later the book arrives. And increasingly, it would seem, this is how my memory works.
The information is far away in a dusty file on an even dustier shelf in the distant corridors of my mind. As I grow older, it takes longer for the stack request to be delivered. The piece of information eventually does pop into a part of my head where I can find it, usually when I have moved on to another pressing task. More depressingly, I realised recently I am losing great swathes of experience. People I have known, places I have been. Moods, flavours, sounds.
I realise I have reached a mid-point in my life where I have forgotten more than I know. The acquisition of knowledge seems an increasingly futile quest. My identity seems like a shifting sandbar, more ending up in the ocean every year.
Now according to many great spiritual traditions, this should mean I am closer to enlightenment. After all, I am living more in the present. What choice do I have? But guess what? I don’t feel more enlightened, I just feel a misty sense of loss.
‘Jesus, peace be upon him, said, “Life is a bridge. Cross it but build no house upon it. Spend your time in prayer.”’ (Al-Ghazali, Sufi teacher)
It would seem that even the mind is a place of no firm abiding:
“The little foxes have their burrows and the birds of the air have their nests, but the children of man have no place to rest their heads.” (Gospel of Matthew)
But can we truly sustain this? Or is it as Jorge Luis Borges put it,
“Our lives are built upon shifting sands, but we must live them as though they were founded upon rock.”
Is this the paradox of faith? How is it that there is consolation to be found in the contemplation of the numberless stars? That in our sense of connection with that greater reality, our very insignificance seems insignificant?