The Holistic Universe: Wisdom as Attention to the Cohesion of Physicality and Immateriality

By Erin Aslami
2021, Vol. 13 No. 05 | pg. 1/1


We are all witnesses. You see and are seen; you step in and step out. You brush your hair out of your face, out of the face of a friend, a lover. Sometimes, you feel that the lock of hair is something more than the strands that compose it, and that stroking it strokes something not-quite physical. In your power of physical and emotional cohesion, you practice wisdom. You knit together the self and the other, the self and the body, the body and the world, the physical and the spiritual. You sense how the material and immaterial encompass each other. They are not only the most intimate of dance partners, but they become one. To become an audience member of this interplay is to open yourself to the complexities of scope: to become a witness to reality. This is the attention to how the layers of our world coalesce into one.


This essay will detail how two memoirs, Dorothy Day’s The Long Loneliness and John Phillip Santos’ Places Left Unfinished at the Time of Creation, are accounts of the intricate and expansive ties between the physical and incorporeal, almost erasing the distinction between the two. This discussion involves such intrapersonal actors as the self and the body, along with interpersonal community, extending to how those material and immaterial factors render our reality— our physical and spiritual landscapes. Over the course of the essay, these different elements will come together in different patterns, increasing in scope. In the end, it will show how wisdom is witnessing, valuing, and using these interactions to reckon with the physical and spiritual elements which form our beings. It will show how wisdom is learning that to consider one of these elements in an isolated manner is to consider only a part of a whole which is not a collection of elements but a new entity in itself. Only with this wisdom can we look at reality holistically and begin to comprehend not only our relationship with it all, but how we are it all.

Relationship of Self to Self

Perhaps the most intimate of these connections is the self to the self. By this, I mean the connection of one’s own self with another of one’s selves, intrapersonally rather than interpersonally. Professor Michael Puett in lecture for “Quests for Wisdom: Religious, Moral and Aesthetic Experiences in the Art of Living in Perilous Times” described an ancient Chinese philosophy in which each person maintains multiple souls. These souls are defined by breaking patterns, such as by performing ritual or self-exile. It is with this variety of soul that we are empowered and enabled to meet challenging situations. Dorothy Day, in her loneliness, brings her attention to the connection between selves. During one of many episodes in jail, she finds herself losing her “consciousness of cause” (Day 79) and therefore sense of identity. Her character lapses, she breaks the hunger strike, and she feels deprived of her soul— her self.

However, her quest for wisdom brings her to keep her attention focused on the growth of self-multiplicity, and she expands her souls. She fixes her attention to thinking beyond a singular path, grounding herself in a variety of communities and actively participating in social and religious movements, some of which do not precisely align. For instance, Day writes that her political ideology does not allow for the charity which is so cherished in the Catholic Church. Rather, she works to eliminate the need for charity, and address the cause of inaccessibility to resources itself— a cause she believes her Catholic Church should also adopt. By taking on a diversity of ideology, theology, and action, she takes on multiplicity. She builds the relationship between her selves, and this relationship enables her to live fully in her identity, become one with her community, and exercise her will in her world.

Relationship of the Self to the Body and the Physical

Seeing beyond the non-physical self involves the body. Valuing the connections between the mental, emotional, and physical brings Santos greater access to memory, family, and history, all of which span physical and non-physical realms. In Santos’ writing, there is a clear connection between knowledge and practice in that both take place in the body and in that both enable each other. He describes how las Viejitas maintain knowledge and meaning, while the brothers pass down physical work and tradition. These practices of knowledge and work are united through their roles in the family, and their unification shows the intrinsic physicality of knowledge and the knowledge embedded in physicality. He further extends the family to include past generations, writing that bodies hold “a secret archive of the soul of our family” (Santos 41). The soul and knowledge are not of an intangible realm, Santos shows. They inhabit the physical.

When Uncle Raul comes to John Phillip after death, John Phillip wants to learn his collection of family stories. Before he gets a chance to ask, Uncle Raul answers with, “‘There were memories in the familia before there was anyone around to remember them. [...] So where do we begin?’” (Santos 48). He continues his own question with, “‘There were the stars and the planets in the sky, the earth, the fire, and the wind. Why not ask them, John Phillip? Why not ask them?’” (Santos 48). This use of pieces of the physical universe as witnesses to the experiences of the Santos family shows a certain wisdom of the unification of the physical with memory. The body and the physical universe store emotional and spiritual experiences. Santos gives attention to the vastness of this connection, to its unlimited potential, by pondering, “What messages and markings of the ancient past do we carry in these handed-down bodies we live in today?” (Santos 9).

Relationship of the Intrapersonal (Self and Body) to the Interpersonal

That Santos pictures the body as “handed-down” brings us to the interaction of the self and the body with others and community. Along with the intrapersonal dynamics of self, there are the interpersonal. Day cites Romano Guardini writing, “‘a man is of the people if he embraces, so to speak, the whole within himself’” (Day 86). Day lives out this connection between the self and the people by creating her living conditions to mimic those of people in poverty. Taking on, and embracing, that community’s eating habits, bathing and heating makes the physical body and surroundings a medium for community. This connects the self to the community— to the people, as Guardini said. Santos also illustrates this connection taking place through a spiritual realm, rather than Day’s physical actions. He shows us this through detailing Uela’s physical process of baking cookies, galletas. Uela is “stoic” according to Santos— “guarded away, somber, and hidden.” John Phillip and his family received her cookies every week, which “carried a perfect imprint of her hand.” Santos writes, “in this way, we received the communion of all her buried grieving” (Santos 45). While Uela isolated her self and her history, she found a way, through physicality, to connect her family to her emotional world.

Relationship of Physicality to Essence and Spirituality

As seen with the grieving example, Santos’ attention to his linguistic and metaphorical choices give value to the intimacy between the body, community, and the extended non-human physical and spiritual world. Santos writes that the Indian body holds the universe (Santos 68). He so values this connection that he repeats a fragment of what José Martí, the Cuban patriot and writer, said, that “the conquistadors ‘stole a page from the universe’” after the conquests in 1521, when “Mexico was cut off from the wellspring of its Indian genesis, a place forevermore of fog and mystery” (Santos 25). Both the language of stealing a page from the universe and the language of a wellspring of genesis show us that the physical gives ground to and has influence over the abstract. Physicality becomes intangible.

Both Day and Santos describe physical actions which inherently include the essence of that action. For example, Day describes tasting popcorn by watching the process of the man on the corner popping it. Her and her sister “watched every motion, beginning with the popping of the corn, with the cage suspended on a wire and shaken back and forth; we watched him fill each bag and pour in a little melted butter from a white coffee pot, and shake in some salt, and we could smell it and taste it as we watched him” (Day 28). The essence, the taste, rises from witnessing the very physical practice itself, and not the literal act of eating the popcorn. Santos echoes this creation of the physical as essence by internalizing the teaching of the Tarahumara priests of northwestern Mexico, who preach that it is physical stillness which breeds spiritual illness. The health of our being is determined by this:

The Tarahumara priests of northwestern Mexico say we are meant by the Creator to walk
twenty-four miles a day, and that this is why our feet are shaped like a bridge. We are
meant to walk through the lands that surround us. If we stand still, we become spiritually
sick, and eventually, whether in the space of one life, or over the span of several
generations, this sickness will overwhelm us. (Santos 48)

These observations of essence contribute to wisdom through recognizing the origins of experience, and through perceiving the unity of physical and abstract which creates those origins. The stakes of joining the physical with the non-physical is our health— being able to take care of one’s whole being.

Relationship of the Body to Reality

Not only does physicality create essence, but more specifically, our bodies create our world. There is wisdom in exploring how we shape the reality we, and our successors, inhabit. Santos recognizes the power of memory, physical and emotional. He pays close attention to the deliberate handling of remembering and forgetting, and how those attachments and detachments make up the reality which becomes the very medium for one’s self. Forgetting is not a passive process for the Mexican-Americans who have uprooted their lives to hesitantly settle in Texas, with the idea of never staying permanently in either place. The journey often involves physical trauma and hurt over the family and tradition which is left behind. Santos writes that these people make “selective forgetting a sacramental obligation” (Santos 5).

