The coffee house was part of a retail complex that sits on the west side of a quiet street in the city. Sundays I liked to go there early, just when it opened, and find a table next to one of the big windows near the street. Sunlight would flood my table, letting me feel warm and secure in the sunbeam, like the baby girl in the popular, family-oriented cartoon in the Sunday comics I’d read.
I’d order croissants or muffins slathered in sweet butter and marmalades and a pot of strong, pungent coffee, whose exotic fragrance often carried me on mentally mystical journeys to faraway lands of terraced, rain-drenched plantations and brown-skinned people in brightly colored, flamboyantly designed sarongs. There I’d nurture my inner man or, in the jargon of the times, my inner-child, relaxing from the stress of urban living.
Sundays were like sitting on a fulcrum of tranquility, balanced precariously between the turmoil of the week past and the one to come. I looked forward to Sundays, knowing every Sunday would be the same – at least, until last Sunday.
Last Sunday, my routine was disturbed by several early-morning phone calls from friends in need – friends, whom I admit I curtly dispensed with with platitudes and promises of attention later on. Much later on.
I arrived at the coffee house well beyond my usual time. The room was filled with animated people chatting amiably over their breakfasts. I was disappointed to see all the window tables occupied. The place was so busy the hostess asked to put my name on a waiting list. That’s when I noticed the grandmotherly woman near the windows waving to me and pointing to the empty chair at her small table. I assumed she was offering me a place among all the tittering crumb snatchers and coffee slurpers. So I sat down and thanked her. The server took my usual order, a pot of Sumatran coffee and a large, raspberry and cream muffin.
We talked a few moments about how mild the weather has been lately and how fresh the breeze was off the lake. She commented on how well her begonias were growing in the window boxes of her home and how skinny the squirrels seemed after the long, bitter winter.
We sat in silence for awhile, enjoying each other’s company and our coffee. She told me her name was Mae and asked me who I was. I should have known, but I am too polite to ignore a seemingly innocent question.
“I terribly sorry,” I said. “How rude of me to sit here without introducing myself.” “I know your name,” she said. “That’s not what I meant. What I want to know is who are you … really?”
I must have looked stupefied from my surprise a woman I had never met before already knew my name. I didn’t remember telling her my name, but I quickly covered the astonishment with a fine exhibition of my lack of comprehension. She merely smiled her soft, grandmotherly smile.
“Well,” I said, “for starters, I guess, I’d have to say I’m a man.”
“That’s a good beginning,” she encouraged. “What else?”
“I’m a writer.”
“That’s what you do,” Mae said, “not who you are.”
I was baffled, silenced by the incomprehension of her meaning. So I did what any man would do in my situation. I smiled indulgently. The gentle woman sitting across from me shook her head, the movement so slight it could have been mistaken for tremors in an aged body. But it wasn’t, as I was soon to learn.
“Oh, my dear,” she continued, “if you only knew how truly special you are, you wouldn’t take my inquiry so lightly. And your smile would be one of joy, not embarrassment.
“You see, you are not what you seem. Do you remember what the little gnome told the young space warrior in Star Wars?”
I admitted I could not recall the prophetic words of Yoda.
“He told him he was a luminous being, not made of crude stuff. What do you suppose that writer was trying to say?”
I shrugged, and Mae frowned.
“Your body is made up of atoms,” she explained. “Atoms of carbon, and nitrogen, and oxygen, and a bunch of others in minute quantities that spread throughout the galaxy from gigantic explosions of massive stars billions of years ago. It’s a provocative thought, isn’t it, that the very stuff of our bodies comes from the nuclear ash of long-dead stars.”
“I know,” I said. “Scientists say we’re carbon-based, organic life as opposed, I suspect, to silicon-based life, or even some inorganic form, if that’s possible.”
“In the vastness of the universe,” Mae said, “anything’s possible. But regardless of the form, all matter is the same. It is a crude form of energy at a very low frequency. Indeed we are luminous beings, and the real us vibrates at such a high frequency there are no instruments we know of that can measure it.”
“What are you saying?” I was suddenly caught up by her inference but didn’t seem to catch on to her point.
“Simply this. We are not the bodies we occupy. We are not the rugged individualists, who believe ourselves not only to be the pinnacle of life on earth, but the very center of the universe.”
“So,” I asked, “Who are we … really?”
“That was my question,” she said. “Remember? And you’ve yet to answer it.”
I squirmed in the silence filling the space between us, while all around the coffee house still buzzed with the Sunday morning crowd.
“I don’t think I can,” I ventured.
“Certainly you can. What is there that transcends your body?”
“You mean the soul, like they teach in Sunday school?”
“Bingo. Only I wouldn’t call it a soul. That implies too much individualism. And we are not separate from each other.”
