My son and I are paddling canoes from one side to the other of the bay. The water here is dark blue, of the kind you get when you can’t see the bottom. We are paddling over the sunken city of Jerusalem. It is true. There used to be a city here, in this bay, when it was dry land, but then the waters came into the bay and the houses were covered over. As we approach the rocks on the other side, I spot a goat. It is standing on the rocks, but it is so well camouflaged that you almost can’t see it. I ask my son if he can see anything on the rocks, and he says no. I tell him to look a little closer, but for now all he can make out is the vast expanse of blue and grey, the mottled colour of the rock hiding any further detail. I exclaim that there is a goat there, and then I think about spiritual sight, how we think we see things, without realizing that there is another level, but to reach this level, to have our eyes opened to what is in front of us, involves realizing our need, not believing ourselves to be self-sufficient, but rather understanding that we have a sinful nature, we are prone to greed, lust and anger, and this is not the way things are meant to be, but we must turn to Christ, who will help us, we must confess our sins to a priest so that we can overcome them and, above all, we must receive the body and blood of Christ in communion. This cleanses our bodies and souls, and makes us whole again. It is quite simple.
It is then I notice that next to the goat is another goat. The first goat is grey, the second goat is brown, but they are both well camouflaged against the rock and they are still, watching us. We have to wait, let the canoes glide for a moment, soak up the blue of the sea, the open-top sky, the whisper of the vegetation, the hardness of the rock. Rocks are like stones, only bigger. We have seen faces on them, other figures. Behind us are two rocks that seem to meet in a kiss outside time, their lips pressed together, the shape of the rocks forming a heart. Is this possible? I don’t know. I just observe.
But now there is another goat behind the other two, a black one this time that emerges from the stage set and springs to life, like a saint in an icon, suddenly real. I laugh out loud and say that there are three of them when I had only seen one. We soon realize that there is a small flock, five or six perhaps, clambering over the rocks, watching us through the slits of their eyes.
Where before there had been a uniform surface of rock was life, the presence of several animals. This seemed to me a good metaphor for sight. We do not all see the same things at the same time. There are degrees of sight. And when it comes to spiritual sight, perceiving what is under the surface of time, what is the purpose of our life, what we are doing on a planet spinning in space, a question that always concerned me (and it amazed me that it didn’t seem to concern everybody else), we need to grow spiritually, we need to have our eyes opened, and for this we need help. The person who will help us is Jesus Christ, and for this we need to turn to him. But first we need to realize our dependence.
I tried all sorts of ways to fill the hole that is human life. How to turn hole into whole? The answer, of course, is love, love provides the missing consonant. Love opens our eyes, it takes the ego, which in English is the vowel I, and opens it, O. We count down. My son said in a recent lesson of mathematics they had been studying natural numbers and the teacher had said to start counting from 1. One wall, two walls, three walls, four walls… Yes, but if you begin by counting from 1, it places the ego at the start, there is no end and you will go on counting forever when all you really needed to do was turn around and count down to zero. Is it possible to have a wall without there ever having been one? I think you cannot have 1 without 0.
In this sense, we turn live, this tricky and mysterious assignment, not into its reverse, which is evil, but into love. We cease to sin and become a son. All this happens by counting down from 1 to 0.
Stones Of Ithaca is concerned with what is right in front of our eyes (eye sounds the same as I – it also needs to be opened). In this book, I would like to suggest that the existence of God is “written” both in language (the words we use every day, the letters they are made of) and in the environment. For the environment, I have taken the example of stones collected on the beaches of the Greek island of Ithaca. We think of them as faceless objects. Far from it. They are part of creation and bear the Creator’s hallmark.
Words, also. We think of words as evolving over time, as passing from one language to another, as having started out as mere grunts and exclamations, to which letters and greater subtlety have been added. I think we overrate our role in all of this. There is a purpose to the words we use, they are there to reveal to us many things about life and creation, and it is impossible for a single human over a single generation to have imbued them with so much information.
Language and stones. The book is divided into these two sections, but they come together at the end, like a pointed arrow. If you have ever experienced not seeing what was right in front of your eyes, not noticing something that was right in front of you, then I invite you to take a step into language, whether it is written on a piece of paper or on the beach at our feet.
Forefeast of the Nativity of the Mother of God
Sofia, Bulgaria, 2018