Reading the Bible on the one-year plan is a fascinating experience. I’ve read it in bits and pieces before, but never so intensively.
One thing I did not expect was how illuminating it would be to read the Old Testament. It is full of rich, archetypal picture-language that can still speak to us today with formative power. Each day, the reading from the Gospels resonates with the Old Testament readings in ways that bring me to insights I never had before.
I don’t know why I should be surprised. After all, it is the foundation of the teachings of Christ, who came not to abolish the Old Law, but to fulfill it. But what that means is not simple or obvious, or it would not have been so difficult for the people of his time to accept him. What really was the nature of his deed, of this “fulfillment”? And how do I follow him in that light — through the pages of this book, and through life?
The book of Exodus contains a wonderful example of an image that is both ancient and of-the-moment. When the Israelites led by Moses have escaped from slavery in Egypt, after some time wandering in the desert they have nothing to eat and they start to grumble. So the God they are now following, the I AM who spoke to Moses in the burning bush, says he will send them bread from heaven.
This makes me think of loaves of bread raining down and bonking people on the head, and in fact that is how some images depict it. But if you read the passage carefully it is nothing of the kind. This is very special “bread” with peculiar qualities:
- It comes from dew that falls in the night.
- When this dew goes away in the morning, it leaves a white flaky substance, “fine as frost on the ground.”
- Each person has exactly enough for his or her needs. “Whoever gathered much had nothing left over, and whoever gathered little had no lack.”
- When the sun grows hot, it melts.
- It tastes like wafers made with honey.
- It must be consumed during the day. Anything saved for the next day will turn rotten.
- The exception is the Sabbath, when no work is to be done. A double portion may be gathered the day before.
There are materialistic explanations having to do with salt deposits in the Sinai desert and edible insects. But to me that is completely missing the point. The Israelites were on a spiritual journey. They were called to develop new capacities that were not available to humanity in the consciousness of Egypt, with its cultural riches born from divine wisdom and a ruler who was God on earth.
That meant experiencing the desolate absence of direct spiritual perception, in order to develop a free individuality. It meant cultivating the ability to consciously say I AM that only life in the material world can give. But the process would take time, and in the meantime they needed food, sustenance to carry them through the spirit-less desert.
So what is this food that manifests in the night, melts in the day, is just enough for each one’s needs, is fine as frost and sweet as honey, and cannot be stockpiled or stored? “What is it?” the Israelites said, man hu — and that question became its name, manna.
In my struggles with prayer and meditation I have found that a question taken into the night often yields fruit in the morning. Some transformation takes place when, having come to a clear, wakeful formulation of my issue, I can let it go and trustfully enter into the darkness, allowing my anxieties and worries to fall silent for a time. The next day, I’m likely to find I have what I need.
I have a similar experience when I practice mindfulness, focusing on some quiet, rhythmic activity like breathing or walking, while gently letting go of all the random thoughts and feelings that arise. Though it seems like a useless activity that produces nothing, it gives me strength for daily life, refreshing me like a good sleep.
Manna is a question-food. It comes to us when we can ask in the right way: “How do I live in this desert?” The question must be asked again and again, our receptiveness continually renewed. We can’t cling to any particular answer, for that will turn it from nourishment to poison. The present moment cannot be preserved; it melts away as soon as it arrives.
And yet, it is an everyday miracle that we are able to grant each moment a share of eternity, simply by making space for it, by stepping back, silencing the chatter of our ordinary selves, and allowing the I AM to speak. So the blessing of the divine world falls quietly upon us, like dew in the night, and the desert becomes fruitful.
How have you found bread in the wilderness?