I remember my horrifying fears about the world out of control when I was a little. My mother was my first responder. Day or night, she would be with me and help me calm down. Her soothing fingers stroked my tear-soaked hair. Sometimes she sang. Occasionally she ceremoniously served me some warm milk. She usually talked quietly. Sometimes she just listened until I breathed more slowly.
She passed away over ten years ago, and she never knew anything about COVID-19, but I learned what I need to know from her. She taught me that there was always something bigger than me, something greater than her, something that caused the universe to stay there, generation after generation. I could find examples of “presence” when I quieted enough to think about it.
It could be that my mother’s confidence in this greater good – this ‘presence’ – is what prepared me to appreciate the calming messages in many of the ancient Christian texts. For instance, in the Dialogue of the Savior (one of the books from the Nag Hammadi Library), the disciples of Jesus ask him big questions too.
“Where is the soul established and where does the true mind dwell” (128)?
“’When you see the one who exists eternally that is the great vision.’ They all said to him, ‘Explain it to us” (137).
What difference do these questions make in the midst of a coronavirus pandemic? I think these are the types of things we ask when the whole world is seeking answers to what no one yet knows. Who are we? Where did we come from? Where are we going? How will we survive?
Many of the earliest Christian texts (lost for many centuries) were composed during terrifying times. In the second century, when the Dialogue of the Savior might have been written, Roman oppression became increasingly terrifying. Martyrdom wasn’t an everyday experience, but it was always a possibility. Jewish hopes for a return to ‘normal’ had been dashed. The newer Jesus-followers had also hoped the Messiah would rescue them, but he was shamefully crucified instead.
And then, a century later, the memories of Jesus and his teachings came back to comfort them. They imagined dialogues with Jesus, sometimes before his death, and sometimes afterward. In the written ‘dialogue’ in the Dialogue of the Savior, it is unclear whether these memories represent Jesus who spoke with his disciples directly or in a vision. What is important is his comforting message. He also pointed to a kind of ‘presence.’
In a somewhat negative way, he points out the futility of trying to find answers from the knowledge we already have.
“Whoever does not know the work of perfection does not know anything” (133).
The “work of perfection” is a work that is greater than ourselves. It’s the presence of something beyond human abilities. Like my childhood fears, when we recognize what we don’t know in this world, the outlook is frightening. But in this passage, the Savior is pointing to the intelligence bigger than we are. None of us can claim the work of perfection, but the Creator of the universe can. We’ll know what we need to know when we become familiar with the work of the One who causes perfection.
“Who does not understand how fire came to be will burn in it, not knowing its origin” (133)
If we don’t know what causes fires or what fires will do, we become its victim. But by understanding more about it, it becomes useful to us.
And to clarify further,
“All things are hidden from one who does not know the root of all things” (133).
All three aphorisms point to the power available to us through looking beyond the surface of things. Search for the cause, and we will find that the “root of all things” – or the great Creator – is greater than we are. And as we become familiar with the work of this Creator-God, we find the answers we need for the things that perplex us, whether we’re little children or adults trying to find some comfort in the COVID-19 pandemic.
Just as my mother helped me look beyond the terrors of my childish mind, knowing our “roots of all things” brings peace. The master (in the Dialogue of the Savior) comforts Mary, one of the disciples with him, with this conviction in her roots:
“I say to you, truly the living God is in you, as you also are in God” (137-138).
That’s the promise of “presence” I need to hear over and over again.