“If the people were silent, the very stones would cry out.” Luke 19:40
The stones are speaking. Are we listening?
The memory of stone. People have spoken of it since humankind first wielded tools to chisel its surface. What stories might be locked in the smallest of river stones, the bedrock beneath the plains’ rich soil, the mountains crushed into gravel for our roads? Certainly we find there the record of the earth’s transformations, the bones and footprints of long-dead species, delicate traceries of plants, massive forests. But what about human lives? Have stones absorbed the fleeting touch of our lately-come species, the storms of blood, tears, laughter, prayer that accompany our kind wherever we wander? Do stones remember us?
I love stone. I have loved it from earliest childhood. I love the weight and feel of it in my hand, the warmth of it beneath me when I rest from walking, the magic of its kaleidoscopic patterns. When I can I travel to mountains and canyons and deserts to spend time in its company. Stone is alive, sentient in some way I can’t explain. I feel it most strongly in wilderness, where human busy-ness is limited—but it has also caught me unawares in urban alleys.
I am unlikely ever to hear a stone speak in human words, or a tree in propositions, or a dog in iambic pentameter. A stone communicates in the manner of stones, just as a dog communicates as dogs do. My experience of the speech of stones is deeply non-verbal, partly visceral and partly emotional, untranslatable. Sometimes I take a photograph or pick up a stone when I feel it; other times I simply let it be. The imagery comes later.
I am not a professional photographer, or even educated in photography. In the past I saw the images in a camera’s eye as an imagined canvas, in terms of shape and balance, tension and flow, light and dark. Now I find myself photographing scenes that pulse with the energy of subtle presence, and I let the rest take care of itself. Sometimes my pictures absorb a hint of that power, sometimes not.
What is a photograph? At its simplest it is a record of objects seen, events observed, people known. But like history, a photograph participates in the awareness of the one who watches and records. And like a scientific experiment, the photographer’s participation is a variable that must be considered. The same scene taken by different people with identical cameras at roughly the same time may be distinctly different—based on something I call “soul,” for lack of any better term. At times the camera’s eye appears to mediate an exchange of understanding? meaning? relationship? being? between photographer and subject, and this fleeting touch (or lack of it) marks the photo.
What are the stones saying with their images? I believe they are communicating their presence, no more. “Look at us!” they cry. “We are alive, in ways you have forgotten you ever knew. We are—as the trees are, and the waters, and the atmosphere that shields the Earth from the extremes of space. Truly see us—see all of creation—we who have been dismissed by your arrogance as mere commodities. See us, before only stones remain to see the sunrise.”
Slipping unseen along the fringes of consciousness, the temptation is always there—to “clean up” the images, make them perfect, adjust their proportions to fit more neatly into Western ideas of beauty. Sometimes I make changes without thinking, and then I have to destroy the image if I can’t undo the edits. We have an implicit understanding, the stones and I—that their images will remain as I find them, removed only from their matrix, and, at most, adjusted for contrast. After all, they are the language of stone, and much is inevitably lost in translation.
Many years ago I discovered a new word: panentheism. Not pantheism (many gods), not theism (usually one god separate from creation), but pan-en-theism—one Spirit present in all creation, without the great divide between spirit and flesh that seems unavoidable in most Western traditions. Perhaps this word can suggest a way to bridge the gulf between stones that speak and a planet of dead rock.
In Christian scripture the apostle Paul describes the perceptions of ordinary people: “For now we see in a mirror, dimly . . . .” These words could describe any human being who has lost her sense of kinship with the web of life in which she lives. We see the world distorted in a bit of poorly polished metal—and ourselves more prominently than all else. But unlike Longfellow’s Lady of Shallot, we have no curse to excuse our stubborn avoidance of the Earth’s true face.
Stone is patient. Stone does not envy or boast, and is neither arrogant nor rude. Stone simply is, demanding nothing. Stone is not false, but embodies the truth of creation. Stone accepts human abuse and awaits our healing. Stone endures all things, is always being transformed, yet is ever the same.
All the photos in The Stones of Easter series* were taken on my brother Don’s mountain during Easter week, 2010, when I was deeply immersed in writing the final chapters of The Gospel According to Yeshua’s Cat. Starting on the morning of Maundy Thursday and ending on Easter Sunday, each day I packed a lunch and water flask and set off up the mountain with my camera. In a very literal sense, I went in search of a vision.
