Every morning at daybreak I take my cup of coffee into the back room, open the Bible and read a few psalms. If I am in the right frame of mind, the readings may match my mood perfectly, as when I am in awe of the grandeur of God’s creation. At other times I am left cold — if the psalmist shows no mercy toward his enemies and seeks to trample them down like mud in the streets: Happy those who seize your children and smash them against a rock.
Thus I am left peaceful or befuddled.
In summer the woods behind my house is filled with birdsong — finches, warblers and at least two kinds of thrush. With all the windows thrown open, the air is woodsy, humid and faintly rank from the wetlands a hundred yards to the south. Animals pass through my backyard on their way (I suppose) to get a drink: opossum, groundhogs, deer, the rare fox and even rarer coyote.
The growth is sufficiently dense to muffle traffic noise from the toll road a few miles away. So all around me the landscape is roughly Edenic, complete with small snakes and turtles. In fact this used to be farmland, which has now reverted to forest — oaks, thick cottonwoods and dense scrub with bright berries and small bugs that attract bluebirds, titmice, juncos, nuthatches and chickadees.
In other words, I am the interloper. A city boy, I have planted myself in the midst of many creatures whose presence I am comfortable with, from a small distance. Now and then I hear gunfire — someone out there in the woods, I imagine, still living in the 19th century, opening up on the rabbits or whatever. But mostly it is quiet, only the wind in the trees, the birds and the scrabbling of critters across the forest floor. A good place for meditation.
Yet it is in winter that the landscape really comes into its own as the cold and desolate grounds for questioning one’s existence and purpose (not to mention God’s). The dry leaf scraping across the snow sends one back, much as in Wallace Stevens’ poem “The Snow Man” (the same wind/ That is blowing in the same bare place), to a more elemental nook in the mind, to the pure desolation that occupied existence for billions of years before anyone thought to imagine that God had a hand in it all.
Such a setting might indeed promote prayer among those creatures who have the highly developed temporal and prefrontal lobes that are the home of anxiety, language, artistic impulse and superstition, not to mention a vague apprehension of the divinity within one. We humans are the oddest of all creatures, given to wearing fur and bling, strutting on political stages large and small, making blood sacrifices and all-out war. What other animal has such a highly developed sense of self-importance and destiny?
By prayer, incidentally, I don’t mean feckless pleading for the correct lottery numbers or clement weather. As in: “Dear God, please don’t let it rain on the family picnic tomorrow.” Because somewhere nearby, in the parlor, say, after milking, another person is crying out, “Lord, send a thunderstorm real soon or the crops will turn to chaff.” One of these people is certain to have his or her prayer answered. Which may also strengthen her or his faith. But the other will understand, dimly, that supreme intervention in human affairs is capricious or unfeasible.
Offhand, I can’t think of a single prayer of mine that has been answered — not even the most reasonable one: “Lord, help thou my unbelief.” Yet throughout my life I have been abundantly blessed, and there has been no end to my giving thanks or, for that matter, to my asking for forgiveness for not being grateful enough. I am well-fed and sheltered in a modest two-bedroom home with a view of nature. My parents cared for me lovingly. My children have been a joy. They are happy enough, well-educated, employed. They live on opposite coasts, yet the bonds among us remain strong. I have, at this writing, 1.5 grandchildren. Every one, knock on wood, strong and healthy.
It is only a matter of time before God smites me.
Except for weddings and funerals, my father never went to church. And I never in my life saw him utter a prayer. He did once tell me that all truth was in Scripture, but not once did I ever see him look into the family Bible (Douay Version, P.J. Kenedy & Sons, New York, “Printers to the Holy Apostolic See”), so I don’t know how he came by this insight. For reasons I never discovered, his mother turned away from the Church, I think before he was born or shortly after. Her Bible was the King James Version (printed in Great Britain at the Cambridge University Press and “translated out of the original tongues . . . by His Majesty’s special command”).
I now have both these Bibles. They are crumbling and dilapidated and devoid of family history, or of any annotation whatsoever.
My mother, on the other hand, was devoutly Catholic and made us pray the rosary every night before bed. Her faith was unshakable and utterly parochial. I know for a fact that she prayed for me because I, too, turned away, having my faith damaged by the godless books of my undergraduate years and later by the chutzpadic questions that lingered well into adulthood and in fact still do. E.g., How can there be three persons in one God? One God in three forms? Whom was Jesus praying to on the Mount of Olives? His Father, yes. But to himself as well? Where are the souls of the dead saints, including my dear mum, at this very moment? In heaven but without the corporeal bodies that would enable them to see, hear, taste, touch, smell?
