October 21, 2007
Laban and Bethuel answered, "This thing comes from the Lord; we can say nothing to you bad or good. Here is Rebekah; take her and go, and let her be the wife of your master's son, as the Lord has spoken."
When Abraham's servant heard their words, he bowed himself to the ground before the Lord. Then the servant brought out gold and silver jewelry and articles of clothing and gave them to Rebekah; he also gave costly gifts to her brother and to her mother. Then he and the men who were with him ate and drank, and they spent the night there.
When they got up the next morning, he said, "Send me on my way to my master."
Her brother and her mother replied, "Let the girl remain with us a while, at least ten days; then she may go."
But he said to them, "Do not delay me, now that the Lord has granted success to my journey. Send me on my way so I may go to my master."
Then they said, "We will call the girl and ask her." So they called Rebekah and asked her, "Will you go with this man?"
She said, "I will."
So they sent their sister Rebekah on her way, along with her nurse and Abraham's servant and his men. And they blessed Rebekah and said to her,
Our sister, may you increase
to thousands upon thousands;
may your offspring possess
the cities of their enemies.
Then Rebekah and her attendants got up, mounted their camels, and went back with the man. So the servant took Rebekah and went his way.
Now Isaac had come from Beer Lahai Roi, for he was living in the Negev. He went out to the field one evening to meditate, and looking up, he saw camels approaching. Rebekah also looked up and saw Isaac. She slipped quickly from the camel and asked the servant, "Who is that man in the field coming to meet us?"
"He is my master," the servant answered. So she took a veil and covered herself.
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter, James, and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.
Peter said to Jesus, "Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters--one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah."
While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!"
When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, "Get up; don't be afraid." When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus alone.
As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus instructed them, "Don't tell anyone what you have seen, until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead."
The disciples asked him, "Why, then, do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?"
Jesus replied, "Elijah is indeed coming and will restore all things. But I tell you, Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but have done to him whatever they wished. In the same way the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands." Then the disciples understood that he was talking to them about John the Baptist.
The literal story of Isaac and Rebekah is an intriguing one--a kind of romance in which the hero plays very little part. Abraham sends a servant to his kinsfolk to find a wife for his son. The Lord leads the servant to Rebekah, and with her family's consent, she is brought back to Isaac. They first see each other at a distance, and Rebekah's first response is one of apparent modesty: "She took a veil and covered herself."
In commenting on this in his Arcana Coelestia (#3207), Swedenborg takes the occasion to explore the subject of "appearances of truth." That is, rather than looking at the uniqueness of this particular incident, he turns to the phenomenon of "veiling" in a much broader sense. His main point is that we never, in this life or the next, are in possession of "pure truths." That is, we never see things perfectly, as the Lord sees them. We might simply say that no matter how clearly anything is presented to us, our eyesight simply is not capable of seeing all there is to be seen. Or we might echo the apostle Paul and say that "now we see through a glass, darkly" (1 Corinthians 13:12).
At first reading, Swedenborg's commentary seems to have only a formal kind of connection with the literal meaning of the text; but in fact there is a plausible bridge between the two. All we need to do is consider how we perceive one another and how we want to be perceived by others. We cannot help but recognize that we do not understand other people perfectly, and that we ourselves intentionally "put on appearances." There are thoughts and feelings within us that we do not want made public. We take this for granted, and extend a kind of immunity to others. By and large, we don't "pry." We allow each other our "veils."
Like many other "rules of conduct," this is one we take for granted until it is broken. That is, we don't realize how binding the rule is until someone asks us an inappropriately intimate question or, on the other hand, shares an embarrassing confidence. I suspect that most of us, in such circumstances, find ourselves momentarily speechless. We would actually be hard pressed to explain exactly why this kind of transgression is so disconcerting. It's a little like being asked to describe the color of lamplight in the living room. It is quite different from sunlight, but when we are immersed in it, when it is not contrasted with anything else, it is simply, indescribably, there. It just isn't done.
