I almost died when I was born. A desperate shade of blue, I burst into the world, suicidal with the umbilical cord and nearly killing my mother in the process. For that tense week of April ’86, we lay in the hospital together: she wouldn’t stop hemorrhaging and no one was sure how much damage I had. My father and older brothers waited as we were put on prayer lists of various churches. A week later, we both recovered from the trauma.
My life began with a near-death experience. Coming back from death, adults whisper, “I was spared for a purpose. The Lord is not finished with me yet.” Usually, they see white light and loved ones. Afterwards, they savor most moments of their remaining lives, as the sharp, finite end of finality renders meaning to all of it. Trivialities bother no man who tastes of the end.
I do not have a flashy tale of white light. I do not even remember my near-death experience. Yet, my parents would tell the story every once in a while. And, I wondered anew: for which purpose I draw breath, for which mystery did I return from death? This cold pallor gave me a seriousness that my peers wouldn’t know for years (and some still do not know). As a child, I was already thinking about the meaning of life; I wondered, why am I?
This is not as depressingly debilitating as some suppose. As a child, my future was a wondrous mystery. Like an expectant audience before a closed curtain, I would marvel at all the wonderful things in store. My reason for living would find its meaning in the future, when the Divine hand of providence would shift winds in my favor. The deus ex machina always saves the day! With glassy-eyed expectation, I would only have to sit and watch the revealing.
Few people think about their end, but Death hovered over everything I did, chuckling at my existence. “Why am I?” haunted me and it haunts me to this day. Yet, this does not paralyze me. I do not expect to ever find the answers, but that doesn’t prevent others for attempting at explanations
Yes, how easily they pin me to the wall! How easily they fence me in, categorizing me into their neat little boxes! How easily they roll the over-arching question of my existence towards some obligatorily pleasant answer. They roll it towards my calling, my genitalia or point out what little good that I have done. They say my meaning lies therein, that doing subsidizes my existence. “This is why you were spared” they whisper with a smile, “This is why the Lord isn’t finished with you yet!”
How quickly they claim understand my predicament! Reminding me afresh why few can look at ambiguity for longer than twenty minutes, let alone years. I am reminded that fewer can live in the tension between two contradictory thoughts (like a death-mingled birth) without collapsing into cliched mandates and saccharine madness. I am reminded that few are capable of living in the tension of mystery.
I am mystery. I am created in the imago Dei and thus share a depth that is beyond knowledge. I exist. And, I exist beyond the limited comprehension of those clucking tongues. Here, at the depth of my being, meaning has no understanding and purpose has no place — only a prostrate, shoe-less marveling belongs. I am as mysterious to myself as God is to me when the I AM THAT I AM flung the spangled stars in their courses. I am a mystery, just as God is to me when He caused the seraphic voices to sing the splendor of that first Sabbath morning.
And so are you. You are created in the imago Dei. You are mystery to yourself.
So, I will not receive you in carefully-planned scientific categories, stereotypes or in half-baked theories on what it means to be human. I will silence my clucking tongue and receive as you are: a gift of mystery. You are not a riddle to be teased out, or an explanation to be pinned on the wall. I will not dissect. I will not presume to know the purpose and Divine intent in granting you life or in preserving you. I will heed the voice of that Rabbinic midrash: an angelic troop in constant procession before you, warning all of creation, “Make way, make way for the image of God approaches!”
Yes, the image of God burns all-consuming within you. And it calls to me. Yet, even though you are aflame, you are not burned up. You exist in the tension of this mystery, whether you recognize it or not. So, forsaking the flock, I must forget my staff and remove my sandals. I must receive you on the holy ground of darkness and unknowing. I must listen. I must listen to the mystery that pours forth from that fire, from that fire that consumes you from within.
Like a giddy child with wide-eyed expectation before a closed curtain, I will sit. I watch the revealing.