Golden Ball Hill rises two hundred and sixty-eight metres above the Vale of Pewsey near the village of Huish. On our map, the contours converge in tight skeins. It’s a climb. But the view from the top – even in the rain, with clouds blowing in low and busy – is wonderful.
On Tuesday evening we stood up here, looking out over the valley, eating smoked trout sandwiches and drinking cheap Côte du Rhône from chipped enamel cups.
The next day I felt every one of those two hundred and sixty-eight metres in my aching legs. Surely two hundred and sixty-eight metres isn’t that high? It doesn’t sound that high. But then, how high is two hundred and sixty-eight metres exactly? I feel I want to measure the measure, if that makes sense.
Well, if two hundred and sixty-eight metres were a queue outside a supermarket, it would be one hundred and thirty-four people long, assuming they were all socially distancing. But that doesn’t really help.
How about if I say the height of Golden Ball Hill above sea level is two hundred and sixty-eight ten millionths of the distance between the North Pole and the Equator? No help at all.
It occurs to me that in a curious and unsettling way, the more accuracy we strive for and achieve, the less help it actually is. The current universal definition of a metre is
defined by taking the fixed numerical value of the speed of light in vacuum c to be 299 792 458 when expressed in the unit m s−1, where the second is defined in terms of the caesium frequency ΔνCS.
Helpful? Thought not.
What makes a metre a metre? Is it something to do with fractions of the earth’s meridian or the speed of light or wavelengths of radiation from a krypton-86 atom? For an answer I could go to Paris, to the Bureau International des Poids et Mesures where the standard metre bar is kept. But will that help me?
There is one thing of which one can say neither that it is one meter long nor that it is not one meter long, and that is the standard meter in Paris. But this is, of course, not to ascribe any extraordinary property to it, but only to mark its peculiar role in the language game of measuring with a meter rule.Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations § 50
Wittgenstein’s point, I take it, is that to say something is a metre long is to compare it to the standard metre in Paris. But then we might ask, how do we know the metre in Paris is a metre? Could we measure the metre in Paris against the metre in Paris? Clearly not. For Wittgenstein, it’s not possible to say if the Paris metre is a metre long because we couldn’t have anything to measure it against, except – pointlessly – itself. Our systems of measurement, he concludes, are ultimately an arbitrary set of rules, like the rules of a game. This game of metres was dreamt up in Englighenment, revolutionary France.
What if, instead, we measured the distance to the top of Golden Ball Hill like a child – in puddles, in tears, in blisters and blackberries, in conkers, in smiles?
Grown ups, we have hidden things with maps and words and measurements. And the more we come to feel we have an objective grasp of a real, measurable and mappable world around us, the more we lose track of who we are doing the measuring. The world seems to confront us as a series of hard facts, rather than embrace us as loved elements of itself.
In a wonderful image Jesus says we’re like children, sitting in a market place and shouting
We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;Matthew 11:17
we wailed, and you did not mourn.
We expect the world to conform to our own expectations and standards and measurements, to rejoice when we rejoice and to mourn when we mourn. We’ve made maps of everything, and then expect everything to conform to our maps.
As always, at the heart of our mistake, is idolatry. We’ve made an idol of our own ability. The Bureau International des Poids et Mesures is a temple, and in its holy of holies sits the metre bar, a god, an idol of our own ingenuity. I’m not saying it isn’t ingenious or useful. It is. I’m just saying we need to take care not to mistake our maps and measures as eradications of the mysterious. The mystery is measureless, thank God.
The metre bar is not a god; it’s just a bar of metal, a rule in a game of our own devising.
So what happens if once in a while we put down the map?
Jesus said, ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants.’Matthew 11:25
Our hearts are as good at measuring as our minds. And while we count ourselves wise and clever in our measuring, we are all the time being measured and loved. Wisdom does not belong to us; we belong to Wisdom. In the Book of Proverbs, Wisdom says,
The LORD created me at the beginning of his work,Proverbs 8:22, 29-31
the first of his acts of long ago.
when he marked out the foundations of the earth,
then I was beside him, like a master worker;
and I was daily his delight,
rejoicing before him always,
rejoicing in his inhabited world
and delighting in the human race.
We should delight less in being wise, and more in knowing Wisdom takes delight in us.
This is Wisdom Eye by Alice Coltrane. A brilliantly gifted jazz pianist, harpist and composer, Coltrane expressed through her music a profound, searching spirituality. After the death of her husband, she withdrew from the public eye and the work of a professional musician to devote her life to prayer, to worship, and study of the Vedas.
God of all wisdom,
eternal, limitless, unbounded,
give us the grace to put down our maps and measures,
to live less by our sciences and ceremonies,
and more by the example of your Son, Jesus Christ
who called us to come to Him as children,
in gratitude, in love, and in wonder.
Teach us to take delight not in looking for answers to questions we ask,
but in being answers to what You ask of us.
Make answers of our lives, we pray:
feeding the hungry, tending the sick,
freeing the oppressed and speaking out for justice,
through Him who came to live with us and die for us.