Thursday, March 10, 2011

Water in the Wasteland

There are no oases in the Bible. There are many deserts, of course, especially in the Old Testament, but for the most part, the desert is home only to relentless hardship. Exceptions are a sign of God’s favour (like when the manna drops down in Exodus, or when water springs from the rocks for Jacob's people). Still: even for the chosen, respite from thirst is rare, and one never knows when it will be bestowed. Water has few fixed locations. It follows those who are favoured by God.

This is why, when the Samarian woman asks if Jesus can quench the thirst of his people, Jesus’s answer is so compelling. “Art thou greater than our father Jacob,” she asks, “which gave us the well?” “Whosoever drinketh of this water shall thirst again,” replies Jesus. “But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him, shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life.”

To have the Spirit, Christ suggests, is better than having a well (which, in ancient Samaria, was already a pretty good piece of luck). The metaphor of ‘living water’ releases the Samarians from a dependence on external signs and physical wants. One need no longer troll the desert looking for water as a symbol of God’s grace, for, as Christ suggests, God’s grace abides eternally within; His presence is imminent to all.

So. There are no oases in the Bible. In neither the Old nor the New Testament. Not in the former, because relief and respite were as nomadic as God’s people, and thirst used to smite God’s foes; not in the latter, because we are told true sanctuary resides in the Spirit. Either way, the result is the same: the good book is oasis-free.

* * *

I’ve been thinking about this since Thursday. Thursday was my first day at work. Dan had come in to my office to explain some of the finer points of writing sales handles for our distribution catalogue in the States. The phone rang; Kathleen answered; the conversation was brief.

“It was those people again,” she calls out from the other room. “It’s happened twice in the past few weeks.”

“What people?” asks Dan. “The Christians? They call all the time.”

“Yeah,” says Kathleen. “I don’t know why they keep thinking we publish religious books.”

I look at Dan. He looks back at me. I start to smile. It had never occurred to me before.

“It’s because,” Dan says, “of the name.”

* * *

So. I thought about this for a while. I concluded the Christians could have thought any one of three things.

The first thing was—improbably—that we are an oasis for bibles. (I imagine empty pages flocking to us and pressing their faces into globes of ink, that have bedewed the floor with scripture).

The second—more probably—was that we are an oasis for the Biblically-minded. That’s what got me wondering about the oasis itself, and thinking perhaps there was an oasis metaphor in the Bible that I’d missed, some sacred palmy pool to which they were referring, and which my Catholic education had bypassed. So I read. I thought, no, it seems there’s no reference. More so, the joke’s on them. Looking for an oasis in the Bible is a mistake. The real oasis is in Heaven.

It was the third idea—the least probable, yet the most suggestive—that gave me pause. I had been thinking about signs. I had been thinking about what it means to feel oneself in the presence of God (or, for that matter, of many gods). Water in the desert? A pretty clear sign. So is Jesus, standing there, in person, speaking in his own voice. But a few generations down the line, what happens?

What happens is, the manna eventually runs out, and the voice of God grows faint. All one has is stories: one has books. For the majority of people divine presence is a matter of hearsay. And the more distant one is from that sense of original presence—a presence that for Thomas Love Peacock characterizes the iron age of poetry—then the harder it is to find one’s oasis, one’s figurative place of rest.

That’s why I love the stories of Augustine and of Mohammed. They mark a threshold. Augustine, not yet a Christian, is brought to a Bible, told by a voice to take it and read; and Mohammed, visited by the angel Gabriel, is commanded similarly. Read. The ink of the scholar is holier than the blood of the martyr. In both cases, divine presence points to its own record, and says it is I.

* * *

Today marks my second week on the job. I’ve drunk a lot of extraordinary literature. And I have no doubt that Biblioasis is a place where people, thirsty for quality, have come. In the last seven days I’ve read unpublished poetry by Amanda Jernigan and David Hickey; I’ve read Claire Tacon’s forthcoming novel; I’ve read the newest collection of short stories by Clark Blaise, which is the closest thing to manna anyone will taste this year. All this has reinforced to me that Biblioasis, like Jacob’s well, is a place from which discerning readers will draw for many years; it is a place they will never find dry.

Yet as I settled into my office, and as shades of Augustine and Mohammed began to peer over my shoulder, it occured to me that this press believes in more than being an oasis for literature. Biblioasis, I thought then, may well believe that literature is the oasis for us all; and a good book is the best kind of presence, holier than blood and more thirst-quenching than wine. I look forward to working amid such spirit.


1 comment:

Sheila Lamb said...

I went to Shepherd Univ. for my undergrad - people always thought it was a Christian school. It was not :-) Sounds like you are off to a wonderful start! Can't wait to read more from Biblioasis.