Seeing Gravity

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For a brief period of time in 2001 I started seeing gravity, and my world turned into a slapstick comedy. It began when a woman dropped a book. The book flew out of her hand and smashed into the floor with a loud bang. For some reason, this didn’t look right to me. Objects at rest tend to stay at rest. Why would this book throw itself to the ground like that? And instead of looking like a peaceful book lying on the floor, it appeared to me that this book was straining, pushing against the floor, trying to burrow through to the center of the earth. The woman picked up the book and I could see her working hard to lift it. The book was trying to get away from her, like a dog on a leash straining to get at its food.

“That book really, really wants to go down,” I thought.

The woman had to push the book under her arm to hold onto it. She had a purse, and I could see that the purse wanted at the floor as badly as the book did.

Fortunately she had devised a strap or leash that she had looped over her shoulder to keep the purse from escaping. But I could see the purse, tugging against the strap, trying so hard to get to the floor. A glass near the edge of a table appeared to me to be trying to escape. I pushed it toward the center of the table, realizing that if given a chance it would have hurled itself over the edge to be shattered on the floor below.

Two boys were playing catch. One of them threw a ball to the other. The ball described a gentle arc and began to descend. Thinking it was free, the ball rushed toward the ground with great enthusiasm, only to be caught by the other boy at the last minute and thrown upwards again. It seemed a little cruel to me, like cats playing with their prey. But presently they let the ball drop to the ground. It rolled a few feet, but the force of it pressing against the earth soon stopped it. And then it lay motionless, as if it was connected by a string through a hole in the ground to a heavy weight below.

It may seem strange to you, but I felt convinced that these objects had a singular consciousness with only one desire – to get to the center of the earth. It’s the center of the earth or bust for these things, and they pursue this end with the crazed, single-minded energy of salmon hurling themselves into waterfalls. The book and the purse and the glass and the ball have perfect focus. They are never distracted and never tire of pursuing their one desire. I believe if the woman had left the book alone and returned five years later, she would have found it in that same spot, pushing just as hard against the floor as the day it escaped her grasp.

As surprising as all of this was, I was equally shocked to find that no one else seemed to notice that everything was rushing toward the ground. People acted like nothing unusual was happening, even as they struggled against gravity themselves. I saw a man whose shoes were stuck to the ground. To his credit, he was making the best of a hard situation. He jerked his feet up, one at a time, held them briefly in the air, then let them fall back to the earth, propelling himself forward with a jerky motion. I saw that someone had captured a group of delinquent books and was holding them on a shelf, where they sat quietly, biding their time. Their weight had caused the shelf to bow, and I thought, “It won’t be long now until they make their escape.” A pencil hung on a string from a thumbtack stuck into a bulletin board. Some clever person had tied it there with a leash to keep it from escaping. The string was pulled taut by the force of the pencil’s downward pull. The whole thing looked bizarre to me. It wouldn’t have looked any stranger if the pencil had pulled the string away from the bulletin board on a line parallel with the ground. And yet, in spite of these complex contrivances to stop things from throwing themselves to the ground, people seemed unconcerned and acted as if nothing was amiss.

At this point my new vision became overwhelming to me, and I felt a disorientation that bordered on vertigo. The rain seemed like a shouting horde of barbarians rushing the gate. Trees with bobbing limbs became great trolls, exhausted from decades of holding up their sagging arms. The creaking groans of the wood were the sounds of their ancient pain. Birds were puckish Sprites that alone defied the strong god of gravity and whirled in the air, joyous in their anarchy. I began to avoid manhole covers, which appeared to me to be secret doors to the deep place that draws everything to its dark bosom. For a few days I wandered the earth like a dazed, crazy person, shying away from ladders and tables and other strange devices we use to stop gravity’s pull. Thumbtacks and hooks and nails fascinated me. I saw some boys playing basketball and thought I might faint.

In those strange days I began to feel a kinship with all things organic and inorganic. We are all being pulled to the center by a force that is ancient and old beyond all human reckoning. And if we are all pulled by this same force, what do the inner workings of any object or creature ultimately matter? In the face of such an overwhelming reality, what do our short-sighted distinctions of animal, vegetable, and mineral mean?

And I must say that the faithfulness of common objects to the call of gravity seemed noble to me, while our human efforts to defy and postpone the inevitable seemed as silly as Jonah sailing for Tarshish, with a great fish following to catch him and take him down, as all of us must go down. In those days I could feel the reality of a larger kind of faith, a macro spirituality that was older and deeper and more true than any human religion. This is the oldest reality we know, this force pulling everything to the center. And from this ancient point of view, where is wisdom to be found? Are we humans wise, we who dance with gravity, use it, play with it, and live without really seeing it? Or should we count objects, with their placid and stoic acceptance, as wise?

And there is this reality: We will all go to the center of the earth. Or if not the earth then the center of some larger body that will draw the earth to its center. When the reckoning of time has stopped, and when every trendy religion on earth is forgotten, everything will be drawn to the center.

It’s a big idea for a small human mind. It’s the sort of thing that could trouble a pastor who has to find the emotional energy to show up on Sunday mornings with a gospel to proclaim. I could have gotten myself into a bit of trouble over this, but I’m happy to report that I woke up a few days later and had returned to normal. I was unharmed and unable to see gravity anymore, leaving me free to participate in the everyday events of our world without flinching or staring.

The only difference is that a heaviness hangs over me now. It bends my shoulders and pushes on my mind. I hear the sloshing of Jung’s deep ocean of the unconscious. And I seem to be unable to take things as seriously as I did before. If I’m talking to someone about how often we should water the grass or how a participle in one of Paul’s letters should be translated, I find my attention wanders. On Sunday mornings I stare at the birds in flight and lay my palm on the ground to feel the pull of the earth.

I still take up the scriptures with joy on Sundays and treat them fairly and well. But I lay them down again with as much joy, because I know there is something larger out there, something that is pulling us with infinite patience. Tugging on us, jerking things out of our hands, sticking our feet to the ground, rumbling in deep groans beneath the crust of the earth. Gravity is perhaps God’s oldest servant, and Gravity’s rules are older than any human gospel.

I dropped my New Testament on the way to preach the other day. It stopped me in my tracks. For just a second I would have sworn something or someone pulled it out of my hands. Smiling, I picked it up again.

“Not yet,” I said. “This is still our time.”

A rumbling voice came from below the floor. “Perhaps. But Time is my brother. And I bend Time and Light as I will. You’ve been given these short moments. Retrieve your Bible and use it well. But do not forget how small you are and how short your time is. I will not forget you, for nothing on this earth can escape me. And one day, I will draw all things to myself.”

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