Thursday, June 24, 2010

Eden was a Garden


Ralph Bellamy: “I like him - he's got a lot of charm.”
Irene Dunne: “He comes by it naturally - his grandfather was a snake.”
~from the film, “The Awful Truth,” circa 1937

It was our last day together in Oregon. I was in need of a little relaxation, so I convinced Dutch to fill his pockets full of party spoils and stroll with me across the glistening street to picnic in one of my favorite Portland parks. It was one of those luminous Northwest afternoons – it had been raining on and off all day and the sun was finally breaking through a host of silver clouds. Glittering rain-flecked rays of golden light pierced the sidewalk so that everything – grass, trees, and flowers – shone with a newborn brightness.

We meandered through the park, which covers a square city block with a half dozen rolling hills of green, a pond, and an old stone gardener’s cottage, until we found a quiet spot of shade beneath a giant oak tree. After feasting on a fine spread of crackers and cheese, chocolate-covered strawberries and champagne, we picked at an enormous leftover slice of lemon cake until our bellies bulged.

Every time I looked up at the silver sky its voluminous gray clouds had rearranged themselves into some gloriously new formation. “It’s like looking up at a canvas whose paint is constantly in motion,” I told Dutch, then leaned back on my elbows and watched a flock of mallards wade into the pond beneath the flickering shade of a weeping willow. An egret swooped and circled, its wavy white reflection sparkling on the surface of the water like a mirage.

I sighed, taking in the clean, sweet, earthy smell of grass; the soft, smooth surfaces – moss-covered tree trunks, velvet bark, pillowy earth. At the far end of the pond, a bed of peonies bloomed in brilliant shades of magenta; closer to us, white and yellow wildflowers were scattered all across the wide green lawn, their tiny petals glistening like fallen stars.

“Have I died and gone to heaven?” I asked Dutch.

“You might have,” he said.

“I can understand why God chose to place Adam and Eve in a garden. I could easily make my home here.”

We lingered until five o’clock when Dutch had a conference call. By this time, the park had emptied itself of people. He walked ahead of me, his soft murmuring voice the only human sound, while I trailed behind on the black curving path beneath the shadow patches of the great, tall trees, stopping now and then to examine a pine cone or fallen chestnut or to admire some thick square of sea-green moss that was growing up the side of an enormous stone.

By the time we stepped back onto the street the light had crested and was fading. Large raindrops were falling. The air had grown suddenly cool. Once more I looked up into the hairy brown arms of the trees, all atremble with green and yellow leaves, and sighed again, mournful that the day should have to end.

When I arrived back in Arizona, the desert had never seemed so – desertous.

A full day of errands left me dust-blown and wind-beaten, the tragic heroine of my very own western movie. Never had the dead, hot miserable summer seemed so acutely suffocating. The snake that slithered across the black tar road; the dispiriting sight of dodging jackrabbits and scurrying quail, the cactus needle that bore its way into the bed of my heel – all evoked a sense of loathing as well as a longing to return, for the summer months if not forever, to what had seemed a “paradise.”

Was it possible that I could be so beguiled by just one stroll in a park?

I recognize that I am more romantic than most women. Nevertheless, I cannot help but wonder whether the evocation that overtook me in the park wasn’t precisely the kind of seduction that overtook Eve, enticing her to act against her better judgment and eat from the forbidden tree?

What is more – and here is the rub – is it possible that my propensity to romanticize or idealize is a trait which I inherited from Eve? After all, the Scripture does say, “…it was the woman who was deceived” (1 Tim. 2.14), implying that Eve’s deception was related to her nature as a woman.

But to say that Eve was more easily deceived is not to diminish her intelligence. For all deception, when it strikes, suspends the intelligence, or at least momentarily confounds it. In fact, the word deceive is constructed from the prefix “de,” a Latin preposition meaning “down from,” or “off;” and the French root “capere,” meaning “to take.” Thus to deceive literally means: “to take down from.” To deceive a person is to cheat them; to trick them into betraying the true “good” for the counterfeit.

Deception always begins with an idea; to take effect the idea must be given symbolic representation. For Eve the idea – of a richer, more satisfying life – was represented by the forbidden fruit; for the contemporary woman, it may be the skyline of New York City, Paris, or Rome; a seat at the boardroom table; a pair of size four jeans; a princess-cut diamond set in a shimmering band of gold; or a house on a hill that is populated by a charming set of curly-headed children.

The symbol becomes synonymous with an ideal; and the ideal becomes an idol – something which we not only, in the most obvious sense, worship but which paradoxically controls us, dictating our behavior to the point that we are willing to sacrifice (or forfeit or neglect) present gifts for the abstract and nebulous possibilities of the future.

Eve was dazzled by the idea of what the fruit could do for her just as I was dazzled by the beauty of the park. She became, as the word implies, dizzy, “mentally confused, stupefied.” She was "struck with splendor." Thus: “When the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable to make one wise, she took from its fruit and ate” (Genesis 3.6).

But the moment Eve ate, the fruit became bitter just as, were I to mortgage my belongings and fly north – to greener grounds and cooler climes – I would arrive to find the spell broken: the park just a park; the trees just trees. For any place where sin is present – which is to say, where I am present – is a far cry from paradise.

Moreover, what Eve, as I, failed to recognize was that she had access to all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge within the confines of her garden. As a sinless woman Eve walked and talked with God unashamed. Because of the propitious death of Jesus Christ, I, though a sinner, can talk and walk with God without shame or fear of banishment.

God has not placed me in a garden; but He has graciously given me circumstances which are, to quote a dear friend, “perfectly imperfect” – designed to teach me the habit of contentment; the discipline of gaining character.

In his last letter to his fiance, written from the Gestapo prison at Christmas, 1944, Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes, “…you must not think that I am unhappy. What is happiness and unhappiness? It depends so little on the circumstances; it depends really only on that which happens inside a person. I am grateful every day that I have you, and that makes me happy.”

So it is, or should be, for the Christian who has Christ. Though He manifests Himself in many ways, one of the principal ways I experience Christ is through people. My hardships are forever tempered and soothed by the glorious presence of other heavenly beings - husband and children, family and friends - sent like angels, to comfort, inspire, and exhort me during my long stay away from home.

“I am grateful that I have you, and that makes me happy.”

And that is all that matters.