In a way, then, we might say that as soon as Rebekah saw Isaac, she put on her best behavior, just as we all tend to do. It is reassuring; then, to find Swedenborg saying that this is not necessarily deceitful. "Appearances" can be "appearances of truth." To put this most simply, in interpersonal terms, "our best behavior" may not exactly represent the person we are, but it may quite truly represent the person we are trying to become. If it is false in being only our best behavior, it is true in being our best behavior.
Our New Testament reading points us toward an even deeper application of this general principle. On the mount of transfiguration, the Lord granted three of his disciples a glimpse of his inner nature. They saw something of the radiant soul within, something of the Godhead that had been (as one of our favorite Christmas carols puts it) "veiled in flesh." In the discourse at the Last Supper as we find it in John's gospel, the Lord said, "It is expedient for you that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Comforter will not come to you; but if I depart, I will send him to you" (John 16:7). As long as he was present to their physical senses, they could not be conscious of his inner presence. He could not be with all of them "always" as long as their attention was focused on his material substance and shape, on the body that could only be in one place at any one time. The very finiteness of the body veiled the omnipresent glory of the Divine within.
This, our theology tells us, is the reason the veil of the temple was rent at the moment of Jesus' death on the cross. Swedenborg ties this directly to the glorification of the Lord's human. To quote from Arcana Coelestia (#2576.5), "We can see from this what is meant by 'the veil of the temple being rent in two,' . . . namely, that the Lord had entered into the Divine itself, all appearances being dispersed; and that at the same time he had opened an approach to the Divine itself through his human made divine." If we put this in less technical terms, it means that with this final victory, the Lord essentially finished transforming the human nature he had received from his mother. That nature, with all its "normal" impulses, became totally obedient to the Lord's divine soul and therefore totally expressive of it.
Recall, if you will, some moment when you felt yourself profoundly moved--perhaps by some little act of service, perhaps by the beauty of a tiny infant, perhaps by the tragedy of an untimely death. Recall how inadequate words were to express that depth of feeling. Then imagine suddenly being able to express that feeling perfectly, effortlessly, in all its warmth, strength, and clarity. That would be a "rending of the veil of the temple" of your particular body. That would be a little image or reflection of the Lord's glorification. On the one hand, it would mean your "entry" into the depths of your own being; and on the other hand it would mean that you would be totally open to others, totally transparent and accessible. The "real you" would be right out front.
Those depths of feeling are always there, like the depths of the ocean that support its surface. There is within each one of us what Swedenborg calls "the inmost": a hidden center where the Lord's life flows in. That life is love itself and wisdom itself, beautiful and potent beyond compare. The center where it flows in is beyond the reach of our consciousness, and therefore, by divine design, beyond the reach of our tampering. It remains intact, our theology says, even in the worst of demons in hell.
What we do with our daily decisions, then, has no effect on our inmost nature. What we do is either build up or break down barriers between our consciousness and that indwelling love and wisdom. Or to return to the primary image of our text, there are layers of veils between our outward lives and that indwelling love and wisdom. Our efforts to obey the two great commandments enable the Lord gradually to remove the veils, starting from the outside. Conversely, our efforts to enlarge ourselves at the expense of others gradually solidify the veils, making them into walls.
The fact is that such evils as greed and cruelty and spitefulness are ugly. If we want to indulge in them and get along in the world, we have to disguise them. We can disguise greed as noble ambition, cruelty as patriotism, spitefulness as justice. We can become quite skilled at rationalizing. The perpetrators of the Inquisition claimed to be doing the Lord's will. The parties to the carnage in what was once Yugoslavia all claimed to be seeking to set things right.
This, our theology tells us, is the way things have to be. If we are to be free to choose heaven, we must be free to choose hell. That is, we must be free to convince ourselves that evil is good. On the material level, sometimes crime does pay . . . and pay handsomely. Some people do get away with murder. Conversely, sometimes "bad things happen to good people." The result is that we cannot depend on external rewards and punishments to guide our lives. Ultimately, we have to decide to do what is right not for the sake of some payback, but simply because it is right. We have to see through the confusion of outward events, through the disguises, to the inner quality of intent.
