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The Metaphor of the Nautilus

Oliver Wendell Holmes, a century and a half ago, saw the metaphorical significance of the chambered home of the Nautilus. These fascinating seashells are spiral in shape and consist of a series of ever-larger chambers in each of which the sea creature lives for a season until it outgrows that particular space. The Nautilus then enlarges its shell by the addition of a new chamber suitable for the next stage of its life.

   

Holmes wrote, in a poem entitled The Chambered Nautilus, "Build thee more stately mansions, O my soulů.Let each new temple, nobler than the last, Shut thee from heaven with a dome more vast, Till thou at length art free, Leaving thine outgrown shell by life's unresting sea!"

What a perfect image for spiritual evolution! In order to begin a new stage in our growth, we have to think "outside the box." Yet, every time we abandon an old worldview for a new and wider vision, we merely find ourselves in a larger box. And while each box serves its particular function for a time, we are always in danger of claiming that the chamber we currently occupy is the ultimate one.

The spiral shape of the Nautilus shell suggests that it can keep growing forever. There is no design for a "final" chamber. The creature must keep building new chambers as long as it lives. It cannot go back to the previous ones; they no longer fit. It cannot stay in its present space or it will die. It has no choice but to move on. And on.

Perhaps one day we might be able to create for ourselves a box so large that it would encompass all of God. But that space would then include everything, even those realities which we now purposely exclude by limiting the size of today's chamber.