The result of the vision that met me there is Yeshua’s Cat.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how This Madness of the Heart (and all the following Miranda Lamden Mysteries) fit together with my Yeshua’s Cats series–and why I feel certain the two series can coexist as books by the same author. But since my reasons are more feelings and instincts than logic, I’ve had trouble putting them into words.
So I did what I often do when I need to make sense of something: I created a piece of art (below). After all, what good is an art therapy degree if you can’t use it to clarify your own confusion? If I’m lucky, by explaining the image I’ll be opening up what lies behind it!
So, what are you looking at here?
First, I chose a Hubble image for the background: “Interacting Spiral Galaxies” . . . surely ideal for this project, since galaxies don’t often interact–anymore than churchfolk and professor-sleuths! It felt like a propitious beginning.
Three interlocking circles fill the foreground. The center circle pulses with a glowing gold and green light; the Christian Chi Rho emerges from its heart.
What is the Chi Rho? Like most symbols, it has different meanings across cultures, but for me it’s a symbol used by early Christians in the first three centuries after Yeshua’s birth–before Constantine transformed it into an imperial banner (the cross didn’t emerge as a Christian symbol until after the year 500).
The Chi Rho gets its name from the two Greek letters that overlap to create the symbol: Chi and Rho, the first two letters of the Greek word Christos, or Christ. In the image above, the Greek letters Alpha and Omega are added. I did experiment with using a cross in the center circle, but I like the visual effect of the Chi Rho better, probably because it has “rays” like the sunburst. Anyway, the central circle is meant to be the Christian faith–not the organized religion–but the living faith of all the individuals who hold themselves to be Christian.
The circle to the right is Mari, from Yeshua’s Cat, turning aside from a path in a green forest to investigate the central circle. In her circle she represents all of the natural universe. Creation. Everything that exists naturally, apart from the intervention of humankind. This natural order also includes human beings, since they’re part of the created universe–but not their civilizations.
The totality of the created world–as we know it on Earth–is flowing back from Mari’s search like the tail of a comet.
The circle on the left is where Miranda, my detective, lives. Her circle is the world of human civilization–urban, complex, multi-cultural, and often unsure exactly what they believe. Many, like Miranda, have their roots in Christianity, but have turned away from the church. Spinning out from her circle is a spiral of different world religions. But in her circle she, like Mari, has paused to examine something about the Christian faith that has caught her eye.
Both Mari and Miranda live outside the Christian fold, and they approach it from opposite directions. Mari moves from the non-human, natural environment, Miranda from a detached, urban, academic world. Still, both find themselves intrigued by the light in the center circle. Mari has the easier approach: Yeshua introduces himself by saving her life, and she joins him as a friend. But Miranda has been scarred by her Christian experience; she mistrusts the church and its agendas. As a professor, she sees all religions as examples of the human yearning toward the divine. Truth claims don’t enter the picture. She simply records what she observes, without making judgments. Her methods are catlike: she steps cautiously toward anything new, not committing herself, poised to slip back into the shadows if conflict threatens.
I knew a number of women like Miranda in my years apart from the church. Their worlds were full and rich, but they didn’t screen their experiences through a Christian worldview. Yet they were sometimes attracted by a light shining out from this tradition many of them had left behind.
. . . maybe the light shone through a person
a man like Elmus
or as comfort in the midst of evil
perhaps through the One’s presence in some crisis of their own
or simply in prayer and meditation.
But today we live in a world where it’s increasingly difficult to say, “I believe.” The language is lost. What does it mean to believe? Who are we believing in? People who live in the secular world can’t respond to most Christian overtures–because they don’t understand the words anymore. God-talk is becoming literal non-sense to those outside the churches.
People like Miranda are who they are, just as cats are cats. Each responds to life according to their gifts . . . but for some reason those inside and outside the churches are drawing further apart.
Perhaps we might learn from the effort, and love, we put into cross-species communication with our cats (and dogs, gerbils, birds, and ferrets) . . . and look at the incomprehensible human beings around us as if they concealed inner selves as delightful, unique, and full of surprises as a cat’s. It’s not really such a stretch.
