Spreading The Word

From chalk to lights



THE MILLENNIUM  began at midnight in Australia with a blazing word on the Sydney harbor bridge: “Eternity” in a flowing script called copperplate. What was it supposed to mean?

By then Aussies — but few of the global TV watchers —  knew the story behind it.  There was a writer — Arthur Stace — whose work consisted of one word, written in chalk on the hard surfaces of Sydney for nearly four decades beginning in the 1930’s.

The 1994 Telluride Film Festival showed a documentary called “Eternity” that told the story in black and white. I saw it there and was both engaged and struck dumb. The story has since  inspired a chamber opera called “Eternity Man” released in 2003 and a book called “Mr. Eternity” published in 2017.

Stace probably wrote the word 500,000 times, but the most massive medium was TV carried by satellite. It showed the word on the bridge on New Year’s Eve 2000 in Sidney, the earliest big city to greet the New Year. 

The global audience must have been mystified. Why celebrate a significant mark in time with a word connoting timelessness? As a philosopher (Hobbes) put it: “Eternity is a permanent now.”

And what did this one-word message mean? Was it a warning of moral punishment? As the North Carolina preacher Billy Graham called out: “Where will you spend eternity?” It has become a common summons among evangelists.

In a different voice, Hamlet’s mother soothes him over the death of his father, the king: “All that lives must die, passing through Nature to eternity.” An empty consolation, certainly, but in my view not as drained as the Christian cliché: “He is in Heaven now.” 

The novel “Hamnet” speculates that Shakespeare was deeply mourning the death of his young son when he produced “Hamlet.” The most recognized lines uttered by the Melancholy Dane are in contemplation of death (“To be or not to be. . . “ “Alas, Poor Yorick. . .”) 

Hamlet’s last line as he dies, “The rest is silence,” is consistent with the King James Psalm 115: “The dead praise not God, neither any that go down into silence.” The dead go silent from the perspective of Nature, but these lines imply more.

Is not timeless Eternity not also perfectly silent? Logically, since there can be no succession where there is no time, in Eternity there can be no stream of sound, no Angelic choir, no music of the spheres.  Eternity is Silence.

And the ultimate prayer is silent prayer, because. . . 

When medieval Christians in Europe were arguing over the suma bona, or the attributes of God, the great Jewish philosopher Maimonides in Africa asserted that no positive attribution can describe God.   

In”Guide For the Perplexed” Maimonides says, “All people, of past and present generations, declared that God cannot be the object of human comprehension, that none but Himself comprehends what He is, and that our knowledge consists in knowing that we are unable truly to comprehend Him.” (I will deal with the pronoun in a further essay.)

So, Maimonides goes on, “The idea is best expressed in the book of Psalms, ‘Silence is praise to thee’.” He cites the opening of Psalm 65. “It is a very expressive remark on the subject; for whatever we utter with the intention of extolling and of praising Him, contains something that cannot be applied to God, and includes derogatory expressions; it is therefore more becoming to be silent, and to be content with intellectual reflection, as has been recommended by men of the highest culture, in the words ‘Commune with your own heart upon your bed, and be still” He cites Psalm 4.

Silence is praise to thee? This does not appear in the King James bible. Psalm 65, instead, says, “Praise waiteth for thee.” A Catholic lay writer, Carl McColman, takes issue with the translation of the Hebrew word dumiyya, which he says means  both “silence” and “quiet waiting” or “repose.” “

He says, “As a contemplative, I find Psalm 65, in its original Hebrew splendor, positively electrifying. To you, silence is praise, O God. Anyone who meditates can attest that silence is healthy; it promotes calm abiding and self-knowledge. But dumiyya suggests that a more immediate spiritual benefit lies in silence as well. When we sit down and shut up, God is glorified. The practice of intentional silence is simultaneously an act of worship before the Holy One. What a wonderful viewpoint to keep in mind.”

You might see where this is going. I practice Zen meditation. But first, more Maimonides.

We cannot affirm anything about God except He is a unity. We can use negation — God is not corporeal, for example — but that does not say what God is.  If not this or that, then what? As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy says, the only thing negation reveals “is that God is beyond the reach of any subject/predicate proposition.” 

