Several months ago, on a flight from Dallas, I overheard a short conversation between a young mother and her son. They were just settling into their seats, getting carry-on bags positioned and seatbelts secured. After looking around a bit, the young boy asked, “Mom, are we in church?” His mother smiled and said, “no son, we’re in Texas”.
I laughed quietly and wrote down the conversation in my notebook. Yet, for all the pleasure this little incident gave me, I couldn’t put my finger on the reason why I laughed. I’m still not completely sure, but I have an idea.
One possibility is that I find geographical blunders funny. I also find them a little bit dismaying. I have a handful of friends that believe I just returned from a trip to South America or Africa – when in fact, I visited the country of Honduras (in Central America!). These people have no clue where Honduras is and they never bother to find out.
Of course, I don’t expect a child to be so geographically informed. And I was pleased that his mother wanted him to know where he was. But I don’t think geography is the point here. I think the issue is a bit more fundamental than that. In our frequent concerns about place, many of us really do have trouble knowing where we are. This is, of course, a navigational issue. It is also a spiritual one. We certainly want to know how to get home. But we also need to know where home really is.
What I’m trying to say is that we somehow know of a domestic standard that is higher than our immediate experience. Maybe we know of this standard because we have visited beautiful homes and carefully landscaped villas. Or maybe we have seen these places in movies and books. Maybe we have memories of an ideal childhood retreat or vacation spot. Maybe we just know and can’t explain how we know.
Plato (as part of his idea of forms) called a true standard eidos. Such standards have become part of our Western heritage as the objects that cast shadows on a cave wall. We experience only the imperfect shadow, but the shadow itself hints of a true reality outside the cave that we cannot see. Somehow we all have an idea of what an ideal home really is.
There is a popular dialogue going around the Central Valley (of California) these days. It goes something like this: “Is this Heaven?” asks a visitor. “No”, is the reply. “It’s Fresno”. This, of course, is not meant to be a serious Platonic commentary. It is meant to be an endearing joke. At least it makes those of us who live in Fresno smile.
And maybe we laugh, and yet we wonder. Where are we really? If our Judeo-Christian heritage informs us of a better place beyond this vale of tears, should we even try to find our home here below?
Of course we should. And we should appreciate the beautiful places all around us. We should recognize them for what they are: imperfect semblances. To do so is an act of spiritual realization and healing. We live amidst the Created Order. To a greater or lesser degree (depending on where we live and how much we have destroyed it) the handiwork of Heaven is right here.
Of course some days are bleak, even if you live in a place like Neuschwanstein Castle. It rains, it snows, the roof develops a leak. The inventory of perfect days, even in Disneyland, can easily fit on a small sticky note. This is mortality after all.
Our goal of finding Shangri-La (or even a perfect weekend retreat) will ever be denied as long as we hope for perfect weather, perfect health, and perfect cooperation in a fallen world. But, if we allow them to, Jesus and Plato can keep us from despairing. Not all cavernous shadows are malignant.
A rose is still beautiful even if it’s raining. Our loved ones are still children of God even if they’re currently feeling a bit down – or even if we are. A faded butterfly pinned to the bottom of an old unit tray is cause for rejoicing. Somewhere - thanks to the Creator – there is a similar one flitting among wildflowers having a perfect day. It is a reminder, like so many other beautiful things all around us, that we are heirs of perfection. You can find hints of Heaven in Fresno. It just takes practice seeing through the fog.