The legends say that wisdom and pain are the twin pillars of life. God pours these qualities into two symmetrical cones, then adjoins them at their tips, so that the abyss of pain meets the body of knowledge. The point where the two cones touch is the center of the cosmos. That point is the Rock, and it’s where King David ached to build a Palace of Peace. But David made a mistake: He moved the Rock and in so doing unleashed the Waters of the Deep. “You cannot move me,” the Rock announced. “I was put here to hold back the abyss.”
“Since when?” David asked.
“Since God announced, ‘I am the Lord thy God.’”
David inscribed God’s name on the Rock and pushed it back into place. The deluge subsided. The touchstone is actually a capstone: remove it and death rushes forth. [i]
The rock on which Abraham bound Isaac, his son, to be sacrificed is that Rock of legend – the rock where pain and wisdom meet , the rock we are invited to contemplate this weekend of Lent (Gn 22:1-2, 9a, 10-13, 15-18).
On one level, the infamous rock can literally be located in the Old City of Jerusalem – known as the Foundation Stone sheltered under the Dome of the Rock. It is a site where it feels as though at any moment the unity and wisdom of the Abrahamic traditions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – could miraculously rain the desert green and wash away the blood of the past; or violence, such that the world had not seen, could erupt and cover the earth.
The complexity and tension that exists in the story and it’s embodiment in Jerusalem has been and continues to be born out in the interpretations and lived experience of the children of Abraham. It is part of the tradition that some (even I) have wanted to throw out for the way it muddies the picture of a loving, compassionate God. It’s also a part of the tradition that no matter how it’s used and abused it doesn’t go away… it remains somehow central. It’s not the whole story, but it is the piece (according to legend) that holds the abyss, the powers of death at bay. Why does this rock, why does this story bear so much?
I started to ponder the places where pain and wisdom meet, in this story and beyond. Abraham’s heart wrenching story of agony was neither the first nor the last. And that’s when I started to see touchstones all around me – experiences of pain, embarrassment, difficult decisions, trauma, abuse, deceit – acting as a touchstone; a battered rock that, in spite of the odds, has kept the waters of the death at bay and brought wisdom to a life.
One example that touches my parent heart…
Into the Wildreness – Parenting a Terminally Ill Child by Emily Rapp
There are many horrible things about living with a terminally ill child, but the hardest is the way in which our parenting approach approximates an old archetypal story — without the redemptive ending. When your child is dying and there is no treatment or cure, it feels as though you are sending them out in the wilderness, only there is no returning from the exile. Nobody is passed over. Nobody is freed. The faces of those children and their parents are brave and beautiful because they are singular faces… What these parents do is as sacred as it is misunderstood.
“Sacred and misunderstood.” In spite of the deep pain, the unanswerable questions (about God, about divine justice) – there is a sacredness in the sharing of this experience. Wisdom enters the experience for Emily, for the other parents she connects with to help her through this painful reality, for me and for us who come to know her story. Sharing how she grapples with the sacred at the heart of her pain illumines the unresolved pain we all carry.
CNN Executive, Mark Whitaker, shared on NPR’s “On Point” this relevant insight when he was reflecting on writing his autobiography:
(Read the entire interview at CNN Executive on Troubled Family Past)
WHITAKER: You know, for a long time, I felt almost ashamed of those things and it’s one reason I didn’t really talk about them, in general, as you say, as sort of a private, reserved person. But one of the things that’s been, you know, for me, just very gratifying is that the part of the story that I thought I was ashamed about actually is the part of the story that people are connecting with.
We all have touchstones of pain and wisdom in our lives. We, like Mark Whitaker, may have been embarrassed to talk about them. Moving them, as the legend warns, can be dangerous. Pushing them down, hiding them from sight unleashes chaos – we may see it in addiction, illness, abuse, etc. But bringing it to a place of light, a sacred space, a shared space makes the tension between pain and wisdom real and profound. It connects all of humanity (and creation) on a deep level, at the Rock at the center of Life.
This is an abridged version of a homily I preached on February 3, 2012 at Sts. Clare & Francis on Genesis 22’s Sacrifice of Isaac. It was so interesting living out the liturgical cycle as a priest/pastor. The lectionary forced me to wrestle with texts every three years, whether I loved them or hated them. The sacrifice of Isaac from Genesis 22 always haunted me. I gave two vastly different homilies on that text. The one you read above works with the text, but read “Saving Isaac” to see how an interpretation can work against the text. I find both interpretations still ring true for me. Biblical interpretation is fun 🙂
[i] Bruce Feiler, Abraham: Journey to the heart of three faiths, p. 6