A Passion For Pearls
During almost twenty years of my life, I lived in a Benedictine monastery at the foothills of the Pyrenees, in the South-West of France. My room was just under an old wooden roof where pigeons used to nest and, being pigeons, they would incessantly coo. In this monastery silence was observed very strictly and the deep quiet of our rural surroundings made you aware of any noise, particularly if it came from a place right above the ceiling of your room. Most of the time, busy with things to do, I was unaware of the cooing - except during the daily time of silent prayer between the morning services of Matins -which took place at 5:30 am- and lauds, which started at 7 am. I loved that half hour of meditation, when it was still dark and the silence was enveloping – except for the annoying cooing of my noisy neighbours! Soon I found it so irritating and distracting that I couldn’t pray any more. Few times, instead of going back to my room I tried to spend my time of personal silent prayer in the chapel instead, but it was a too cold. So, as you can imagine, I was not very pleased.
Then one day a connection took place in my mind. One of the canticles that recurred weekly in our morning prayer was a serene and plaintive prayer by the King Hezekiah recorded in the 38th chapter of the book of Isaiah. This canticle compares prayer to the cooing of a dove. The English translation says “I coo – or I mourn- like a dove”, but I had memorized it in the Latin version which says meditabor ut columba (Is 38.14), “I meditate like a dove”. During my silent prayer that morning, I found that there was a better way of dealing with this annoyance than fighting it. Thanks to this sentence, I realized that indeed there is something meditative, reflective, introspective about the cooing of a dove and that it can have a soothing effect that actually helps to pray. Thus, these pigeons became the companions of my prayer. I started to treasure their characteristic sound to such a point that now whenever I hear it, it makes me want to pray.
The mindset that helped me to transform this minor irritation into prayer strikes me as quite similar to what Jesus says in the 13th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, where he describes the kingdom of heaven in this way: “it is like a merchant in search of fine pearls: on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it” (Mt 13.46).
The main meaning of this parable is that nothing is more valuable than welcoming God’s presence and action in our lives and that for this prize it is worth to sell everything we have.
But the parable also implies that the merchant finds this pearl only because he has adopted this quest as a life-style. The meaning of the parable therefore is that a deeper understanding of the way God is present and acts in our lives will not dawn on us by accident, will not result from a lazy, intermittent, lukewarm pursuit, but requires life-long dedication, persistence, single-mindedness, and especially a great deal of imagination.
This last aspect -imagination- is what we neglect most in our faith and in our Christian lives. We often think that the proper way of growing in our faith, in our closeness to God, and in our love, is by means of struggles, efforts, resolutions - by squeezing ourselves through the “narrow gate” and the “hard way” (cf. Mt 7.13f) so dear to puritans of all times. Unfortunately, this rigorism usually makes us judgmental, less compassionate, miserable and, more importantly, misses the strange way in which God is present and acts in our midst – that is what the Gospel calls the Kingdom of heaven or of God.
The kingdom of God is not a space, a territory, a political entity, like the United Kingdom, but is used in the Gospels to designate God’s way of reigning, that is of leading us to himself and to the fullness of life he has in store for us. We should translate it as “God’s style”, “God’s character”, in a way similar to the expression: The Reign of Queen Elizabeth II, by which we mean the period of history she has shaped with her characteristic way of ruling, her style, her personality.
If we had to express this in a parable we could say the Kingdom (the way of reigning) of Queen Elizabeth can be compared to a cruise ship sailing through the ocean: whatever the storms, she keeps steady in the right trajectory and radiates stability, continuity and reliability. This is a description of her qualities but, hopefully, also of the behaviour she inspires in her subjects and more generally in those who admire her.
When it comes to the description of the way God reigns, of his style, his personality, his way of acting, the Gospel emphasizes its remarkable inconspicuousness – just as a mustard seed and the yeast in the flour, it can easily be missed or dismissed. It can be perceived only by those who embark in a life-long quest, who truly pay attention, listen, and overcome their preconceived views about how a god should act.
As we know, those who misunderstood Jesus’s message and identity the most where the rigorists of his time, the pharisees, and the experts in divine behaviour, the scribes. The main problem with these people was that they thought they knew and therefore were not searching any more. They might have searched in their youth, but at one point they had given up the quest and become entrenched in their theological and ethical stances – and started to impose these on others, judging and punishing anyone who they deemed unethical and unorthodox according to their standards. They had embraced the quest only provisionally and had definite ideas and rules to describe and circumscribe the way in which a god is supposed to reign.
