Just before lockdown I had to make a dash to the local ironmongers. As with most household problems, I’d turned a blind eye until my wife declared the situation a crisis. I live in an old house full of holes and gaps and cavities, a roof of wooden shingles and walls covered in ivy: we may as well hang up a ‘vacancies’ sign. ‘Overrun’ sounds biblical, but it’s the word my wife used. Mice everywhere.
Which is how I found myself scanning a selection of traps. Confronted by the array of lethal-looking devices, I began to feel uneasy. Names like Jawz, Snappies, and Tomcat, all advertising clean kills and easy disposal. I asked the advice of the shopkeeper. He noticed the dog collar, smiled. ‘What would Saint Francis do?’ he asked.
I left with an armful of expensive ‘humane’ traps. Not a saint, a sucker. My wife was furious, my teenagers relieved. You win some, you lose some.
But actually, these non-lethal traps proved very effective. Every morning I found mice trapped in the little clear plastic boxes that I’d baited with peanut butter the night before. On my way to work or taking teenagers to the bus top, I’d stop and release the mice in a nearby field or copse. It felt illicit somehow. There was a Cold War quality to these surreptitious early morning ‘drops.’
What’s it like to be a mouse? Specifically, what’s it like to be a mouse trapped inside a clear plastic box on the backseat of a car, studied by huge, looming faces?
Frightening and disorientating, judging from their movements. Fair enough. But that’s not really an answer to my question; we have no way of knowing what it feels like to be frightened or disorientated as a mouse. I can imagine the confusion, the claustrophobia. But it is my confusion, my sense of claustrophobia.
We only know what it’s like to be us. Our curiosity as to what it might be like to be a mouse or a Martian can never be satisfied:
The human intellect cannot avoid seeing itself in its perspectives, and only in these. We cannot look round our own corner; it is a hopeless curiosity that wants to know what other kinds of intellect and perspectives there might be.Nietzsche, The Gay Science, §374
I don’t think any curiosity is hopeless. Almost by definition, curiosity is hopeful. But I know what Nietzsche means. When I wonder how the mouse feels, I can only ever imagine in the palette of feelings with which I’m familiar. The mousetrap brings man and mouse into strange communion on the back seat of my Seat Ibiza, but it only serves to show how actual communion is impossible. We can’t step outside of ourselves. In a way, we’re as trapped as the mouse, just on the other side of the clear plastic box.
Nietzsche’s perspectivism, though revolutionary in 1882, was not remotely new and has thoroughly Christian credentials:
The whole of creation is unable to stand outside of itself by means of an intuitive knowing grasp, but always remains within itself; and whatever it sees, it sees only itself, and if it believes it sees something beyond itself – well, it is not of its nature to see beyond itself.Gregory of Nyssa, Seventh Homily on Ecclesiastes
For Gregory, all created things are held within their own limits, as ordained by God.
The limits of the boundaries which circumscribe the birds or fish are obvious: the water is the limit of what swims and the air to what flies.Gregory of Nyssa, Life of Moses, 2.236
We cannot step outside of ourselves. This is not just a Nietzschean perspective and it’s certainly not a trap: in fact, it’s freedom.
Yesterday, we thought about Paul’s speech to the Athenians on the Areopagus in which he commends to them ‘an unknown god.’ (Acts 17:23)
We search for God, and perhaps grope for him and find him – though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For ‘in him we live and move and have our being.’Acts 17:27-28
This is the deep meaning, I think, of one of the most misunderstood and misused moments of scripture:
Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness’ … So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them.Genesis 1:26-27
Forget the fancy words like ‘humankind’, ‘image’, ‘created’ for a moment; because it’s the ‘in’ that counts here. To be created in the image of God doesn’t mean we are like God. It means we live and move and have our being in the image of God. The Image is our box, our context, our life.
What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.John 1:3-4
To be alive at all is to be in Him. Does that feel like a trap? I hope not.
And a mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels.Walt Whitman, from Leaves of Grass, 31
Be staggered, blessed.
(And herewith, apologies to any neighbours who may have inherited my mice!)
I laid my traps in the kitchen mainly. That’s where the mice were, mainly. Dutch composer and pianist Joep Beving made his first recordings on an upright piano in his kitchen. This is a track from his 2019 album Henosis – a mystical religious term: oneness, to become one. The cover of Henosis visually expresses some of what I’ve tried to say above.
hold us close in our Faith;
bind us together in our Hope;
and never separate us from the Love
in which we live and move and have our being:
your son, our Lord Jesus Christ.