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Chapter 10: The Medicinal Garden
When consciousness caressed my senses I found myself immersed in beauty. I was just beginning to realize the extravagant beauty of my surroundings when, to my bewilderment, I burst into tears. Not even being alone stopped me from feeling ashamed and deeply embarrassed by my emotions.
What is happening to me? How freakish! 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!
I recalled the book of Revelation speaking of God wiping away all tears and yet, incomprehensibly, here was I blubbering like a baby.
Nevertheless, for some inexplicable reason there seemed to be something cleansing 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, after having resigned myself to going through life dragging a paralyzed limb, the 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.”
I presumed my bawling was some sort of reaction to the horror of the crucifixion scene but what confounded me further was that I was not now even consciously focused on those events. I was so perplexed by my tears that as I continued sobbing, the wheels of my mind spun on a different track: trying to figure out why I, or any grown man, would surrender his masculinity to tears.
I was acutely aware that Jesus had cried. As a kid grappling with memory verses and wanting an easy way out, I knew full well that the shortest verse in the Bible is “Jesus wept.” Being repeatedly hurled from one world to who knows where, with my Bible taking it easy in a very different part of universe, made me desperate for every memory verse that had managed to stick, no matter how short. I had done that for years but now I found myself wishing I had invested much more time in Bible reading.
Anyhow, since my teens I had never managed to reconcile Jesus’ tears with my conviction 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 desperately tried to grasp at 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 fishermen with bulging muscles 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 and his physical strength. In my 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 ironical – even hypocritical – for men who can’t control their anger but don’t cry to pride themselves in controlling their emotions? Suddenly, I found that sickening.
Thinking of hypocrisy while still anxious to see Jesus as masculine triggered the thought of Jesus repeatedly blasting pharisaical hypocrisy and courageously standing up to religious authorities. And they had real authority back then. After all, they were 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 the most sacred place in the world to the Jews – a place that was sure to have been protected by zealous armed guards.
Still bucketing tears myself, I kept trying to counter my doubts about Jesus by endeavoring to impress his bravery upon my consciousness. I recalled Jesus – despite knowing the torturous fate awaiting him and knowing that at any moment he could turn back, or call down battalions of supernaturally fierce angels – courageously setting his “face like flint” as he headed for Jerusalem, with his disciples dragging their heels behind him.
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 shed 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 two 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 bolted 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. 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 the loved ones of his best friends – 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. Next, when we might be tempted to think him a crying shame, he stuns us all by strengthening himself in God, and in an endurance feat so incredible that many of his battle-hardened men were quite unable to keep up the pace and gave up, he chased down the army. Then, when he was not only ridiculously outnumbered but should have been too exhausted to move, he utterly defeated and plundered 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.
Didn’t Paul mention tears somewhere? How many references to crying are there in the Bible? Emotionally, how far below the norm has the average Western Christian slipped? I made an urgent mental note to make this a Bible study priority, if ever again I had access to the Bible.
When the tears stopped sufficiently for my eyes to focus, I scanned my surroundings. I was in a place of indescribable magnificence. My full wastepaper bin testifies 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. If beauty can heal, this must have been the most powerful medicine in the universe.
Words in the bin include “living architecture,” “a stupendous, otherworldly plant sculpture,” “a celestial floral extravaganza,” and “the quintessence of beauty.” In utter defeat, I will simply call it an exquisite garden that seemed to stretch forever, and move on before 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.
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 the entire planet, in which case, 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 that I saw, 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 dirt but it had to remain a presumption because nowhere was there any space between plants for a speck of earth 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” came to 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. What I eventually came to regard as walkways seemed too delicate and precious to tread on. They were slightly like extravagantly lush, manicured lawns, but more like colorful, though not garish, elaborately patterned carpets. The exquisite patterns were formed by the arrangement of various species of flowering plants. The designs were not repetitive. Each part was unique, but there was nothing random nor robotic about the patterns. They had been so skillfully done that were I so emotionally charged as to abandon all objectivity, 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 tiny flowers that formed them. But there seemed no alternative. I squatted to examine them more closely, then brushed my hand over them. Though silky, they seemed surprisingly hardy. I pressed down and the moment I released the pressure the plants sprang back. Gaining confidence, I slowly slipped to my knees to examine the plants even more closely, and found them beautifully soft to kneel on. Finally, having nowhere else to go, I somewhat guiltily took a couple of steps on this immaculate masterpiece. It was delightfully spongy to walk on. I looked behind and, to my relief, I was leaving not even the faintest of footprints. I marveled at the resilience of flowers 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.
