The religious impulse, it seems to me, is more about seeking than finding. There’s no greater composer devoted to this search than Gustav Mahler. The most memorable concert I ever attended was roughly 15 years ago. At that time, my mother was dying of cancer and Alzheimer’s. The Berlin Phiharmonic and Claudio Abbado were performing Mahler’s 9th Symphony, a work full of searching, sadness, desperation, resolution, and redemption. At the end of the performance, Abbado did something I’ve never seen a conductor do before, nor since. After the last note, he kept his arms up, pausing everything, the room entirely quiet, for the longest time. He waited and waited, and waited. No one made a sound. Then it hit me. It was as though he was saying, “Consider what you have just heard, the sorrow, the wonder, and the searching in this music, and do not despair.” It was a terrifying and joyful moment, and when he finally put his arms down, followed by the loudest applause I’ve ever heard.
Not long after that, I wrote this poem about searching.
The Argument from Design
There is only one tree in the park.
Not this day only, but every day,
I find that tree when the day grows dark,
Never before dark, when the gray
Leaves are like a whispered amen
To a prayer I wasn’t there to say.
Therefore, I’m cautious and slow when
I start to climb (I believe the tree
Is not unknown to other men);
I test each limb before I leave the
One beneath, without assurance
Any but the lowest will receive me.
Then my doubt subsides where I chance
Upon a tangled branch, ripped free
The time I almost lost my balance.
Now I can move quickly up the tree,
Into its clotted heart, where the dark
Yields, to my callused fingers only,
The life of the one tree in the park.