“These moments were not empty suffering”

Any person who believes in God has to confront the problem of human suffering. Why does God permit it?

“Lord, does suffering have any purpose or meaning?”

Of course, suffering is what makes life serious. Imagine a world in which actions never resulted in suffering. Imagine a world without the pain of regret, without feeling bad about doing something wrong (or) shameful.

“But disease serves no moral purpose.”

Now you are fencing with Me on “the problem of pain.” Just listen. You will never learn from fencing.

Disease, disaster, aging, death are essential aspects of suffering. “We” live in a physically vulnerable world. That is the essential condition that makes life serious.

“All that’s rather abstract, Lord. What exactly does disease do for us?” I thought of Job’s boils.

Suffering is the test of your humanity. There is no greater test than pain—how one copes with it. It is easy to be nice, faithful, and such, when things are great, but very hard under adversity.

“But, Lord, that just seems perverse—or cruel.”

No, that’s not so. Think about your own times of physical suffering—in the hospital, for example—the shots, the clumsy aide, the itch, the nurse about urinating, those were full of growth.

Those examples brought back memories. A couple of years before these prayers began, I suffered a mild heart attack and was rushed to the intensive care unit. They took blood tests, day and night. There are a limited number of places from which blood can be drawn, and the same spot cannot be used again right away. The wrists are ideal, but mine are sensitive and a needle there smarts. One does not have much power as a patient, but safeguarding my wrists became my prime imperative. One after another blood drawer would come, and I would plead, argue, wheedle, and insist they find some other place to puncture me. Each resisted, then managed to find a spot.

I was transferred to another hospital for the surgical procedure. I was met by a technician who said his name and stuck out his hand—while looking the other way and standing on my oxygen tube. When it was time to go into the operating room, he snatched away my blanket with so violent a jerk it would have ripped out the intravenous insertion if I had not by now been on high alert.

Once in the operating room, I was placed on a slab with my arms flat at my side. Medical equipment loomed above, posing an impressive threat. “Don’t move!” I was told. My nose chose that moment to itch. The itch grew intense, then more intense, dreadfully intense, until nothing existed but me and that itch. Then I understood. I can’t fight it. I just have to live with it, until the procedure is over. I don’t know if the itch went away or what—I forgot all about it.

The procedure went smoothly. I watched the monitor as the surgeon snaked a catheter through an incision in my groin up to a major coronary artery where a stent had to be placed.

Opening an artery is a very serious matter. Bleeding can be life-threatening. The patient has to lie flat and immobile for twenty-four hours. Nurses at my first hospital had been angels in white, but here I was attended by Nurse Ratched’s less charming twin. She seemed to resent patients needing her help. Finding it difficult to manage the bedpan flat on my back, I asked for assistance. She acted as if it were a dirty-minded request and responded by threatening me, “If you can’t manage the bedpan, we will catheterize you!” Finally, I did manage, and it was time to close up the artery. Another patient had told me the closing could be dangerous as well as painful.

“Who is to perform this delicate operation?”

Nurse Ratched gave me the grim news: young Mr. Sizzorhands, the technician whose previous efforts to hurt me had been foiled, would now have another shot. I asked for someone else. “He is the only technician available.”

“I am not going to let that guy lay another hand on me.”

She made it a battle of wills. We went back and forth. Finally I said, “Let me speak to the doctor.”

She said she would see what she could do and, after a time, she returned with a young Asian-American attendant. He had magical hands. I didn’t feel a thing.

My body was recovering nicely, but the whole experience—starting with “indigestion” in the night (I didn’t know that was a heart symptom), calling the office the next morning to find out what nearby doctor was covered by my health plan, driving myself (fool that I was) to the doctor’s office, filling out forms and waiting for some time before going up and telling the receptionist, “I may be having a heart attack,” the quick examination and discovery that I was at that very moment in the throes of an incipient attack, an emergency medical team rushing to my side trying to head it off, being shoveled into an ambulance, the sirens, intensive care, the surgery, the whole ordeal—left me feeling fragile, as if I were made of spun glass. A sharp tap and I would shatter.

They (these moments) were not empty suffering; they even had to do with leading you to Me.

“How so, Lord?”

They focused your attention on your mortality, which (led) you to open your heart fully to Abigail because you realized how precious this love was. And it led to your prayer to serve God.

“I want you to enter My heart”

It all seemed intolerably bizarre. I thought I should talk it over with the wisest people I knew. One, a distinguished medical ethicist, responded, “First of all, this is not weird.” Nothing he could have said would have been a greater relief to me! Another, a well-known author, said, first, “That’s great—now you know there is a God,” and then added, “You have had a Kierkegaard moment,” recalling that philosopher’s question, “If you encountered Jesus on the streets of Copenhagen, would you follow him?” A prominent lay theologian said he was “touched” by my story and suggested some reading while I waited for my “big” assignment.

While there were also cautionary responses, no one seemed to think I was crazy or a fool to take the voice seriously.

Still, I was not prepared for the next experience.

