When consciousness tenderly roused me, I found myself immersed in beauty. My sleepy senses had barely begun to absorb the extravagant beauty of my surroundings when, to my bewilderment, I burst into tears.|
There was no denying that experiencing the crucifixion had been emotionally shattering beyond all expectation. It was not some movie. Nor was I a mere observer. I was there, not just physically but intensely involved with what I can only conclude were supernaturally heightened intellect and senses with which to perceive the enormity of what was happening. To have been granted full insight into that cataclysmic event might have killed me. Even if I had been sheltered from the full impact, however, what I experienced was deeper by far than I had ever considered possible.
Imagine the devastation of witnessing the kindest person in the universe brutally humiliated and tortured to death by cold-hearted thugs. Add to this the sickening shock of suffering the tragic death of the love of your life, the darling of your heart, the most precious person in your world. Now compound these by enduring the trauma of the entire cosmos teetering on the brink of annihilation. That’s the best I can do to convey the depth of what had gutted me. I suppose that if anyone is justified in getting emotional, it is someone who has endured this.
I recalled the book of Revelation speaking of God wiping away all tears and yet, to my consternation, here was I blubbering like a baby. I was forced to admit, however, that there seemed to be something peculiarly healing about those tears. Somehow I felt more whole than ever before, as if at last I was reunited with a long-lost part of me. In fact, it was even more dramatic: it was as if a dead part of me had sprung to life. I could hardly have been more surprised or relieved if, having resigned myself to going through life dragging a paralyzed limb, nerve endings had suddenly reconnected and I was restored. I felt a peculiar kinship with the man crippled from birth “walking and jumping, and praising God.”
Nevertheless, not even being alone spared me from acute feelings of shame and embarrassment over what I despised as yet another ridiculously out-of-character outpouring of emotions.
What am I’m coming to? I’ve been in worlds of astounding peace and beauty and in each of them I shed more tears than in my entire previous adult life!
My emotional reaction made me feel as pathetic as a tripod that cannot stand on its own two feet – and made as much sense. Why was this so alarmingly gnawing away at my self-esteem? As I tried to analyze it, I realized that I viewed failing to control my emotions as proving myself a failure as a man. Regardless of whether anyone else knew of my failure, I could never hide that withering truth from myself. My lack of emotional control meant that, outside of suicide, there was no alternative to having to drag myself through life knowing I could never be female but neither was I a real man. If I were neither a ‘she’ nor a real man, I shriveled into an ‘it’ – a thing, not a person. You might think this extreme but, for me, that is what it boiled down to, unless I could scrounge some satisfying rationale for reaching another conclusion about my tears.
When the tears stopped long enough for my eyes to focus, I scanned my surroundings. I was in a place of indescribable magnificence. Were I writing some time B.C. (Before Computers) I would have a full wastepaper bin testifying to my inability to convey the splendor. ‘Garden’ is far too bland a word for what I beheld. In fact, ‘beheld’ is also inadequate. Even ‘experienced’ does not quite cut it. It was as though the warm, delightfully invasive essence of paradisiacal surroundings seeped into me until absorbed into the deepest part of my being.
Words I’ve trashed include ‘a stupendous, otherworldly plant sculpture,’ ‘a celestial floral extravaganza,’ and ‘the quintessence of beauty’. In defeat, I will simply call it an exquisite garden that seemed to stretch forever, and move on before any more straining after nonexistent words fuses my few remaining brain cells. All I will say is that I no longer smile at Kokbiel for being stunned by the beauty of a single flower. If beauty can heal, I must have been surrounded by the most powerful medicine in the universe.
This garden was so spectacularly beautiful and fascinating that it fired to fever pitch my drive to explore it as extensively as possible, thus maximizing what was likely to be a never-to-be-repeated experience.
