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Listening to a book review podcast recently, I was intrigued by the title of a new book called This Other Eden. I have no idea of what the author is up to, but those three words instantly set my mind racing about things long circulating in my heart.
Full disclosure: I am a pastor-theologian of vintage years who finds biblical imagery to be both delightful and dangerous. It often demolishes the guardrails of plausibility and allows one to either plummet or soar.
I now found myself time-traveling backwards to an experience of soaring, or truth be told, possibly hyperventilating. I was breathing great gulps of air with all the intensity and intentionality I could muster. It was all I could do to try to capture the paradisal moment. Had I stood downwind from the open windows of heaven, I doubt whether I could have ingested a more divine scent.
In fact, I was standing hip deep in wild flowers on a kind of “holy ground,” amidst the ruins of ancient Armenian Orthodox churches. Bees were drunkenly buzzing all around me. I was not afraid of getting stung, as they were far too preoccupied to notice me. I am not much of a drinker and likely the most alcohol I have ever imbibed at one time amounted to a couple of shots of icy Dutch Genever. The dizziness I was now experiencing reminded me of that event, but this time with far greater joy, clarity of mind, purity of heart, and no headache.
I was with a study group of two dozen or so folks under the leadership of Dr. Donald Bruggink of Western Theological Seminary, Holland Michigan. He had been my teacher and mentor for many years. On this occasion, he had led us to the far eastern region of Turkey, hard against the Armenian border to visit the ruins of the ancient city of Ani.
History has named it the city of 1001 churches. That number may be an embellishment, but it is certainly evocative. Had it been set at 1000, it would have been mere exaggeration, but 1001 makes it delightfully eschatological.
Ani had been one of several capitals of the Armenian Kingdom, whose territory had once covered most of what is now the eastern one-third of the country of Turkey. In 301 AD, a missionary, who came to be known as St. Gregory the Illuminator, baptized an Armenian king who then brought his people through the waters to form the first Christian empire in history.
Ani thrived from being astride one of the branches of the silk road and in the 11th century reached a remarkable population of 100,000 people. But then, a series of massive earthquakes, fires, and countless invasions reduced it to ruins.
Our group passed through the high walls of Ani via the Aslan Gate, under the gaze of a stone lion faithfully on guard since the year 972. Before us, scattered across several miles of highland hillsides, we beheld half-dozen Armenian Orthodox church buildings of tumbled visage. Amidst a profuse palate of wildflowers, they beckoned us, catching the eye and tugging at the heart.
It is said that Adam and Eve had been summarily dismissed from the original Eden. In retrospect, I’m wondering if my entering the fragrant ruins of Ani meant that I had crept back into at least a facsimile of Eden settled under the watchful eyes of Aslan and at present, the relentless gaze of Armenian guards perched in a watchtower across a steep ravine.
Classic Armenian Church architecture is known for featuring an eight sided structure which includes a conical domed roof with a strong vertical thrust. Architectural experts inform us that many of the creative engineering designs found in these ancient churches are precursors to the later Gothic expression.
Only six or seven churches of Ani were still structurally identifiable. They now seemed fitted for habitation only by birds, bats, foxes and small scurrying creatures. Yet my immediate response to the ruins of this “other Eden,” with its storied history and unique setting, was one of holy awe.
The buildings ranged in origin from the 7th to the 11th centuries. The first church we entered, known as The Cathedral, was the largest of the group. While its dimensions were impressive, the fullness of its splendor had been seriously undermined when an earthquake in 1319 had summarily removed its dome. An earthquake in a later era had tumbled a corner. Mosses, grasses, and even small trees sprouted from the roof. If I remember correctly, faint outlines of the twelve apostles still steadfastly clung to one of its interior walls.
A musician in our group invited us to join together in the midst of that faded splendor, to sing a hymn of praise to God. She chose something like “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee,” or “Praise My Soul, the King of Heaven.” We readily responded, discovering that the wear and tear of centuries had not dimmed the acoustics of this holy wildlife sanctuary. Our singing, against all odds, sounded rich and full. A flock of birds, startled into flight, seemed to provide visible grace notes to our song.
The next church we visited carried the beloved name of St. Gregory. This church had been faithfully holding its ground centuries before nation states were ever imagined. In this place, our eyes and hearts were lifted up as we viewed a frescoed ceiling that through wind and weather and centuries of abandonment still has not surrendered its faint pastel echoes portraying the life of Christ.
Experiencing these sacred spaces evokes thoughts of countless prayers offered, hymns sung, and scriptures proclaimed. It makes me wonder if such expressions of adoration, wonder and praise might be still echoing through the universe, mingling with our own, all to lodge in God’s own heart.
You may think I’m heading down into the theological weeds at this point, but I did warn you that I am a pastor-theologian of vintage years. Fortunately, I am also a gardener; I do know a weed from a wild-flower.
In the biblical account of Adam and Eve’s eviction from the paradisal garden we call Eden, we are told that a cherubim with a flaming sword was set to guard the entrance. There would be no going back. But let me suggest that the flaming sword was at best a stop-gap measure. The Creator had further creative plans up the divine sleeve. There would be a way forward.
Writing on this theme at the beginning of the Lenten season, I literally am bearing the mark of ashes on my forehead. In this season that focuses on Jesus’ death and resurrection, let me suggest that these events, at the heart of the Christian gospel, mean that the cherubim with the flaming sword has been disarmed.
It’s not that we are headed back to a lost Eden, but our lives are now being drawn into that “other Eden,” an Eden that is both present to us and yet beyond us. This other Eden is envisioned in Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God or the rule of God.
My visit to Ani calls forth the intriguing, and invitational reality of this other Eden. The ruined churches remind me of a suffering Christ bearing away the sins of the world. The perfumed wildflowers offer a sign of Christ’s resurrection and of God’s intent to reconcile and restore all things.
I catch a whiff of this other Eden when our congregation assists refugees who recently moved into our area from Mariupol, Ukraine. I inhale the fragrance of this other Eden when I receive the bread and wine of holy communion. I breathe the graciousness of this other Eden when I witness forgiveness practiced and enemies reconciled. I catch the scent of this other Eden when I hear Jesus’ words, “I am the resurrection and the life,” as my sister’s ashes are placed amongst the daffodils of our church courtyard.
This other Eden is nearer than we think.
Take a deep breath.
I so enjoyed this writing and your wonderful descriptions. Thank you for sharing it during this time of Lent.
Well, then these buildings have done their eschatological job.
I can’t help but be drawn to the particulars. What’s always struck me about these churches is their remarkable and apparently perfect proportions, which give them understated elegance. Their strong blind-arcaded walls feel closer to Romanesque than Gothic to me, quite in tune with the abundance of natural light. And they rise up from the earth, built with the material they sit on. Eden uninterrupted.
Norman, no words except gratitude: that you had this experience, that you recreated it for readers here in such beautifully evocative language, and that you take in life through a theologian poet’s senses. Thank you.
This is beautifully rendered and the emphasis on Eden now in our grasp of recognition and reaction is filled with the holiness you evoke in the sacred chambers and landscapes you describe. Thank you so much for sharing this.
Ah! The Other Eden as C S Lewis says is “the scent of an unseen flower”. Thank you for so sensually taking us there.