It’s a time of year when flowerbeds are mostly just dirt. Even the pansies have wilted back to leftover greens, flat and withered. You’d have to be a gardener to be inspired. The rest of us just see bare dirt.
It takes a lot to look at nothing and see something. The gardener looks at bare dirt and sees sprouts and blooms, vines and vegetables. The astronomer looks at space and sees the possibility of life, long ago or someday, or in a shape we’d hardly recognize: sulfur-based instead of carbon, single-celled or colonized instead of humaniform. The Author of all that is looks at a young girl … and sees a heart with room for more life. How did life come to start within her?
Somewhere hidden in the stories we tell might be the germ of truth. In the beginning, according to Genesis, God took clay, and formed adamah (a dust-person), and breathed life into its nostrils. In another story of beginnings, Nobel-winning scientist Jack Szostak tells how clay makes a way for life to happen. In his current studies, Szostak says “We’re interested in the transition from chemistry to early biology on the early earth.” If the building blocks of life are in place, and all you need is for those chemicals to “act something like a cell,” then they need to grow and divide, which means there needs to be “a cell membrane that can be a boundary between itself and the rest of the earth” … and genetic material to be replicated and inherited — the job of the RNA molecule.
As Szostak and his team researched the question, they found “a common clay mineral, montmorillonite, might have played a role in helping to make RNA … it could help membranes to form and bring the RNA into the membrane.”
Kind of like, as Szostak says, “In Genesis, it begins with clay.” Something both sticky and slippery, at the molecular level, to give a boundary to insides and outsides, so that the work of the cell could begin to be done.
And once the clay has come together, apparently it never completely comes apart. Irish philosopher poet John O’Donohue supposes that when one meets a new friend, who immediately feels like an old friend, it is because we arose from clay that once lay together, but then divided and separated into unique persons. It’s an idea that resonates with one I first read about in Joan Borysenko’s A Woman’s Journey to God. She was in conversation with a young scientist, who explained to her
how particles once in association continue to respond to one another across time and space. When you salt your food and the sodium chloride breaks down to a molecule of sodium and a molecule of chlorine, the two halves of the molecule still respond to each other. If the sodium ends up in New York, it will adjust its spin to the chloride, even if that molecule resides in Czechoslovakia. Theoretically, every atom in the universe is part of a great network, in constant communication.
This idea is still inspiring thinkers way outside the field of physics; process theologian Catherine Keller is working with the same notion, referred to as “quantum entanglement”:
a kind of influence that seems to be instantaneous and seems to take place between two connected particles, no matter how far away they are. So, rather than become more and more indifferent to one another the further away they are, these particles will forever respond to each other instantaneously as though you are effecting [sic] both of them in the same way, at the same moment.
Quantum entanglement means that nature violates the “rules” in a classical universe, where physics argued that nothing could happen faster than the speed of light. But now it’s beginning to look like this cosmic speed limit can be broken, along with other rules.
Cue Mary. “How can this be?” she asks an angel about an apparently rule-breaking God, and the angel’s explanations are as clear as … well, muddy clay, maybe.
But then the angel’s last words give Mary a keeper: “For nothing will be impossible with God.” How often Mary must have recalled these words, in doubt, in disbelief … and in letting it be.
When your body is doing something you don’t fully understand — building a whole other human being out of bits of you and Something More — there is a lot of letting be to be done. And when the life you love more than your own is ending … well, it may feel like there’s not much left but letting go. Even in doubt. Even in disbelief.
This would be a great time to have something profound to say. But I’m kind of still stuck on plain old dirt. And the miracle of a God who can look at not much and see everything. And hoping that when God looks at me, God sees … something more.
Somewhere hidden in the stories we tell might be the germ of truth. In that case, I want this story: In the beginning, and then over and over again, God takes clay, and forms cells that cling together and transmit to each other the messages of life, messages that reach us still, as we travel together, and as we travel apart, forever responding to each other as though we are still together, in the same way, in the same moment … in Love.