Outside of Paradise

mary belly tattooAnd we’ve got to get ourselves back to the Garden…     Joni Mitchell (1969)

The instinct of the folk-music singer celebrating the Woodstock Festival was not wrong. The religious sensibilities of younger generations today would likely say the same thing but with no reference to the Scriptures. The longing that marks the human heart finds many means of expression. I often think as I see the tattooed bodies of the young (and even the old!) that there is a hunger to create a visible identity, to mark ourselves somehow that our uniqueness and our belonging may be seen. In the blended, globalized world of mass culture, the Garden is very hard to find.

Paradise has its place within Genesis, but it also has a prominent place within the spiritual writing of the Fathers. For them, Paradise is synonymous with the Kingdom of God, particularly the Kingdom of God as it finds its place within the heart. Christ tells the people, “The Kingdom of God is among you,” but uses an ambiguous preposition that can also be translated, “The Kingdom of God is within you.” The ambiguity works because both are true. Christ, who is the Kingdom of God, is indeed in our midst, but also within the heart. Where He is, there is Paradise. The thief on the cross is told, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” That promise was fulfilled both the moment it was spoken, as well as beyond that moment into eternity. To be with Jesus, even in crucifixion, is Paradise. The good thief could have confessed along with St. Paul, “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live.”

We long for Paradise in all of our dealings, though we generally fail to know this. Joni Mitchell raised a rock concert to the level of popular myth (a level it had already attained), celebrating its relative peace (there was no war) and three days break from teenage angst, with words that came to be used to describe a generation: the Woodstock Generation.

I was not there…but I had friends who were. But many in my generation thought they were there. We thought that slogans and fashions constituted a revolution and that we were changing the world. The world was changing – but not in becoming Paradise. The land outside the gates is a chimera – it takes many forms but always as the shapes of Hades. The drug culture and sexual license that underwrote the false Paradise of 1969 required more than three days to manifest their consequences. I have no fond memories of the friends who died or whose lives were destroyed as a result.

Revolutions tend to have an eery resemblance to one another in beginnings. Dreams of Paradise and visions of a brighter world provide cover for the iconoclasm and destruction that tend to mark their paths. There was a quiet – a soft, secular quiet that settled in after the excess of the Woodstock Generation. The excess remained but without a theme song. I sometimes hear a new revolution today, rougher, more coarse and with a violence in its iconoclasm that leaves me cold. It makes me want to pray.

And it is prayer that leads us back to Paradise. It is said that when a priest stands before the closed gates of the altar at the beginning of Vespers, he represents Adam weeping before the closed gates of Paradise. I think of that image often as I stand quietly waiting for the Reader to end the prayers of the ninth hour. For as I stand before those holy gates, all humanity stands in me. We all stand before the closed gates of paradise. Many times I find the gates closed even to the Paradise of the heart. My thoughts swirl with a thousand distractions and the gates of hell threaten my undoing.

But it is good to stand still and to bow the head and to weep with Adam. For the doors that are shut will be opened. The gates that are closed will be lifted up. In the wonder of the Divine Liturgy the fruit of the Tree of Life will be brought forth with the invitation, “In the fear of God and with faith, draw near!”

We never get ourselves back to the Garden – not in the way we would like to imagine. I wear a baptismal cross that has a small inscription at the base of the cross. They are the Russian letters for: MLRB. They stand for: the Place of the Skull has become Paradise.

All this time we were waiting for the Cross – the Tree of Life. The thief found his way there first.