I happen to find the lives of alienated Christians intriguing, perhaps because I’ve been there myself. And if the polls are right, their numbers are growing. Their honesty is often fierce, like their determination never to be taken in again by faux-Christianity and self-serving lies. Sadly we don’t have to look far to find the lurking predators they’re avoiding. And that’s what This Madness of the Heart is about.
Miranda peers into the light of Christian faith–but she looks from a place apart. Her own experiences haven’t shown Christianity to be that promised “light to the gentiles.” So she watches, examines, records, and considers. In the meantime, I feel privileged to narrate her journey.
Click here to visit my Miranda Lamden Mysteries site.
Readers are always asking me how I get the ideas for my books, and I’m usually at a loss for answers. So with Cat Born to the Purple, I tried to notice right along how the ideas developed. Now I offer you a small window into the earliest beginnings of Purple.
When I introduced Purple’s main character, Eliana, in The Gospel According to Yeshua’s Cat, I hadn’t planned on writing anything else about her, much less a continuing series of Yeshua’s Cats books! But I did write more books, and Eliana turned out to be one of those characters who set up shop in the back of my mind, insistently hammering at my dreams and thoughts until I allowed her to tell her story: Cat Born to the Purple is her tale.
But before I could tell her story, I had to figure out what her family history might have been, and what circumstances could possibly have left her, a young woman barely more than a child, stoned and near death in the hills of Galilee near Sepphoris. I knew that she was going to be an exceptionally fine weaver and embroiderer, which meant that she probably came from a family that worked with textiles, most likely from one of the semi-professional family workshops found in sizeable towns like Sepphoris.
But her wrongful stoning suggested that she’d had no real family to protect her. How could that have happened? Jewish women of merchant status always had male relatives from their birth-families hovering in the background somewhere, prepared to protect them from abuse. I started reading everything I could find about the area around Sepphoris during the time of Herod the Great and his son Herod Antipas, since Eliana would have been born around 12 CE.
Scholars have been wrangling for years over whether the Sepphoris of Yeshua’s youth and adult years was primarily Jewish, Greco-Roman, or a mixture of the two. The dust is finally beginning to settle in that argument, leaving what seems to be a clear picture of Sepphoris—along with most of the rest of the Galilee—as predominantly Jewish in population and culture during the early-to-middle 1st C CE. The recently discovered Greco-Roman palaces of Sepphoris came considerably later.
Almost nothing remains of the mid-1st C city, which would have been almost entirely Jewish. During Yeshua’s lifetime Sepphoris was a regional market and civic center—Herod Antipas’ Galilean capital until he built a new capital at Tiberius around 20 CE. Sepphoris was a large Jewish town for its time and place, but neither Roman in culture, nor heavily gentile.
The most dramatic event in Sepphoris’ history during that early period came soon after Herod the Great’s death in 4 BCE, when a band of Jewish dissidents and townspeople overwhelmed the city guard and raided the treasury. Rome’s reprisal was swift and cruel. The rebels were crucified along the highways, and most of Sepphoris’ citizens were sold into slavery at Acco. Herod Antipas rebuilt and fortified the city to some extent before moving on to Tiberius, but he didn’t create the wealthy Greco-Roman Sepphoris whose ruins have been excavated in recent years.
So with this regional history in mind, Eliana’s own family history began to fall into place for me. The timing of Eliana’s birth could easily have placed her grandparents in Sepphoris as weavers and merchants when the city’s residents were sold into slavery by the Romans in 4 BCE. Only their young daughter Sarah—Eliana’s mother—perhaps eight years old at the time, managed to escape. Terrified and confused, the homeless child was taken in by a kindly woman from Shikhin, a neighboring village of about 500 people. Archaeologists recently discovered the ruins of Shikhin only a mile northwest of Sepphoris, just off the main highway connecting Acco and Sepphoris. The Via Maris, the major Roman road that followed Israel’s coastal plain along the Mediterranean Sea, intersected the Acco-Sepphoris road nearby, placing both Sepphoris and Shikhin at a major crossroads.
