It’s rare these days for mortals to experience the terror of encountering the unspeakably ancient ones. We tend to relate to the old ones via watered-down customs or habits we stopped examining so long ago that they don’t even seem like choices. Not all of the old ones are kind. Most of them want to scare you and control you. There’s one, though, that is older than the others, and that one gives life. You will recognize the smell and the ease and joy that comes upon you, along with the terror.
Imagine a man who thought it was a good idea to wrestle with one of the ancient ones. He had seen the old ones going up and down a ladder to heaven. He knew better than to trifle with the terrible, fierce beings with eyes of fire and unmoving expressions. But he went and wrassled the oldest one. He smelled the life giver and grabbed hold. He didn’t let go. When the morning came, the ancient life-giver without beginning didn’t squash him flat or hasten his journey back to dust. That older than oldest one touched his thigh, and the wrestler limped his whole life after.
The story gets weirder. Most people (besides that wrestler and a man with a glowing face and a few prophets who had seen it all) fell flat on their faces when so much as a whisper of the beyond ancient Name sounded in their vicinity. But there was a young woman, hardly grown, an orphan. One of the oldest ones came to her and offered something more than wrestling. The very presence, the very life-giving one would overshadow her, and she, a virgin, would bear a son who would also be beyond ancient, would also be the unspeakable holiness from whom most people flee. Maybe the Psalm was still upon her lips from her youth of study, and the refuge of the wings of the almighty had more shine than a good reputation. It could have gone sour for her, but she chose the holy terror, the supernal joy, of becoming the mother of God.
And here we are, kin to these brave ones, with multitudes between them and us who also chose the unpredictable embrace of the holy to an uninterrupted journey. We call the ones who hold Him “saints,” and we know few of their names. Some are only faces, some only bones, and some only the words of a song we can sing together without knowing whose faithful life brought it forward to us, carrying it, bound up in garments that smelled of the life-giver, across the time they were given and the paths laid at their feet, to deposit their gift into the hands of the next one, and the next. Some of them passed for normal, but all of them had fire in their bones.
I like to remember old things. I like to let my mind carress old places and tales and objects, to learn the shape of the human heart by what captivated it. There’s a limestone impress in an archaeology film I like that makes no sense to me. There’s nothing left of the people who lived there for thousands of years except shards and a few scraps of rope mats and animal bones. My mind goes there to stand and wonder about the ancient ones. And further back, when humans first walked the clay, what must they have thought of the strange ancient ones who tempted and consoled them face to face? For surely at some point it would have all been more straightforward, like with the wrestler and prophet and the mother. There are people still today who withdraw into wildness so they can spit in the eye of the cruel ones and grab hold of the fierce and holy one. But those old places and wild places have a symmetry here, too, in my eddies of work and parenthood and reading. I can’t make myself believe that any of these materials of dailiness insulate me in the least from the old ones.
If I light a prayer candle in my home–sheltered, plentiful, cozy–the light still shines in other people’s darknesses. The watchers in the wilderness grab hold of the bad and good together, putting the bad to flight by the power of the good one. And I, here, unknown as they, offer my weakness as they offer their strength. I grab hold of God like a child, holding His hands, hugging His neck, grabbing His feet, like a child, petulant and naive and foolish but correct. They are the harps of the Spirit, and I am the preschooler who won’t get off Jesus’ foot so He can leave through the door. There’s a ferocity to me, too, in my persistence. I want God to stay with me, even when it means reciprocating.
“Stay with me.” “I’m here.” These are the call and response of family, of friends, of parent and child, of every type of love. No matter how terrible, tremendous, trembling is the presence of the creator, it is most intimate prayer, the desire for which we were made, which was and is and will be fulfilled.
I’m here. I’m here. I’m here. That is the beat of the heart and the soul’s heart that doesn’t stop. It rhymes with “holy,” even when it means reciprocating. Even when those words won’t come to my lips. It’s a through and through prayer, and it’s what I know about the terror and the joy and the ancient ones and the cloud of witnesses. Hold this truth with me for a while until we both know it. If you forget it, pick it back up. It’ll keep.