Despite the uniquely peaceful surroundings, however, my mind was far from peaceful. My frequent blubbering throughout so much of my otherworldly experiences was not just embarrassing but deeply disturbing. Emotionally, I was a fruit loop short of a dog’s breakfast, and ignoring the matter would only prolong the mess. I needed, with God’s help, to think this through until resolved in my mind. My internal deliberations dragged on for a while but proved wonderfully healing and liberating.
I’ve lost sleep arguing with myself over whether including ramblings about my hang-ups would detract from the book. My own tears caused enough problems without boring you to tears as well. My dilemma is that I’m nagged by the possibility that I might not be the only one who could benefit from my mental journey from hang-ups to peace. Can we do a deal? If any of this is of low interest to you, speed forward to more gripping parts of this book. Not only will I not be offended, it will spare me some shame.
My Type A personality goads me to squeeze the maximum out of every second by multitasking wherever possible. This made it inevitable that I would attempt both exploration of the garden and resolution of a psychological dilemma at the same time. The resulting jumble of words in my head would be too confusing for most readers. Being a stickler for honesty, I feel compelled to let you know the balance between accuracy and readability I have settled for. It is not just in panic situations that my thoughts bolt in all directions. The result is such a tangle that to avoid taxing the reader, I feel obligated to provide a more ordered account than my brain was capable of at the time. In my retelling I will flit a little from one matter to another to provide a feel for how I was observing while simultaneously meditating on a weightier topic. Nevertheless, for ease of reading, I have reorganized the rush of thoughts into paragraphs devoted to one topic at a time.
The garden was too huge for me to have any idea of its full dimensions. Not only did I not know where it ended, I even wondered if it ended. It might, for example, have covered an entire planet. If so, had I been able to walk for enough years in any direction, I would end up where I started.
I can only speak for the fraction of the garden that I explored, but the first thing that staggered me – and nothing I saw later changed this observation – was how densely planted everything was. Even individual plants were so dense as to make most earthly plants seem spindly and wasteful of space. I presumed the plants were rooted in soil but this remained mere speculation because nowhere was there any space between plants for a speck of dirt to show. Earth’s gardens now strike me as so sparsely planted as to almost be deserts. As my eyes drank in the scene, the words ‘concentrated beauty’ formed in my mind. Wherever I looked, plants were packed so tightly and each blended with such harmony with all its surrounding plants that it was as though the entire garden were a single organism, just as my body consists of different cells and organs and yet is one organism.
At first I felt hemmed in, with no place to walk. The smooth, low parts seemed too delicate and precious to tread on. They were slightly like extravagantly lush, manicured lawns, but more like elaborately patterned carpets. Patterns that were exquisitely colorful, without being garish, were formed by the arrangement of various species of tiny flowering plants. The designs were not repetitive. Each part was unique, but there was nothing random nor robotic about the patterns. Except for having no rational basis for such a claim, I would almost be tempted to say they were lovingly planned.
I recoiled from walking on these living carpets, lest I trample on a work of art and crush any of the minute flowers that formed them. Disturbingly, however, there seemed no alternative. I squatted to examine a portion more closely and then lightly brushed my hand over it. Though silky, it seemed surprisingly hardy. Emboldened by my initial inspection, I gently pressed down on the flower-studded carpet with my hand. The moment I released the pressure the plants sprang back. Gaining confidence, I slowly slipped to my knees to examine the plants still more closely, and found them beautifully soft to kneel on.
In the end, having nowhere else to go, I somewhat guiltily took a tentative step on this immaculate masterpiece. It was delightfully spongy. I looked behind and, to my relief, I had left not even the faintest footprint. I marveled at the resilience of flowers that I would have expected to be delicate. For the first time ever, earth’s best carpets seemed grotesquely artificial, like a plastic engagement ring, or trying to pass off a cement slab as a mattress.
I was acutely aware that Jesus had cried. As a kid struggling with memory verses and wanting an easy way out, I knew full well that the shortest verse in the Bible is “Jesus wept.” Since my Bible was taking it easy in a some distant corner of the universe, I was desperate for every memory verse that had managed to stick, no matter how short. I might once have prided myself in my Bible knowledge. Now I was wishing I had invested much more time in Bible reading.
