“You have written here as a man might write only at the end of his life.”1 This is the reaction of Henry Bugbee’s friends to Inward Morning, his “philosophical exploration in journal form.” Bugbee’s journal emerges from a proverbial retreat from the intellectual standards of the academy. Denied a tenure track job at Harvard due to lack of publications, Bugbee takes a job at the University of Montana. From this Montana wilderness, Inward Morning emerges. Guided by philosophers, novelists, poets, theologians, rowing coaches, fish, snow, plants, ships, and more, Bugbee argues that it is the theme of finality, just as his friends noted, that holds his writing together.
At first glance, such a theme is easy to miss. In the pages of his journal, we find vibrant life. He speaks of the lessons he learned from walking among the Rocky Mountains, the camaraderie between plants and people. The Gualala River teems with fish, a lesson in the value of attentiveness, and his recollection of childhood swamping days resists any consideration of death. A “philosophy that mainly took shape on foot,”2 his explorations hinge on movement, on ever-flowing life.
Like fish floating on the current of a river, thought, for Bugbee, is a matter of flow. In his first entry, he simply states, “Let it flow…Let one perception move instantly on another. Where they come from is to be trusted.”3 To be a philosopher, to be one who faces their own finitude, one needs to trust the flow of perception. Bugbee continues, “Basic meanings are not anticipated; they dawn on one.”4 Meaning cannot be forced or summoned by sheer will. Instead, it must dawn; the philosopher must simply “give it a chance” and step into the flow.5
Where is finality in such a flow? It emerges in the posture of the philosopher. She must have the posture of a wanderer. This posture is clarified for Bugbee in his discussion of wilderness, a theme second in importance only to finality. According to Bugbee, the finality of things is “filtered through to us in periods of estrangement.”6 Walking amongst the world as if it were all wilderness, without settling or making a home, brings about an existential awareness of finitude – one’s own and that of the world.
Only when the philosopher gives up her intellectual home to wander through the wilderness, will she be able to wonder, an essential requirement for Bugbee’s flow. This wonder opens the mind be “overtaken” by fundamental truths and eschews partial or overworked explanations.7 In the same way that the wandering traveler brings only what she can carry, the wondering philosopher does not hold on to anything but pure truth: “[n]othing short of eternal meaning” will do.8 For this reason, philosophy is not “making a home for the mind out of reality;”9 we have no claim on the reality of things, and therefore cannot build a home of them. Wonder resists any claim of power or ownership.
What day better captures this sense of peripatetic wonder than Ash Wednesday? In my church, the week before Ash Wednesday, the palms from last year’s Palm Sunday are burned to make the ashes. They are not, however, burned in somber fashion. They are burned by the church’s children as part of an after-school program. And then, a week later, parishioners smear those reduced palms on the foreheads of young and old alike, miming the cross: “From dust you came, and to dust you shall return.” Palm branches to ashes. Joy to mourning. Life to death. The cycle of palm waving and ash-making ensures an inescapable liturgical movement. We will never not have palms and we will never not have ashes. If we stand still, the movement of palms and ashes will crash right over us.
But what of the twists and turns of fate, of the stirring unease we often feel when we think of death? Does all contemplation of finitude need to hold such violence and loneliness? Perhaps, Bugbee shows us another way, one that is instead “graced by some gentleness and simplicity.”10
By writing his thinking in journal form, Bugbee includes us in the minutiae of his life, the small reflections the mind makes of small things. He tells us that on July 24, it rained after a long dry spell; he then moves on to discuss the Stoics and Epicureans. He recalls a cup of coffee with a friend, when he was deployed at sea. He denounces Kierkegaard for his lack of consideration for cooking and eating.
Within such everyday things, there is a kind of mysterious wilderness. It sets the philosopher wandering, in hopes of being overcome by something true:
“I want the truth, marrow-bone truth, and I find the intimations of it whenever I am alive to things, even the most familiar and common place things, for the wilderness I take them to comprise. It seems to me that every time I am born, the wilderness is born anew; and every time I am born it seems to me that then, if ever, I could be content to die.” 11
In the familiar and common place, marrow-bone truth dwells. In the familiar and common place, Bugbee finds himself to be born anew. In being born, he finds himself ready to die. Here is everyday contemplation, graced with gentleness. It feels like children waving palm branches, the brief touch of ash covered fingers on my forehead.
So, perhaps the flow Bugbee relies on is something like the waters of baptism. I was baptized in my dad’s old t-shirt in the James River. Mud squelching between my toes and rusty train tracks looming above me, I went down under the water and holy finitude flowed under me, over me, in me. The death of Christ. I came up out of the water, gasping for breath, to the cheering of friends and family on the bank of the river. The life of Christ. As I stood freshly baptized in the James, with water droplets trickling softly down my skin, the currents of finitude pressed gently against my legs, not letting me forget their presence.
Bugbee does write as one writes at the end of their life; that is, he writes with finitude in full view. But it is a gentle finitude. It is not characterized by anxiety or loneliness or even dust and ash. It is characterized by the flow of the river, by the current that simply wants to remind you that it is there.
In days when the violence of finitude seems too close, when loneliness covers all, I pray you find such a gentle finitude. May you find it in the quiet as you drink your morning coffee, in the baking and breaking of bread, in a conversation about the weather. May you find it in the familiar and common place things. May you find it when your thirst needs quenching, when you are tired of wandering. Let it flow, my friend. Birth follows death too.
- Henry Bugbee, Inward Morning: A Philosophical Exploration in Journal Form (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1999), 18.
- Ibid., 96.
- Ibid., 31.
- Ibid., 32.
- Ibid., 31.
- Ibid., 91.
- Ibid., 35.
- Ibid., 18.
- Ibid., 105.
- Henry Bugbee, “Wilderness in America,” Journal of American Academy of Religion 42, no. 4 (1974), 618.
- Inward Morning, 89.