Birds and Turtles and The Garden God Still Walks
The more I think about it, I’m really quite extraordinary. This may seem a radical departure from my regular Ash Wednesday demeanor – ashes, ashes, we all fall down. But today I’m a brilliant, good-looking, statuesque sample of humanity. I am up and dressed by 5AM – the greatest hour of the day. Coffee brewing. I dabble a little bit with Gregory of Nyssa – the vogue Cappadocian. The early birds outside my window scurry around my lawn riding it of unwanted worms or grubs or whatever else it is that birds breakfast on. But this isn’t why I am so exceptional.
I’m not even singularly phenomenal because I’m in my youthful forties or because my kids have moved out or because I drive the greatest pick’em-up truck a man can own. I have a nice house, a stack of diplomas, and a wife who loves me beyond reason and comprehension. But even that’s not why I’m so freakishly magnificent.
Have you ever gone for a walk, turned down a gravel road you hadn’t noticed before, followed it for a quarter of a mile, maybe a bit further, and fallen into the pocket where God keeps his keys? I did. A couple of weeks ago now. It was like opening the wardrobe and finding the world within the world. Such a place is beyond description, so much so, language fails and retreats into the metaphorical: streets of gold and pearly gates, angels plucking harps and Saint Peter checking RSVPs. But my heaven isn’t so baroque.
In this heaven, the one down a concealed path, there’s a pond with swans and turtles. There are birds scooping up fallen seed, there are birds in the trees watching the watchers, and more birds circling the stars tucked away beyond the blue-vaulted dome. The trees are draped with Spanish moss like garland on a Christmas tree. Black water reflects the crisp, cool blue sky, and wading birds stand motionless, poised for the unsuspecting. Grass trails coil through a forest of centuries old trees, and squirrels and songbirds grip the knotty bark with supernatural balance and dexterity. And turtles, turtles, with shells like iridescent, black enamel, Bunyan-sized gems with flipper legs and a head, roast pond-green salads on their back.
Intuitive footfalls send me deeper and deeper into this mystery that I’ve stumbled upon. And that is something I can say and know about this mysterious, secret garden: knowledge comes from intuition; heaven bridges the conscious and the unconscious, an internal perception that wells up like the Kingdom of God within. But the more my eyes and ears are made to see and hear, the less I can explain this otherworldliness sparked ex nihilo by an ancient poem. Matter and energy, chemical bonds, the biological unfolding into this bubble of being, whose vast appearance merely casts shadows of true Being, whispers and insinuates future’s memories. Existence is a miracle. You are a miracle. God made you. Out of the dust, out of the earth, out of God’s own breath and mind, you are here, in this garden. In this place, self-awareness reveals that part of me that I’ve always suspected about who I really am and why I am. I have a shared identity.
This is the front door of heaven, or maybe it is just the front porch. But wherever we find heaven, be it my secret garden or ten miles off the paved road in an unused campsite or with friends and family at a birthday party, heaven is a place of self-leaving, a submerging into that other identity. For that reason, above anything else, I’m extraordinary.
Ego is shoved aside. Self-doubt and all the little gimmicks that compensate for feeling inadequate are shoveled away. The rantings of my internal monologue are shushed.
It won’t last. It never does. Maybe a day if I am lucky. An hour, probably. This rare, outlandish mental utopia will get snagged on a tree branch or caught in the wind; it will be left behind or carried away. That is the nature of heaven, here and gone, back again, blowing away with the passing clouds, a fog falling into the earth. Right now, though, I know heaven is a real place. I’m standing in it. Or maybe better still, heaven envelopes me.
We waste so much time and worry with thoughts of heaven, when all we need do is go outside. The kingdom of heaven is like someone who sowed good seed; the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed; the kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field, a net thrown into the sea, the search for fine pearls, a landowner who went out early in the morning. I don’t mean to make heaven or God into some sort of pantheistic, steel trap. And I’m not at all interested in diminishing Jesus’ parables, parables, into lovey-dovey explanations for the unexplainable. I’m only wishing to note that we should lean into the metaphorical, escape walls and roof, cranial cavities and fixed images. The kingdom of God is like because it is different. Different than anything we know or are capable of knowing. And those walls that close us in may be as metaphorical as they are concrete.
