Thirsting at the Fountainside

October 8th, 2009


Taken and adapted from the forthcoming book, Reaching for the Invisible God by Philip Yancey. Copyright © 2000 by Someone Cares Charitable Foundation. Used by permission of Zondervan Publishing House.

On a visit to Russia in 1991 I attended my first Orthodox church service, which is designed to express sensually the mystery and majesty of worship. Ensconced candles lent a soft, eerie glow to the cathedral, as if the stucco walls were the source rather than the reflection of light. The air hummed with the throaty bass-clef harmony of the Russian liturgy, a sound that seemed to come from under the floor. A service lasts three to four hours, with worshipers entering and leaving at will. No one invites congregants to “pass the peace” or “greet the folks around you with a smile.” They stand—there are no chairs or pews—and watch the professionals, who after a thousand years of unchanged liturgy are very professional indeed.

Later that same day, accompanied by a priest and a representative from Prison Fellowship, I visited a chapel located in the basement of a nearby prison. In an act of remarkable boldness, a communist functionary in the formerly atheistic nation had allowed its construction. Located on the lowest subterranean level, the chapel was an oasis of beauty in an otherwise grim dungeon. Prisoners had cleaned out a 70-year accumulation of filth from the room, installed a marble floor, and mounted finely wrought brass sconces on the walls. They took pride in their chapel, at that time the only prison chapel in all of Russia. Each week priests traveled from a monastery to conduct a service there, and for this occasion the warden allowed prisoners out of their cells, which naturally guaranteed good attendance.

We spent a few minutes admiring the handiwork that went into the room, and Brother Bonifato pointed to the icon for the prison chapel, “Our Lady Who Takes Away Sadness.” Ron Nikkel of Prison Fellowship commented that there must be much sadness within these walls, then turned to Brother Bonifato and asked if he would say a prayer for the prisoners. Brother Bonifato looked puzzled and Ron repeated, “Could you say a prayer for the prisoners?”

“A prayer? You want a prayer?” Brother Bonifato asked, and we nodded. He disappeared behind the altar at the end of the room. He brought out an icon of the Lady Who Takes Away Sadness, which he propped up on a stand. Then he retrieved two candle holders and two incense bowls, which he laboriously hung in place and lit. Their fragrance instantly filled the room. He removed his headpiece and outer vestments and laced shiny gold cuffs over his black sleeves. He placed a droopy gold stole around his neck, and then a gold crucifix. He carefully fitted a different, more formal headpiece on his head. Before each action, he paused to kiss the cross or genuflect. Finally, he was ready to pray.

Prayer involved a whole new series of formalities. Brother Bonifato did not say prayers; he sang them, following the score from a liturgy book propped on another stand. Finally, twenty minutes after Ron had requested a prayer for the prisoners, Brother Bonifato said, “Amen,” and we exited the prison into the bracing fresh air outside.

Elsewhere in Russia I met Western Christians who sharply criticized the Orthodox Church. Reverence, submission, awe—the Orthodox convey these qualities superbly in worship, they admitted, but their God remains faraway, approachable only after much preparation and only through intermediaries such as priests and icons. Yet I came away with the conviction that we have something to learn from the Orthodox. Under a communist regime that had no place for God, that made human beings the measure of all things, the Russian church continued to place God at the center and survived the most determined atheistic assault in history.

Brother Bonifato was no otherworldly mystic, for I had seen his service among criminals in a place that could only be called a dungeon. His tradition had taught him, though, that you do not approach the Other as you would approach your own kind. The ritual helped him move from a spirit of urgency and immediacy—the demands of the prison ministry—to a place of calm whose rhythms were the rhythms of eternity.

If you find God with great ease, suggested Thomas Merton, perhaps it is not God that you have found.

The physicist John Polkinghorne, who resigned his post at Cambridge to seek ordination as an Anglican priest, points out a major difference between knowing science and knowing theology. Science progressively accumulates knowledge: First Ptolemy, then Galileo, Copernicus, Newton, and Einstein. Each of these scientists built on the foundation of those who preceded him, so that an ordinary scientist today has a more accurate conception of the physical world than was ever possible for Sir Isaac Newton. Knowledge of God proceeds in an entirely different manner. Every encounter is unique and individual, just like any meeting between two persons. Thus a fifth-century mystic, or an illiterate immigrant, may have a deeper knowledge of God than a twentieth-century theologian.