Archaeologists had long searched for the location of Shikhin, known by reputation as a village that manufactured everyday pottery found in archaeological sites all across Israel. Rabbis of the early Roman period even used Shikhin storage jars as their standard for liquid measure. Shikhin’s period of greatest productivity probably began sometime in the late 1st C BCE and increased through the early Roman period. They were known for strong, fire resistant pottery made from black clay: particularly amphorae (storage jars) and small clay lamps, but also jugs, kraters, cooking pots, and bowls. Archaeologists guess that Shikhin’s potters may have made common cause with wine and oil merchants and sold their pots already filled.
Recent excavations at Shikhin have uncovered cisterns, pits, potters’ wheels, kilns, and large numbers of discarded pieces of pottery damaged in firing, indicating a significant manufacturing area. The site was abandoned around the time of the great earthquake of 363 CE.
Now the story was beginning to take shape in my mind. As a refugee child in a time of chaos, Sarah’s unofficial adoption by a family working at a craft totally unlike her family’s own guaranteed her separation from any extended family who might have survived the upheavals at Sepphoris. She was simply a child working beside her adopted family making pots. Sarah eventually married the potters’ only son and taught her daughter Eliana the skills of a potter. But even though Sarah had lost her parents at a young age, I imagined that she would never have forgotten the weaving and embroidery skills she must have learned at her mother’s knee–which would probably have been valued by her adopted family. These skills she passed on to Eliana as well, along with an innate gift for working with textiles.
But for Eliana to be without family when Yeshua found her, both her parents must have been dead already. After learning what I could about the manufacture of ancient Palestinian pottery, I decided that her parents might have died together in a fire caused by a collapsing kiln during a minor earthquake (more on that in another post). So Eliana was indeed left alone in the world, a young bride without anyone but treacherous and greedy in-laws to care for her. The complex system of Jewish kin relationships protecting vulnerable women had failed her. Yeshua’s assumption of just such a situation led him to place Eliana with his friend Eli in Cana—which is where Cat Born to the Purple truly begins.
In the end, the unique possibilities presented by 1st C Israel’s culture came together to create the backstory of Eliana’s life, thus laying the groundwork for the rest of the book. Research can be a wonderful thing!
When I want to focus my prayer over time and through all my senses I create prayer as art–in my intent, in my praying, and in my prayer’s final emergence into the world. So here is the embodiment of the prayers I’ve been praying during an extended retreat for the last week or so, as I’ve grieved and prayed for the healing of the inhumanity I see steadily emerging in the patterns of our nation’s new administration. I believe that the reality that is taking shape there honors neither America’s historic democracy nor the Christian faith.
“A Christmas Prayer” prays that the incomprehensible divine love we celebrate at the Christmas season will fill all our hearts, from the smallest child to the nation’s leaders, and open our eyes to the wideness of God’s mercy, which encompasses the whole of Creation.
I, too, feel the times growing harder; the American dream seems to be slipping through our fingers. But I don’t understand how so many of America’s Christians could have gotten so muddled in their distress. How could we forget that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son”?
We must hold to these and other words that have shaped our faith:
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female.”
“Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream”!
“What does the Lord require of you but to do do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
Jesus did not model the commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” by narrowing the definition of “neighbor” to those whose race, language, skin color, birth country, and beliefs were identical to his own.
I grieve for us as a nation.
We have stumbled and fallen at the 3rd temptation where Yeshua stood firm: we have grasped for temporal power. These words are from Yeshua’s Cat describing his final temptation in the wilderness:
There was silence for a time. Then ben Adamah’s eyes cleared, he saw me watching, and he smiled. Now he was looking at a definite place, somewhere to the right of where I stood (my fur was bristling, and I was ready to spring away at any moment. Did I see something moving there in the moonless dark?).
“Oh, you evil fool,” the son of Earth laughed, “you have misjudged your game tonight! I have seen too many good men corrupted by even a little of that power to fall into its snare. The power I seek is the power to heal body and soul, the power of one who walks unnoticed among many, seeking the good of all: the power that binds creation together, not a power that consumes it. Burning through my heart is a power that rejects you and all you offer. I will have none of your thrones, your palaces, or your rich robes. No man, woman, or child will ever grovel before me in fear! Get out of my sight, corrupter of innocence. You have no place here.”
The night grew quiet then, the tension vanishing on a slight breeze. Whatever had been happening was finished.