And is this emptiness even God?  The digital entry concludes, “Maimonides’ philosophy shows us what happens if you remove all anthropomorphic content from your conception of God:  you remove all content of any kind. In the end you are left with a God whose essence is unknowable and indescribable. Of what possible value is such a conception either to philosophy or religion?”

My answer, in a word, is this:  Zen. It too is unknowable and indescribable. Ask a Zen master, “What is Zen?” and your attention will be diverted to something perceivable, or you will be answered with silence or you will be hit with a stick. What is Zen?  The cypress tree in the courtyard.

One day this summer I stopped to buy some Guinness at a store in Salida, CO. The kid that handled the cash register was playing a talking man on the sound system. The deep electronic voice was self confident and slightly Brit. I asked who that was.

“Alan Watts,” the kid said. When I responded, “Oh. Buddhism,” he was surprised. Because Alan Watts, the first great popularizer of Zen in America, had been dead for about 50 years. But recently his sayings have been revived in the digital media. In the 1960’s his lectures and radio broadcasts on Pacific Radio (KPFA) influenced the Beatniks of San Francisco. His broadcasts, from the archives of Pacifica, have been part of an Alan Watts revival.

“A person who thinks all the time has nothing to think about except thoughts, so he loses touch with reality and lives in a world of illusion,” he says in a Facebook frame.  The rest of the quote (I looked it up) is:  “I’m not saying that thinking is bad.  Like everything else it’s useful in moderation.  A good servant is a bad master, and all so-called civilized people have become increasingly crazy and self destructive because, due to excessive thinking they have lost touch with reality.  That is to say, we confuse signs, words, numbers, principles, ideas with the real world. As a result of confusing the real world of nature with mere signs such as bank balances and contracts we are destroying nature.”

In his first book, “The Spirit of Zen” (1935), Watts wrote with the same attitude:  “From the very start Zen aimed at clearing aside all definitions, intellectual concepts and speculations. . .The whole technique of Zen was to jolt people out of their intellectual ruts and their conventional morality.” 

Alan Watts died in November 1973 at the age of 58 in his cabin in Mill Valley across the bay from San Francisco. It was appropriate that he should be speaking from the grave in a liquor store. He was an alcoholic.

Watts called himself “a spiritual entertainer.” His Zen scholarship was heavily dependent on translations by D. T. Suzuki, whose books were not entertainment. The Japanese scholar ended his 1956 book, “Selected Writings” with this homage of the tea ceremony:

“To take a cup of tea with friends in this environment, talking probably about the Sumiye sketch above the alcove or some art topic suggested by the tea-utensils in the room, wonderfully lifts the mind above the perplexities of life. The warrior is saved from his daily occupation of fighting, and the businessman from his ever-present idea of money-making. Is it not something, indeed, to find in this world of struggles and vanities a corner, however humble, where once can rise above the limits of relativity and even have a glimpse of eternity?”

So there it is again: Eternity. It is invoked like God, in diverse cultures and different times.

Spinoza, the 17th Century philosopher who was persecuted as an atheist by his Jewish community, found refuge in contemplation subspecie aeternitatis (he wrote his major work in Latin). Under the aspect of eternity or from the perspective of eternity.

W. B. Yeats in the 1920’s prayed to be gathered “Into the artifice of eternity.”

And so there was Arthur Stace who wrote Eternity 500,000 times in chalk on the walks and byways of Sydney. Born into poverty and neglect in 1885, serving in the First World war, returning as a veteran to Sydney, sinking into destitution and alcoholism, he was saved in 1935 by an evangelist.

“I felt a powerful call from heaven to write Eternity. I had a piece of chalk in my pocket, and I bent down right there and wrote it. I’ve been writing it at least 50 times a day ever since,” he said in an interview after he was uncovered by a reporter for the Sydney Telegraph in 1956. Eternity was better than something like Obey God because, Stace said, “It makes them think.”

There is one photograph of Stace at work, shot by a photographer who cornered him in 1963 and ran out of film.  Stace died at 82 in 1967.