Thursday, November 21, 2013

When a heart awakes

It is really an amazing thing, and a blessed experience, to be in the presence of someone, young or old, who has just entered upon the path of regeneration. They themselves may not even recognize what pathway they have taken. They may prefer, at the beginning, to think of it in more lofty terms, ‘the path of enlightenment’ or ‘illumination’ is how many put it. But though it may start out with a sudden flash of light in the depths of their souls, it must pass through the uttermost depths and darkness, before it arrives at the light, the real, uncreated Light, which their eyes opening beheld as a reflection in a mirror.

One day I was taken by surprise when asked by a young woman, ‘Do you study the Bible? Do you know about these things?’ By ‘these things’ she was hinting at the category of ‘spiritual’ phenomena, from ideas and beliefs to concrete expressions of metaphysical being. She knows that I am a Christian of Orthodox faith, and in a previous conversation I had asked her, since she is originally from St Petersburg, Russia, if she was Orthodox, and if she attended services. Her response to me was that she was Orthodox but did not go to church. When asked why, she said her husband was not interested in it.

Her husband? Well, I let it go for the moment, and did not bring up the topic again. I supposed that it was her way of closing the door on a subject she was not comfortable discussing. But then, a few encounters later, her question, ‘Do you study the Bible?’ My response was that, yes, I study the Bible, and that I especially like to read it in the original languages, Hebrew for the Old Testament, and Greek for the New. I added that I like to study it with others and that at present I had just started reading Hebrew Psalms aloud with a new friend I had met at church. (I attend an Antiochian Orthodox church.)

Her motive in asking me quickly revealed itself in a flurry of other questions in quick succession, regarding such things as she had watched on television. One of these was the so-called Gospel of Judas. She asked me if I knew of it, and if I believed it. She had seen a documentary of it, and was close to believing it must be real, and that Judas, far from being the culprit and antagonist and betrayer of Christ, was actually acting on His secret command. She said, ‘If someone were going to betray another, he would not do it by kissing him.’ The kiss must be a sign of something else, not what the Church teaches.

Our conversation lasted about twenty minutes, but we covered quite a lot. She fired questions at me rapidly. All the while I was answering, her mind was formulating the next question based on what she was reading between the lines in what I was telling her. There was a kind of glow in her face, almost as if she was on the point of discovering a great secret. Patiently, and carefully, I explained about the Gospel of Judas, and compared it to other pseudepigrapha, like the Gospel of Thomas and the Protevanglion of James, which is apocryphal, explaining to her the historical context of both genres of ancient literature.

Her questions, I could sense, were coming both from her life within the Church, and her experience outside of it, young woman of this world as she was, yet dangling one naked foot, like Tobias, in the living stream flowing from the Throne in the middle of the City made without hands. A great fish had ‘all but swallowed his foot’ and his angel, Raphael, had shouted, ‘Catch the Fish! Don’t let it go!’ What would she do when the Fish did the same to her? And her angel, what would he say? Did she even know she was being led on a journey, and that she had a guide? No, brethren, it was not me, but I watched.

Her questions kept coming. Another of them was, ‘Don’t you think it is not right, that we should have only one life in which to learn all these things and be perfected?’ ‘Are you asking me if I believe in reincarnation?’ I said. ‘Yes,’ she replied. I could sense that she was wanting to ask something even more, and that reincarnation was just incidental. I thought back to myself at age seventeen, when my heart first awakened. I had had the same questions. Not television programs, but books, books, and more books had fed the fires of my ‘illumination,’ shedding their long shadows across my ‘spiritual path.’

What subject had I not explored in my reading? When a heart awakes, it wants to tackle the whole picture of reality at once. The window of the soul seems borderless, no sill, no moldings to frame it in. The world seems all window, and there is so much to see and know. I came back to myself. ‘No, Tatiana, I don’t believe in reincarnation. There is simply no such thing.’ Not wanting to close the door by uttering the Truth, however partial, I went straight to the heart of the matter, because as in the Psalms, ‘deep is calling to deep, as your cataracts roar.’ I reminded her of the Resurrection, who He is, not what or when.

Did she hear what I said, or did my testimony skip by her ears, while her heart was in hot pursuit of the glory that before any world was? How different that glory looks from the back as we run after it, from what it looks like when we meet it face to face and are unmade. For the Lord of all worlds has decreed that none shall see His face, and live. Live, that is, as they once were. But that old man, or old woman, must die, must die to be reborn, but not by reincarnation. No, another path to endless life has been opened for us, and through the eye of that needle we rich camels must pass. Impossible? Not for Him.

It is all for the best. This is how the universe is planned. We sleep like larvae in our cocoons until without our permission or desire, our chrysalis bursts, and we must willy-nilly find our wings and soar aloft to follow… what? This morning, motoring to work over the long bridge crossing the Columbia River, I looked up. There I saw a hundred geese flying so high in formation that they were mere specks against the cold, cloudless heavens. No, wait! My eye followed their lines. There were more, another, then another formation, perhaps a thousand geese in all, in six or seven arcs high in the sunlit sky. I paused.

Selah… Yes, Lord, You are great, You are truly great! Who gave those creatures their wings, who gave those wings strength to flap without flinching, to carry those light bodies hundreds of meters into the air? It is You, Lord, who calls them, and us, to follow You wherever You lead, high or low, in wealth or in poverty, in health or in sickness, yes, even in wisdom or in folly, because You are with us. I see Your outline in the formation of the geese’s flight, in the long shadow of the mountain Wy’east the winter sun may cast against the high clouds at its rising, and in the questions of an awaking heart.

Yes, Lord, You are with us, always with us, faithful and true. ‘For me the reward of virtue is to see Your face, and, on waking, to gaze my fill on Your likeness’ (Psalm 17).

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