Anyhow, since my teens, I had never managed to reconcile Jesus’ tears with my belief that he is the perfect man. I guess if I were to ruthlessly rip through all my attempts to suppress it, the unsettling truth is that I have always worried that Jesus was a bit effeminate. Until I found myself blubbering in this garden, I do not think I had ever dared admit this to myself. Cringing at this near-blasphemous admission, I frantically clawed for anything that might reassure me of Jesus’ masculinity.
Jesus certainly managed to inspire real men, I told myself lamely. I imagined Peter and the other weather-beaten fishermen with bulging muscles and calloused hands as they braved storms, rowed against contrary winds and hauled in nets. Hey! Peter wept after denying Jesus! This was the first time I had ever linked Peter’s tears with his physical strength. In a frantic search for tough men among Jesus’ followers, I zeroed in on the “Sons of Thunder.” I felt assured of their masculinity, then questioned why I should associate being a hothead with manhood. Isn’t anger an emotion? Isn’t it hypocritical for men who can’t control their anger to pride themselves in controlling their emotions just because they don’t cry? Such pride suddenly seemed embarrassingly ludicrous.
Thinking of hypocrisy triggered the thought of Jesus repeatedly blasting pharisaical hypocrisy and courageously standing up to religious heavyweights. They had severe authority back then. They were, after all, the ones behind Jesus’ execution. I recalled them on the brink of stoning the woman caught in adultery, and actually completing the act with Stephen. I thought of Jews flaying the apostle Paul’s back. Then I pictured Jesus riling the authorities by single-handedly hauling the moneychangers out of the temple. Not only was he contending with several men whose livelihoods were at stake, he was violating an officially-sanctioned practice and creating a near riot in what Jews revered as the most sacred place in the world. The temple was sure to have been protected by zealous armed guards who would have no qualms about shedding blood to maintain the sanctity of this holy place.
Whereas individual flowers forming the walkways were minuscule, flowers elsewhere ranged up to twelve or more inches across. In fact, I was later to find species with flowers several feet across, with each flower having intricate colorings and structure.
The entire atmosphere seemed to raise the word ‘tranquility’ to heights I had never before conceived. I breathed deeply, savoring the scents greeting my strangely awakened senses. Despite knowing nothing about aromatherapy besides the name, I have always been – I will put it mildly – dubious about it. Nevertheless, if there could be any possible remedial value in scents, I felt that this was the place for it.
Delicate birdcalls graced the air. Their song was not only spectacular; I don’t think I have ever heard anything so gentle and calming. Their music seemed empowered to drift cares away, as if, after staggering under a hundred pound load of wood, I had slipped into a refreshing stream that floated the burden off my back.
As the sights, scents and sounds of this wondrous place permeated my being, they seemed to have a much-needed healing effect, after the horror of what I had witnessed at the crucifixion.
That reference to flint brought Jeremiah to mind. At this prophet’s very calling, God declared he had made this man “a fortified city, an iron pillar and a bronze wall.” And yet Jeremiah ended up shedding so many tears that he is known as “the weeping prophet.” A hard-as-iron, weeping man? Never before had I laid next to each other such ridiculously incompatible facets of a man of God. I found the thought as head spinning as a lion and lamb lying together. At this, my mind tore to Jesus being called the Lion and the Lamb. Could anyone be hard and soft at the same time? Is this what it means to be fully human – even gloriously human? Is deadening one’s emotions akin to deadening part of one’s brain?