“Come, curl up beside me, little mother,” ben Adamah said softly. “My vigil is over for tonight. It’s time to sleep.”
For those of you with a curious turn of mind, I’ll explain a bit of what’s going on in this digital mosaic. The overall pattern is based on the south rose window at Notre Dame of Paris. Literally thousands of tiny pieces of layers were combined to complete the whole.
At the very center is a spiral galaxy from the Hubble series, with a star superimposed, also from Hubble, and a close up of Mary and the baby Jesus from William Holman Hunt’s “The Triumph of the Innocents.”
Around the central image is a circle of 12 identical panels of the “Tree of Jesse” from a Chartres Cathedral window. The, tree, or root, of Jesse–Jesus’ human lineage (from the prophet Isaiah)–is often called the Tree of Life.
The round rose-window shapes in the next ring are 24 identical images of grape vines from another Notre Dame rose window, pieced together into rings.
The next circle out from the center is composed of elders from traditions all over the world, including Pope Francis, an Orthodox bishop, Rev. Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama, and many others from cultures great and small.
Behind each elder’s head is a plain aquamarine stained glass circle.
Above these circles are hands of different colors, each reaching out to help others and to the One in prayer.
Beyond the ring of hands are round stained glass windows framing the faces of ordinary people from ethnic groups around the world.
Interspersed between these portrait circles are small stained glass windows from Notre Dame de la Croix.
Around the outer edge of the circle are flowers from blossoming trees holding the faces of the world’s children, overlain with translucent spring beech leaves.
From behind each blossom the Bethlehem star shines out.
Throughout the whole circle the branches of the tree of life weave in and out of the pattern.
And overall, a rainbow of stained-glass light colors all the shapes beneath it, just as the One’s love embraces all Creation.
I wish you all a blessed Thanksgiving and Christmas, filled with gratitude for our many blessings, and with prayers for our leaders’ wisdom.
Here’s an excerpt from Midwest Book Review’s Senior Reviewer Diane Donovan:
“Cat Born to the Purple is one of the most powerful accounts of Biblical times in Christian literature! It’s rare to find the fourth book of a series just as gripping a read as its predecessors, and equally extraordinary to find such an addition both a stand-alone achievement and an impressive expansion of themes presented in prior books. A truly unique ‘voice’!”
Doing the research for The Cats of Rekem was a long and fascinating process. Perhaps the most surprising part of it was discovering how little we really know about those first days after Paul’s vision on the Damascus road. Here are the only biblical verses (from The New English translation) that describe those days:
Acts 9:19-25–[immediately after his conversion] “He spent some time with the disciples in Damascus. Soon he was proclaiming Jesus publicly in the synagogues. ‘This,’ he said, ‘is the Son of God.’ All who heard were astounded. ‘Is not this the man,’ they said, ‘who was in Jerusalem trying to destroy those who invoke this name? Did he not come here for the sole purpose of arresting them and taking them to the chief priests?’ But Saul grew more and more forceful and silenced the Jews of Damascus with his cogent proofs that Jesus was the Messiah. As the days mounted up, the Jews hatched a plot against his life; but their plans became known to Saul. They kept close watch on the city gates day and night so that they might murder him; but his converts took him one night and let him down by the wall, lowering him in a basket.”
2 Corinthians 11:32-33–“When I was in Damascus, the commissioner of King Aretas kept the city under observation so as to have me arrested; and I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall, and so escaped his clutches.”
Galatians 1:16-20–“When that happened [his conversion], without consulting any human being, without going up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before me, I went off at once to Arabia, and afterwards returned to Damascus. Three years later I did go up to Jerusalem to get to know Cephas. I stayed with him for a fortnight, without seeing any other of the apostles, except James, the Lord’s brother. What I write is plain truth; before God I am not lying.”
In the Acts account, in the paragraph following the one above describing Paul’s escape from Damascus, Luke speaks of Paul’s trip to Jerusalem, where he met all the disciples. In light of Paul’s own words in his letter to the Galatians above, I believe Luke must have been describing a later trip to Jerusalem. Paul states clearly that he went immediately to Arabia from Damascus. The three passages above, then, are our only sources for Paul’s departure from Damascus.
So what do we know about Paul’s night at the wall? Let’s look first at the wall itself.
