Sparkles on the Gihon
How many myriads of sparkles does not the sun produce moment by moment upon the surface and in the clear deep waters of the Gihon as it makes its way westward from the primal garden of Eden to the holy city Jerusalem, the crown of its glory! Endlessly it flows and endlessly the gems of Spirit light sparkles of Spirit, each unique, each a mirror of the divine. Yet in an instant it is gone, and who can capture it? Such are the thoughts and affections that sparkle in a graced soul.
It does not seem likely that of all the trees in Eden only the tree of Life and the tree of the Knowledge of good and bad had spiritual significance and power. Surely the other trees must have offered fruits of wisdom and understanding, of faith and peace, of love and joy — fruits of all the other wonderful endowments of the Spirit. But on the day we were cast out from our fairyland home of divine abundance, we came forth wearing only the fig leaves of our proud and devious curiosity; not clothed with the divine wisdom and dominion for which we were made, not clothed with justice and kindness and strength, but obtuse in mind, listless in spirit and bereft of energy in our will —easy prey for the prince of darkness. Fleeting memories of Paradise come and go, and at times we try to snatch at its remembered fruits, but they elude us and we are left to scratch in the dust for a bit of food, only to find thorns and thistles and the pangs of childbearing.
A Rude Awakening
When Jesus the Son of God came into this world of matter and flesh, he descended from a world of light and entered a world which, though created and designed to be a paradaisal mirror of the divine, had become a place where darkness reigned. Pondering the Gospels, one is given the impression that Jesus experienced a rude awakening. He almost seems not to have been prepared for what he found. Over and over and over again he expresses not merely disappointment, but surprise, astonishment, even exasperation at our failure to comprehend, to come along with him in his thought, to perceive and pick up the signs that are strewn in his footprints wherever he walks. Even his dear parents who had witnessed so much, yes, even to these he was moved to address the reproachful and astonished question, “Did you not know…..?” (Lk 2:49). These are the very first recorded words of Jesus, and we might say that they form an inclusion with those other words spoken to some of his disciples after his resurrection: “What little sense you have! How slow you are to believe!” and “Why are you disturbed? Why do such thoughts cross your minds?!” (Lk 24:25, 38). Perhaps we could say that Jesus never really reconciled himself with our benighted condition. Again and again we hear, “Are you too without understanding?! Do you not see…..?” (Mk 7:18); “Do you still not see or comprehend? Are your minds completely blinded? Do you have eyes but no sight, ears but no hearing?” (Mk 8:17); “You do not understand this parable? Then how will you understand other figures like it?” (Mk 4:13); “Philip, after I have been with you all this time, you still do not know me?” (Jn 14;9); and to Nicodemus, “You hold the office of teacher in Israel, and still you do not understand these things?” (Jn 3:10). And we —even after two thousand years of living the Gospel of Jesus Christ, must still hear the reproachful observation that we know how to interpret the winds and the weather, but we do not know how to interpret the signs of the times (Lk 12:56). That is true: we don’t. We muddle our way around the world like babes in the woods.
Dealing With Spirit
Probably the most jaw-dropping line that has ever vibrated upon the sound waves of our terrestrial home was first heard by two disciples as they walked the road on the way to Emmaus. The divine Messiah is himself the lamb of sacrifice, his shed blood the saving Covenant. Who could ever have conceived of such a possibility? Only the pagans with their mythical deities, or a mystic or a poet, who would have deemed the notion as a mere weaving of fantasy, or as just a sparkle on the Gihon. But this simple straightforward line is the key to the understanding of all of history, and indeed of all reality. But the key has everything to do with faith, and faith has everything to do with spirit. According to Jesus himself (Jn 3:18; 8:24; 16:9), the besetting and determining sin of mankind is precisely the rejection of that key. Truly, like babes in the woods, we children of the visible and the tangible muddle our way through a world of spirit quite, quite unawares. How do we deal with faith and with spirit in our lives and in the world around us? We have to begin with our own lives, of course, if we are going to engage the question at all, and here we must note that, lamentably, there are many individuals who have only a superficial knowledge of and relationship with themselves. For them the relationship with the God who is spirit is blocked, for although he is there and is speaking, no one is there listening. It is certain that God the Creator has been intimately involved in every human life from the very beginning. But it would seem that Abraham in his day was the only person on earth, at least within our purview, who was aware of and receptive to a personal Presence, a Someone who was speaking to him and to whom he was to respond. God found this man worthy, and was able to be a dynamic agent in his life, as he desires to be in the life of each one of us.
