Thursday, February 25, 2010

Every place is holy

I have just finished teaching -- gratis -- a creative writing seminar for the island's education center, ten adults and two high-school students, four two-hour sessions. And had a lot of fun. For one assignment, I asked the participants to take an incident from the Old or New Testament, no matter how trivial, and reimagine it in a page or two of rich, descriptive writing. The results were gratifying.

The assignment was suggested by Anita Diamant's wonderful novel The Red Tent, which I have been reading for a second time, a retelling of the biblical story of Jacob and his wives and children from the point of view of Jacob's only daughter, Dinah. The book beautifully evokes the people of 4,000 years ago -- farmers, herdsmen, city builders -- who invented the stories by which we in the Western world -- through the Scriptures and myths -- have pretty much measured our lives ever since. Certainly, on this island, the stories are well known to all.

Allow me to recycle some things I said when I first read the book several years ago?

The gods are everywhere in Diamant's tale. In every tree and stream. In moon, sun, and stars. In menstrual blood and spindle. In the waters that nourish the planted seed and the drought that withers the nanny goat's teats. Dinah learns the stories of the gods in the woman's tent -- the red tent -- as they are told and retold by her mother and aunts.

Jacob and his clan live in constant negotiation with the gods, through prayer and sacrifice. Behind the world of their daily lives is a shadow world of spirits with human faces, or semi-human faces, who act with human willfulness, raising up and striking down, imposing outrageous demands, bestowing blessings.

By Jacob's time the gods were already old. They were born in the minds of our earliest human ancestors, who, finding themselves in an uncertain world, created a measure of order by imagining unseen spirits with human features.

Even today, as a new millennium begins, the ancient gods still haunt our imaginations, investing the world with presumed consciousness and will. This in spite of the fact that science has led us into a very different landscape. What we have discovered in science is not a shadow world of humanlike spirits, but rather an elusive and enigmatic fire that burns in the very stuff of material creation. The fire does not have a human face, but it animates the planet and perhaps the universe.

How do we come to terms with this new knowledge? In Diamant's novel, Jacob decides to return to the land of his ancestors, from which he has lived (and married) in exile. His wives are fearful. Zilpah says to the other women: "All of [our] named gods abide here. This is the place where we are known, where we know how to serve. It will be death to leave. I know it."

And Bilhah answers: "Every place has its holy names, its trees and high places. There will be gods where we go."

We are no less fearful than were Jacob's wives of leaving the familiar. But, as Bilhah says, every place has its sacred meaning, every place is holy. Whatever Mystery we meet in the land of the galaxies and DNA will not greet us with a human face, but, if we are receptive, it cannot fail to drop us to our knees with awe and reverence, fear and trembling, thanksgiving and praise.