They might have said tha the Kingdom of God (the way God reigns) can be compared to the driving of a car: as long as you know the traffic laws and follow them rigorously you will reach your destination safely and avoid being fined. Learn these regulations and follow them and you will be righteous, that is “all right”.
Jesus was not an anarchic, he would not have wanted us to flout regulations – and yet, as we know, he explicitly states that unless our righteousness, that is our attentiveness and our responsiveness to the way God reigns “exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees” we “will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 5.20) - for the simple reason that we will not even see it, we will miss or dismiss its strange, unusual, unexpected, unassuming ways.
This is why we are invited to imitate the merchant consumed with his passion for pearls. He knows that his search will never end – and we can be sure that even when he has found one invaluable pearl, he soon resumes his quest because there can always be more beautiful and priceless pearls out there. His love for the pearls feeds his love for searching them not as a provisional endeavour but as a life-style.
This is confirmed by the lovely conclusion of Matthew’s 13th chapter, where Jesus asks his disciples whether they have understood his parables and, ever wishful, they hastily reply “yes”!
Of course they had not understood!
You can’t understand these parables when you listen to them for the first time. Their simplicity is misleading. They yield their wisdom only to those who, like the our merchant, keep questioning and ruminating them – who are imaginative, creative, resourceful in their investigation. This is why Jesus gives this advice to his disciples: these parables can be understood only by a new type of scribe specifically trained to recognize the kingdom of heaven, that is God’s style and personality - scribes able to bring “out of their treasure what is new and what is old” (Mt 13.52).
I read this as an encouragement to be loyal to our traditions of interpretations (what is treasured because of its long-proven value, which Jesus calls “the old”), but at the same time as an invitation to never be satisfied with the pearls we have found, however priceless they might seem – there will always be more exciting possibilities, what he calls the “new”.
As with our merchant, we are invited not so much to look for the result as to enjoy the process, because this is what makes us grow as humans and as Christians: not resting on the illusion that we have found once and for all the way of capturing this “kingdom of heaven” or, even worse, of having established it on earth, but rejoicing in its elusiveness, its paradoxical nature, the mysterious ways in which it grows, and the frustrating ways in which it constantly challenges our views of what a proper way of “reigning” should look like.
The treasure out of which we bring out “the old” and “the new” is the quest itself.
So back to my pigeons, I think that they taught me this very lesson. Pearls, as we know, have traditionally been associated with wisdom, to the point that they have become its unity of measure – we talk about “pearls of wisdom”. This is why, however invaluable the pearls we have found might be, we keep searching, because the quest for wisdom never ends.
More deeply, then, I think that the reason of association between pearls and wisdom has something to do with the way pearls are made.
They are the only gem material formed and found within a living creature, they are the result of a living process. As we know, they are formed when an irritant, which is usually a grain of sand, gets inside the shell of an oyster and cannot be expelled. The oyster insulates the risk posed by the intruder by coating it with nacre. Instead of expelling the irritant, it embraces it, nurtures it, and in this way the nuisance slowly grows into the white and almost perfectly round gem that humans have uniquely prized since ancient times. Diamonds, rubies, emeralds need cutting and polishing for their beauty to shine. Pearls are made beautiful by the very living process that produces them.
Here we perceive the echo of Paul’s memorable sentence in the Letter to the Romans: “We know that all things work together for the good for those who love God” (Rm 8.28) or, which is the same, “for those who are loved by God”, who welcome God’s loving action and presence in their lives, God’s Kingdom.
This is how the annoying cooing of my pigeons went from being an obstacle for my prayer to “working for my good”. I found that one way of searching for pearls, that is for wisdom, is imitating the oyster’s natural process: instead of regretting, fighting, ignoring that which irritates, hurts, exasperates us, there might be another way. Our faith gives us many more options and resources we could ever imagine, to deal with the struggles, unpleasantness, hassles and sometimes sufferings and pains in our lives. God’s consolation will always come, often in ways which we miss or dismiss only because we do not pay attention enough, we do not search assiduously and imaginatively enough.