Waste is Not a Dirty Word!
A few days ago I felt inspired to visit St Paul's Cathedral, the spiritual heart of the Church of England. Although I was christened as a child, and though I sometimes visit church to hear a good friend play the organ, I wouldn't really identify myself as a Christian. Yet as a gay man and a pagan I appreciate the earnest inclusivity of the Church of England, and I certainly revere the quiet majesty of St Paul's. So it is that I found myself in a side-chapel one lunchtime, meditating alongside a small congregation of the usual businesspeople and tourists.
In the middle of this side-chapel stands a huge ironwork candelabra mounted atop a handsome marble plinth, which is strewn with sand to catch wax and toppled candles. Indeed the whole structure was festooned with countless votive candles that day, being constantly added to by a steady stream of visitors. Each would approach the plinth in her turn, depositing a few coins in the wooden slot before taking a candle from below, lighting it ceremoniously, then finding a place for it amongst the others. Some worshippers would light several candles in turn, whilst others would recite a holy incantation, or else whisper a subtle wish.
I had a strange, even absurd revelation as I sat there observing the flow of visitors. I suddenly saw the scene on two levels. At one level I was moved by the beauty of all these spiritual beings investing their deepest wishes in votary ritual, performing a kind of sympathetic magick even in the heart of the Christian church. On another level, one which shocked and jarred me, I was struck by the total waste of candle-wax. The candles' heat was lost in the comfortable self-regulating ambience of the massive stone building. Their light was drowned by sunlight streaming in from stained-glass windows high above. They were useless -- frivolous. They were being wasted.
Of course I understand that the burning of the candle is central to the votive act, that it is essential for the working of the ritual. One can't offer a prayer with a candle and then put it back on the shelf unused! And this Christian act was just the tip of the iceberg -- people of almost any faith will offer up a sacrifice, offering or token of some kind or other, given the right context. I knew all this, I felt it, and I had practiced it myself. But still this nagging voice told me, the candles were going to waste. This was the voice of rationality of course, the voice that finds it so hard to accept divinity, faith, ritual, and all that that implies.
So far so good -- we know very well that the modern rational mind has trouble accepting its alternatives. But a very specific connection had been made that day; this wasn't a lack of faith I suffered -- remember, my first impression was to be moved by the presence of my fellow worshippers; I was one of them too. Rather, even though I had every conviction in the votary ritual, I still intuited that it was somehow wasteful. Perhaps, though I don't like putting it this way, the material cost might outweigh the spiritual gain. And now in hindsight I see that we're faced every day with a mirror-image situation. As we become ever more conscious of the profound poverty of modern life, we fear that the spiritual cost of our lifestyles might outweigh the material gain.
In either case (at the scene at the chapel, or in daily life), the fear is that something precious might be going to waste. Increasingly in today's world this fear is played on, for better or worse, every time we cook a meal (think about freight-miles, cooking gas use, composting?) -- or take a simple journey. Our benign concern for each other and the environment is in danger of becoming an overriding obsession, fixing us into meek, predictable patterns of (sustainable?) production and consumption driven by a distinctly machine-like quest for efficiency. I for one almost went as far as to condemn a sacred ritual because it was converting a few grams of paraffin wax into carbon dioxide -- and for no appreciable (material) gain!
But if it's out of a concern for nature that we fear waste, that fear is misguided. Nature is not efficient. Where nature finds efficient and elegant solutions to specific problems, on a local scale, the energy that is saved is only exerted again -- "wastefully" -- elsewhere.
Consider the world's vast reserves of oil and other fossilized hydrocarbons -- those same reserves from which the wax candles were made. In prehistory (as now), the energy bombarding the earth from the sun was so great that the ecosystem couldn't possibly make use of it all, whether efficiently or otherwise. Nature's perpetual miracle was to use what it could of this energy to raise towering forests from vast quantities of inert matter taken from the air and the very ground itself. But there was no immediate use for this embodied energy. It was waste. It rotted down and sank deep into the bowels of the earth where, according to some ecologists, it would have been best forgotten forever.
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Reality Sandwich | Waste is Not a Dirty Word!