We live in a world where our dearest and most revered symbols are desecrated or trivialized. Coconut lambs and chocolate crosses abound as we celebrate Easter, and few are the individuals who have the grace to feel offended by them. Saint Patrick’s lovely Trinity symbol, the shamrock, is being replaced by the “lucky” 4-leaf clover, and few have the presence of mind to notice the difference. But how can we begin to search out the place of sign and spirit in the world around us when we are blind to the real within our own immediate inner experience? It is no wonder that Jesus at one point was moved to exclaim, “How little faith you have! How long must I remain with you?! How long can I endure you?!” (Mt 17:17). Saint Paul, informed by the mind of Christ, tells his converts in Corinth point-blank that he could not speak to them as men of spirit, but only as infants, men of flesh (I Cor 3:1). God is spirit; we also, although united with the flesh, are spirit. It follows that the obvious path for us if we seek to attain an understanding of spirit is to search out and acquaint ourselves with our own interiority, the spirit within. This is not to say that we should be constantly wrapped up in ourselves; rather, it is to say that a healthy awareness of the spiritual dimension of reality should be cultivated by regular periods of prayerful reflection. It is quite possible, perhaps probable, that the event of our death will not be a movement outward and upward, but rather a homecoming movement inward and downward into the depths of the God “in whom we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28), and whom we have been evading for so long.
Straddling the Issue
The fact that God is spirit had been a problematic for Israel all along. The pagans all had their man-made idols which they could see and carry around. And so Israel had to contend with their ever-present taunts, “Where is your God?!” (Pss 42:11; 49:10), which was to say, “If you have a god, let us see it”. It is a curious thing, and one not too foreign to ourselves, that while all the signs point to the existence and active presence of a mighty spirit-God, it takes a constant effort for us to trust our own experience of him. Israel had witnessed the powerful signs of the Exodus, the manna in the desert and the entrance into the promised land. Yet they let the jeering of their pagan neighbors embarrass them into abandoning their identity as the chosen Covenant People of God. The prophets testify to this on every page of their writings. Still, as the WW I dictum has it, “There are no atheists in the foxhole”. And so, whenever Israel was in trouble, the deep intuitive awareness of an indwelling, omnipotent God would spring into play, as evidenced in so many of the psalms and other biblical texts. Israel’s history was one of constant “halting between two sides” (cf I Kg 18:21).
Another part of the picture, and perhaps it must be said in Israel’s defense, that spirit is mysterious and the movement toward an understanding of it has perforce to be gradual. We find evidence in Bible stories that everything and anything that was mysterious was attributed to “the Lord”: it was an “evil spirit from the Lord” that incited Saul to try to kill David, and David to order the taking of a census (I :Sm 19:9; II Sm 24:1). It was not until the Messiah, Jesus Christ the incarnate Son of God, entered the scene that light began to dawn. Then they were shown again the distinction between the good and the evil, as the prophet Malachi had foretold (3:18).
It is the Eucharist which provides the ultimate solution to the problematic. It is here that Spirit is revealed in sacred sign, enters empirically into our very bodies and mingles, as it were, with our own spirit. And just as our Creator did not leave us to our own devices to figure out what is the good, but endowed us with an intuitive conscience and a Natural Law (Dt 30:12-14), so our Savior Jesus Christ creates within us through Baptism an intuitive sense of Presence and of mutuality, of relationship, whereby we not only believe, but know the meaning of spirit. It is here that all our loves and hates, our joys and sorrows, our pain and our needs, our longings and searchings, all the mystery of our own depths come together. It is here that all are brought and laid at the feet of that Spirit-God-Man in whom all our created categories and modalities are found to be utterly irrelevant. But we are more than just a little afraid of our imaginaation, aren’t we? — afraid of being deceived by it. Yet the imagination is a light-bearer, a powerful faculty and necessary tool for us in sorting out the real from the unreal. It is here where we are creative and fresh in our daily living and in prayer. Perhaps we could say that an informed, ordered imagination is the current that carries the Gihon westward, westward, to its desired destination, the holy City of God, while Jesus Christ, the divine Sun of Justice ever rising from the East. shining upon the waters and leading the way, is the sole Cause and Creator of the sparkles. Of course, at times the skies will seem overcast, making the sparkles seem darkling and mysterious, but one must remain patient and receptive to the signs.
Looking for Signs
How does one seek after signs? Or should we look for signs at all? Words of Jesus in the Gospel catch us up on both sides of the question. For John the Evangelist all the miracles of Jesus are signs and Jesus reproaches his adversaries for not seeking signs (Jn 10:37). On the other hand he excoriates them for seeking the sensational. They asked him for a sign, secunding the temptation by Satan, who suggested that Jesus throw himself down from the parapet of the temple, trusting that the angels would surely bear him up (Mk 4:12). To the Pharisees his response comes with a sigh from the very depths of his spirit: “Why does this age seek a sign?” (Mk 8:12). And “This is an evil age; it seeks a sign; but no sign will be given it but the sign of Jonah.” (Mt 12:39-41).
Jesus has assured us that if we seek we shall find. The corollary is that we are not llkely to find if we don’t make it our business to seek. And what we must seek is a right understanding of God and of his workings in our own souls and in the world around us. And there are signs, signs all around us. But often they are given in seed. We ask for a tree; he plants a seed and we complain that he has not answered our prayer. Has he answered our prayer? Definitely. But we must stay with the sparkles. If we do, then we are surely on our way to the City of the Great King.