When Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, the door of paradise was shut before their face. Experiences can disconnect us from God, can bar our door to happiness. But difficult experiences can be transformed by grace to become our stepping stones to God. The challenge for us is how to learn to look for God even as we endure them, and grow up using them as commemorative blocks to erect altars defining the depth of our faith in our covenant partner – God: “Lo, the hand of the Lord is not too short to save, nor his ear too dull to hear” (Isaiah 59:1). So how shall we find the wisdom to learn to use the mosaic of impressions our everyday experiences leave upon us to signpost our spiritual journey with God? The Patriarchs built altars and needed stones to build them, upon what foundations shall we construct the memorials of our spiritual struggles? Three stone cutters were building a temple.
A passerby stopped at the construction site, asking the first worker what he was doing. “Can’t you see,” snapped the man. “I’m breaking these stones.” He walked over to the second labourer and this man told him he was making a living by being on that job. The third worker, being questioned, stopped, rubbed his hands on his overalls, glanced upwards, saying “I’m helping to build this temple to God. This story is instructive. It makes it clear that it is from the stones of our precious everyday life, from the wisdom distilled out of the defining encounters with God and with one another, that we shall construct the memorials that will signpost our identity and our relationship with God.
Finding our way in a new world is not easy. Ours is a transient world. Many of our signposts that point the way to the future are bound to be lost in the sands of time. Such was the difficulty experienced by many seafarers prior to the discovery of the compass. The explorations that led to the different lands across the shore required that seafarers know which way they were going. On clear days and nights, the position of the Sun and stars (especially the North Star) yielded this information. However, long voyages inevitably included sustained periods of cloud cover, and this often threw routine navigation systems off course. The invention of the physical compass made possible the exploration of distant, uncharted lands by navigators. Using its seemingly magical sense of direction, sailors grew bold, striking out on longer and longer voyages of discovery. Landmarks can do the same in the spiritual journey. Our arrival in the Land of Promise would require that believers discover reference points marking directions on our way, projectiles illuminating the way before us, and keeping us attuned to the distances that we have so far traversed. And so we can look back and keep track of our steps.
Erecting landmarks demands openness to the movement of God in our lives, a deep respect for what we find in front of us, as well as an appreciation of the unique significance of the present moment. To cover our skyline with landmarks is not to attempt to catalogue time or shelve experiences, as if they were valuable museum pieces. Even though some of our more physical landmarks are larger-than-life monuments that can block our view of reality, this, however, is not the case in the spiritual life. Landmarks are generally commemorative – reference points that help us pay lasting tributes to significant experiences of our past, edifying reminders of the cardinal moments of our personal biography; but they are equally stepping-stones on the path to the Holy One. They collect together, as building ingredients, the inconsistent textures of personality and experience, and attempt to render the whole sense of life from these key moments – what it was like to have journeyed far and experienced life at its several stages. The landmark or memorial moulds complex biographical facts – birth and death, education, ambition, sin, grace, conflict, work, relationship, accident – into a single beacon or tower that has the independent vitality of any creative work, but is, at the same time, “true to life.” As such, our spiritual landmarks could really provide an explanatory structure for life as we have experienced it.
Our more enduring landmarks are those erected in the midst of life, in the streets, market places, homes and gardens, on the radio waves, television screens and internet pages. These monuments do not grow old, nor do they distract us from what is new in our life. They do not call forth a nostalgic, foolish pining for the past. They are rather like projectiles illuminating the way forward, bridges providing the solid ground for our forward movement. Landmark experiences anticipate time and carry within them the breath of eternity. The stories of ancient human adventurers on the sea will again offer us useful guide. Such men and women like Christopher Columbus have always fascinated me. Their spirit of enterprise is without question. Their courage is unassailable. Always they have to venture out of sight of their familiar world in order to discover new routes, new islands far away from established coasts. Sailing on with only the stars as guide, as well as a positive faith in their guiding angels, these men and women accomplished miracles and repeatedly experienced the joy of new discoveries. Following the landmarks they made, as well as the landmarks on the sky, they were able, more easily, to find their way.
Often, these men and women would lose sight of many familiar stars; they could only watch helplessly as their guiding stars vanished into the perpetual pit of the sky from which stars no more rise. This was a cause for regret, but did not occasion alarm. For these sojourners knew that they would come upon stars that were new – stars not of maximum brightness like the vast beacons of old, but still interesting newcomers. And what more, for these sojourners in the sea it was not these twinkling stars that mattered most, stars dancing up and down the horizon, now visible above the waves, now lost. The real guideposts on the sky were those fixed and immovable stars, stars that determined one’s location in the ocean, that helped predict with accuracy the motion of the planets, foundations upon which to construct or correct one’s system of navigation, and thus always to maintain course. All of us believers are equally adventurers, pathfinders and explorers along the road to the divine. There is a new world awaiting us at the end of our earthly pilgrimage, a new island barely visible in the misty moonlight of the world. The dream of this Land of Promise has continued to live in the heart of generations of faithful souls. We, the Christians of today, we have a solid navigational system of the ages past at our disposal, resources to meet the present world in its own terms and conquer it. But, we equally need landmarks of our own in the cloudier climates of our spiritual journey today. We have need of enduring landmarks, comforting beacons of light or spiritual compasses, that can show us the direction even in a season of darkness and confusion.
Our spiritual landmarks must be able to indicate our living relationship with God, indicators of the divine intrusion into the human domain, projectiles immune to the relativities of time. Our spiritual landmarks must help to immortalize the scenes and moments where we made breakthroughs in our journey with God; they must be able to refer to meanings beyond the self, relationships more enduring than the movement of the sun. God is our True Shepherd, the immovable star directing our lives heavenwards: “On that day, the root of Jesse, set up as a signal for the nations, the Gentiles shall seek out, for his dwelling shall be glorious” (Isa.11:10). God lights a beacon of grace for us, hoisting his signal to recover the remnant left of the people, to assemble the outcasts of Israel and gather the dispersed of Judah (Isa.11:11 – 12) from the four corners of the earth. We are being sped by God on some great missions. And it is not as if we are committed to an unknown destination, with no opportunities to replenish our stores or renew our strength: “We are setting out for the place which the Lord has promised to give us. Come with us, and we will be generous towards you, for the Lord has promised prosperity to Israel” (Numb.10:29).
We must learn to build our lives on a relationship with God. God is the Guardian of the world, the canoe with which we shall reach shore. And in the intimate depths of our relationship with him he repeatedly vouchsafes us experiences whose impact will be felt, if not right away then eventually, in all the spheres of our spiritual life. These moments or experiences are important guideposts in our journey with God and have an enduring effect on our world. The breakthrough experiences we make with God do help us to invent the future in varying degrees. They shine out in our face like the bright stars of heaven. They illumine our paths, especially in moments when it is darkest around us. And when the new shoreline shall become visible, then we shall have no need again of the landmarks of our own making, for then we shall be able to see God face to face.