Martin Luther characterized it as one of the most obscure recorded: an amazing account, the mysterious struggle between two combatants, one human, one divine, written of in Genesis 32: 22-31.
“Take this down,” I said. Two shades sprang up, one more agile than the other, stood poised and ready.
I ran my fingers along a dusty mantel.
How to begin?
“To Whom It May Concern.” Friends.
I hesitated, unaccustomed to the sunlight streaming in through my two windows to the world at large.
I squint into the sunny brightness, the dust motes like butterflies.
“. . . to both a due and hearty thanks . . . .” surely no more, no less rather than to carry on so til grace given is grace lost.
“That will do.”
The shades sprang down from their high perches, still gaping, and light stood like pillars under their cargo.
Even so back to books and lamplight, and Thou, my guardian.
Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?Romans 7:24
There’s a moment in The Understudy1 when the novel shifts focus from what it means to be human to what it means to be religious. It’s a question introduced by an AI that’s a hybrid of microchip and flesh-and-blood tissue. Wondering aloud at his mistaking someone as religious, Attik is asked in turn: Are you a religious man? Are you religious? Without hesitation this organically grown hybrid replies, Of course. Human in every way except for his brain, he knows without a shadow of a doubt that his being is subject to contingencies, therefore dependent on a higher power. He knows too that this is an instinctively religious apprehension.
Attik is no Frankenstein’s monster. Yet this perfect invulnerable being has his fall. He is human after all. His is a body of death, just as the humans who designed him, full of rebellious and covetous desires. As he realizes just how human he is, he recognizes the need for absolution, for peace and reconciliation with the One who gave him and all humanity the gift of being.
Towards the end of the novel, Attik finds himself in the ironic position of a priest.
He knew the ritual. He had the bread and wine. It only wanted a God to make it body and blood now. …
They were all orphans here.
God could make a priest out of anything, metal or mud.
Whatever you were made of, you borrowed your blood, anyway.
Following Attik through the novel, one is following the growth of a religious man and, in a sense, traversing anew old ground, the fall and redemption of mankind, the journey to God. Which is what makes this sparely written scene so poignant and tinged by the piercing cost of sacrifice: the bread is Christ’s own flesh, the wine is Christ’s own blood shed on the cross.
And [Jesus] took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.Luke 22:19-20
As Attik intimates, we are all orphans: that is, until we find our home in Christ Jesus by way of his flesh and blood, his body the torn veil into the holy of holies where we can have eternal communion with God.
And as Attik finds, we are all religious, whether or not we choose to acknowledge the contingency of our being or not. We don’t have control over our lives, not even our own desires. We all need to be set free from the bondage of sin and death. And who can deliver us from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Rom. 7: 25)
There are so many cliches about love, the word, perhaps, has lost its power, but not the notion, not the need, not the knowledge that love’s very presence makes life worth living. In one of his most famous poems (“In My Craft or Sullen Art”), Welsh poet Dylan Thomas speaks of lovers with “their arms round the griefs of the ages” which is curious, as if in embracing one another, they embrace grief, and not just each other’s but those universal.
Ack! What kind of love is this? you might ask.
Anyone who’s been married longer than a decade (or three, in my case) knows that this expresses the height of love. The willingness to bear another’s griefs rather than turn and walk away is love’s absolute zenith, its most precious characteristic. You don’t run away from the pain of those you truly love. Instead, you embrace it with them, faithfully, day after day after day.
And because no one’s life is without its griefs, we often say that we shouldn’t judge a person until we’ve walked a mile in their shoes. Sorrow and pain are universals. Beyond any happiness, we can readily sympathize with suffering. Each of us carries our pain within us. There are voiceless cries and unshed tears behind every smile we see. And apprehending the universality of our hidden hurts binds us more completely to one another than anything that divides us.
Emily Dickinson realizes this in her poem “I measure every Grief I meet” and while reading it, it struck me that our Lord Jesus’ command to love our neighbor as ourselves begins with this understanding, to “bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2).”May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other,” St. Paul prays in 1 Thessalonians.
Christ Himself, of course, set the example. He was, as the prophet Isaiah described him, “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief,” who “has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows” (Isaiah 53: 3, 4). “Blessed be the Lord,” the psalmist writes, “who daily bears our burden, the God who is our salvation” (Ps. 68:19, NASB). Because he does, He is where our hearts find their rest.
It’s not easy to help shoulder someone’s grief, not simply in the context of marriage and family, but also those of our friends and neighbors, even our enemies. Yet God commands us to love (Matt. 5:44), even as He loves us, and the way is the way of the Cross, our own and each other’s.
Emily Dickinson, “I measure every Grief I meet” (1830-1886)
I measure every Grief I meet
With narrow, probing, Eyes —
I wonder if It weighs like Mine —
Or has an Easier size.
I wonder if They bore it long —
Or did it just begin —
I could not tell the Date of Mine —
It feels so old a pain —
I wonder if it hurts to live —
And if They have to try —
And whether — could They choose between —
It would not be — to die —
I note that Some — gone patient long —
At length, renew their smile —
An imitation of a Light
That has so little Oil —
I wonder if when Years have piled —
Some Thousands — on the Harm —
That hurt them early — such a lapse
Could give them any Balm —
Or would they go on aching still
Through Centuries of Nerve —
Enlightened to a larger Pain –
In Contrast with the Love —
The Grieved — are many — I am told —
There is the various Cause —
Death — is but one — and comes but once —
And only nails the eyes —
There’s Grief of Want — and Grief of Cold —
A sort they call “Despair” —
There’s Banishment from native Eyes —
In sight of Native Air —
And though I may not guess the kind —
Correctly — yet to me
A piercing Comfort it affords
In passing Calvary —
To note the fashions — of the Cross —
And how they’re mostly worn —
Still fascinated to presume
That Some — are like My Own —
Isaiah 53: 2-5
For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.
1 Thessalonians 3:12-13 (NIV)
May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else, just as ours does for you. May he strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones.
This ground underfoot, this riddling ground
Would you say you know it down to Adam and Eve,
Where lie its precipices, its canyons,
Where breathe the dragons that prey
On travelers at dusk and lost children?
I have walked on it with trepidation,
Fainting not, East of Eden, west of the moon,
Where the dead among the living
Like infernal winds sweep over the earth
Furies spitting on the destinies of men.
All around the wasteland where visions die
Banshees howl and half-formed men bay
Around fires of Cain’s wandering offspring.
Nevertheless, the eternal revelation, tri-folded,
Goes forth to the hungry and the poor in spirit.
The riddled ground beneath our feet,
Treacherous though it be, is as the dust of history
And we quickened ones like lilies of the field,
Dandelions harboring the unsearchable riches of Christ
To show forth the unassailable purpose of God.
Dumb to the world’s riddles, trusting, we carry on,
Until spinning out of bereft arms into shrouds
Or across canyons of a diseased mind
We lose each other to time’s grasp, till time stops,
And we, with joy unspeakable, everlasting, walk on new ground.
Ephesians 3: 8-12, Tyndale Bible (1522)
Vnto me the lest of all sayntes is this grace geven that I shuld preache amonge the gentyls the unsearchable ryches of Christ and to make all men se what the felyshippe of the mistery is which from the begynnynge of the worlde hath bene hid in God which made all thynges thorow Iesus Christ to the intent that now vnto the rulars and powers in heven myght be knowe by the congregacion the many folde wisdome of god accordinge to the eternall purpose which he purposed in Christ Iesu oure lorde by whom we are bolde to drawe nye in ye trust which we have by faith on him.
Isaiah 46:8-10 NASB
“Remember the former things long past,
For I am God, and there is no other;
[I am] God, and there is no one like Me,
Declaring the end from the beginning,
And from ancient times things which have not been done,
Saying, ‘My purpose will be established,
And I will accomplish all My good pleasure'”
**Featured Image: “Moody Skies” (Lizzie Crawford, 2020)
Looking for something good to read by your fellow Christian novelists this summer?
Check out the following in science fiction, romance, and mystery.
So what happens when humanity has to be re-booted by AI’s? Updated and now in a paperback edition from my favorite science fiction and fantasy author, here’s a wonderful offering wherein you’ll find elements of faith, knowledge, and redemption intertwined with an exciting plot that will keep you engrossed to the very last page.
Also, an audio and print version of the short story on which the novel is based is available free on the author’s website. “The Understudy” is read by the author and is about 17 minutes long.
I’ve been reading David R. Helm’s Commentary¹ on Jude while finishing up Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall Trilogy. She’s a gifted writer is Mantel. Her incisive yet poetic imagination will send chills up your spine. And Helm unfolds his commentary with a literary feel that many theologians sadly lack.
Everyone knows that both Dante and Petrarch were haunted by their visions of ideal love, Dante had his Beatrice, and Petrarch his Laura. And as political exiles, each poet knew the terror of death. Writing was a way of easing the pain of both.
But did you know that these two titans of the Renaissance might have met in a quirk of circumstance?
I lift up my eyes
one day’s dawn closer
Love’s banners streaming
nail-scarred grace unrelenting
boundless praise flowing
a radiant crescendo
jeweled vision before me —
Psalm 84: 5-7 NIV
Blessed are those whose strength is in you, whose hearts are set on pilgrimage. As they pass through the valley of Baka, they make it a place of springs; the autumn rains also cover it with pools. They go from strength to strength, till each appears before God in Zion.
“He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” (Ecclesiastes 3:11)
It’s not time that drips so slow
through the coffee grinds of the past
that percolates in the heat of memory
now distilling the sweet and bitter
into a narcotic pool of the half-remembered.
It’s not space that encroaches
into visions that come in the night
to shake the weary from slumber
and snap the mind to stark awakening
in the light of the inexorable coming.
It’s eternity placed in the center of being
robbing the world of its threatening specters
carcasses of vanity parading through cheap confetti
chained to open graves of corruption and pride
rotting corpses in that day’s foretold light.
Oh You who call me from realms free of time
where space recedes to glorious expanse of a new dawn
who cautions me in apostolic prophecy,
who stations in my heart the outpost of your dominion,
Oh, now greet me, now descend anew with thy holy kiss!
There’s no news but breeds new fears
In the flickering light as dusk falls
In the last cry of a distant bird
In the misshapen shadows of the unseen
Within cloistered walls.
Bated breath and heaving sighs
The chill alarm of a sickness bred
In a distant lab, a plague let loose
Not of locusts or frogs but airborne
Contagion, the ghost of times gone.
In the night an insistent distress
A job lost, and mouths to feed,
A waiting game for a government check
One nightmare subsides only to waken
Another in the fell dark.
A manic wind pulls the screen door free
What have we let in, what have we to do;
Across the street, above the lampposts
A twinkling starry host and the watchful moon
Shine their peace.