Spiritual amphibians


About a year and a half ago, I stood at the graveside of a near relative and tried to provide some inspired words of comfort for the gathered family and friends. At such a moment, short on sleep and feeling quite vulnerable, it pays to look to Divine inspiration rather than one’s own genius (although anyone who has admired the works of William Blake might well argue that the two are indistinguishable: a discussion for another day). Be that as it may, one of those curious things that happen from time to time occurred on this occasion also. As I spoke, groping for words, what seemed an apt image appeared before my consciousness, and without any time to analyze or filter it out, I just let the words come. I hope my readers will not be offended at the result, in which I compare the likes of you and me to, well, frogs.

What I heard myself say was that we as humans are a sort of spiritual amphibian, belonging both to time and to eternity, in more traditional terms to earth and heaven, but because of that, exclusively to neither. It is that image that I’d like to expand upon for a moment or two here. Call it a parable, or an imaginative metaphor. Let’s see where it takes us.

We live in time, and we are destined to live in eternity. We seem to first find ourselves, as it were, underwater, and can survive in that state quite happily for much of our existence. We spend long periods of time submerged, as it were, in the affairs of this life, hardly conscious that just above us is a whole different world, with features unimagined, opportunities inconceivable, one that requires the development, we could say, of a completely different way of existing, faculties that indeed belong to us but that seem, in our underwater existence, a bit irrelevant. At first it seems like there’s no good reason at all to ever leave the familiarity of the pond. But one day our own growth drives us to the moment when we first come up for air.

Everything looks different there, and new stirrings arise within us. We suddenly see our whole existence up to now as cold, dark, and limiting, and we long to leap into this new world, taste the new delicacies we now find we can reach, explore places undreamed of.

But soon another strange thing happens. The warmth of the sunshine becomes a dangerous heat; we find that the water we left behind had some advantages we never noticed before. So we retreat to the comfort and familiarity of the pond again…. and from then on we move back and forth between the worlds.

Old friends and family who have never left the pond view our reports with justified skepticism. They know that the real warmth is deep in the mud beneath us; how then can we talk of sunshine? They worry about us, and develop theories as to the origins of our strange ailment. Our theories are dangerous: wild unproven speculations that there may even be other ponds than ours, creatures both like and unlike ourselves with whom we might one day share both sunshine and mud: crazy talk!

But we discover each other, one by one, and develop theories of our own. Some begin to proclaim that mud itself is evil, and that pond water exists only to be escaped once for all. Those who have never seen the full light of day are pitied and deemed inferior. Some act on these theories and leave the pond; sometimes whole groups of them at once, never to return. In their turn they are mourned and pitied, and their rash actions are made examples of the peril of the upward path.

But others of us learn to love the water and the air, the mud and the sunshine. We come up for air, explore new worlds, return home again and enjoy the comforts there. A rhythm develops. Sometimes, indeed, we too spend longer periods in the upper air, and come back scorched, exhausted, yet exhilarated with the sights and sounds indescribable. Quietly we teach others not to fear to poke their heads above water. One day, perhaps, we’ll leap into the trees, or perhaps sink into deepest mud; but we begin to suspect that all of it is good, and that though we once thought we belonged in neither the world above nor the world below, it is possible to take a different view: we are of the mud, and of the sun, and are at home everywhere.

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