The scene is simple; she is old but still very lovely as she stands on the wooden steps of her home with her sun-whitened hair pulled back from the gentle lines of her face. She clasps a small box, holding it out to the young man standing on the step just beneath her. She is Ukrainian, he is American, and he has traveled half the world to find her. His name is Jonathan and he is very young, very quiet, filled with a single longing to know the past that has formed him. An old time-beaten photograph has brought him here to find the woman who helped his grandfather escape the Nazis. Finally he has at least found her sister, and this sister is about to give him a treasure. She holds it out, he takes it, meeting the frank blueness of her eyes as she tells him the story of her marvelous gift.
I didn’t understand why my sister hid her wedding ring in a jar, and why she said to me, “In case. ”
In case what? he asks.
In case she was killed. Her answer is short, and she is quiet in the starkness of it. But then, as Jonathan fingers the small box in his hands; the box holding the wedding ring that had survived war and massacre, long years and the death of its owner, the old woman spoke again. Why did she bury it?
I do not know. The translator answers for Jonathan. But the old woman insists, pointing straight at him as if to extract his answer in payment for her given treasure. Ask him.
Jonathan stands unsure, his answer hesitant.
So there’d be proof that she existed? To remember her?
No. The woman rejects this theory out of hand. I don’t think so.
He tried again. In case someone should come searching one day, so they would have something to find? No, she says again. But then begins to speak, softly, surely.
It does not exist for you. She says it slowly, with solemn emphasis.
You exist for it. You have come because it exists…
It has been over a week now since I saw that scene played out in the movie Everything Illuminated (review forthcoming), but something in my soul cocked its head at those words; a restless perplexity rose up in me and since that night has not left me in peace. Somehow that scene especially echoes in my thought, for there is something in that story that is familiar to me, something in Jonathan’s search for his past and in the strange declaration of the old woman that addresses my own reality. Somewhere in that scene and story, I see myself, and I have spent the last week trying to figure out where. But tonight I finally got it.
This story vividly pictures my own restless search for identity. To me, this story of a young soul questing for the past that has made him, enfleshes my own quest to find out the essence of who I am. Especially in the spiritual realm. I have been sure of Christ for quite some time now, but besides being saved, I’m not really sure where that leaves me. What is my history, where do I fit in the grand and overwhelming kingdom of Christianity? I don’t have the ancient touchstones of local community, of extended family and a church that has watched the lives and deaths of those who brought me into the world. Like Jonathan, I must search, because both of our pasts have been severed by war, and time, and the oblivion of forgotten values. We are both young, hungry to find our place in the continuity of past and future generations, but to do that we are forced to go on incredible journeys. He traveled geographically, I travel by soul, but the goal is the same; to discover the story that has formed us and thus find the truth of who we are and how we must face the world.
Perhaps it is an epidemic of this time. I live in a generation of seekers, am just one of many young, restless spirits searching for the histories that formed us and the meaning that has yet to mold us new. We are always trying to pin down the essence of who we are, framing our selves in with theological standpoints, with tastes in art and music, with how we view the modern church in all its myriad forms. Even if we have family, even if we have loved Christ for years, we are still plagued by the feeling that we are adrift in an impossibly large sea of culture (gone global), or Christianity (gone mega and multi) or even possibility (way too much!). Add to that the removal for many of us of the traditional structures that were meant to give us stability and we are loose cannons struggling to be defined. Spiritually, I think the hunger for liturgy, tradition and beauty shared by so many in this younger generation, as well as the constant effort to refine creeds and absolutely define absolute truth, is evidence of a desire for a far more concrete picture of the faith we have embraced. We want a reality we can sink ourselves into. But ultimately, just like Jonathan, I think we are mostly searching for people; for a community of souls who have walked before us and who will walk with us to tell us who we are and what it is we are called to do. We need friends, we need parents to frame our lives with relation and meaning. I know that one of the things I most yearn for is a surety of belonging, in a particular place, with particular people, to silence the sense of isolation and bewilderment that is as close to me at times as breath.
But questing is a dangerous thing. And sometimes spiritual hunger can morph into a ravening need for affirmation so that the object of the quest is subtly changed. The object becomes not truth, but satisfaction. I begin to think that any treasure I find in my journey, any goodness found is not just an answer, but something meant to meet my own particular need. There is the subtle temptation to begin looking at any beauty, any rare experience of fellowship, any wisdom as having been manufactured to satisfy my hunger. Or if not me personally, then at least my generation, for the current crop of young souls who are the promise of the future. We live, after all, in a culture that preaches a vehement gospel of self; self-discovery, self-awareness, self-fulfillment. And it is much too easy for that self to become the unrecognized center of my spiritual search. I see that reflected in Jonathan as he holds up a treasure beyond price and guesses that it was left merely for those who wanted something to find. That its worth was set by his discovery.
But those words:
It does not exist for you. You exist for it…
They pull the both of us up short. Jonathan’s ring existed because one woman loved and hoped and feared. It was the symbol of the vibrant reality of her life. She buried it to preserve the evidence of a family who had loved long before her, and whose life lived on in Jonathan himself. The ring did not justify Jonathan’s quest, it set him in the center of a community of people who had searched and loved and hoped long before him. His return was a continuation of the hope. And that pictures convicts me of the narcissism seeping into my “sacred” search for identity. The old woman’s firm words and gentle face deny my temptation to think that the goodness I discover, the tradition and insight, the community and beauty and art that, like Jonathan, I am finally able to find are somehow present as a result of my diligence. With her face before me I cannot say that I have found them because of my virtue, that their value lies in my own fulfillment or that they exist for me. Her words deny the self obsession of my generation. We may all journey far to discover the truth and beauty for which we long, but we did not initiate a search. We answered a call. The hunger we bear is not proof of our own quality, it is the relentless evidence of a goodness existing beyond and apart from us, a beauty that calls us unto itself.
You are here because it exists…
And in those last words is a paradox relief. When I can move past the self brooding of my soul, when I can accept my hunger for identity and a tradition to define me, I begin to see that the quest is much bigger than me, much older than my “special” generation. Perhaps this is a time particularly unanchored, but by searching I am joining a long tradition of quest. My very need to seek paradoxically places me in a definite community, sets me in a long line of searchers who share my heart and my soul. I find a strange, unexpected surety in the knowledge of a certain Truth that calls us all to search. I can trust that the hunger will eventually be fulfilled. And in the meantime, I can, like Jonathan, return to my home thoughts with the insight I have gained and treasure it. It is not the end of my search, nor the fulfillment of my yearning. These insights answer somethings, and leave me still hungry in others. But they embody my hope for redemption; a transforming goodness that exists not to satisfy my need but to encompass my life.
It does not exist for you. But you are here because it exists.
There’s comfort in that.