With these confusing thoughts utterly unresolved, my mind fled to King David. If ever there were a man’s man, it was this giant-killer. I recalled the biblical record of David and his men crying until they had no strength left to cry. Admittedly, his home had been burnt to the ground and he not only lost everything he owned, but a huge, ruthless army had abducted his own wives and children – along with his best friends’ loved ones – presumably to rape and enslave them all. Then he found his once-loyal men so embittered by the loss that they were plotting to murder him. Just when we might be ready to write him off as a crying shame, however, David stuns us all by strengthening himself in God, and chasing down the army in an endurance feat so incredible that many of his battle-hardened men were quite unable to keep up with him. Then, when he is not only ridiculously outnumbered but should have been too exhausted to move, he utterly defeats and plunders the foreign army.
My mind leapt to that angelic lecturer calling it cowardly to try to bury emotionally charged issues. Was that relevant? Had I, for all those years, been cowering in fear of my emotions, as if scared of my own shadow? Had what I arrogantly regarded as being manly, actually been cowardly, and had I robbed myself in the process? For me, such thoughts were almost as shocking as heresy.
Before long, I discovered other plants with flowers glowing various colors. Gazing upon them felt strangely comforting.
Everything was spectacular, and yet there was almost a reverent subtlety about the colors. Nothing was even slightly somber, but the entire realm seemed to emit an aura of hushed serenity, rather than jubilant celebration. It seemed a place for quiet reflection. The farther I walked, however, the more the mood of the place seemed to brighten, like the dawning of a new day. As some of earth’s plants have shiny leaves, some of the flowers here had shiny petals. Of course, this intrigued me at first. Nevertheless, I grew so used to it that it was quite some time before I realized that, along with brighter colors, the proportion of shiny flowers was ever-so-gradually increasing as I followed the path.
I might have been alone, but loneliness was worlds away. In fact, though I squirm to admit it, and can provide no explanation for it, I felt cherished. Feelings are feelings. They do not have to be the slightest rational. So I will confess that I could not have felt more pampered and special if each leaf were in love with me and each flower were smiling at me, beaming with delight just to see me, and greeting me as if I were royalty.
In places, the walkways felt less like paths than spacious hallways walled by towering, flowering, hedge-like plants that glowed beautifully. Some even twinkled. Sometimes there were flowering canopies over the walkway.
As I meandered along the path, drawn first to one side and then to some new attraction on the other, I found myself puzzling over what it means to be a man. Things have blurred in a technologically advanced society in which physical strength means less than it ever did and where women seem to act more like men than ever before. I wondered if dividing manhood into its basic components might help. A man is a mature male human. To be mature is to be smarter and wiser than children. To be human is to be more intelligent than animals. Hey! A significant part of being a man is intellect! If my thinking ability separates me from animals and children, what could possibly be manly about refusing to think about unpleasant things? If a real man is not a coward, wouldn’t it be more manly to face one’s past and resolve the pain and other issues by thinking about them, rather than fleeing them?
As I let the path woo me farther, I began to hear water. I rounded a bend and stared in astonishment. What had captivated my senses was too delicate and intricate to be called a waterfall, but despite its unique features it somehow looked natural, rather than the work of human hands. The term water feature reeks too much of artificiality to seem appropriate. It trickled, dripped and dribbled in a manner that sounded almost musical. Its smooth, predominately black rocks were marble. They glistened almost playfully as the water moved over them. As I gazed enthralled, the combined effect of sight and sound seemed both to massage and mesmerize my senses to the point where I almost felt as if gravity had slipped away and I were floating weightless. I even ceased blubbering.
Facing this aquatic marvel was a flower-laden bush that looked so much as if it had been sculptured into a garden bench that I could not resist trying to sit in it. I expected it to be a little prickly, as bushes usually are, and I was anxious not to break it in any way. As I gingerly lowered myself into it, the surprisingly strong, yet sumptuously soft and springy plant somehow wrapped itself around me as if it were cuddling me. I doubt that there could be a seat anywhere in the universe that feels more luxurious.
As I sank deep into the seat, my mind slipped back to my previous sobbing. As you know by now, I cannot let things go for long. They keep coming back to haunt me. At the mere reminder of having cried, shame swamped me and I caught myself trying to fling the memory aside.
