In the Chinese Taoist tradition, painted scrolls are meant to be unrolled from the bottom. They use images that portray the journey through life. Frequent features include a path that begins wide and smooth. It passes through a darker area, with trees and shrubs overhanging the way. Then the path opens again, and the traveler has a clear view.
Since the path usually runs by a stream, there is often a bridge in the scroll painting that takes the traveler across the water, perhaps into a village. Then, the path approaches a mountain. At first, the mountain is clearly visible. Then, the path rises until it passes into a misty or cloudy area where the road can’t be seen; it is hard to tell if the mountain itself is still there. Unrolling the scroll a bit further, one at last sees the top of the mountain, clear and free of any obstruction.
We have two such scroll paintings. Because the painting is done on silk mounted on paper, the scrolls are fragile. Many westerners who own them tend to have them framed in order to preserve them. Framing a scroll keeps it from further deterioration; it also changes the experience of the journey the traveler is on. The viewer sees the whole journey at once, which is not what happens when you unroll a scroll. Nor is it what happens when one lives a life.
The scroll reveals the journey gradually. If we knew the dark or hard places in advance, as when one sees a framed picture, would one be willing to take the journey? Perhaps it is best to let the scroll of life unroll gradually.
Our family and many friends have been going through hard, challenging, dark or rocky places in their journeys. A parishioner referred to her spiritual experience using the words of San Juan de la Cruz: a “dark night of the soul.” She described the emptiness and spiritual dryness that such an experience contains.
Having had the privilege of walking through the dark and rough places with quite a few people now, I have noticed this: those who regard accident, sickness, death and spiritual emptiness as part of the path to the mountaintop seem to be more at peace, even when the journey is dangerous, or the water falls fast and hard over the rocks, or the path becomes temporarily invisible.
Like the Chinese Taoist philosophers, Christian writers knew about the murky and mysterious parts of the journey. One of them called it “the cloud of unknowing.” Another said that even in the hardest parts of the journey, the Christian’s job was “the imitation of Christ.”
It is easy to become despairing, angry or afraid if the journey is hard at certain points. I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now, and I have also looked in the scriptures quite a bit. I can’t find anyplace where Jesus, Moses or Elijah promise that the journey will be an easy one. What they do indicate, one way or another, is that for those who persevere, walking through the fear, the path leads on to a vantage point where the view is astonishing, very much worth the journey.
Praying for peace and strength for all travelers, we continue to unroll the scroll.
The Rev. Georgia DuBose, formerly of Harpers Ferry, became a pastor in Eugene, Ore., earlier this year