A turtle sitting on a log notes my interest. He cranes his head in my direction and slowly moves a flipper to the edge of his floating incubator. The turtle is prepared to topple over into the black water, just one more step, I think, and plop, he’ll be gone. And then he is. I surprise a bird with a long, curved beak on a tree branch. She is as much of a discovery to me as I am circumspect to her. For a minute, we stare at each other before she starts taking small, slow steps further and further away from me. Then, like a rocket, she flies off, skimming a feather’s tip above the pond. A cardinal, as red as a flame, fancies himself operatic, which, indeed, he is, until the lens of my camera catches his eye. He falls silent, then flutters to a higher branch, and then out of sight.
Instinct drives us away from each other. The turtles and birds know to fear me, and had any of the turtles or birds charged out of the pond or landed on my shoulder, I would have shooed them away and squealed like a child. The same is no less true when we come face to face with our true selves. Heaven is just this sort of confrontation. For just those few moments bliss and tranquility, the reverence of knowing yourself with the company of God for companionship. But it is too much. Instinct takes over. We dive for cover or flee for safer shores. Just as Moses hid his face from God passing by, we hid ourselves from ourselves, for surely coming face to face with the one who participates in the divine nature would be our undoing. Can you see the image of God and live? Can you?
Yes, yes you can. Here, and maybe only here, in this secret garden I’ve stumbled upon. A blink, a flash of light in your peripheral vision, the sound behind you that comes from imagination, that abiding feeling both serene and terrifying, yes, there’s a sense of the Divine. You will have your own garden, your own place of encounter where the cool of the evening invites God’s presence. “Listen,” Paul says, “and I will tell you a mystery.” Like a bedtime story we sit up, like children pulling on the sheets and blankets of our bed; Oh Paul, tell us the mystery. “We will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye.” And it happens just that quickly, like the night hours that pass without time as we slumber in the most contented rest ever experienced. Was it a dream? Where did it go? That twinkling, it passes in and out of our eye, away from our ear, removed from the raised hairs on our arms.
Those holy, fleeting moments, the walks with God in a secret garden, the serenity of flesh and spirit, the abeyance of ordinary, and the convalescence issuing forth this strange, new man, this mystery who is Christ in me: yes, that day with turtles and birds I became extraordinary, freakishly fantastic. And that is who I really am. That is who you really are: created beings drawn towards the ineffable, where even God cannot satiate your appetite for the Divine because God is without limits and irreducible, and our cravings pull us out of space and time, leaving us more and more uncreated. It is a shocking, alarming, beautiful journey that leaves behind the pettiness of theology and language.
I am left now with my coffee and my early birds hunting worms. The presence of God is fading now, but I can still feel it, the way someone who is newly in love suffers a sort of chemical brain damage. It will fade, and God’s silence will return. What I’ve written here, the experience I’ve had, can be comprehended. But there is an experience yet to come, maybe when death has been swallowed up, when unmeaning will usurp articulation, when God cannot be reduced to debate or diatribe. On that day, if we can speak of such an event in the context of time, the image of God will meld with God in a sort of perpetual journey, the created soul sets about towards the infinity and unknowable Divine. An eternal twinkling. It started here. It started in the garden with turtles and birds and a numinous unknowing.
Since, then, those who know what is good by nature desire participation in it, and since this good has no limit, the participant’s desire itself necessarily has no stopping place but stretches out with the limitless. – Gregory of Nyssa
Hey Everyone, So here's the deal. A year ago, give or take, a publisher said to me that they would really like to consider publishing my book, but in order for them to seriously consider it, I need to develop this thing called a platform. So, in an effort to build my platform, whatever that really is, I started this blog. Now, as you can imagine, your average Sunday morning Christian is not all that charmed by my blog. Some, I'm told, find it incomprehensible. What I'm getting at is this: if you enjoy my blogs, there's a high likelihood that you will know someone else who would like my blog. And that will help me build this platform thing and maybe, just maybe, one day get my book published. So the greatest gift you could give me is to share my work. The first week I put a blog out there, I had 13 readers, counting my mom and my wife! Last week's blog brought in 180 readers. That's pretty amazing, as far as I am concerned. Let's see if we can't find a few more. You can subscribe to my blog at the top of this page and/or you can share on Facebook or email it to a friend you know would enjoy it. Thank you so much, Brent.