The biblical text in Galatians uses the word θυρίς, thuris, which means a small openingor window. The text in Acts merely says Paul was lowered through the wall; no opening is specified. So, perhaps the word need not be translated “window.”
I had some difficulty imagining a window in the middle of a Decapolis city wall, so I started researching 1st C CE city walls in Roman Syria, specifically at Damascus. I discovered that not much more than a few foundation stones are visible in Damascus, underneath later walls dating mostly to the Middle Ages. But I did discover that Damascus was transformed by its Seleucid (Greek) conquerors somewhere around the 3rd C BCE. The city was then rebuilt along N/S and E/W axes, in much the same pattern that remains today. The city walls were rebuilt as well. When the Romans took over Damascus in the mid-1st C BCE, they set to work rebuilding much of the city again, adding their typical monumental touches. They also strengthened the walls and extended them outward to include an area larger than the earlier Greek walls. The Roman walls stood approximately where the walls stand today.
In the pictures below you can see a reconstruction of the east gate in the Roman wall surrounding the Decapolis city of Hippos, and a model of the Decapolis city of Scythopolis (Bet She’an), with the city wall around it. Notice in both that the only openings/windows are in the actual gate towers, which are guard quarters. The walls themselves are high and smooth, without openings, although the spaces in the crenelations might be called “openings.”
But what exactly did Roman walls look like? How were they constructed? I discovered that there is an amazing amount of research dedicated to the study of Roman walls. As a result we know quite a lot about their internal structure and appearance. By the time of the Roman building projects in Damascus (which were approaching their peak when Paul visited there), Roman walls were often being constructed with a rubble core faced with concrete and tiles. The huge quarried stones of earlier walls were being used only for the foundations.
Hadrian’s Wall is a good example of this style of wall, and has survived well enough to be studied thoroughly. The pictures below are artist’s reconstructions of Hadrian’s Wall.
This rubble-core style of wall-building is described in The Cats of Rekem. Such walls would lend themselves even less easily than ashlar walls to openings/windows, even if windows were considered desirable in defensive walls. Nowhere did I find Roman walls like the early ones pictured in childhood Bible studies, where city walls were made up of the walls of houses haphazardly connected together. So, how could there be an “opening” in the Damascus wall, “through” which Paul might be lowered in a basket? I decided that a collapsed rubble wall might serve the purpose: perhaps poorly made, weakened by earthquake, attack, or collapse of subterranean chamber–any of those would do. The result would be a breach in the wall that might be described as an opening. There you have the basis of Paul’s adventure as I described it in The Cats of Rekem.
I also moved Paul’s escape route to a different part of the wall from the one that Church tradition identifies, in the photo above. I agree with Ross Burns, in his excellent book, Damascus: A History, that a location right over a Roman gate–and in the Jewish quarter, was an unlikely place for a successful escape. You can see that the traditional gate above, Bab Kisan, is #3 on the map of Old Damascus as it is known today (above). That same gate is on the map of Roman Damascus (also above), and located on the south side, near the eastern corner: at the major market thoroughfare and adjoining the Jewish quarter. Paul’s escape in The Cats of Rekem is marked by the words “broken wall,” just north of the gate under construction on the eastern wall.
“The Cats of Rekem is an intriguing and beautifully written consideration of the life of Jesus and the meaning of his teachings, offered from a novel perspective. The writing is poetic and lush, with moments of tender emotion, spiritual ecstasy and sorrow, enlivened by touches of humor . . . 5 stars!”
“The Cats of Rekem is a wonderful addition to historical fiction . . . a fascinating interpretation of Jesus, his life, and how he impacted those around him . . . clever and magical . . . well-balanced with a twist . . . a powerful lesson for today! 4 1/2 stars!”
— Self Publishing Review
“The Cats of Rekem represents spiritual fantasy at its best . . .brimming with flavor . . . the feel of the times springs to life . . . scintillatingly haunting . . . Christian fantasy readers will find it a delightful adventure!”
“Grace dances . . . dance, all of you!”
—The Acts of John
Heresy vs orthodoxy is the stuff that breeds wars, and Church history is full of it. Without getting into a discussion of Church councils and the creation of the Christian canon, I’d like to look at a 2nd C gnostic gospel that was pronounced heretical—and see what it might say to us today.
