Unfurling Life


Virginia Woolf once referred to the “infinite possibilities… furled” within a human life.

It takes an act of the moral imagination to recall those infinite possibilities within other people– especially when we consider people who are very different from us, or who might be our enemies, or whom we might fear. Sometimes it’s the people closest to us, whose infinite possibilities we forget: familiarity effaces mystery. The unfurling of another is beyond our control, so our desire for mastery is  frustrated by the uncontainable emergence of life; the unfurling of our very own selves also can be profoundly unsettling.

Stephanie Paulsell was discussing the Song of Songs with other scholars and students at Harvard, when the Marathon bombing occurred. She remarks how the careful attention to beautiful and sacred scripture (it just as easily could have been careful attention to art, or nature) is the precise opposite of setting off a bomb amidst strangers. Indiscriminate violence kills presently; it also kills that which is poised to emerge. On the other hand, carefully attending to what is beautiful and sacred is the way to discover and to upraise  the possibilities enfolded within. Loving attention is another name for hope.

To bomb anything is the signature of some spectacular human failure– somewhere and somehow– in the unfolding of God’s purpose for the world. While it may be that, in a fallen world and within strict constraints, limited violence is justified to prevent an even graver evil– still, to destroy represents a failure. Every human life contains “infinite possibilities” furled within.

Here is Stephanie Paulsell in The Christian Century:

When I remember the bombings, I hope I will recall, alongside the terrible losses and the heroic actions, the quiet work of love I was privileged to witness that day: a group of human beings holding in their collective hands a poem rendered sacred by centuries of study and debate, prayer and argument, hope and longing. I hope I will remember the close, careful attention of those readers who cherished not only what was shining on the surface of the Song but also what was hidden from our eyes. And I hope I remember to pass on to my students not only the skills they need to do such work but the conviction that reverent attention to all that is furled within a text, within the world, within the life of another human being is holy, life-saving work.


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