What a horrifying existence, to be senseless in dark matter.
By the time my mother died, the day after her 90th birthday, her mind had been destroyed by dementia. I was at her bedside. Near the end, just before she became comatose, I called out to her. She opened her eyes and gave me a look of utter non-recognition that chilled me. The next day, she passed.
Has she since been restored?
Then again: What do the angels and saints do all day, besides praise God, and to what purpose? He doesn’t need anyone’s praise, and why should He want it? A jealous God? Whose arrogance would that embody?
One could go on for pages with questions like these — questions that are not meant to be irreverent. I really would like to know the answers.
No doubt a theologian reading this would scoff at me. I have become the reproach of my neighbors, the scorn and derision of those around me. Still, how do you reconcile the temperamental and sometimes cruel God of the Old Testament with the loving Father of the New? Without, I mean, all that dreadful theology about the obscurity of God’s purpose and His overall plan that will eventually be revealed to the faithful, who will be rewarded with a Beatific Vision of ineffable beauty?
In The Ascent to Truth Thomas Merton writes:
“[T]he first and greatest of all mysteries, which exceeds all others by its infinite dignity and depth, is the mystery of the Inner Life of God Himself, Whose One Nature subsists in three really distinct Persons.”
This doesn’t really answer my question. Neither does:
“[T]he Spiration of the Third Person of the Blessed Trinity in the soul, is communicated to the soul by the Father, through the mysteries of Christ. It is therefore given to it in the ‘high caverns on the crag.’ And therefore, in this sense, the Incarnation can once again be said to be pre-eminent.”
Merton may be expressing a mystery that surpasses human understanding, but I still want more. An explanation that would satisfy physics, for example. As in: An object traveling faster than the speed of light would arrive at its destination before it departed. Which is a mystery I can grasp.
The appeal of the psalms is that they plead on my own level. Do not reprove me in your anger, Lord, the psalmist writes, nor punish me in your wrath. As children we’re taught that the Bible is the word of God, that it is both metaphorically and literally true. But as adults we begin to part company, some saying that Scripture is unimpeachable, others that biblical stories are mostly allegory — Jonah didn’t actually leap out of the belly of a whale; Adam and Eve weren’t literally the first persons on Earth. Because, after all, we’ve got this whole Darwinian thing to deal with. My sense is that Merton was a literalist, unfazed by natural selection. Good for him.
I think of the psalmist on the other hand as a poor schlub like me, sunk into the mire of the deep, where there is no foothold. Do not cast me aside in my old age; as my strength fails, do not forsake me.
If anything, the psalmist’s geographic understanding of suffering is incomplete. The hills may be robed with joy, the pastures clothed with flocks and the valleys blanketed with grain, but in parts of the world today, populations are being decimated by starvation, violence and disease. We know that HIV/AIDS has orphaned some 12 million children, to take just one example. The extent of human devastation from natural and unnatural causes — not to mention violence inflicted by other humans — is breathtaking.
The ways of God remain as mysterious as ever.
Who am I?
One morning, a couple years ago, I woke up with a certain passage from one of the Gospels rattling around in my head. It’s the one where Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” The apostles shuffle around for a bit as if scratching their heads and reply, “Well, some say you’re Elijah and some say you’re John the Baptist and some that you’re a prophet.” And Jesus responds, “Yes, but who do you say that I am?”
I padded out to the kitchen to put on the coffee, and I had the not-very-brilliant notion that maybe — although I am not the first to suggest this — maybe Jesus didn’t really know who he was. Perhaps he had magical powers and didn’t understand why, and as time went on he began to see that he had been chosen for a special mission and he dare not utter its word. As he gained confidence, he also gained self-knowledge. But at that particular juncture in his mission, he still struggled with his apparent dual personality, and so he asked his disciples: “Who am I, who do you say that I am?”
A few minutes later, in the back room, when I picked up my Bible to read a psalm or two as was my habit, the book slipped from my hand, pages fluttering, and it fell open to exactly the page and passage I was thinking about (p. 1724 in The New American Bible, Matthew 16: 13-16):
He asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter said in reply, “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God.”
Jesus then blesses Simon for his faith: “for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.”
Was the identity and mission of an ambivalent Jesus reinforced by Simon Peter’s reply? “Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-Jona,” Jesus says, confirmed and evidently delighted to give his chief apostle the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever the passage may have meant, I was moved and amazed at how it appeared to me immediately after I had conjured it out of sleep.
