Life in the Cosmos

By Dr. Jeremy Holmes

Some time ago, I visited a friend who owns a Steinway baby grand piano. He told me about the history of the Steinway brand and the unlikely success of its orphaned and impoverished founder, but I could hardly pay attention. My fingers moved slowly over the keys, and old muscle memories stirred aching in my arms and back. I remembered how I would lean into the instrument, finding intensity in an old familiar rag. Some said I had­ a gift for it.

Then we moved away to graduate school and there was no piano around, and everyone studied late and woke early, and years went by and I did not play and did not play. I remember when I came home for vacation, sat at my parents’ upright piano to play the old favorites, and discovered that they were gone. The muscles tensed but nothing moved, like the stump where an arm used to be. The piano was for me a lost limb.

As my friend finished his story about Steinway, my ears perked up at his closing remark: “It’s quite an amazing machine.” A Steinway baby grand piano, a machine?

I was arrested by the thought that I had brought a mechanism into myself and made it an extension of my own body; I did not manipulate the keys so that the piano sang, but it was I who sang in and through the piano, my voices weaving in and out of each other. How queer that I could live, so to speak, in an assembly of wood and metal. On the way home from that visit, I realized that my car, too, becomes an extension of myself: when someone crowds too close to the car, I feel it as crowding too close to me. I feel how close I am to the center line as I feel how close I am to a wall. I not only control the car as it moves, but I myself move in and through the car.

My life is not confined within the limits of my body but extends outward into the world. I am present in the space around me. You have probably had the same experience I have: I remember being engrossed in a conversation with a small group of people, and when the conversation died and silence fell, I was suddenly aware of the vast sky opening above me and of the great reaches of space on either side of me. It was as though I had been in a bubble, a tiny enclosure, while the conversation lasted. My sense of hearing was pulled in, focused on one place, while someone created a space by speaking.

This truth is most powerfully felt when a speaker addresses a small group without a microphone. Where before was undifferentiated space, that area in which bodies can freely move, the human voice “creates a place,” to borrow Ivan Illich’s phrase, a definite area of human life.[1] The speaker is present in the place of his voice, and his willing auditors focus in on him, thus living in the same place, and speaker and audience blend their presences in one part of this world of ours. St. Thomas Aquinas deals with “presence” in terms of how a cause is present by its effect.[2] He gives the example of a king who is said to be present everywhere in the kingdom because of his power to act everywhere in the kingdom. But the act of speaking is a more direct creation of “presence” than the king’s action through ministers.

One sometimes sees an instinctive recognition of this idea in city traffic. Amidst the hubbub, someone suddenly cruises by in his pick-up or sports car blaring music over his speaker system as loudly as he can. He uses the speakers as an extension of himself; to shout, so to speak, over all the noises around him. It makes him feel big; he spreads his presence over a large area, coercing his fellow motorists into hearing him, being with him, and in a way being under him. He takes what should be a commons, the place around us, and turns it into his private yard.[3] It is an audible version of puffing his chest.

A striking instance of sound creating place was the medieval custom of ringing church bells during a storm. Originally made to call worshippers to prayer, the bell was quickly seen as a sacramental invested by popular belief with power to disperse storms and drive away demons. These supposed powers smacked of superstition, but this belief was based on the reality that the vast reach of the bell’s tone created a place around the entire town. While all the people and houses could not fit in the church building at once, the church itself could be extended, audibly, over all the people and houses. Where else would you want to be during a storm but praying in the house of God? That the bell extended a church’s sphere is also apparent, negatively, in a dramatic excommunication ceremony dating from after the eleventh century. A person who had been excommunicated was condemned to live beyond hearing of the bells.[4]

 Behind this discussion of living in the world around us lurks the question of technology. While we live in the heavens by looking up, we can extend our range even further with the telescope; while we create space by speaking, we can create an enormous space (of a qualitatively different sort) with a microphone and loudspeaker. For all the powers by which we engage the world, we have a tools that can channel and magnify them.

But along with the power of extending life comes the power of distorting it. Each new technology must be measured not only by its effect on society, but by its relation to what a man is. Because we are sentient, we occupy more than our bodies; by technology, we can dilute our presence beyond recognition. Though we can live in and through technology, we ourselves are not machines. When we think of ourselves as a kind of technology, we too readily assume that any amplification of our powers merely amplifies without reshaping. Through lack of reflection, we can lose the vibrant space of human discourse. The habit of being in place is a precious thing.

The vast size of the cosmos is often trotted out as evidence that man is insignificant: “See how small a territory is ours, one of the smaller planets circling one of the smaller stars in one of the smaller galaxies! So much for man as the center of the universe.” But this misses the point exactly: Because we are men and not machines, animals and not rocks, we truly live in the cosmos. St. Thomas Aquinas goes so far as to say that, in a manner of speaking, when the soul sees the heavens, it lives and exists in the heavens.[5] As Saint Augustine says, Anima ubi videt, ibi sentit; et ubi sentit, ibi vivit; et ubi vivit, ibi est: “Where the soul sees, there it senses; where it senses, there it lives; and where it lives, there it is.”[7] Man is the dweller universal.

Dr. Jeremy Holmes teaches theology at Wyoming Catholic College.  He lives in Lander, Wyoming with his wife and eight children.


[1] See: Ivan Illich, “The Loudspeaker on the Tower,” January 30, 1990.

[2] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 1.8.4.

[3] See: Ivan Illich, “Silence is a Commons,” CoEvolution Quarterly (Winter 1983).

[4] See: Illich, “The Loudspeaker on the Tower.”

[5] Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 1.8.4

[6] St. Augustine, Epistula ad Volusianum, Chap. 2


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