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Porch Light

By Stephen Berg


Strange attractor


When I was boy, armed with wire cutters, screwdriver and soldering iron, I would happily pass evenings and weekends tearing apart — and sometimes putting back together — discarded radios or anything else I found that ran on batteries or had to be plugged in. I loved the smell of solder and gave myself headaches soldering together crude circuits consisting of resistors, switches, relays, capacitors and transformers.

For a while I had a fling with solenoids or electromagnets. The first one I made had snare wire wrapped tightly around a two-inch nail. I hooked the two ends to a six-volt battery and as the current fled through the wire it produced an electromagnetic field and magnetized the nail. In the effort to pick up increasingly heavier metal objects, I went on to bigger and better versions. One day I built a very fine one that required being plugged into an outlet. Although I used a step-down transformer between the power source and the electromagnet, I miscalculated and it blew up, sending bits of hot wire flying across my bedroom and burning holes in my shirt.

Still, I was seized by the magic of creating an instant magnetic field. I marvelled that a cold dead nail could suddenly pulse with an invisible power. And I was fascinated that the immaterial field that was created around this simple object, reoriented and brought into alignment everything in its range.

I recall all of this only because one evening following a gathering with friends, my wife, Deb, told me about an impression she experienced. That evening our friend Mary had offered Deb her chair beside the fireplace so she could warm herself. Deb told me that when she sat in Mary’s chair she felt a soft peace coming over her; and it came to her that this was the place where Mary prayed.

This brings me to wonder about the parallel natures of my electromagnet and the prayer-chair by the fireplace. I wonder about Deb being affected by an unseen field of influence where things were brought into alignment in such a way that a subtle profusion of peace was the result. I wonder how far I can take the notion that a place of prayer, a person of prayer, a prayer itself, brings harmony and peace to its surroundings.

In an essay called The Physics of Communion, Barbara Taylor talks about an experience she had at a lecture given by Fred Burnham. Burnham is an Episcopal priest who holds a doctorate in the history of science. The lecture was about chaos theory and the science of complexity, and how these things might begin to inform religion. During the lecture a computer screen was left on; random lines crisscrossed the screen. By the end of the lecture the lines had produced a striking facsimile of a butterfly. Burnham called the butterfly design a “strange attractor” because the mathematical formula that created the design acted like a magnet that pulled randomness into form and order.

The experience my wife had is of course beyond scientific examination, but perhaps at some undiscovered level, the equating of the prayer-chair with an electromagnet does not violate science or faith. Perhaps only those of us who have yet to completely shed a mechanistic worldview find difficulty with this juxtaposition. To those who see the created world as God’s world, there will be awe and wonder, but no incredulity; because at bottom, the spiritual and the material natures are not distinct categories.

If this is the way things are, should it surprise us that the chair beside the fireplace is hallowed ground? Should it surprise us that this spot has become a place where an invisible power, through the conducting rays of prayer, however prayed, however fashioned, realigns and reorders that which is in range?

Perhaps this helps us better reverence those times we remember being arrested by a power that we could only call holy. Nothing planned or invented, we were simply held entranced in space and time, held in a way that suspended our fear — held in a field of holy influence, where God, for no reason or a thousand reasons, chose to stream Divine love into the world through an old shed, a tree, a butterfly, a path, a café, a stranger, a friend. Could these be revelatory ruptures, unifying moments, meant to lead us deeper and transform our false autonomy into true attractiveness?

While deep mystery remains, we can still catch the notion that when we allow the current of Christ, that is, the current of love, to flow through us, not impeding it or attempting to store it, just letting it flow freely, we too become strange attractors, carrying within us and around us, beauty and order.

Berg works for Hope Mission, a social care facility for homeless people in Edmonton’s inner city. His poetry and prose have been in staged performances and have appeared in such publications as the Edmonton Journal, Orion, Geez, and Earth Shine. He blogs at

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