The circling of the years, through season after season, brings in its apparent sameness, new wonders for those who care to look. Not for nothing does the rebirth of life in the spring suggest wonders not to be explained by graphs or lines on sheets of paper.
Every real place holds mysteries. This place where we have lived for 35 years holds many.
I do not mean what the writers of detective fiction mean when they speak of mystery, the world of whodunnits as revealed by Hercule Poirot or Sherlock Holmes - “Elementary, my dear Watson.” What I mean by the word mystery has more to do with the spirit than the magnifying glass.
‘Mystery’ is an old word, traceable back into Sanskrit, the earliest surviving member of our language family. Long before the people who spoke that original tongue moved away from their homeland in various directions (if they did - even that is debated), they had an elaborately inflected speech which we can trace, dimly, through the study of more modern descendants. Although we assume that the further back in time we go the simpler the language would be, the further back we trace our language forms the more complex they seem to have been.)
In the course of their movements away from their place of origin, brought on by events we do not see clearly some six thousand years later (that number might have to be multiplied by ten), one group of speakers would become so far removed from their ancestors, and even from their contemporaries, that their speech would develop its own peculiarities.
Over time - lots of time: hundreds (maybe thousands) of years - the changes would have accumulated until they became to all intents and purposes, different languages, even though buried in each language would be traces of the older speech, much in the way reading the human genome can tell us much about our own genetic ancestry. ‘Mystery’ seems to have meant something bound up or hidden, something that can’t be expressed in so many words.
Closer to us in time, in ancient Greece, ‘mystery’ in its origins referred to religious rites performed for the followers of a deity, which the followers were forbidden to reveal to anyone else. Something hidden - bound up - then, and having to do with the spiritual world. In the Old Testament the word appears only in the Book of Daniel, where it has the sense of a “secret,” referring to the interpretation of a dream of the king of Babylon revealed to Daniel in a night vision. In the New Testament, the Greek word reflects the sense of something profound and beyond the ken of ordinary life. St Paul uses the Greek word to refer to “the mystery, which was kept secret since the world began,” that is, the climax of the history of salvation in the cross of Christ. Later, in the Church, the word came to signify the deep meaning, known only by divine revelation, of the Eucharist or the elements of that service.
Through all the varieties of its circumstances, then, ‘mystery’ has meant something beyond the ken of man, something that in some way was linked to the gods or God.
Around here, mysteries, in the ancient sense of the word, have been thick on the ground - and I use the term ‘thick on the ground’ deliberately. This past week has seen our little world change so quickly it takes your breath away. A week or so ago I could look out the window beside my desk and see, through emerging leaves, the road below us and the field below that.
Spring had persuaded the big crab apple tree up beside my wife’s vegetable garden to burst into white bloom like some gigantic firework and the other apple trees had taken note with their own blooms, albeit less exuberantly. The dandelions, widely regarded as pests, particularly by companies in the business of making poisons to kill them, had glorified field aftr field around the countryside, as well as our own dooryard, reminding us of the spring when we, one Saturday around this time of year, took the radio tuned to the Metropolitan Opera, out to a fairly luxurious patch of dandelions, and, by the end of the opera, we had picked enough of the yellow flower petals to make a gallon of dandelion wine.
Then, the other day - a day like any other day, a day worthy of the old words: ‘once upon a time’ - I sat down in the morning to work here and glanced out the window. The field below the road was gone, the road was gone. The leaves on the lilac bush outside the window blocked the view. Beyond them the poplar tree beside the drive filled in much of the rest of the scene, leaving only small glimpses of blue sky beyond.
Later, after lunch, I returned to work and glanced out again, admiring the green of trees and glimpses of blue of sky and thinking this season’s blue and green one of nature’s most delightful colour combinations, when I noticed the other colour I swear had not been there in the morning. The lilac was in bloom.
How could that be? Mysteries surround us, this time of year. 29 May 2012