people so tuned
to the humdrum laws:
gravity, mortality ---
to symbol's power
unless convinced of its ground,
in bone and blood.
(Excerpted from "On Belief in the Physical Resurrection of Jesus," in The Stream and the Sapphire: Selected Poems on Religious Themes, by Denise Levertov)
In the manicured lawns of my neighborhood, it is difficult to find a small smooth stone. I don’t mean the stones and rocks used in landscaping but the ones that were here before, the ones half-buried in soil and yet exposed, the unowned, the non-possessed, the ones hiding from the civilizing influence of mowers and rakes and even backhoes. These, I think, are the ones that “cry out.” The others whimper.
Near the creek stretched so thin that it can’t be said to run, one cries out, to me. I stoop and pull it from the earth, brush the clinging dirt from its form. Its shape bears the memory of water, smooth and cool, not white as I sought but gray, and mottled, no form or majesty that we should look at it, no beauty that we should desire it. A homely stone. I say, “I have been looking for you.” It responds by warming in my hand. I put it in my pocket and keep walking. Thinking twice, I take it out and hold it as I deliberate.
I went looking for a stone because I want to be reminded that God is present with me, not just some impersonal energy or life force coursing through the world but someone real and present with me. Beside me. In front of me. Behind me. So as I walk I hold my stone in hand, reminded by its insistent otherness that God is present.
Presence is underrated. In a world of electronic communication, we deceive ourselves into believing that we know those we never touch, and yet deep down we know that pixels aren’t people, are no substitute for flesh and blood. We need the person And yet when we don’t have the person, an object can be an icon of their presence.
“Am I a God at hand, declares the Lord, and not a God far away?” (Jer. 23-23-24), and the stone in my hand says, quietly if boldly, “I am at hand. I am here. Hold me tighter.” And I do. “My presence will go with you,” says God to Moses (Exod. 33:14), but I am frail and near-sighted, a poor listener, and God hasn’t spoken aloud to me but once, maybe, and so I carry this neglected stone, this pitiable icon, to picture God’s presence. It is a faint signal and occluded window to a radiant God, but it is present, and sturdy, and it becomes in my hand a metaphor we know of God as a Rock. The words I read in Scripture sometimes fail to fill the space in my soul. I need a thing. I need a person.
Holding this little stone, it takes life as I consider where it points. I might say of it as did Milton of books, when he said that “books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are; nay, they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them.” And so, this little stone, is an extraction of its Creator and a signpost of His immutable character, a surety of His love, a guarantee of His salvation. I know, that’s a lot to put on a little stone. Yet it bears it.
Back home I place it on my desk and examine it. I know that what I see is a product of the way light interacts with the mineral structure of the stone. I’ve read that atoms of different elements absorb specific wavelengths of light. A virtually colorless stone like mine is absorbing little visible light. Still, it’s here. On the corner, at the periphery of my vision, it beckons: “I’m here.”
“‘Can anyone hide himself in secret places, so I shall not see him?,’ says the Lord; ‘Do I not fill heaven and earth?’ says the Lord’” (Ps. 139:7-8). My heart nods in assent, though with a finger of doubt I reach out and touch the stone, my Rock, "bone and blood."