This re-formation of the collective repertoire of memory creates a subjunctive world, an “as-if” world, as Adam B. Seligman, Robert P. Weller, Michael J. Puett, and Bennett Simon describe in “Ritual and Its Consequences: An Essay on the Limits of Sincerity.” Santos’ sacramental forgetting functions as a ritual, and according to “Ritual and the Subjunctive,” ritual is a practice of re-making our world into the version we can successfully imagine and wish to implement. The given example is that to live as if the world is moral is to live morally, and to live morally is to make the world moral (Seligman 20). In Places Left Unfinished at the Time of Creation, the ritual of forgetting shapes the reality of the forgetter, and those around that person, for generations. This utilization of the body and brain to create our reality requires true wise insight, and careful attention to the fragments which remain— whether they are contradictory perspectives of the same story, or whether they leave holes within a single narrative voice. Santos is a storyteller, and has learned to pay attention to the living dynamics of the past in order to create a satisfying and true reality for himself and his family. Santos says of the memory remainder, “Let the past reclaim all the rest” (Santos 5).

Relationship of the Physical World to the Spiritual World

The connection just established between the physical individual and the physical, adjacently spiritual worlds does not make clear how the physical and spiritual worlds depend on each other. Santos illuminates this tie by recounting Aztec cosmology. Based in memory, this cosmology preserves the life of the forgotten through the limbo world of “el Inframundo.” The physical and spiritual worlds are so fully integrated into each other in the Inframundo that Santos says the spiritual limbo of the Inframundo “is not like Hell and Heaven, set apart from the world,” but that it is “more like a portal out of history and into eternity, encompassing all of the gradations of darkness and light, where all of the dead dwell, simultaneously beyond, and among, us” (Santos 49). Santos describes the journey of entering the Inframundo as a physical one, dictating the “several paths” of “places spread across the land that are like gateways into this dimension: caves and hills, streams and charcos, gorges and cañones, buttes and valleys” (Santos 49). This highlights the physicality of the spiritual world itself. Spirit inhabits the landscape.

Even within the physical boundaries of our own physical Earth, we encounter interplay between physical and spiritual worlds. Santos shows us how the Spanish used the spirituality of old Indian earth to root their own religious buildings. He narrates, “The Spanish often chose to build their churches over the Indian pyramids, as they did over the great ceremonial pyramid in Cholula, not too far away from here. Here, this old Indian disc is imbedded in the church wall like a cornerstone, anchoring the Christian sanctuary in the dark Mexican earth of the ancestors’ time” (Santos 30). Santos’ attention to the Spanish attention to the Indian physical and spiritual world shows us not only what it looks like to acknowledge the connections between those worlds, but how to value and participate in them. Wisdom is this ability to integrate one’s self and one’s world with the world of others. To see the physical in the spiritual, and the spiritual in the physical, requires an ability to de-isolate, and a perspective to unify, which is beyond knowledge.

Conclusion: Relationship of the Self to Reality

It is seeing all of these connections, and how each pair connects with the others, that allows us to witness the largest-scale connection, that of the self with the world. Day shows us that we must act so as to implement the reality we wish to inhabit. In the end, one can only create what one can imagine.1 Our reality is restricted to that of which we can conceive. In this way, the world depends on the self. As the play of history and the carrying of memory is “inevitable” (Santos 78), we must learn how to handle them with respect and wisdom. We cannot take part in a few elements of reality without nurturing the whole, or we risk living in a world in which we have no influence. Day’s work for social change would be impossible. Santos’ search for his family story would be impossible. Similarly, we cannot nurture our whole selves without valuing that which inhabits it— all of the above ingredients: the body, community, physical worlds, and spiritual worlds.


Day, Dorothy. Long Loneliness. Harper & Row, 1952.

Paulsell, Stephanie. “Seeking Wisdom in Community.” Quests for Wisdom: Religious, Moral and Aesthetic Experiences in the Art of Living in Perilous Times. 7 Oct. 2020.

Puett, Michael J. “Perspectivism and the Work of Forgetting the Self.” Quests for Wisdom: Religious, Moral and Aesthetic Experiences in the Art of Living in Perilous Times. 11 Nov. 2020.

Seligman, Adam B, et al. “Ritual and the Subjunctive.” Ritual and Its Consequences: an Essay on the Limits of Sincerity. Oxford University Press, 2008, pp. 17–42.

Santos, John Phillip. Places Left Unfinished at the Time of Creation. Penguin Books, 2000.


1.) This is an idea expressed by my professor, Stephanie Paulsell, during lecture for our class “Quests for Wisdom: Religious, Moral and Aesthetic Experiences in the Art of Living in Perilous Times.”

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