“When Enkidu heard these words he tore out the Bull’s right thigh
and tossed it in her face saying, ‘If I could lay my hands on you,
it is this I should do to you, and lash the entrails to your side.’”
The Epic of Gilgamensh
“And now I will show you the most excellent way.”
St. Paul, private letter to the Christian community at Corinth
Imagine what it’s like to live in Istanbul—a city so great they named it, literally, “Into the City.” How easy it must be to take for granted the architectural grandeur of Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, of Galata Tower. Same with Parisians and Sacré Cœur and the Eiffel Tower. As well as Chicagoans and the Sears Tower—or whatever corporate person the Windy City has sold her 108-story naming rights to these days.
Passing these structural marvels day in and out, residents become settled to splendor. It isn’t until the moon drips red that we remember her awesomeness.
Of late, I have needed to reach deep into the well to find spiritual sustenance. I’ve been on a theodicy kick for about the past decade, and Old Testament passages—sometimes ancient epics, in general—are about the only thing that does the trick any longer. Nothing like curling up with Snorri Sturluson and an Icelandic Viking saga. Or browsing the meaty lives of Samson, David, and St. Peter. Or pinning a Maccabean frying pan to the flannelgraph.
Then there’s Gilgamesh—always and again. Really, I find it disappointing that the Biblical Flood Account doesn’t end with one of Ham’s offspring sojourning through the middle of a lightless mountain to seek the secrets of immortality from Great-Grandpa Noah. Here, one is simply compelled to give the unknown ancient Mesopotamian scribe his due for providing Utnapishtim with a proper final moment of glory.
“Sorry, Gil. Today ain’t your lucky immortal day.”
But when I really need a good spiritual sand-papering, I turn to the words of the Apostle Paul. Though I have all but renounced my Evangelical past, I cannot altogether escape the brilliant theological mind of the tent-making, former Christian persecutor, Saul of Tarsus.
It is, of course, so easy to don 21st-century Groucho Marx glasses and play whack-a-mole with the Pauline epistles. Women, cover your heads! Slaves, obey your masters! Just don’t forget that when the man wasn’t racking up frequent caravan miles from one end of Anatolia to the other, he was busy inventing a formal theology that linked Christ’s teachings, the labyrinths of Judaism and rampant Gentile culture. Go ahead and give that a try sometime.
Not too long ago, my spiritual moon started bleeding crimson. Not even the Enuma Elish and a bowl of Esau birthright stew could keep me afloat. The Ole Colossus rose from the sea, covered in the carbuncles of a 1,000 listless wedding recitations:
I Corinthians 13
A majestic paean to Christian orthodoxy—perhaps the only New Testament passage that deserves to be segmented into a chapter. Lucky 13, at that.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Love. I get it, Pauly. Uber important. Don’t leave home without it. More rat-a-tat-tat mind-blowing than a Keith Moon drum solo. More serious than an Eddie Vedder childhood remorse rock ballad. More gut-wrenching than a Barbara Walters pre-Oscars interview.
Love pulls over for emergency vehicles; it doesn’t spew venom like a Facebook troll; it’s more powerful than all the Pope Francis memes shared globally in the past month.
Listen, can we just skip ahead to that one word—a hapless noun (or perhaps verb)—that bobs up and down before me like a buoy in a convulsing sea?
And now these three remain…
…but only two of them have I ever understood.
Faith. Christian faith: a combination of creed and praxis. There’s no point in believing that Jesus died, was buried and rose again unless you’re willing to act upon that knowledge. You believe in one holy, catholic and apostolic church? Great; then do something about it! That’s faith: believe, do.
Love. The essence of Christian love is an act always greater than the sum total of whatever you possibly could have managed. Why do you think Jesus was always so damned tired? Did you just save a starving orphan? Then stop patting yourself on the back and go save another. (Thank God for grace, by the way. Because Christian love is unattainable.)
Then there’s Hope. Here my lips start to sputter like Lewis Black forced to sit through a Tea Party Benghazi roundtable.
I have always—always—sidestepped hope. Because, honestly, I hadn’t a clue what it means.
Then something happened to me recently. Something deeply personal.
It reminded me of the time when I was a young lad and happened upon an injured neighborhood cat—its fur and skin and ribs torn away and its heart literally exposed. I watched that organ pump. Yet it did not bleed. And somehow the creature slinked away into the backyard bramble.
That was the level of my need. A heart exposed. And I found myself desperately needing to know more about H-O-P-E.
Then along came German theologian Jürgen Moltmann and his short treatise, Experiences of God :
“Hope is more than feeling. Hope is more than experience. Hope is more than foresight. Hope is a command. Obeying it means life, survival, endurance, standing up to life until death is swallowed up in victory. Obeying it means never giving way to the forces of annihilation in resignation or rage.”
Can I use the F-bomb in a Patheos article? Well, probably not. But that’s the level of spiritual intensity I’m talking about.
Hey, you there in the chair, your fingers pecking away at the keyboard—you, stupid blogger—you must want your solution more than your next breath. Find it to the point of annihilation.
The language of HOPE: Second Person Imperative.
So, for the first time in years, I’m not taking take the domes of I Corinthians 13 for granted. I feel its gravity, its pull. I have this terrible human need right now.
And I cannot fulfill it with faith. I cannot love it into existence.
But I can hope the [BLEEP] out of it. I must. It is a matter of live and let die.
But the greatest of these is…HOPE.
Arik Bjorn is a writer who lives in Columbia, South Carolina. His educational background includes archaeology, ancient languages, and biblical studies. He has run the gamut of Christian experience, from Evangelical to Orthodox catechumen to live-in Episcopalian sexton to Roman Catholic. Follow Arik on Twitter @arikbjorn and on Facebook. And check out his website, Viking Word.