Once I learned to regard these densely packed beds of miniature flowers as gorgeous silken lawns, rather than no-go zones, the place suddenly felt spacious.
Whereas individual flowers on the walkway were minuscule, flowers elsewhere ranged up to twelve or more inches. In fact, I was later to find species with flowers several feet across, each with 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 dubious about it. And that’s putting it mildly. 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 if it were nothing.
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.
Was this the most beautiful path in the universe? If not, I was at a loss to imagine what could surpass it. I rounded the first bend and stopped dead. One of the plants was glowing. Careful examination confirmed that the leaves were not reflecting light but emitting it. I would love to cite an intelligent reason for being unconcerned, but my embarrassing admission is that I was feeling too cozy to worry over whether the glowing plants were radioactive. 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 place seemed to emit an aura of hushed serenity, rather than jubilant celebration. It seemed a place for quiet reflection. The further 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 but 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 got very blurred in a technologically advanced society in which physical strength means less than it ever did and where women 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 fears and resolve them by thinking about them, rather than fleeing them?
I was lazily watching butterflies float by, when it dawned that, like the butterflies in that special forest, their colors were not only spectacular, they somehow seemed to display their colors more freely than earth’s butterflies. They spent more time gliding than earth’s varieties and seemed tamer but I sensed there was more to it than that. I puzzled over this until my mood suddenly changed to chiding myself for having missed the obvious earlier. In my experience of earth’s moths and butterflies, moths spread out their dull-colored wings upon landing, whereas brightly colored butterflies usually close their wings upon landing. The behavior of each has the effect of maximizing their camouflage. These beauties, however, seemed unconcerned about camouflage and freely allowed observers to enjoy their splendor whenever they landed.
As I let the path woo me further, 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 there was something about it that looked natural. 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.
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, but 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 wonder if there could be a seat anywhere in the universe that feels more luxurious.
As I sank deep into the seat, my mind slid back to when I sobbed upon first being stunned by the beauty of this place. At the mere reminder of having cried, shame swamped me and I caught myself trying to push the memory away. 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. My excuse for the fear is that I have spent most of my life in a region renowned for several species of deadly snakes. When given the opportunity to hold a non-venomous snake, however, my heart thumped despite knowing that the snake was harmless. As I had stubbornly refused to cave in to my irrational fear of a harmless snake, so I should 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 reverted to my preferred method of escapism. Instead of dealing with emotions, 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 had run from the emotional and personal issues.
It seems that I, who had prided myself in not being one to use drugs or drink, was as much into escapism as anyone who resorts to substance abuse.
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 the suppression of the memory would render that divine revelation a waste.
My mind leapfrogged to other life experiences that I had tried hard to forget. There was no way I could say those experiences were from God. They had the fingerprints of evil smudged all over them. Was it acceptable to keep pushing the memories out of my mind and leave them unresolved, or would, like this experience, I somehow be wasting an invaluable learning opportunity by suppressing them? But what was there to learn? I thought of people using punishment to “teach people a lesson,” but that was not applicable to my four-year-old brother dying, nor to my other unpleasant memories.
I recalled 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 with the comfort we ourselves have received from 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. I thought of all the times Jesus asked sick people what they wanted before he healed them. It was apparently important that they confess their need. 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, keep God from using us to help other people? If receiving divine comfort is the key to us ministering to others who are hurt, what 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?
The Epistle of James came to mind, where it links healing and powerful prayer to confessing our sins to each other. In contrast, I tend to be too big a coward to confess in private to myself and God, weaknesses that are not even sins. I thought of Jesus saying that what has been whispered in secret shall be shouted from the housetops and recalled the Scripture that affirms that all things are naked and exposed before the One to whom we must give account. Just as it is better to repent this side of Judgment Day, wouldn’t it be better to get hidden things over and done with by being open about everything now?
I revisited Jesus’ famous statement in which he said he is the Truth, and another occasion when he said the truth shall set us free.
I smirked at the memory of that beast of an angel raving about the “beauty” of lies and pronouncing truth “dull” and “boring.” I had almost ended up enslaved to him as his permanent plaything because of his lies. In my humble opinion, slavery is rather more boring than freedom.