I want you to enter My heart.

Enter God’s heart? This is weird, Lord, and scary, like out-of-body travel.”

I will protect you.

For moral support I asked, “Lord, first give me Your love.”

Let Abigail love you. You will feel My love through her.

“Then strengthen me, be with me, for this.”

I will.

He took my hand, as it were, and led me into the “heart of God.” I had expected it to be an overpowering, perhaps terrifying experience. But it was more like the eye of a hurricane. I was at the center of something vast and powerful, but here it was quiet, calm, and peaceful. I surveyed the things I feared—the end of my career, loss of reputation, financial insecurity, and a book that went nowhere. In that calm that is God, each concern disappeared.

“With life, spirit comes into play.”

For millions of years, before there was life, there was just God and a barren universe.

“You felt all alone?”

Yes, I wanted more. In retrospect, the inanimate years feel very lonely.  The emergence of life is a delight.  With life, spirit comes into play.  Wonderful to see amoeba, moss, and so forth.  The frogs (and other creatures), each with a soul and personality, each in a sense in tune with God.  I can play with the animals, “walk among them.”  I love their myriad formsI am not alone anymore.

The creatures that began to stir on the earth are amazing, more amazing than anything that had yet occurred in creation.  They move on their own, they have “internal principles of motion” as Aristotle said, have dramatic lives—even the worms and fishes.

There is birth, growth, death, mating, offspring, colonies and flocks, emergent social orders—ideality as well.  There is telos and purpose, success and failure, standards of perfection and imperfection.

And, over time, further developments in the species, a most amazing, creative ramifying of the evolutionary ladder.  New species emerge that could not have been imagined before.  Your paleontology tells the story:  the first horses could easily fit into the palm of a hand, and so forth.  Can you imagine the spectacle?

“Yes, I think I can.”

I have given you some clues . . .

I had received visions of the explosive expansions of time and space, and of divine energy rushing up through all levels of reality. Were these intimations of Creation? I was told,

The work I want you to begin involves reading and writing about My nature. Start with the Creation. I have given you some clues already. Follow up on them.

One day, in quiet reflection, I was taken deep into the Self, taken back, it seemed, to the Beginning. Here is how I described it right afterwards:

“There was a sense of things shattering, like crockery breaking, or like the shell of an egg breaking. (I think of Kabbalah and its image of Creation as divine vessels breaking.) Then there is a river, or milk, flowing out from amidst the shards. The river is clouded in mist and flows a long way down canyons of shards or rocks. Until it settles in a pool below. Tranquil waters. This is when Life begins. Cool, calm but rippling waters.”

 

All this was taking place on a flight to California to visit my ninety-year-old father. Sitting beside me was a nine-year-old girl, traveling alone. She kept looking at me, wondering what I was up to. Ignoring her was unkind, so I stopped praying and chatted with her.

After that, I returned to my own meditations and received a stream of visual images, a vision: the sun cracking up, solar flares that zoomed out into the reaches of space. I then saw, through the mist, an ethereal caravan of camels and their riders, coming up a valley, their long line stretching behind, down a winding road into the distance. I followed the road back to the source. I came upon vast winds, like a monsoon, then a world exploding—and then the vision abruptly stopped. The caravan seemed to represent the long course of human history, traced backward, all the way to the beginning, and then nothing.

I had received hints about the moment of Creation. Then, one day, He told me more. This is where God’s story really begins.

“It’s a mistake to try to control God . . .”

My first impressions of the ancient Egyptians were formed in Sunday School, put to music by gospels such as “Go Down Moses,” and brought to the silver screen by Cecil B. DeMille.  It was not a pretty picture—false gods, harsh rulers, fake magicians, and slave-drivers wielding the lash.  Egypt was on the wrong side of everything.

But now I was told that God was sending divine messages to every culture.  So I had to look at the land of the pharaohs through different eyes, Egyptian eyes.

Written in hieroglyphs that were already old when Sumerian cuneiform was young, the Pyramid texts date back almost five thousand years.  Chiseled into the walls of the dark corridors beneath these monumental tombs, these texts provide the deceased Pharaoh with the keys to a successful afterlife:  how to overcome each obstacle on the way to the divine realm and what words to speak to the guardians who block the way.  One strategy was to enter the cyclical course of the cosmos and accompany the sun god in the barque that transverses the sky each day.  The deceased king went so far, according to one inscription, as to kick the sun god overboard to make room for himself in the divine barque.

The complex mythology of the Egyptians far surpassed the simple piety of preliterate polytheism.  But, however complex, these greedy efforts to compel or trick the divine powers seem spiritually retrograde compared to the sensitive cave paintings and the humble peasant honoring a stream with a pile of stones.

“Isn’t that right, Lord?”

Yes, it is a fundamental mistake of man to try to control God rather than the other way around.  Do not exaggerate it.  It is no different from (no worse than) trying to bribe the king’s mistress or learn the password that goes you through the palace gates, but it is not high spirituality, and in fact is not really a kind of spirituality at all.