It’s full-fledged winter here in the upper Midwest. Over the past two weeks we’ve seen minus 24 degrees one day and minus 29 the next. The windows frosted. The furnace began to whine. The car stayed put for days – as did we. Then came the snow. And a thaw. Freezing rain. More snow, more subzero weather, and today – more snow again.
No wonder paradise sounds pretty good to me right now. So often it is described as a lush green garden filled with light. Graced by flowing streams. Fragrant with flowers. Laden with fruit. Not a mitten or a muffler to be seen – or needed.
But looking a little more closely at the stories and images of paradise, I find much more than a weather system. Many stories about paradise describe an eco-system in fine working balance, a garden untroubled by pests and harvested without labor in a sustainable ecology of being. Abundance is gleaned with neither harness nor shackle, in a proper alignment of each to all and all to each, humans and creatures, earth and plant life all held in right relationship with one another.
Even more than the temperate weather promised by paradise, I long for this relational balance seemingly so different from the world we live in now. And I wonder: Did this ever exist? Could it ever come to pass? Must it always be located somewhere else in time or space? Or is it possible to foster and experience some of it right here and right now, in the frigid winter season and in the broken trust of our own times?
Centuries ago, people around the globe searched the stories of paradise for clues, hoping to find its coordinates on earth. Many a European expedition to the New World was spurred by a desire to find paradise – and then conquer and claim it. On his third voyage to the Americas, Columbus once said he had found it, somewhere between Venezuela and Trinidad. But to seek it literally misses the larger point of the poetic paradise handed down through the ages. For at the heart of every paradise story is water – rivers flowing freely, often in all four directions, offering a life-giving substance that will run through our fingers each time we grab it. Not for claim or for conquest, paradise is lost the moment we pry it from others or hold on too tightly. It cannot be stolen and is not meant to be hoarded. But perhaps it can be fostered in the heart and in the world.
More useful, then, might be questions of a different kind. Such as, how does this garden of right relationships grow in our human consciousness, and where do its rivers flow? And, how can we conjure its warmth and abundance within us in any season, and how might our hearts be opened and given to one another when we do?
When you consider the stories and images of paradise, what aspect of paradise do you long for? And how might you cultivate that in your heart and your life and our world right now?