I gave Mae my most intelligent response to that statement.
She laughed. “Oh, you could call it soul, or spirit, or blatherspunkle, or whatever you want if you have to name it at all. It doesn’t matter, because even if you never voiced the word, you could understand what you really are. It imbues your very being.
“When you look through your eyes, what you see is basically formed by the reception and reaction to billions of photons – you know, those tiny bundles of energy flowing continuously from atom to atom. Somehow your brain translates these energetic impulses into mental images and, within our brain’s cortex, these images include one of our self. We use that self-image, that conscious awareness, to evaluate and judge everything around us, but we’re got it wrong.”
“We do?” I asked, hoping she’d explain what she meant. She did.
“Certainly. We think everything is separate. Each tree. Each flower. Each cloud. And beyond. We believe we live on a planet in a solar system separate from the billions of stars and galaxies that form the universe.
“Only, nothing is separate. Every atom in your body is intimately connected to every other atom. It’s the only way you, as a living organism, can survive. Can you accept that?”
“Sure,” I quickly agreed.
“Than can you not also see, if this is true, every atom comprising the universe is connected to every other atom? It’s the only way the universe can survive. The thread binding them all together is a form of energy scientists have yet to discover. I like to call it the Life Force. It is a form of energy that flows through all Creation, giving it life.
“Have you ever had a death in your family?”
I was momentarily distracted by her sudden shift in subject but confirmed recently an aunt had died.
“Tell me about her?” Mae asked.
I talked about how animated my aunt was, how involved in community activities, how interested in her nieces and nephews and their children.
“Very good,” she complimented. “Would you say she was physically warm, and pliable, and flexible?”
I smiled at the thought of my ninety-year-old aunt trying to demonstrate the aerobic exercise of someone less than a third her age. “She was very warm and flexible,” I agreed.
“And after her death, how was she?”
“Unreal,” I said sadly. “She was like a wax figure, hard and cold, lying in that casket.”
“But what was different about her?” Mae continued to probe. “Did her features change? Did her limbs wither? Did her chest collapse? What was different?”
I frowned, unable to answer. Mae answered for me.
“The only difference was the Life Force – the essential energy of life – had left the collection of atoms that comprised her body. Her body remained, but its energy level was so low, it appeared to you as wax.
“You see,” Mae continued, “there is only one Life Force. We can call it God or any of the thousands of names attributed to this life force over the eons. But the essential truth remains unchanged. All life is one. There are no individuals. No individual people. No individual planets. No individual pulsars. Seeing the universe as a collection of separate elements is an illusion. They only seem to be separate but, in reality, nothing is separate from anything else. That may be what Jesus was trying to teach his disciples when he told them whatever they did to the least important person, they did to him as well. The same applies to any action of people toward anything else in the universe – flowers, or frogs, or even the most minute plankton in the oceans.”
“So what you’re saying is the universe is like my body? All the parts are somehow connected, and that’s what makes the whole shebang work?”
“And what I do when I step on an ant is the same as stubbing my toe in the dark?”
“And it all depends on some undiscovered source of energy – like the ‘Force be with you!’ “
“So where does God come in?”
“First, you’d have to define God. Do you mean the First Cause? The Creative input that started everything? What scientists call The Big Bang?”
“I suppose so,” I stammered. “But it seems to me, if God were only the First Cause, the universe would operate like some neglected child.”
“Doesn’t it?” Mae inquired.
“It doesn’t seem so to me. I mean, there are just too many coincidences that have resulted in people being here after … what? … some thirteen billion years of existence.”
“What you’re saying, then, is God has tinkered with the universe since the beginning?”
“Well, yeah,” he insisted. “Do you really believe God created His universe and then just walked away?”
“No,” Mae smiled knowingly. “No at all.”
“But you just said God doesn’t – hasn’t – tinkered with the universe. You can’t have it both ways.”
“Indeed,” she said. “But remember, God also created the laws of nature and it is through this perfect body of law He monitors the unfolding of the universe. If the laws of nature seem incomplete to us, it’s because we haven’t understood the entire body of law.”
“Still … “
She held up her hand to stop my argument.
“Your idea of God making adjustment to the universe, tinkering with it, if you will implies what He created is less than perfect. It implies there are exceptions to the laws of nature. But no one has every observed or experienced a violation of a law of nature.”
“Have you ever seen time flow backwards? Fire flow into a pile of ashes and create a tree? A baby born old and grow young? People suddenly defy gravity and float away from the earth? No. The laws of nature are inviolate. They operate now as they always have because the Life Force that created the universe has remained unchanged since it was created. God does not tinker with the universe.”
“But what about all those miracles in the Bible? Plagues and floods and seas dividing. People being healed of diseases and rising from the dead?”
“Fanciful imagination, perhaps, or metaphors to explain the inexplicable.”
“You’re saying there is no God?”
“Not the way you infer God.”
“That won’t play well in Rome … or anywhere else a major religion is practiced,” I challenged.
“I suppose not,” Mae said quietly. “The great religions if you examine them closely are all anthropomorphic.”
“Meaning?” I continue to press my challenge.
“They are all man centered. They view God in man’s image, not man in God’s image. And they are couched in a mysticism so only the few initiated into the mysteries can control the minds and purses of the masses.”
“I don’t think that’s what Jesus, or Moses, or Siddharta had in mind.”
“Nor do I,” Mae said sorrowfully. “They brought us pure messages of love. They taught us how to live in peace and harmony and compassion. After each died, though, there were those among the believers who thought they knew better than even the Masters. They began to preach their own distorted version of the Truth, demanding everyone follow them and support them. You can still hear them today – people who claim to know what God wants of us – as if God speaks to them alone and has commanded them to lead and rule.”
“Isn’t that what you’re doing here to me, telling me what God is and how God thinks?”
Mae shook her head slowly.
“No,” she whispered. “I have no idea what God thinks or what God is except that God is infinite and God is perfect. I have no knowledge of the source or nature of the Life Force, only that it exists because I experience the universe. With our limited ability to perceive the four-dimensional reality in which we live, we simply haven’t the tools to comprehend the God – or the Life Force, if you will. To do so would be like a carpenter trying to build a house with only a hammer, a pencil, and a saw. It can’t be done.”
“What you’re saying, then, is God is unknowable and all the great religions of the world are frauds?”
“What I am saying is you don’t need scriptures, or preachers, or brains to know God. What you need is solitude, a quiet, introspective frame of mind that lets you listen to your heart. You already know God because you are an intimate part of God, just as you are an intimate part of the universe. Remember? Every atom is connected through the flowing Life Force to every other atom. You are as much a child of Creation as the dandelion growing on your lawn. Eliminate the babble around you. Sit in silence and listen to your heart. Then, you will understand who you really are.”
“It’s that simple?” I queried.
“It’s that simple,” Mae said. “Think about it.”
Mae stood, picked up her handbag, and said goodbye. Her final words had struck me like the Eleventh Commandment. I had simply nodded to her as she left. For a long time, I just sat there, oblivious to the chatter around me, holding my cup of now cold coffee to my lips. Untasted. Undrunk. Her words seeped into me like the chill of a winter’s day creeps through my heaviest woolen coat. I shuttered and became aware of a subtle change in my attitude.
I am a child of the universe, I thought, no less than the trees and the stars. And whether or not it is clear to me, as the poem, Desiderata, which I had memorized as a youth, said, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.
I wondered what my role in the universe was. As I sat in my solitude, a smile crept across my solemn countenance, because suddenly I knew. Teach only love, for that is all you are. I face that essential truth every day. A friend had sent me a greeting card, and I had framed it. The face of the card, which sits on my chest of drawers, is a quotation from Emily Dickinson: “All I know of love is love is all there is.”
Although not in those exact words, that was what Mae was trying to get me to understand. She was trying to teach me, being conscious of love is what makes humans different from any other part of the universe, although, I suppose, there may be intelligent life elsewhere also conscious of this.
I knew as I paid my check and left the coffee house I would never again look upon the world as I had. All of the things people did that angered or frustrated me took on a new perspective. I could see these were not stupid people – or evil people – as I had often thought of them. They were simply people who were unaware of who they really were.
I also realized I wasn’t alone in my thinking. I discovered there were a great many people who had a serene smile for anyone with whom they made eye contact as if they knew something no one else knew. I saw them everywhere and realized I smiled the same way now. I did know something unique in all creation. Love was the Life Force that bound the universe together. And it didn’t matter whether you call this force God. It didn’t matter whether you named it at all. It remained the essence of life. It remains unchanged and unchangeable.
I never saw Mae again, although I rarely missed my Sundays at the coffee house. She never came back to the coffee house. And, although I asked around the neighborhood, no one seemed to have known her or where she came from nor where she had gone. She had passed through my life like the sweet fragrance of spring’s first blossom, but the impact she had had on me was as certain as the sound of thunder that follows a bolt of lightening.
In the weeks and months that passed, I never again disregarded the needs of my friends. When they asked of me – whatever they asked of me – I simply did and never counted the cost. It didn’t matter. There is no way to value friendship or companionship or love, because there is nothing in the material world with which to compare them. Not precious metals. Nor colored beads. Nor even planets bathed in blue oceans and white cloud clusters.
My life is richer with this awareness, and I am happy and content made even more so by Sunday morning muffins at my usual table sitting in a golden sunbeam.