With the hubris of a medieval cosmologist, Carl Sagan used to pronounce what he could not possibly know: “The cosmos is all there is and all there ever will be.” Yet not even Sagan stayed immune from the desire to connect with the Other. His novel Contact tells of governments willing to spend half a trillion dollars to send a messenger to another world. That messenger, played in the movie by Jodie Foster, did indeed make contact and then returned to find her report discounted by scientists and welcomed by the masses. Sagan’s novel revealed more than he may have intended.

Christians claim there are times, though perhaps less frequent than we would lead others to believe, when we do make personal contact with the Creator of the universe. “I have seen things that make all my writings seem like straw,” wrote Thomas Aquinas about one such encounter.

In the movie Contact, Jodie Foster lounges against the Very Large Array radio dishes day after day, night after night, until one day a distinctive pattern of sound crackles through the headphones and she sits bolt upright.Something is there! For Christians, too, contact can bring a kind of shock. Listen to C.S. Lewis:

It is always shocking to meet life where we thought we were alone. “Look out!” we cry, “it’s alive.” And therefore this is the very point at which so many draw back—I would have done so myself if I could—and proceed no further with Christianity. An “impersonal God”—well and good. A subjective God of beauty, truth and goodness, inside our own heads—better still. A formless life-force surging through us, a vast power which we can tap—best of all. But God Himself, alive, pulling at the other end of the cord, perhaps approaching at an infinite speed, the hunter, king, husband—that is quite another matter. There comes a moment when the children who have been playing at burglars hush suddenly: Was that a real footstep in the hall? There comes a moment when people who have been dabbling in religion (“Man’s search for God!”) suddenly draw back. Supposing we really found Him? We never meant it to come to that! Worse still, supposing He had found us? (Miracles, MacMillan, 1947)

I too have felt the tug at times, a tug strong enough to jerk me out of cynicism and rebellion, strong enough to wrench my life in a new direction. Yet for long stretches, achingly long stretches, I have also sat with headphones on, desperate for some message from the other world, yearning for reassuring contact, and heard only static.

How can something as fundamental as a God who created us to know and love him become so tenuous? If God, as Paul told a sophisticated crowd of skeptics in Athens, “did this,” meaning all creation, in order that we might reach out and find him, why not make himself more obvious?

Writers of the Bible lived in the “Holy Land,” where bushes burst into flame, where rocks and volcanoes gushed sacred metaphors, and the stars bespoke God’s grandeur. No longer. The supernatural world has seemingly gone into hiding, leaving us alone with the visible. The thirst for God, though, for contact with the unseen, the hunger for love from a cosmic Parent who can somehow fashion meaning from this scrambled world, defiantly persists.

Those of us who live in a material world, in bodies covered by skin, understandably want God to connect with us in our world. I once visited the imposing shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe outside Mexico City. In a museum room, placards explain that the image of the Virgin miraculously appeared to an Indian on the site in 1531 and left her image on his coat, a tattered thing that now hangs dramatically inside. The eye of the Virgin supposedly retains the image of the Indian, and tourists scrutinize grainy blowups of the Virgin’s iris in search of the man’s tiny image. Other blowups feature her earlobe, on which the Song of Solomon is said to be inscribed. Thousands of pilgrims joined me that day, and we gazed at a statue of the Virgin from a mechanized slide walk which smoothly transported us through the shrine even as priests conducted mass on the other side of a glass wall.

I don’t know if Carl Sagan ever visited the Shrine of Guadalupe, but I can guess his reaction if he did: People imagine what they want, as a form of projection or wish-fulfillment. We yearn for visibility, to bring the supernatural down to our level of materiality. An image appears on a glass office building in Florida, perceptible at least to some from a certain angle, and the next day a mile-long procession of cars snarls traffic on the street outside. Creatures of flesh and blood, we grow unsatisfied with anything that does not manifest itself on our terms.

Since God remains invisible, people tend to remake God in their own image. The Conversations with God phenomenon comprises three books, all best-sellers with millions of avid readers, which the author claims were dictated to him by God. I met one of the books’ devotees recently and asked him to describe the God he believes in. “God doesn’t exist apart from us,” he said. “He is the composite of all good energy in the world. We create God, all of us.”

Christians, in contrast, believe that God possesses all the qualities of personhood: Unpredictable, relational, free, intelligent, emotional, sometimes cooperative and sometimes resistant. The problem is how to get God on the other side of a wall to answer our questions. He won’t type back. God is not, say the scientists, empirically verifiable. We must believe in something—the instinct is as strong as thirst or hunger—but we no longer know what to believe. Traditional theology seems, to some people, like reading recipes to the starving—like an unslaked thirst.

