Consciousness, the Light of
My Dear People,
Memory: a golden bowl, or a basement without light.
--Mary Oliver, Poet
The light of consciousness is the light of the One.
--Eckhart Tolle, Mystic
I joked with a friend last week, while in South Carolina, that I was getting used to being in Virginia and being embarrassed by South Carolinians (my distant cousin Joe Wilson's "You lie!," the governor's "hike on the AT," the lieutenant governor's comparison of the poor to stray animals), but it was a new thing, for me, to be in South Carolina and be embarrassed by something a Virginian did. But so it was a week ago, with our governor's proclamation of April as Confederate History Month.
A lot of commentary has gone under the bridge since then, as would be expected. (I commend to you, by the way, yesterday's RTD op-ed by Charles F. Bryan, Jr.; and M.P. Williams' column, particularly as it quotes U of R's Ed Ayers.) Embarrassment has been a common motif, as has sadness; and there has been talk of blindness. Language like "shockingly amateurish" and "gaffe" has been used. Apologizing for leaving African-Americans and slavery entirely out of the proclamation, the governor explained that he had not been "focused" on slavery.
The thing is, this was not merely about a misstep, or an inattentive moment. This was not a gaffe. This was not about things being done in an amateur fashion, versus professionally. To think or speak of it in those terms is to trivialize the substance of the matter, is to miss entirely what is important about the moment. Something much deeper and much more significant was and is at play.
He was standing by Hagood's side on the right of the line, when Hoke's aide brought the order to advance. The men, who had been told to follow his lead, were intently watching him, and when he was ordered to go, without speaking, he drew his handkerchief from his breast and raised it aloft. The men sprang over the parapet with a yell and rushed upon the enemy across the intervening space, he moving upon the right of the line... When they were driven back and had laid down in the oats (as they were instructed), to await the coming of the supports, he moved east along the whole length of his line under the close fire of the enemy and shortly after reaching the left, disappeared.
"He," like me, was a South Carolinian in Virginia; and he was my great-great-great grandfather Nelson. He died that day, in 1864, in between the lines at Petersburg, just below the Appomattox River.
I was raised to be very proud of him, and my ten other direct ancestors who served in the Confederate armies. I grew up, meanwhile, with no meaningful consciousness of what that whole war meant for African-Americans.
My sons will grow up differently. They will be conscious of their two great-great-great-great grandfathers named Nelson, one who served in the 7th South Carolina, and one who served in the 7th Vermont, both of whom died honorably in that service. They will also grow up more consciously than I did of what that war meant for and means to African-Americans, namely, the end of an "evil and inhumane practice," as the amended version of the governor's proclamation put it, and the beginning (albeit a far from perfect beginning) of liberty and justice for African-Americans.
The religious quest can be spoken of in many ways. There is, however, no more apt way to speak of the religious quest (or, to put it another way, the human quest) than to speak of waking up; of consciousness; of emerging, from the unconscious darkness, into the light of consciousness. ("In him was life, and the life was the light of all humanity," the Gospel of John says of the Word made flesh, Jesus.)
Let us pray for a greater and more whole consciousness, for ourselves; for all Virginians, including our governor; and for all people; especially as we approach the Sesquicentennial of the Civil War and of Emancipation. Again, last week's excitement was not about a mere gaffe. It was about being awake; it was about being conscious. And how we talk about our history (memory) is as true a sign as any of how conscious we are; of how awake we are; of how much the light of the One shines in our minds, in our hearts, and in our lives, today.
May our history be for us, not a basement without light, but a golden bowl.
As the song says: Shine, Jesus, shine.
Your brother in Christ,