The irony is that I had been feeling a little smug over having progressed in my understanding of masculinity and emotion. As I pondered the contradiction, I concluded that my lingering shame over tears was a little like my fear of handling snakes. I have spent most of my life in a region renowned for several species of the world’s most deadly snakes. When given the opportunity to hold a snake that I was certain is non-venomous, however, my heart thumped. I accepted the challenge; stubbornly refused to cave in to my irrational fear of a harmless snake. I told myself that I should likewise refuse to be dominated by an irrational feeling that tears imply weakness.
I was just beginning to congratulate myself over my ability to analyze such things when a realization punched me in the stomach. I’ve done it again! I reeled in amazement that yet again I had resorted to my timeworn way of coping. Am I so addicted to avoiding unpleasant memories that I am seldom even conscious that I am doing it? Rather than face all the unpleasantness and come to terms with my glimpse of the crucifixion, I had plunged into an intellectual examination of emotions and masculinity. It was as if I had subconsciously hoped – and it had almost worked – that by these mental gymnastics I would fool myself into not realizing I was running from emotional and personal issues.
It seems that I, who had prided myself in not using drugs or drink, am as much into escapism as anyone who resorts to substance abuse.
I resumed walking and thinking about my emotional hang-ups while simultaneously trying to take in all the sights, wonders and fragrances. Suddenly, jewels seized my attention. I strolled over to investigate. To my astonishment, one moved. Upon examination they turned out to be beetle-like creatures. After marveling at them for a while I forced myself to move on because there was so much more to explore.
No matter how much I longed to erase the memory of that ghastly crucifixion, I did not have to be Einstein to know that God had obviously given me the experience for a purpose and that suppressing the memory would render that divine revelation a waste.
My mind leapfrogged from one life experience to another that I preferred to forget. There was no way I could conclude that the experiences I did not want to think about were from God. They had the fingerprints of evil smudged all over them. Was it acceptable to keep pushing the memories away and leave them unresolved, or would I somehow be wasting an invaluable learning opportunity by suppressing them? But what was there to learn? Did God use punishment to ‘teach people a lesson’? That was not applicable to my four-year-old brother dying, nor to my other unpleasant memories.
Like a wheel in a game show, my mind whirled until finally stopping at the beginning of 2 Corinthians where God is called “the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble by the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted of God.” This makes our ability to minister to others dependent upon us receiving God’s comfort.
I keep expecting God to meet all my needs without me articulating them, despite this being at odds with Jesus’ teaching. He kept pleading with us to ask in order to receive. The wheel whizzed again in my mind, this time landing on all the times Jesus asked sick people what they wanted before he healed them. If God will not heal until we admit our need for healing, could living in denial of inner pain keep God from comforting us? And could this, in turn, prevent us from being empowered to help other people in the way implied in 2 Corinthians? What, then, are the full implications of trying to act macho by refusing to admit even to ourselves – let alone to God – the extent of our inner pain? Could it not only keep us messed up and cause other people to miss out, but keep us from our life’s mission?
My mind spun to the Epistle of James, where it links healing and effective prayer to confessing our sins to each other. In contrast, I tend to be too big a coward even to confess privately to myself and God, weaknesses that are not even sins. My thoughts blurred, ending up first at Jesus saying that what has been whispered in secret shall be shouted from the housetops, and then moving on to the Scripture that affirms that all things are naked and exposed before the One to whom we must give account. Just as it is infinitely better to repent this side of Judgment Day, wouldn’t it be better to get shameful secrets over and done with by being open about everything now?
Since God is a God of truth, he must surely want us to live in truth, not in denial. My mind kept turning until coming to rest on further confirmation in the form of Jesus’ statement that God must be worshipped in spirit and in truth.