I decided that since God is a God of truth, he must surely want us to live in truth, not in denial. Further confirmation flashed into my mind in the form of Jesus’ statement that God must be worshipped in spirit and in truth.
Another famous Scripture began bobbing on the surface of my consciousness, about God weaving all things together for good in the lives of those who love him. That reminded me of 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 God could have approved of the evil in his brothers’ hearts but if God is so powerful as to be able to bring good out of such evil schemes, God can surely bring good out of evil things I have suffered and would rather forget. Could I, by suppressing unpleasant memories, miss at least some of the good 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 avoid 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 vivid flash 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 the memories of 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 cataclysmic 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 skidded to the angel’s blood-curdling shriek, “This is no ordinary man!” Something about the eerie, stomach-churning sensation that tore through me as he had expelled those words made it feel as if the words were of special significance. So, hoping that God would guide my thoughts, I determined to explore the implications of those words.
I don’t think any of us can truly comprehend the mind-boggling importance and value and eternal potential of just one “ordinary” human. Even so, the Eternal Son is infinitely greater. No matter how dirty and tattered a child’s beloved teddy bear is, for those who deeply love and understand the little child, it would be like a knife in the stomach to see that stuffed toy ripped to shreds. Nevertheless, it would be an incomparably greater tragedy for the child himself to be tortured to death. No matter how excruciatingly tragic the death of a loved one is, it is infinitely more appalling to contemplate the death of the One through whom all things are made and sustained. Any other regrettable death is like the loss of a mediocre reproduction of a masterpiece, compared to the master artist himself being struck down in the prime of his creativity.
I remembered the time I gasped as I read, in the book of Acts, Peter saying, “You killed the author of life.” I thought of the beginning of Hebrews that speaks of the mighty Son of God holding the entire cosmos together by his word. It is in him that “we live and move and have our being.” He is the one who gives life and all things to all. Killing the Origin and Sustaining Power behind all life is as terrifying as accidentally detonating a chain reaction that could implode the entire universe.
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 of the most exalted person in the entire cosmos.
A melodious warble broke my concentration. I had grown so accustomed to the ever-changing symphony of birds that it had slipped in my consciousness to soothing background music as I pondered eternal mysteries. This particular feathered musician was only a couple of feet away but by now I was used to their enduring fearlessness. As satin is shiny, and cotton, no matter how brightly colored, is dull, most of the birds in this paradise had shiny feathers. This sheen made even plainly colored birds look regal, transforming a dull gray, for example, into a gorgeous silver. The bird whose musical interlude had interrupted my thoughts was almost seductively beautiful. I felt so enticed that I reached out to it, even though I expected it to fly off. To my surprise, it let me stroke its soft, slippery feathers. It yielded to my touch as if enjoying the caress and its song changed to what seemed like contented cooing.
As fascinating as this was, I was even more drawn to those haunting words: “This is no ordinary man!” As my thoughts returned like a homing pigeon to the incarnation of the One through whom all beauty exists, I remembered being told as a child that the Son of God becoming human is like us becoming an ant. Not even that, however, adequately embraces the enormity of the gulf between the Creator and the created. In comparison, the difference between an amoeba and a mighty, sinless angel who has lived in splendor for eons is nothing. Our Lord is not merely a different and vastly superior species; he had no beginning. He is not just from a different world; he made every world. He has no limitation. Whereas he is dependent upon nothing, we are dependent not only upon the God who holds our very atoms together but utterly dependent upon food, water, oxygen, light, a narrow temperature range, and so on. We cannot even keep sane for long in solitary confinement. We live for a few years: he is Life. We sometimes manage to discover a fragment of truth; he is Truth.
And on that cross I had seen the ultimate violation of Innocence. No one in the universe has been more violated, and no human has had such innocence. Morally, we are shades of gray, whereas his purity is so blindingly brilliant 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 most chaste 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 the Man on the cross remained pure.
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 laying idle in my mind had at last been activated and transformed into vital pieces of a fascinating, life-enriching jigsaw. At times I got 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 will be like trees in Israel’s low rainfall flourishing because they are planted by a permanent source of water.
I marveled at how, instead of tiring me, my concentrated thinking about spiritual matters had invigorated and inspired me as much as all the spectacular physical beauty surrounding me. My hope is that sharing it with you has the same effect on you.
Sitting in that seat was so special that I felt like savoring it for hours, but there were too many other wonders to explore in this fascinating garden.
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