Looking for Paradise

The name of an old friend, Pico Iyer, appeared in the byline of an op-ed titled “The Trouble With Paradise” in the Sunday, Jan. 15 edition of The New York Times. Not actually a personal friend, Iyer is someone who inspired me greatly in a book he published a few years back: The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere. I was so taken by that book that I bought multiple copies and gave them to friends. The Times article brought back memories of that book and, of course, prompted me to run out and buy his most recent one: The Half Known Life: In Search of Paradise. (See lead photo and first three photos below.)

Iyer is a British-born essayist and novelist based in California and Japan. He’s the best-selling author of more than a dozen books, and his essays have appeared in more than 250 periodicals worldwide. His writing style is beautiful and inspired. The jacket of his latest book notes that “for almost fifty years Iyer has been roaming the world, mixing a global soul’s delight in observing cultures with a pilgrim’s readiness to be transformed. In this [latest book], he brings together the outer world and the inner to offer us a surprising, original, often beautiful exploration of how we might come upon paradise in the course of our very real lives.”

One of the longer chapters about halfway through The Half Known Life centers on Iyer’s visit to the Holy City of Jerusalem. I found it particularly fascinating because I also traveled there a number of years ago and could picture in my mind’s eye many of the places Iyer describes. And I too found some of the same jarring experiences as he did — in the place of sacred meaning to the world’s greatest monotheistic religions, existing side-by-side with petty squabbling, danger and squalor.

It was about 1988 when I was invited to travel to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem to give a couple of talks about my research and to spend some time seeing the sites and visiting a friend who was on the faculty of Hebrew University. I may be a year or so off because it was the time of the First Intifada and there was a great deal of unrest in Jerusalem at the time. I vividly remember Israeli soldiers, with rifles drawn, standing every few feet around the walls of the Holy City. My husband and I actually found their presence comforting, making us feel safer walking around inside the walls — like strolling around a prison compound, protected by the guards on watch.

Iyer describes visiting a number of the holy sites that we also visited: the Via Dolorosa, where Jesus carried his cross to the place of His execution; the Garden of Gethsemane where He prayed to the spared; the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where tradition has it that He was buried. And yet again, amid all these holy sites, we also found jarring notes of contradiction. Iyer quotes a guide at one of these sites:

You see, there’s a “status quo contract” governing this church. ... Which lays down in very great detail the precise laws for worship. ... And if the Catholics are meant to be finished with their ceremony at 2:07, and they’re still singing at 2:08, when the Armenians start up, you’re gonna see a fistfight. The holiest Christian place in the world, and that’s what you get.

He concludes:

Jerusalem: a riot of paradise overlapping at crooked angles till one was left with the sorrow of six different Christian orders sharing the same space, and lashing out at one another with brooms. (pp. 93-94, 109)

Bringing us back to his op-ed in the Times, Iyer observes: “Jerusalem — as well as any other city of faith that this writer has visited in his long career — is a city of conflict.”

At Kashmir, Iyer finds temporary bliss sitting on a houseboat. He writes, “I was truly in Heaven — so long as I forgot that, minutes across the water, army roadblocks and encampments spoke for the more than half a million soldiers trying to maintain peace in a bitterly contested territory claimed for more than 70 years now by both India and Pakistan.” While visiting Varanasi, the holy city of Hinduism, and standing in the Ganges river, Iyer found himself standing amid a chaos of flames, reducing dead bodies to ash around the clock: “Naked ascetics, smeared in ash, were expressing their contempt for simple notions of right and wrong by living in graveyards and drinking from skulls. The holy waters the faithful were gratefully imbibing contained hundreds of times the maximum level of coliform bacteria the World Health Organization has deemed unsafe for drinking.”

Well after that, Iyer ends his op-ed recitation describing the jarring angles in all the places of holiness around the world that turn out to be less than paradise when experienced. He concludes: “If paradise is anywhere, I was coming to see, it couldn’t be anywhere but where I stood.” And so goes the human condition. What we see this day, what we experience spread out before us in our lives, is all the paradise we’re going to get here on earth. The good, the bad, the ugly — but hoping and longing for paradise nevertheless.

And you know something? There may in fact be ways to enhance aspects of paradise in our own daily lives. “Making Paradise” where we stand. Two examples come to mind, the last one found in a very unlikely place.

In the September 2022 Times article, The Ripple Effect of Random Kindness (see fourth photo below), Catherine Pearson writes that new findings show that folks who show random acts of kindness tend to underestimate how much the recipient appreciates them: “People tend to think that what they are giving — like handing out a cupcake — is kind of little ... inconsequential. ... But recipients are less likely to think along those lines. They consider the gesture to be significantly more meaningful because they are also thinking about the fact that someone did something nice for them.” It also seems that those who dispense an act of kindness benefit from the gesture: “No small act goes unnoticed. ... It will help our own heart too. Maybe even more than the recipients.”

The last example I want to share — of a little bit of paradise on unlikely ground — takes place in a prison. In a recent issue of The Christian Century, Isaac Villegas wrote an article titled A Prison Cell Transfigured. (See fifth photo below.) Villegas was teaching a class to inmates in a North Carolina prison and noticed beautiful, colorful flowers gracing the walkways in that otherwise grim place. He got to know the gardener, an inmate who had convinced the prison administration to let him plant the seeds that had blown in from outside the prison walls. Villegas says this was one of this inmate’s tactics for surviving incarceration: “Do the time; don’t let the time do you.” And so this inmate transformed a piece of his everyday existence into a symbol for life beyond captivity — plants and flowers plotting a transfiguration.

Let me end with Villegas’ final thought: “We believe that God still dazzles us with wonder, with the warmth of human care, earthly life transfigured with heaven. ... We offer each other signs of hope, like the gardener I met in prison. We gather what we can find — seeds of faith, hope, and love — and cultivate our lives as plots for transfiguration.”

A bit of Paradise experienced right here. Right where we stand.

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Sandra M. Levy, Ph.D., M.Div.
I am a clinical psychologist, Episcopal priest and author, and I currently serve as Priest Associate at St. Martin's Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia.