TRYING TO KEEP AN EYE ON THINGS

By Paul M. Lewis

You know you’re getting old when… I suppose there’s an endless string of completions that could be made to that sad beginning.

I was faced with one of my own the other morning when I woke up, opened my eyes, and saw a weird kind of amorphous, squiggly, circular outline dancing in the center of my vision. I remember saying to myself, “I don’t think that was there yesterday, was it?” As if some other person, other than the I of the dancing squiggle, might have been there to answer. The reply came back swiftly enough as a fairly definite “no, not that I recall!”

So, what to do, I wondered. Should I just ignore it and hope really hard that it would go away? This is a strategy that has worked for me in the past, sometimes with better results than others, to be sure. Or should I mention it to my partner? That, I knew, could have only one consequence: he would insist that I call the eye doctor as soon as his office opened up and try to get an appointment. And not that he wouldn’t have been right about it. Sometimes I may have the tiniest tendency to procrastinate, especially when it comes to dealing with doctors.

In this case, however, it was clear even to me that I really had to act. The background is that, for whatever reasons of genetics, or karma, or just the simplest of unfortunate happenstances, I was born with amblyopia in one eye. Sometimes called “lazy eye,” amblyopia is a condition wherein the brain favors the stronger eye over the weaker one. It can be corrected, if caught in childhood, which mine unfortunately was not. This means that my vision today mostly relies on my one good eye. I’m more or less legally blind in the other, and it was of course the good eye that now displayed the wavy lines.

I won’t go into a lot of detail about the visit to the doctor’s office. Suffice it to say that I did get in the same day, and he told me that this is just something that happens as people get older. Something about the vitreous humour, the clear gel between the lens and the retina, pulling away from the back of the eye. Most of the time, the moving circle that results eventually goes away, but you never know how long it may take, and if there are other symptoms, worse ones (e.g., exploding lights, whole darkened areas), then I needed to call him anytime, night or day, which I have to admit got my attention. I pictured myself no longer able to drive a car, maybe even not able to go to the gym anymore because I couldn’t make out the machines, or at least the buttons and levers you need to make the machines operate. I imagined bumping into grumbling people, while I stood there mumbling, “Oh, very sorry, but I can’t see a damn thing.” And what about reading? My God, what about reading?

The good news is that my worst fears have not come true, at least not yet. The darkened outline of the jostling circle seems to be diminishing. As a result, I’m having fewer fantasies about running into people while attempting to get on the treadmill. Still, all this makes me wonder: Is the body beginning to fall apart? In one sense, I suppose the answer is as simple and direct as, yes, absolutely! It could be said that the body begins to fall apart as soon as we’re born. It’s just that the process starts to get more apparent when you enter into your 70’s. Who ever called these the golden years?

All of this made me reflect further about the whole notion of what it means to fall apart. There’s a scientific term referring to this sort of thing that I have long been fascinated by. It’s called “entropy.” Stephen Hawking defines entropy as “a measure of the disorder of a physical system.” He goes on to talk about entropy as it relates to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which he defines as “the law stating that entropy always increases and can never decrease.”

That’s technical speak, of course, but here’s my take, using less scientific verbiage. What we’re talking about is the increasing unavailability of a system’s energy source and the gradual decline of that system into disorder. In other words, the demise of the body’s physical energy, the slow and steady contracting of the circle of life, ending in the diminution of our physical abilities as we age. When we’re young and full of energy, we’re eager to explore the world, to make our mark, to do something that makes a difference. With age, the energy it takes to do such things becomes less available. In extreme old age, or catastrophic illness (whichever comes first), we no longer have any energy at all to expand outwardly. Everything becomes focused inward.

This is what it means for a body when entropy begins to set in. At first, the gel of the eye pulls away from the back of the socket, creating peculiar shadowy shapes. If we’re lucky, that eventually dissipates. If not, it pulls away, tearing the retina and causing permanent damage to your ability to see and interact with the world out there. But note the part about being lucky. Is it really true, does chance, or random happening, have anything to do with entropy? It might in the detail of it, that is, in terms of how things happen (such as wavy lines in front of your eyes, or something else), but not in terms of its ultimate eventuality. As Hawking says, entropy always has its way.

Even so, the bigger issue isn’t so much about it simply happening, but about whether or not there is a larger, a greater scheme of things, a plan that our lives follow that has a meaning we can point to, beyond the stark imposition of natural law in our lives. These are questions that science has nothing to do with. Does religion, or philosophy, or even mysticism? That’s a question only each of us can answer on his or her own.