It so happens I have four Bibles, including, in addition to the three mentioned, The New Jerusalem Bible, published in 1985. It is always curious to me how much they differ in language. Linguistically, the psalm of one version is sometimes barely recognizable from the same psalm of another version, save for theme and sentiment.
On that particular day my New American version was bookmarked at Psalm 23, the famous one that everybody knows and that is often read at funerals: The Lord is my shepherd and so on. The New American edition reads: “In green pastures you let me graze; to safe waters you lead me; you restore my strength.” Different language from what we are accustomed to hearing.
I wanted to compare the two versions, so I went to my bookshelf and picked up my grandmother’s King James Bible. I rarely look at this book because in spite of its poetry it lacks the clarity of a contemporary idiom, not to mention a more legible type font. Incredibly, it too fell open to the exact same passage in Matthew: “But whom say ye that I am?”
Well, this is weird, I thought. Three times in the space of an hour, the same passage speaks to me. In a spooky way, I had the idea I was being sent a message from beyond. The message was: “Who do you say that I am? Come on, make up your mind. Take a stand, say who I am.”
I went about for several days pondering this. Finally, I decided to go to the library and look up some books on religion and spirituality. I was sort of unnerved by the idea that I might be receiving an angelic communication, which would put me in the company of the rather strange folk — mystics or madmen, it was a fine distinction — whose impulses I was skeptical of.
At the library I don’t often venture beyond the fiction and poetry stacks, so I was mildly stunned to come upon the religion aisle and see virtually hundreds of books on spirituality. Shelf after shelf. And this in the small local branch of the public library. Well, of course, I thought. What means more to people than their immortal souls?
But where to begin? I had no idea. Did I want biblical? Mystical? Spiritual? Comparative?
At last I picked up a book at random, because it had the word “Catholic” in the title — I don’t recall now the actual title, or the author, or whether I even checked out the book. I only know that when I opened it up, the first words to reach my eyes, from the first page of the introduction, were _Matthew_’s, Chapter 16, verse 15: “Who do you say that I am?”
Evidently it was Jesus, hitting me upside the head.
Apart from Harold Bloom’s absorbing meditation on Jesus and Yahweh in The Names Divine, the spiritual and religious books I’ve read — and the anti-religious ones as well — invariably seem to strike a tone of piety and self-congratulation. Of course, there are many thousands of them that I haven’t looked at, and the prospect of beginning theological studies now, in my semi-old age, is daunting and, come to think of it, absurd. I’ve bounced from Thomas Merton to Julian Barnes, from Saint John of the Cross to Christopher Hitchens. (What a discussion that would be!)
In the end, no one actually knows anything, although all of them are wonderful writers — gifted, somber, opinionated, reverent, or not.
And more and more, as time passes, I suspect my chance happening upon the same biblical passage repeatedly was not a message from beyond, not an angelic mediation and not Jesus — much as I may desire such communion — but rather a series of exceptional coincidences. Such things are not of course adjudicative.
I tell my children all of it is a miracle — the sky, the trees, the mountains, the birth of a new child, the colors of autumn, the fact that we can see these things, feel them, smell them, love them. I want to give praise and thanks for them.
Alternatively, having wandered for 40 years in the agnostic desert, I now feel ancient and brittle, enlarged of prostate, arthritic in the knees and finger joints, insomniac, irritable of bowel, short of breath, and occasionally terrified of the last days (my own, I mean). In this particular state of high anxiety, which my children and friends liken to hypochondria — but it’s not, the aches and various addictions to deal with those pains are real — I take solace from the psalmist’s predicament, from his words that cry out to the Lord: Why do you reject me? Why hide your face from me? I am mortally afflicted since youth; lifeless, I suffer your terrible blows.
If eternal life seems incomprehensible to me, and in certain respects ghastly under any circumstances, or at least as so many religions envisage it, I still want to hold on to the aspects of this life that have moved me — those that have caused pain as well as the Edenic parts, the woods and open fields, the bees and fall warblers, the passions both erotic and artistic.
I want only to return, in the words of the poet Zbigniew Herbert, by an overgrown path/ at the shore of a white sea/ to the cave of the beginning. These words, like a biblical distinction translated out of original tongues, seem scarcely different from the idea of being “mortally afflicted since youth.” That is, they share the same human languishment.
I am comforted by that; by our common longings, attachments, despair and pain; as well as by the silent voice that sometimes speaks out, like a light upon the tongue, and says: “Be still, and know that I am.”
Jerry Janicki lives and writes in northern Indiana. For 26 years he served as director of development communications at Notre Dame.