In the first part of this post, I discussed the pressures academics face with a very literal metaphor: the pressure of the atmosphere all around us, intensified in the spring break (or “spring broken”) times of scarce resources. I also proposed that, in some elusive way, the universe is open to God’s power, perfected in Christ.
Some of this evidence is in the form of the four Gospel accounts. I take these scriptural documents, after the late John Polkinghorne, as “evidence, the record of foundational spiritual experience, the laboratory notebooks of gifted observers of God’s ways with men and women.”1 These show how God’s elusive and pervasive power works, through the common and the cracked, taking baby steps through life.
I find myself especially reminded of the story at the end of Luke, of Cleopas and his wife2 walking on the road to Emmaus. I have found myself on long walks like this through all seasons of life, the constant step-by-step motion occupying the body, while the mind circles through its own thoughts. The steady, small exertion of stepwise progress helps me put things in order, not because I can focus on a train of logic, but because I can focus on other things, opening the possibility of God breaking through.
I imagine that this was what was going on as the two disciples walked home in a crushing season of deep defeat. The powers and principalities of mob and state killed their Teacher, mocking him as a false king. He drew no sword and turned his other cheek when he was struck. He was silent when questioned and ground up in the gears of the Roman legal system.
There was something else, but it was lost in the tumult. They had heard some strange reports of an empty tomb. They didn’t have any categories for that information, so they stopped talking about it. An empty, open space can be explained many ways, and they had been around too long to derive much hope from the absence of evidence.
A stranger overheard them and asked them what they were talking about, like when God asked Eve, “What is this you have done?” For the first time their motion stopped. They glanced at each other, a silent decision was made between them, and they opened their conversation to the stranger.
This small act of hospitality was all God needed to act, and the act was to ask them another question: “What things?” The couple did the work of summary, like any writer works to do but for a most painful subject. They described their last, hellish week to the stranger, putting the chaos and loss into words. For the pair on the road to Emmaus, they captured their utter disappointment in a single, sad point: “We thought he would be the one to redeem Israel.” They had nothing more to say.
Like a wedge into a crack, this stranger stepped into this broken expectation and worked it open. Starting with Genesis and moving through Zechariah and Malachi, he retold the story they thought they knew. He showed how their definitions of the words “redeem” and “Israel” were both too small. Now those words encompass the whole world, the whole cosmos.
As they walked and talked, a triune power was at work. The Father had spoken the cosmos into being and given Israel the Torah, the very oracles of God, the subject of their conversation. The Spirit brought the scriptures to mind and warmed their hearts with a burning fire of longings fulfilled. And the Son? He was right there with them in their pain, opening the system of the world as he opened the scriptures to them.
They reached their destination all too soon. The stranger made as if to continue, like he did when walking on the water past a storm-tossed boat. But like the drowning men in that boat, they called out to him and asked him to simply stay for supper. They opened the door, he came in, and he ate with them.
I’m not sure if he took a bite. He gave thanks and broke the bread. Only after he gave it to them did they finally fully convert. They saw him in the open space between the two halves of the loaf, where two or three were gathered, and they knew to their depths that this was what they were missing all along.
Then he disappeared from their sight, but they knew he was still there. Their eyes had been opened, as wide open as the cosmos itself to the power of God.
When we do physical work in this universe, no matter how perfectly we transfer the energy, at least a tiny bit always spreads out, as heat. It was the same with God’s work on the road to Emmaus. Their cold hearts were warmed with hope and their closed eyes were opened. These acts were the work and power of God.
Father Stephen Freeman says that experiences like Emmaus are “a window into the truth of existence” opened by worship 3 “When we view the world, or even an individual with love and compassion, we begin to see what had previously been hidden. But we soon become distracted and attend to other things and become caught up in the anger and frustration of modern life.” This idea of knowing through love is deeper than sentiment. Freeman writes, “Our culture has reduced love to a category of emotion when, in fact, it is ontological.”
The pressure that built in my week of “spring broken” was relieved when I would remember, if only for a moment, that pressure builds only in a closed system. An open system lets the wind blow through. Because I am loved and have been given enough, I can trust that God gives the power to be open and hospitable to the needs of my students.
One of my colleagues, the biologist Cara Wall-Scheffler, carries out research on how people walk. She told me that Emmaus is only one example of many moments of significant transformation throughout scripture that involve or imply walking. The work of walking, where the body takes reversible step after step but keeps moving forward, occupies the body and opens the soul.
Another colleague and friend, the artist Gala Bent, must be thinking along these same lines. She posted to her Instagram page an image she had painted with the words “It is solved by WALKING,” a phrase attributed to Augustine (“Solvitur ambulando” in Latin).4
Inspired by Cara’s and Gala’s works, and by the English tradition of taking long walks,5 I will often solve a problem, in chemistry and/or in writing, by taking a long walk. So I solve the problem by walking, which helps me not think about it, until the answer comes to me out of the blue.
But when I looked up the attribution of the Latin phrase, I found that my interpretation of the phrase was, at best, idiosyncratic. The original way to take the phrase was not necessarily in the literal way I took it. Rather, it was that you answer questions with experimental means (which I really should have thought of in the first place, being a scientist and all).
You solve by doing, by moving, by walking through it, by testing solutions step by step, with rigor. This is work, whether it’s done in a lab, in the field, or on a computer. It’s lots of little forces over little distances and putting chaos into order, always generating heat, sometimes generating light. I trust, as a scientist and as a Christian, that in a consistent creation, the work is not in vain.
This year, the work of spring break coincided with Lent. My Lenten discipline involved fasting, and hunger was involved in the flash of irritation I felt with each interruption. Fasting didn’t make me holier or more patient. If anything, it made things feel worse. But fasting opened up a space for God to work.
Looking back on it, as I walked through those days, I found that my intuitions of scarcity and pressure were wrong. My snap judgments were corrected as I saw things the way God does, and the world opened up over time. By the time spring break ended, I did have enough time to get it all done, and I could learn to be hospitable and kind.
Step by step, it is solved by fasting in its time, by feasting in its time, by working in its time, and by resting in its time. Each day I walk through an open universe, where the Creator steps in as a stranger or a friend, giving me daily bread, broken into pieces I can receive.
- John Charlton Polkinghorne. Faith, Science and Understanding (New Haven, CT:Yale University Press, 2001), 37 (emphasis original).
- This is a speculative hypothesis on the identity of Cleopas’s companion, but I believe it fits the data from the passage as well as a good model fits a collection of data. This theme has also been depicted vividly in art: https://artandtheology.org/2017/04/28/the-unnamed-emmaus-disciple-mary-wife-of-cleopas/amp/
- Described well by Robert MacFarlane (no relation) in Robert Macfarlane. The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot (Penguin, 2012).