Who knew that waking up one fine day and seeing zigzaggy, undulating lines could bring about such thoughts? Even if the lines do go away, as I think mine are, or eventually will, it leaves me to wonder when some other morning will come when I might wake up and something is there that won’t go away. When will entropy finally catch up with my personal system, and the Second Law of Thermodynamics begin to exert its final, inexorable effects? As in physics, so in life, there are no reprieves from such laws.

Steven Hawking comes to mind yet again while reflecting on all of this. There’s someone who really understands entropy, not just in the abstract, scientific sense, but in terms of what it has done to his body. Talk about disorder and the break down of a physical system! How has he handled it? How has he managed to hold things together all these years? I don’t know him, but I can only imagine that it is surely with determination, definitely with dignity, and probably even with a measure of humor.

To me, this raises the question of whether there’s an even more fundamental law of the universe, one that charges us with facing our inevitable disbanding, the failing of our personal physical universe, and the release of the atoms of our bodies into the cosmos; in other words, the dissolution of our bodies. Human laws can be broken, even if there may be consequences to pay. The physical laws of the universe cannot be. They are inexorable, fixed forever, inevitable, utterly inescapable.

Whether there are yet other laws still, higher ones if you will, that require us to face ultimate questions of meaning, of purpose, or of cosmic design, is again up to each of us to answer on our own. But in the end, what could be more worth our time to look into? My own hope is that, maybe someday, I will get to see beyond the entropy of physical systems, past the universal laws of dissolution and disintegration into something higher and grander, something permanent and unmoving, beyond questions of unwinding or decay. Call these laws what you will, the word matters little, but this is what I would like to catch a glimpse of, wonky eye and all.

ENTROPY AND THE LOSS OF CHILDHOOD FAITH

By Paul

 Church buildings, just as religions themselves, come and go.  That is the nature of reality, as we normally perceive it.  All entities in the physical world have their beginning, their growth into eventual maturity, and their inevitable decline and demise.  This is in accord with the basic principle which physicists call entropy.  Here is what Steven Hawking has to say about it (although his main topic in this case happens to be black holes, in the process he gives a very good brief explanation of what is meant by entropy): 

“The nondecreasing behavior of a black hole’s area was very reminiscent of the behavior of a physical quantity called entropy, which measures the degree of disorder of a system.  It is a matter of common experience that disorder will tend to increase if things are left to themselves.  (One has only to stop making repairs around the house to see that!)  One can create order out of disorder (for example one can paint the house), but that requires expenditure of effort or energy and so decreases the amount of ordered energy available.   (The Illustrated Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking, Bantam Books, November 1996, page 130)

He goes on to explain that this is in exact accord with the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which states that entropy in an isolated system always increases.  We see this basic principle in all things, even in the stars, which too have a birth, a period of growth and maturation, and an eventual dissolution.  Entropy, then, is essentially a measure of disorder, and when energy ceases to flow and to hold things together, we say that the organism in question dies.    

So, if even stars (and, of course, people) die, then why not church buildings?  Now, you may be wondering at this point what the reason is for my going on so insistently about church structures.  The answer is because I happened to have read recently in an article in a local newspaper that the church across the street from where I grew up in upstate New York is about to be torn down.  Normally, I readily admit, such news would hardly rise to any level of great importance.  However, for me it does feel big, indeed, inasmuch as this particular church, both the building itself and what it came to represent for me (it was called St. Patrick’s), played such a major role throughout my childhood. 

St.Patrick’s, first of all, was an enormous structure made of red brick.  It loomed huge over the entire town of some 17,000 souls, who at the time clustered around.  And yes, I understand that much of what we once, as children, thought to be vast in size and scope, upon later inspection in adult life will appear far smaller, less grandiose, almost pathetically less imposing.  But I assure you that this is not the case in regard to St. Patrick’s.  I returned many years later as an adult who had traveled the world and had seen something of both the great medieval cathedrals of Europe and the imposing ancient temples of Asia, and this building, St. Patrick’s, still felt as though it towered over all other structures in its domain.  It dominated the neighborhood and the city itself in a way that made everything else feel and somehow even appear to be less.    

St. Patrick’s was built well over a century ago, originally constructed to mimic the great basilica of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception in Lourdes, France, minus the final tower.  For reasons I have never been able to discover, that crowning glory of the building was not added onto St. Patrick’s, due – I always supposed anyway – to lack of funds.  The church, after all, was created as a result of the accumulated donations of hundreds, if not thousands, of poor working Irish in the neighborhood, people like my grandparents and their parents, who labored for a pittance in local factories.  As such, there was only so much money to go around.  Still, in the end they were able to create an imposing structure, splendid, even awesome in its impact.  And this, after all, was the very point.  Just as with any other building constructed for such purposes, St. Patrick’s was made to inspire, to move, to uplift, and to remind people that there was more to life than the drudgery of life’s everyday concerns.  The idea was, literally, to make people look up upon entry, so that they would also feel uplifted. 