Woody Allen’S movie Sleeper presents a scene in which Woody, cryonically frozen and then thawed to reawaken in a future century, goes through old photos trying to explain his era to residents of the world 200 years later. He comments on Richard Nixon and Norman Mailer, then comes across a photo of a famous evangelist. “Billy Graham. Claimed to know God personally.” Invariably the movie audience laughs, and who can blame them? Such a notion does seem rather absurd—and yet nothing better expresses the promise dangled before us.

God is personal. Much of Christian theology, hammered out in the rarified atmosphere of Greek philosophy, obscures this plain fact by using impersonal phrases such as “Ground of all Being” or “Inevitable Inference” to describe God. (Philosopher William James observed caustically, “Would martyrs have sung in the flames for a mere inference, however inevitable it might be?”) But the Bible, both the Old Testament and New, portrays a God who affects us and is affected by us. “For the Lord takes delight in his people,” says the psalmist (149:4); at times God also takes great exception to his people, say the prophets. The personality of God leaps out of almost every page of the Bible. “God is love,” says the Apostle John. “Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him.” It would be difficult to get more personal.

Why, then, do we find it so difficult to relate personally to this God? At various times people tended to pray to local saints, who seemed more accessible and less scary. Protestant Reformers and Catholic mystics, though, challenged us to relate to God directly, without intermediaries. And modern evangelicalism summons us to know God, to talk to God in conversational language, to love God as one might love a friend. Listen to the “praise songs” in modern churches, which sound exactly like love songs played on pop radio, with God or Jesus substituted as the lover.

The same evangelical tradition that spurs us on to greater intimacy also invites abuse. “I asked the Lord what to speak on and he said, Don’t speak on pride, speak on stewardship.” “The Lord told me he wanted a new medical center in this city.” “God is whispering to me right now that someone in this audience is struggling with a broken marriage.” I know for a fact that some statements exactly like these are deceitful, from speakers who say them sloppily or manipulatively. The wording implies a kind of voice-to-voice conversation that did not take place, and the fudged report has the effect on others of creating a spiritual caste that downgrades their experiences.

Martin Marty, a Lutheran minister and popular writer, confesses he “can count on one hand the number of times in my life that ’immediacy’ [with God] hit me enough to merit my talking about it to the person closest to me, and can count no times it was worth advertising to the public.” He speaks instead of a season of abandonment by God, of dereliction, that descended on him during his wife’s lengthy terminal illness.

Frederick Buechner is a writer I hold in the highest esteem both for his craft and his Christian commitment. He left a promising career as a novelist to attend seminary and seek ordination as a Presbyterian minister, only to return to writing as his primary “pulpit.” In his autobiography, Buechner records a scene of tense anticipation in which he lay in the warm sunlight pleading for a miracle, for some definite sign from the Lord.

In just such a place on just such a day I lay down in the grass with just such wild expectations. Part of what it means to believe in God, at least part of what it means for me, is to believe in the possibility of a miracle, and because of a variety of circumstances I had a very strong feeling at that moment that the time was ripe for miracle, my life was ripe for miracle, and the very strength of the feeling itself seemed a kind of vanguard of miracle. Something was going to happen—something extraordinary that I could perhaps even see and hear—and I was so nearly sure of it that in retrospect I am surprised that by the power of autosuggestion I was unable to make it happen. But the sunshine was too bright, the air too clear, some residual skepticism in myself too sharp to make it possible to imagine ghosts among the apple trees or voices among the yellow jackets, and nothing like what I expected happened at all.

What he got was the clack-clack of two apple branches scraping against each other. Had God spoken or not? Why wouldn’t God use a vocabulary less susceptible to doubt and misinterpretation? For Buechner, at least, God did not.

While in his fifties Buechner spent a semester teaching at Wheaton College where he encountered the familiarity of evangelical language for the first time. “I was astonished to hear students shift casually from small talk about the weather and movies to a discussion of what God was doing in their lives. If anybody said anything like that in my part of the world, the ceiling would fall in, the house would catch fire, and people’s eyes would roll up in their heads.” Although he came to admire the students’ fervency, it seemed to him at first that their God resembled a cosmic Good Buddy.

Do we, like billboards for Pepsi, fan a thirst we cannot quench? Just last week my church sang: “I want to know you more/I want to touch you/I want to see your face.” Nowhere in the Bible do I find a promise that we will touch God, or see his face, not in this life at least.

Modern American religion speaks in “friendly” terms with God even though, as C.S. Lewis points out in The Four Loves, friendship is the form of love that least accurately describes the truth of a creature’s encounter with the Creator. How, then, can we have a “personal relationship” with a God who is invisible, when we’re never quite sure he’s there?

I die of thirst, here at the fountainside.—Richard Wilbur.


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