The mystery of the familiar

‘The eyes of the fool are [only] on the ends of the earth’ (Proverbs 17:24). ‘The awakening of the human spirit is a homecoming,’ John O’Donohue reckons in his book Solitude is Luminous. ‘Yet,’ he adds, ‘ironically, our sense of familiarity often militates against our homecoming.’ The philosopher Hegel agrees: ‘Generally the familiar, precisely because it is familiar, is not known.’

As a young preacher, I hoped that my prayers and persuasion would facilitate Damascus Road arrests among my listeners. But on reading Saul of Tarsus’ conversion afresh (Acts 9:1-31) I realise that his crisis zapping by itself would have been utterly inadequate. By contrast, the prodigal son’s conversion started quietly in his drab routine as a pigherd, yet homesickness led to his active homecoming in repentant humility, a return to his destiny among the familiar. Why had he left home initially? Hegel could well have supplied the answer in just one sentence: ‘Familiarity is one of the most subtle and pervasive forms of human alienation.’ Go figure! O’Donohue recommends that you ‘decide to view yourself as a complete stranger who has just stepped ashore in your life … Break the numbing stranglehold of complacency and gradually begin to sense the mystery of yourself’ (see Psalm 139:13-14).

  1. Learn to feel ‘at home at the hearth of your soul’

Saul’s first three days after meeting the ascended Jesus were devoid of light and food. His soul was like a turf fire which ‘comes out of the earth and carries memories of trees and fields and long-gone times. It is strange to have the earth burning in the home – the place of warmth and return. In everyone’s inner solitude there is that bright and warm hearth.’  ‘Solitude is different from loneliness: when you are lonely you become aware of your own separation. Solitude can be a homecoming to your own deepest belonging’ (J. 0’D). When the prodigal ‘came to himself’ he longed afresh for his father and home (Luke 15:17, Greek). Surely Saul’s inner fire was fuelled by thoughts of misapplied Messianic scriptures. Oh how those references now burned and warmed his heart as he reviewed Jesus’ time on earth as fulfilment of the Law, the Psalms and the Prophets.

  1. Turn the ‘black hole’ in your soul into a well

After three sightless days, Ananias visited ‘so that you may regain your sight.’ His very first words had been most reassuring, enabling Saul to feel accepted in the Christian family he had hitherto zealously opposed: ‘Brother Saul.’ He also laid hands on him (as Saul had foreseen in vision) and bade him ‘be filled with the Spirit.’  Saul experienced what Jesus had promised: ‘Whoever believes in me … out of his heart will flow … living water … [of] the Spirit, whom … they were to receive’ (John 7:37-39).  ‘A well [belongs in] the darkness and silence … [and] the resources of consciousness awaken with a sudden freshness, new springs … alive within us’ (J O’D). ‘Spring up, O well, sing to it,’ sang the princes of Israel in the edge of the promised land (1 Samuel 21:17). When ‘a well awakens in the mind, new possibilities begin to flow; you find within yourself a depth and excitement, which you never knew you had. When we are ready, the door of the heart becomes the gate of heaven.’ Not only was Saul recognised by family (1 Samuel 21: 17, 26-27), he was also rejected by foes (1 Samuel 21:23-25). And he, for his part, was receptive to heaven’s input of revelation (1 Samuel 5: 22) and responsive in his output of testimony (1 Samuel 5:20-22, 29).

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