"As we move around this world and as we act with kindness . . . or with indifference or with hostility toward the people we meet, we are setting the great spider web atremble. "
— Frederick Buechner
The world is like a great spider web — minus the spider. Or rather, including the spider, as even the tiniest of creatures are card-carrying members of our silky, web-like world. This lacy, cosmic extravagance in which we all find ourselves can be explained with elaborate cosmological or scientific models, but the spider web is all we really need to stir our imagination.
As a theologian, I believe the spider web is the perfect image for understanding process theology, a spiritual path built on the idea of a web-like universe where every small gesture of kindness sets the whole world atremble. The silken threads that connect us are awash with possibility after possibility for tremors of love and beauty to ripple across the universe.
In this great web — so delicate and sensitive and made of divine materials — we find our meaning and purpose. Bathed in such a vast belonging, we move about with care, not only for ourselves, but for every filigreed corner of our intricately woven existence. This precious web, both beautiful and treacherous, needs our attention and our nurture. Most of all, it needs small gestures of kindness.
That is why, during a pandemic, we wear face masks in public. The simple act of looping elastic behind our ears and covering our noses and mouths is a small gesture that causes the whole web to tremble in a cascade of mutual influences. With this simple act, we care for the whole web of vulnerable friends and strangers.
But to refuse to wear a mask causes a different kind of tremble in our web-like universe, damaging the silvery, delicate threads that connect us in our web-like home. Such an act of carelessness or callousness tears at the very fabric of life. For the truth is, the Earth is a web, an organism woven together so tightly that we cannot escape into imaginary pods labeled "personal freedom," cut off from the rest of the universe. In the great web of life, our personal freedom is found only in relation to everything else. I will not truly flourish unless I am concerned about your flourishing, too. Humanity will not flourish unless the oceans and forests and bees flourish, too. To deny our organic connection is to cause the web of life to tremble in ways that make the Earth groan and the heavens weep.
The marvelous and terrifying thing about this web is that, as Frederick Buechner says, "The life I touch for good or ill will touch another life, and that in turn another, until who knows where the trembling stops or in what far place my touch will be felt." That sounds very much like what scientists tells us today about the coronavirus, how it infects us in an elaborate chain reaction that, unbeknownst to us, affects not only those in close proximity, but people we cannot know or see — vulnerable people further down the web of interconnection who may even experience the ultimate trembling of death. In chaos theory, this trembling through invisible threads of causation is called the "butterfly effect": the tiny flutter of a butterfly's wing in Brazil might be the beginning of what becomes a tornado in Texas. Or — and we often forget this part — it could also be the very flutter that prevents a tornado in Texas.
The power of the small gesture — the mask, the flutter of a smile, the batch of cookies on a doorstep — sets the web atremble in ways beyond our imagining. Who knows? If a butterfly's wing can stop a tornado on the other side of the planet, then surely an encouraging word might repair a connecting thread inside someone spiraling down in despair or raging toward destruction. The smallest gesture cascades out beyond our personal intentions, which humbles us, even while it fills us with awe. Small is huge in the intricate web of life! In Matthew, Jesus says that "even a cup of cold water" given to a child can change everything. We should not be thinking in terms of heroic acts, which few are capable of, but rather in tiny tremors of kindness that ripple across the world.
Could it be that the authentic spiritual life is simply made up of small gestures? Perhaps, in the great web of life, it is in these tiny trembles of kindness that the world is lifted out of misery.
Donning a mask in public, then, becomes a form of spiritual etiquette. We greet our masked friends in the silent language of our invisible web: I care about you and you care about me. And with every breath we take behind folds of soft cotton, the web trembles just a little more with health and hope and quivers of divine joy. We are not to know of the far-flung results of such a small gesture of kindness, but we live by faith that it makes a difference to the world — and to God.
If God cares about the number of hairs on our head and feels the pain of a single falling sparrow, then we can trust in a divine kindness that works from deep stores of empathy and hospitality. In this web-like view of the world, we discover the God of process theology: the web-like God who inhabits the silky threads that connect us, calling out to us in every tremble of divine pain or joy: Be kind. Be kind. Be kind.