Religion travels a two-way road that moves traffic from earth to heaven and from heaven to earth. Or maybe it’s a staircase, not a road. It’s more like the one Jacob saw in his dream than the one Led Zeppelin sang about.
The biblical story of Jacob is known to Jews, Christians and Muslims alike. The wily patriarch, who would become the namesake of Israel, lies down for the night with a stone for a pillow, which might explain his fitful sleep. He dreams of a staircase connecting heaven and earth. Angels go up and down this ramp, which probably looks more like a Mesopotamian temple than a ladder. Jacob’s ladders are rope rigs that get you on and off ships in the middle of the ocean.
Oddly, the angels go up and down, not down and up. Does that suggest we’ve had it wrong? Are they more at home among us than beyond us? Either way, they are messengers, and in this dream, they bring words of blessing and promise that God will be with Jacob in that land, right where he slept.
But was it only there that God would be with him? No. “I am with you and will keep you wherever you go,” God says. Jacob wakes to say, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it!”
The story of Jacob’s ladder is biblical, but it becomes Scripture when it becomes a script for us. When we read ourselves into Jacob, we can wake to realize that the Lord is in this place, wherever it may be, and we can come to know it.
The English poet, Malcolm Guite, nudges us to wakefulness with this call to prayer in his sonnet, “Singing Bowl.” (The title is like those bowls that sound when you run your finger or a spoon around the rim.)
“Begin the song exactly where you are/ Remain within the world of which you’re made/ Call nothing common in the earth or air/ Accept it all and let it be for good.”
And let it be for good in the sense of all that’s right and in the sense of what abides forever.
Then this: “Become an open singing bowl, whose chime/ Is richness rising out of emptiness/ And timelessness resounding into time/ And when the heart is full of quietness/ Begin the song exactly where you are.”
Faith is active and contemplative. Loving your neighbor is the visible sign of loving the invisible God. Both God and neighbor are present at every moment, but God is the one most easily missed or overlooked.
Opening ourselves to the presence of God exactly where we are, and at any moment, puts us on a stairway to heaven. Or to earth.