I read, rapidly, undiscriminatingly, anything, everything, religious or secular. An extended family of nuns and priests assured us a plentiful supply of moral and religious books, in addition to what our parents bought us, hoping, with the haphazard hope of parents everywhere, that encountering these tales of virtue, heroism and faith would burnish us with a verdigris or patina of goodness, without them having to trouble themselves about it.
The Bible became part of the deep structure of my mind–Abraham, desolate childless man, walking under the starry skies, and then: the unasked for visitation, the great promise of progeny numerous as the stars in the heavens–that yet tarried, and tarried. And then–the Lord demanded Isaac. The knife wavers. Will he love the blessing more than the blesser, the gift more than the giver? Will he, will he? No. It was a different question: Will you love me above all others, will you trust me unflinchingly? And then, the substitutionary ram caught in the thicket, prefiguring, hinting….
And the moving hand writes on. Joseph’s chutes and ladders spirals, techni-color dreamcoat to rags, rags to riches, God’s irepressible providence shaping and fashioning a good story, good news, out of the bleakest plot twists. The mysterious burning bush in the Sinai. Take off your shoes, for the place where you stand is holy ground. “Who are you?” And the august, uncompromising name, “I am who I am.” The pillar of fire by day and the cloud of fire by night. David, with God’s unfathomable power on his side vanquishing Goliath with a well-aimed pebble. Mene, Mene, Thekel, Uparshim. “And the whole earth is full of the glory of God,” who chooses the meek and weak who trust him to write the emerging story of his kingdom.
Oh that heady, heady air. Miracles were God’s native language. Faith was the merest commonsense. Not to believe was to live in an underground dungeon suspecting that stars and trees and flowers and birds were mere fantasies. For then came Jesus, majestic one, striding the hills of Galilee, walking on the waves, stilling them, multiplying the loaves to feed our hunger, the wine to quench our thirst. Living Bread. Living Water. Real food. Volunteering to bear the punishment for the sins of the world. Jacob’s ladder between heaven and earth. The way, the truth, the life. Jesus, lamb-like Lion. Lion-like Lamb. Oh how I loved him, true light that came into the world that whoever believed in him should not walk in darkness, but have the light of life.
And those who bathe in his light become incandescent too. The austere conception of God of an embattled desert people glows brighter as the Celts praise him for their God-haunted world, and Francis exults in the world as God’s poem, the golden warmth of the sun, and the mighty winds, the brilliant stars and the melodies of birds. The free saint of poetry made radiant by his love for God. All through the centuries since Jesus visited us, startling us with his might and gentleness, his wisdom and compassion, the Living Word calls out to men to come follow him, and in the process, become poetry too, sloughing off all ugliness, to become like him, pure fire.
Repeatedly, repeatedly, as the poem of Christianity becomes slack and diffuse, losing its rhythm and loveliness, its wonder reduced to flickering embers, people encounter again the risen Christ who stalks the earth. Majestic, indefinable, brilliant, he emerges from the pages of Scripture in the beauty of the lilies, and as they shiver, the inert page turns seismic, twisting their lives upside down. At the sound of his roar, other sounds becomes faint, trivial and discordant, oh irrelevant. People drop their lives and go to monasteries to feast on the Living Word, sweeter than honey to the taste, or to the ends of the earth to urgently tell those who have not heard of this mighty, gentle Lion, and his paradoxical way to permanent joy. Jesus dignifies man when he speaks of slivers of his spirit lodging in every spirit, and so Damien nurses lepers, Mother Teresa cherishes orphans; dreaming lion-sized dreams, they go out into prisons, and slums; they oppose slavery, found orphanages, universities, colonies, countries. Mystics record visions, artists write and compose and paint. Oh surely, the greatest music ever heard, the sweetest romance ever known, a rift of gold coursing through history, changing it.