This may serve to bring us back to the image of the veil and to the particular story of Isaac and Rebekah. The story implies that Rebekah did not veil herself in order to deceive Isaac, but in order to present herself as modest. If she was indeed modest, then the veil was not so much a concealment as an expression. It was "an appearance of truth."
It worked, as perhaps all such appearances do, by a kind of selectivity. We are extraordinarily complex creatures, each of us with a wide range of interests and feelings. Rebekah was no exception. Later in the story, she turns out to be anything but passive, scheming successfully to foil her husband's efforts on behalf of Esau, and establishing her own favorite son Jacob as Isaac's successor. Early in the story, as a young girl taken from her own family to a foreign country to marry someone she had never met, we may well imagine that her diffidence was real. Out of the welter of emotions she must have been feeling at that critical meeting, she chose to present that diffidence, and expressed it in a way that Isaac could understand.
What happens if we look at the setting of our New Testament story in this light? The intent of the incarnation was not to conceal the Divine but to reveal it. The flesh did "veil," surely, but in such a way as to express the inner nature in our everyday language. The teaching and preaching and healing of the Lord's ministry made use of physical words and deeds that were intrinsically inadequate for the full expression of divine love and wisdom. The fact is, though, that our own minds, and especially our physical senses, are intrinsically incapable of grasping divine love and wisdom. "There is no searching of his understanding" (Isaiah 40:28). It has to be toned down if we are to perceive it at all. It has to be translated into our own simple language.
This is not easy. One British scientist and philosopher is reported to have said, "I don't feel that I really know a subject until I can write a children's book about it." To simplify without distorting often seems impossible. The Lord's parables are brilliant, exquisite "veils," simplifications of profound truths, images with depths of meaning that we can keep discovering year after year after year.
If at first it seems discouraging to be told that we never get beyond appearances, this is the good news. There is an endless supply of the delight of discovery. Around the turn of the century, just before the exploration of the atom began, physicists thought they had all the problems pretty well solved. Some were actually advising students to go into some other field, because in physics there were no new worlds to conquer. Actually, of course, it seems as though every discovery, every "answer," raises a host of new questions. Swedenborg remarked that "it seems as though . . . simple things must be less perfect than composite ones, yet the simple things out of which composites are formed are more perfect" (Divine Love and Wisdom #204). The deeper we look, the more we wonder. The more we learn, the more opens out before us to be explored.
It behooves us, then, to drop any pretenses we may have to "really knowing the score," and to recognize the fundamental haziness of our understanding. This is how things look to me, but it is not likely to be exactly the way things actually are. I need to pay attention to how things look to you.
Lastly, the paragraph from Arcana Coelestia that deals with our text does add a most significant dimension to this whole subject. It tells us that appearances of truth are accepted by the Lord as truths "if there is good within them." That is, if our efforts to understand are prompted by a genuine concern for each other, if we are trying to learn, not in order to inflate our own egos, but in order to bring benefit and not harm to others, that makes all the difference in the world. Then even our misunderstandings will draw us closer together, as they awaken us afresh to our need of the Lord's guidance and care. Amen.
Dear Lord, there have been times in our lives when we thought we "knew the score," thought we had it all figured out. But just as often, if we have been honest with ourselves, we have discovered that we are not quite as intelligent and wise as we thought we were. For you, O Lord, have created a world of endless levels of reality, veiled with endless veils. And each time you pull aside one of those veils and show us the wonders of a deeper reality, we soon discover that there are even more veils that our minds have yet to penetrate. Give us the humility to accept the limitation of our own understanding. Keep us mindful that what we know is like a drop in the ocean compared to what we do not know. Keep our minds continually open to deeper insights than we have yet seen, so that you may continue to pull aside the many veils that stand between our minds and your pure divine light. Amen.
Rev. Dr. George F. Dole