Recently on a trip to Wales, chasing my ancestors, I encountered something unexpected on top of a medieval castle.
Hoary markers of human existence stand tall and motionless, reminding me the flow of human culture is endless. We move on littering our empty shells on history’s landscape as evidence “we were here.” Reflecting on such relics, I stand immobile, pondering the history dramatically before me. Great men and women who crafted the course of western civilization have imprinted my thinking, causing me to wonder about the transient trajectory of my own life. Quiet pillars of time teach me I am not the center of the universe, not an apotheosis, only a pause in infinity, a chance to experience what having breath is like. Is there a better gift? Existence is the unwrapping.
Museums, monuments, ancient castles, headstones, old photographs, written histories, chronicling and remembering, we have a love affair with the past. We possess a genetic need to continue, to feel life’s never-ending pulse and to learn from it.
My thoughts were communal—them, myself, us. Then and now, where we have come from and speculating where our future leads us, I was riveted. I felt connected to ancient history yet dwarfed by the enormity of societal-cultural evolution. Kings and queens, knights in shining armor, torture chambers, draw bridges and moats, a time of acute austerity, brutality, and war. I was swarmed with questions about their existence. What was ordinary life like? I could not imagine their hardships, their common fears, daily struggles, everyday joys. How were their lives guided by religion and politics? Was quotidian dreariness a reality?
I reflected on my good life, my own battles, accomplishments, failures, cheers, and regrets, energized and freed by a technology heretofore unimagined by my predecessors, my life a Xanadu in comparison. The stillness of the moment standing before ruins of a vanished era filled me with awe, a solemnity and veneration, and a lament for the little time I have left. My mortality annoyed me.
Life is the victim of time's cruel work, the indiscernible decay of thick stone walls, incessant sluggish demise, its demonstrable erosion of man's best efforts, crushing our delusions of ego and might. My protestations against mortality are muted by the tacit testimony of primitive life. I am brought to the denouement of my existence on my knees, like a guilty prisoner facing execution, no escape from the veracity that glared at me. I felt small, irrelevant, and silenced by history's mockery of my impermanence, underscoring I am helplessly consumed and forgotten by time. In the end, I am dust, or so it seems. I exist for a moment in time’s interminable stream, believing I am connected with the past while wondering if there is an afterlife future.
I climbed to the top of the tallest tower of Pembroke castle overlooking Pembroke River that flowed just outside its walls into a verdant valley, a shimmering Shire, and inhaled in its unaffected beauty. I thought of my traveling companions down below caught up in their own ruminations. I was alone as I absorbed the valley's intense greens, chartreuse, rich yellows and dazzling blues, a Van Gogh masterpiece. A breeze toussled my skimpy hair and rearranged billowy white clouds; I breathed deeply luxuriant spring fragrances. Would I ever witness this glorious view again?
The rocks of ancient walls made me think of the rocks and stones Jesus addressed in Luke 19:40 and of the possibility those rocks and stones which Jesus referred to are still along the descending path from the Mount of Olives into Jerusalem. Some earthly things reflect eternity. The rocks of the castle walls cried out to me. They prompted me to reevaluate my gift of existence, to review the use of my limited time in life’s transient and ageless flow. While mulling these thoughts, a gentle consciousness descended on me. I was not alone. My mind heard, “I will not leave you abandoned (orphaned), I will come to you,” (John 14:18).
A Presence found insignificant me on that tall tower.
Serendipity confronted me, unlike the “road to Damascus,” far less dramatic, minus the resplendent life-changing miracle, more subtle, tweaking, like a quiet undertone, remarkable and no less real.
The Incarnation, God in my likeness, the Hound of Heaven pursuing me across the United States, over the Atlantic Ocean, through London and Liverpool, over to Dublin, and finally down to south of Wales, catching up with me at the top of ancient ruins to gently nudge me He’s nearby, even at my side. Captivated, I froze. I did not venture on this journey anticipating a numinous moment, certainly not while sightseeing. I came to Wales to find the soul of my lineage, clues of my evolution, but perhaps unknowingly desiring to connect with something more illuminating. The extraordinary moment on the castle turret recalled what I read years ago in Rudolf Otto’s The Idea of the Holy, encountering the numinous, a cryptic unexpected run-in with the supernatural.
“I will come to you,” even here on top of a centuries old stony rampart? Why now? Why me? I thought how many times has He possibly come to me, but I was too distracted, too self-absorbed, too thick-headed to notice, too befuddled with faith issues, skeptical and cynical, lost in the dark wilderness of belief to sense perchance I was not unaccompanied in this world.
I clung to the Presence, trying to absorb its uncanny arrival. As the breeze quietly sneaked away, I waited intently to see if more transcendence was imminent. I wanted more. An enchanting experience with antiquity set the stage for me to consider something beyond castle walls. I looked around again to see if anyone else was present; I saw no one, but I had company.
Life is meaningless when you feel abandoned (orphaned). Existentialists claim existence is absurd, and being is angst. For them, I am ultimately alone. My tower-top experience challenged that notion. What if I indeed walk in company with Another? The visit fell out of the sky. Thinkers scoff at such things, and I understand their skepticism. A delusion or not, all I know is I could not dismiss the unexpected advent anymore than I could dismiss the splendor of the valley below.
Mild depression dogs me. At times, I feel alone and hopeless. Gloomy darkness clouds my smile, nagging heaviness weighs me down for no particular reason or feeling alone among intimates is not uncommon. Such experiences feed my angst. Perhaps the Lord wanted me to know I am not orphaned nor forsaken. Fundamental to having abundant life is belonging. I am His. Nothing spectacular, no clash of thunder, no earthquake or falling stars or soaring meteors, just an unanticipated gentle prod of divine assurance.
Thoughts surfaced. Jesus did not arrive as conquering emperor or triumphant general but as a dirt-poor vulnerable baby. He did nothing to defeat Rome. Instead, He lived homeless, without even a pillow, and died a helpless victim of injustice, an outlaw. He did not incarnate into something unlike us but as one us, from the weakest to the vilest outcast. He lived as a wanderer, a refugee from another dimension, unarmed against a society bent on evil, a world fractured with hate and cruelty. He did not conquer, He participated.
The parapet visitation lifted the veil, a portal to new understanding. God comes to us powerless. Like a manger Infant, He approaches us weak and vulnerable—no clash of thunder, nothing earth shattering, no cyclonic winds, just “a still small voice” whispering in our ears. This seems to be His style. He comes to us as He came to Judea—without splendor or majesty, fire or lightning. He arrived quietly a helpless baby in a filthy stall—His response to evil.
Through Incarnation, He is the downtrodden, the raped woman, the destitute refugee, and the orphaned child of war. He chooses not to eradicate suffering but to embrace it. His supernatural manifestation for our time is weakness. God’s gently tapping me on the shoulder, hinting that He is not what I had hoped for but that He is not dead either. Operating outside my rational constructs of misguided hopes, I live in a dispensation reflecting Jesus’ earthly life, from manger to the Cross.
I grew up hearing stories of God and Jesus exercising the miraculous. Parting seas, confusing armies, giving sight to the blind, raising the dead, even walking on water were among the marvels committed in the presence of ancients. Being raised a fundamentalist, we expected the same. Over the decades I observed something markedly different. God abandoned the Big Tent demonstrations and opted for the quiet castle tower approach to the affairs of men and women.
Pembroke Castle reminded me “He is alive” though His glory is veiled in power unavailable. Life has taught me there is no miraculous opposition to wickedness. Asking why God allows suffering is pointless. He elects to confront evil through humanity and takes a risk in doing so. We often fail. Nevertheless, humanity is His terrestrial solution to suffering and villainy, not celestial fireworks. Whoever I help in my community of influence is a recipient of His incarnate grace.
Incarnation is scandalous. The ills of this shattered world are mine to remedy; my compassion seeking to end suffering is His compassion. The past’s real significance is people, more than castles or wars. What I do with them is linked to what the Gospels said He did with them. He leaves me the implementation. When my brother died, He came to me as family and friends. He lives through us. Every act of kindness, generosity, or courtesy is divine presence. The Resurrection promises something better down the road, but for now, we participate in goodness, His kingdom.
A powerful God, Jesus was not, just the opposite, a weak God, a suffering God, a lowly God, a human God. I have had to re-examine my faith. Old biblical tapes no longer suffice. Pesky contradictions of a compassionate God allowing eons of brutality and appalling cruelty compelled me to revisit a hackneyed Christian narrative. God's weakness prevents Him from directly intervening in the world. Perhaps in the past and hopefully in the future, but now errant humanity is the “miracle” addressing the ills of the human race. God does not, will not, interfere in the machinations or choreographies of mortals, not openly. He refuses to stop wars, prevent floods, earthquakes or hurricanes, or ravages of fire. Whether unhinged Nature or human depravity, He does not enter His creation as a conquering king or benevolent Svengali. He bows to humanity to fix things. In our post-modern world, Almighty God hides in powerlessness, you and I His majesty.
My Pembroke tower visit reconciled my view of God. Clearly, I no longer expect heavenly wonders or divine meddling. Parting seas or quieting tempests appear more like ancient tribal folklore. God has simply abandoned such displays. I hang on the Cross with Him, facing virulent evil and doubting deliverance. Meantime, I am not alone as I embody His love in my community.
What He does in the future is none of my concern. I do myself a disservice trying to figure what He is up to regarding His return. Humankind has never controlled the future. We wield our prophecy in attempts to do so, but often foolishly. His belated coming is His business; I am to concentrate incarnating His love to a world starving for lack of it. Perhaps a feeble response to a disheveled violent planet, but so was the manger Baby. I have my own “practical theodicy,” as Richard Rice calls it, my own personal process theology, but I can live with it. All theodicies are spin attempting to explain the incongruous notion of a loving God who observes millennia of unspeakable suffering.
My “castle moment” is another view. Immanuel.
Greg Prout is father of three, grandfather of three, and has been happily married for 34 years to Mary Ventresca.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
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