The next prize my mind landed on was the famous Scripture, about God weaving all things together for good in the lives of those who love him. That took my dizzy thoughts to Joseph in the Old Testament telling his brothers something like, “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.” There is no way that the Holy One could have approved of the evil in these brothers’ hearts. If the good Lord is so astonishingly undefeatable as to bring good out of such evil schemes, he can surely bring good out of evil things I have suffered that I would rather forget. Could I, by suppressing unpleasant memories, miss at least some of the good that God would otherwise have brought out of a regrettable event?
That thought opened so many possibilities as to keep me intellectually entertained for weeks, but then I realized what was happening. I’m doing it again! Is there no limit to how far I’ll go to side-step unpleasant memories?
So I quickly prayed, then dragged my reluctant mind by the scruff of its neck back to the memory of the crucifixion. There could hardly be anything more traumatic than witnessing one’s loved one being tortured to death. And yet I sensed that not even that could fully account for the violent intensity of my emotional reaction to what I had witnessed.
I felt a haunting echo of myself as a little child trudging my way to the torturer (he called himself a dentist but don’t let that fool you). With almost equal reluctance, I dredged up memories from the murk where I had hoped they would remain. I played back in my mind the angels recoiling at the sight of their beloved Lord on the cross. Their reactions had been so explosive as to somehow send shockwaves through my entire being. The sickening blow to my senses made me feel there was something appallingly wrong and of mind-withering significance for the Holy Creator of the cosmos to be naked on a cross, pinned out like a bug specimen on public display to titillate curious spectators. The feeling was so strong that it was as if truth had been speared into me, entering my heart without passing through my mind. It seemed I knew mysteries that even now continued to elude my intellectual understanding.
My thoughts fled to that heavenly being’s blood-curdling shriek, “This is no ordinary man!” There was something about the eerie, stomach-churning sensation that tore through me as he had expelled those words. It felt as if that statement is of terrifying significance. Hoping that God would guide my thoughts, I determined to explore the implications of those words.
As it says in Colossians, the Son of God is the one by whom and for whom, all things were created. Truly, I had witnessed the total humiliation and attempted destruction of the most significant person in the entire cosmos.
On that cross was not only the greatest being in the entire cosmos, I had witnessed the ultimate violation of Innocence. No one in the universe has been more violated, and no human has had such innocence. If moral purity were portrayed by whiteness, the best of us are dirty shades of gray, and Christ’s purity is so blindingly white as to burn our eyes out. The moral gap between the lowest criminal and the greatest saint, or the most defiled rapist and the chastest virgin, is nothing compared with the gulf between any of us and the Sinless One. Trace anyone’s family tree back far enough and there will be a conception based on rape, adultery, or lust. So there is a real sense in which all of us owe our very existence to sin. But the Man in torment on the cross was eternally pure. A newborn human will grow up to sin, but this Man was utterly different.
No wonder witnessing Jesus’ death and burial had such a devastating effect on me. As much as I despised those awful feelings, they had dragged me kicking and screaming to an understanding I had sorely needed, even though I still believe my intellectual grasp of the full ramifications of this stupendous event is, at best, fragmentary and superficial.
I felt a kinship with the two disciples walking to Emmaus whose hearts were fired up by the risen Lord opening the Scriptures to them. It was as if Scriptures that for years had been lying idle in my mind had at last been activated and transformed into vital pieces of a fascinating, life-enriching jigsaw. At times I had become a little stuck but often it had been so effortless that rather than me trying to fit the pieces, it was more like seeing the jigsaw assemble itself.
As I felt refreshed, I thought of the First Psalm promising that those who meditate day and night upon the Word of God end up like trees in Israel’s low rainfall flourishing because their roots extend into a dependable source of water. I marveled at how, instead of tiring me, my concentrated thinking about spiritual matters was invigorating and inspiring me as much as all the spectacular physical beauty surrounding me. My hope is that sharing it with you also benefits you.
Sitting in that seat was so special that I felt like indulging myself in it for hours, but there were too many other wonders to explore in this fascinating garden.