God is mystery, beyond any name, any concept, or any definition. This does not keep us from trying to name the unnameable, conceive the inconceivable nor define the undefinable. So, among other things, we tell stories. Jesus told stories. He told people about mustard seeds and pearls, about a prodigal son and a good Samaritan.
I am going to tell you three stories as a way of speaking to the mystery of seeking and finding God.
The first story is Jewish.
There was once a poor man named Reb Isaac of Krakow who lived in dire poverty for many years, barely eking out a meager living. One night he dreamed of a beautiful bridge in Prague, a city he had certainly never visited in his life.
In his dream, he saw that a treasure was buried under that very bridge. At first, he ignored the dream; wouldn’t anyone in his sorry situation dream of buried treasure? But when the dream returned night after night, he started having second thoughts. Perhaps his vision held some grain of truth?
So Reb Isaac sold, borrowed, and begged whatever he could, until he had enough money to travel to Prague. He set off on a long and exhausting quest, and when he finally reached the beautiful city, he was thrilled to find that it looked just as he had seen it in his dream. But although the bridge was exactly as it had appeared to him, night after night—in the light of day, soldiers walked up and down its length, guarding the span.
Reb Isaac settled down to wait for the soldiers to go off duty so that he could explore beneath the bridge. To his dismay, however, he discovered that it was watched around the clock. Had God brought him so far only to deny him the chance to dig for the riches his dream had promised?
But Reb Isaac was not easily deterred. He returned to his post near the bridge day after day, until the guards became used to his presence. Eventually one of them became curious and summoned him. “Why do you come to the bridge every day?” the soldier asked. “Are you waiting for someone?
Reb Isaac decided to speak truthfully, hoping the soldier would allow him to search the area in exchange for a share of the treasure. He revealed his dream, but after hearing him out, the soldier threw back his head and exploded in laughter.
“You came all this way because of some foolish dream?! What dreamers you Jews are! I also had a dream, that a certain Jew named Reb Isaac who lives on the outskirts of Krakow has a treasure buried beneath the stove in his house, but do you see me going all the way there to check? Of course not!” And he walked away, braying with laughter.
Upon hearing those words, Reb Isaac ran to catch the first wagon back to Krakow—straight to his own home. When he arrived he immediately shoved the heavy iron stove out of the way and began to dig at the hard dirt floor. Soon enough, his spade hit something…a chest filled with gold! In his joy he cried, “Now I know that the treasure was here all along! But I had to go all the way to Prague to discover that it was with me the entire time.”
At the Conference Men’s Retreat last month we began with a day of silence. Before the silent time began we gathered in a circle with each of us bringing a candle which we lighted and placed on a table in the center of our group. Then the leader told us we would begin our time together in Centering Prayer. He described Centering Prayer this way. Be still. Be comfortable. Relax. Notice your breathing. Try to quiet your thinking. We will be in prayer this way until you hear the bell ring. We will do this prayer four times in the course of our day of silence. The first time, only 15 minutes, then 20, then 25, and lastly, 30 minutes. When you start thinking of things, return to your breath, or you might use a word or a short phrase to center yourself in the silence. On a personal note, I chose to use the words gratitude and generosity. In breathing in, I was grateful for the breath and for all life offers. On breathing out, I thought of sharing what God has given me freely in an attitude of generosity. In and out. Thanking and sharing.
Before we began the silence, the leader asked if there were any questions. One man had one. He said, how is this about God? I was surprised at his question. Even troubled. I thought, how can someone ask this. This practice is so about God. I wanted to explain this to him so that he would see this practice the way I see it. Somehow I had the patience not to speak. The leader acknowledged the question as valid and said some words about how God is with us, in us, around us, and that the practice is a form of prayer, a way to be with God, and a way for us to experience God with us.
Upon reflection, I see the man’s question as our question. How is what we do about God? I know that for many people, there is a need to have a clear answer to this question. I think we do have answers in the church, but they are not always clear. As a friend of mine says, it takes practice and trust to live with the questions
The third story is about a bishop who was traveling in the South Pacific on a ship.
When the ship stopped at a remote island for a day, he determined to use the time as profitably as possible. He strolled along the seashore and came across three fishermen mending their nets. In pidgin English they explained to him that centuries before they had been Christianized by missionaries. “We, Christians!” they said, proudly pointing to one another.
The bishop was impressed. Did they know the Lord’s Prayer? They had never heard of it. The bishop was shocked.
“What do you say, then, when you pray?”
“We lift our eyes to heaven. We pray, ‘We are three, you are three, have mercy on us.’ The bishop was appalled at the primitive, the downright heretical nature of their prayer. So he spent the whole day teaching them the Lord’s Prayer. The fishermen were poor learners, but they gave it all they had and before the bishop sailed away the next day he had the satisfaction of hearing them go through the whole formula without a fault.
Months later the bishop’s ship happened to pass by those islands again and, as he paced the deck saying his evening prayers, he recalled with pleasure the three men on that distant island who were now able to pray, thanks to his patient efforts. While he was lost in the thought he happened to look up and noticed a spot of light in the east.
The light kept approaching the ship and, as the bishop gazed in wonder, he saw three figures walking on the water. The captain stopped the boat and everyone leaned over the rails to see this sight.
When they were within speaking distance, the bishop recognized his three friends, the fishermen. “Bishop!” they exclaimed. “We hear your boat go past island and come hurry hurry to meet you.”
“What is it that you want?” asked the awe-stricken bishop.
“Bishop,” they said, “we so, so sorry. We forget lovely prayer. We say, ‘Our Father in heaven, holy be your name, your kingdom come ...’ then we forget. Please tell us prayer again.”
The bishop felt humbled. “Go back to your homes, my friends,” he said, “and each time you pray, say, “We are three, you are three, have mercy on us!’”
Three stories. And what can we say about them and how they direct us in the mystery of seeking and finding God.
First, we may say: The “treasure” is within every single one of us, even as we might need to travel “far and wide”—through teachers and books and experiences—until we discover it. Ultimately, all of the teachings turn us back home, to the wealth of Godliness that lies within us.
Second, we may say, there are tried and true spiritual practices, like Centering Prayer, or Lectio Divina, or meditation, or chanting, or singing, or journaling, or acts of compassion and caring. And, in the end, we may need to be open to the truth that none of these is a guarantee of finding God. Maybe we will find God in opening ourselves up to the troubling questions posed by others who are also seeking God.
Third, we may say, this seeking is not an individual process. None of us has all the answers. We need one another to make sense of the mystery. If we can get our own selves out of the way for a while, we may see and know God in the eyes of our neighbor, whoever that neighbor may be. Amen.