Whether or not this architectural feature always worked as it was designed to remains of course a matter of opinion.  It both did and did not for me, I know.  On the one hand, I spent many a morning serving mass in this great church, warm and comforted against the snowy blasts outside.  Inside, according to the old Tridentine rite, the priest celebrated the liturgy in Latin while facing the altar, his back to the people, as we altar boys responded in a Latin learned by rote. At the time, I understood nothing of what I said, although somehow, even now sixty years later, I can still recall almost every word.  Old grandmothers sat in the back, fingering their beads, as the priest spoke majestic words from afar.  Neither these grandmothers, nor virtually anyone else in the entire congregation (the church was filled on Sundays for six different masses) understood what the priest was saying.  But it seemed to matter very little to them in that world of my youth.  People believed that the words were both magical and sacred, and that was enough. 

Those days, to be sure, are now long gone, both for me and for just about everyone else.  Yes, there are a few holdouts who still insist on the mass in its ancient form, and the ultra conservative Pope Benedict XVI has even issued a so-called motu proprio, essentially a kind of executive order, called Summorum Pontificum, which allows bishops to grant permission for the ancient liturgy to still be used in certain circumstances.  But essentially the old mass is dead today, just as, I would argue, the Church itself is also dying.

And why not?  The principle of entropy works here every bit as much as it does with any other organism (organism, that is, in its most general sense, as some kind of an organized whole with interdependent parts). St.Patrick’s, too, is about to die.  Due to ever dwindling attendance, it was closed by the diocese of Albany late in the year 2011, and the local bishop and the city appear to be about to sell it to something called “The Price Chopper.”  Being unfamiliar with this company, I make the assumption that it may be a sort of so-called big box store, which sells otherwise useless items to people who essentially do not need them.  Or, I suppose it could be a grocery store, and living bodies, highly organized organisms that we are, do after all need the input of continued food (i.e. energy) in order to maintain our organized structure.  One way or another, it will replace what was at least intended to be a temple to Spirit with a temple to the body. 

My own brother died on Easter Sunday, 2011, and his funeral mass (non-Tridentine) was celebrated in St. Patrick’s Church.  It was the first time I had been inside the structure in many decades, but it looked exactly as I remembered it.  I imagine that his funeral was one of the last ever to be held there.  From my own admittedly self-centered point of view, I experienced all of it as a sad, if oddly fitting, final goodbye to childhood faith and family, and an ironic, if unwilling, welcome to the entropy that we, all of us, must ourselves one day face. 

I actually take some solace, if you can believe it, in the First Law of Thermodynamics.  It states that energy can be changed from one form to another, but it can neither be created nor destroyed. St.Patrick’s, for better or for worse a building meant to inspire and to uplift, will soon be ripped apart, brick by brick, and in its place a structure put up whose purpose is ostensibly to chop prices.  Is this an equal trade of energy?  I will leave that for you to decide.  The Catholic Church has done as much harm as it has done good in the world, and many (myself included) would say it has done far more of the former than of the latter.  At least the Price Chopper, it can be said, is honest and utterly unpretentious in its self-presentation, and does not purport to be more than it is.

There is no escaping entropy’s final verdict.  We can only put it off for so long.  And so St.Patrick’s too will go, whether I like it or not, replaced by a mere emporium.  That, too, will one day crumble and return to the chaos from which it originated.  When I was a child, the priests of St. Patrick’s used to tell us: remember, man, that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return.  They could have said the same thing about churches, and church buildings, too.  But energy – another form of Spirit? – that’s something else altogether.  It lives on in its essence, permanent, unmoving, unaffected by the laws of physical change.  It has no parts into which to disintegrate, has no ordered organization to fall into disuse or disrepair. 

That’s where I want to live.  Here is one of one of my favorite passages, from Chapter XII of the Bhagavad-Gita (Sir Edwin Arnold’s translation, Self-Realization Fellowship, Los Angeles, California, 1975, page 111).  The Lord Krishna (an incarnation of the Divine Spirit) is speaking to his disciple, Arjuna:  Whoever serve Me – as I show Myself – constantly true, in full devotion fixed, those hold I very holy.  But who serve, worshiping Me, The One, The Invisible, The Unrevealed, Unnamed, Unthinkable, Uttermost, All-pervading, Highest, Sure – who thus adore Me, mastering their senses, of one set mind to all, glad in all good, these blessèd souls come unto Me.” 

Now those, in my view anyway, are words you can really build your house on, and no entropy, however powerful, will in the end shake its unmovable foundations.