The Acts of John was condemned by Church fathers as docetic (docetism is the belief that Jesus’ humanity and physical body were an illusion). To modern eyes John can be a peculiar book, full of bizarre notions and unappealing ideas—particularly its contention that the spirit of Christ abandoned the man Jesus to suffer on the cross alone, while the divine essence stood apart, untouched by pain.
But if you can set that notion aside, The Acts of John offers a number of intriguing thoughts. Perhaps most familiar is a lovely passage known as “The Circle Dance of the Cross,” in which, the night before his death, Jesus invites all his disciples to form a circle and dance around him. Those of you who have read Yeshua’s Cat may recognize the last four lines of the quote below as part of Yeshua’s conversation with his mother before he left Nazareth for the last time.
Here is an edited version of the original text:
[Jesus] stood in the circle’s center and said, “Answer ‘Amen’ to everything I say.” Then he began to sing a hymn, saying: “Glory be to you, Father.” And we, moving around him in a ring, answered him: “Amen.” “We praise you, O Father; we give thanks to you, O Light where darkness cannot dwell.” “Amen.” “I would be saved, and I would save.” “Amen.” “I would be freed, and I would free.” “Amen.” “I would be wounded, and I would wound.” “Amen.” “I would be born, and I would give birth.” “Amen.” “I would eat, and I would be eaten.” “Amen.” “I would hear, and I would be heard.” “Amen.” “I would be thought of, being wholly thought.” “Amen.” “I would be washed, and I would wash.” “Amen.” “Grace dances. I would pipe; dance, all of you.” “Amen.” “I would mourn: lament, all of you.” “Amen . . .” “The Whole on high takes part in our dancing.” “Amen.” “Whoever does not dance cannot understand what is coming to pass.” “Amen.” “I would flee, and I would stay.” “Amen.” “I would adorn, and I would be adorned.” “Amen.” “I would be united, and I would unite.” “Amen . . .” “A lamp am I to you who behold me.” “Amen.” “A mirror am I to you who perceive me.” “Amen.” “A door am I to you who knock at me.” “Amen.” “A way am I to you a wanderer . . . “
Christian mystics down through the centuries have used the metaphor of dance to describe the human relationship to God, and I found John’s Circle Dance delightful.
Well, I mused, if The Acts of John can include the Circle Dance, what else might I find? So I examined the book more closely. Another idea present throughout the book is that Jesus appeared in many different guises while he walked the earth. I must admit that John’s list allows for a few more possibilities than the canonical gospels: a child, a young handsome man, a youth just bearding, a middle-aged balding man, a small ugly man, a huge heavenly man, a being of whiteness and light, a man with a soft yielding body, a man whose body was hard as stone, a body firm to the touch, and a body with no physical solidity at all. John describes the significance of these guises with the words, “. . . his great grace, his unity that had many faces . . . “
Those words reminded me of recent critics in the search for the historical Jesus who point out that people of every age have tried to mold Jesus into their own ideal of who he should be—thus hopelessly muddying the waters for anyone trying to discern the true historical person.
But here’s my thought: what if Jesus’ message right from the beginning was intended to be a message for all ages and all people? What if his message always had access points that could lead people along diverse paths to the One through him? What if he included embryonic possibilities in his teaching that could support every positive interpretation ever put on his original message? Everything from human rights, the light within, and justice—to caring for the environment and liberation theology? What if most Christian heresies, while diverging from the mainstream, have a unique glimmer of this truth?
Unfortunately, we as humans too often seize on glimmers of truth as if they were the final and complete word of God rather than single facets. Just so the Church has long been at fault for trying to narrow Jesus’ message to fit their limited understanding, enclosing it within a box made to their order. In the hands of the Church, too often the multifaceted diamond of Jesus’ message has been transformed into a stony concretion in crumbling stone—frozen and trapped beneath masses of accumulated tradition.
“His unity that had many faces . . .” is one insight from The Acts of John that we might wish to heed. What if one of Jesus’ primary goals—long obscured by human ignorance—was to bring healing to the shattered images of the One, fragmented for so long among human cultures? What if he offered freedom, and the brilliant unity of God’s countenance, to all people—and we have warped them instead into shadow and condemnation?