In the two weeks since the death of Queen Elizabeth II, I’ve found myself thinking again and again of King Charles. At 73, he has become the oldest person to ascend the British throne. And although few of us are waiting to rule over kingdoms (real ones, anyway), Charles’s experience puts a spotlight on something many of us can relate to: how the opportunities we imagine might transform our lives for the better so rarely happen along the timeline we expect. And sometimes when they do present themselves, we find we’ve already grown accustomed to living without them. Two paintings help me reflect on this more deeply.
“Moses and the Burning Bush”, by 17th-century Dutch artist Gerard Hoet, is an exquisite drawing of an oft-represented scene in western art history. Artists from Raphael and Poussin to Chagall and Keith Haring have evoked the narrative found in the book of Exodus. Born a persecuted Israelite in Egypt, Moses’ mother, in a desperate effort to save him, sails him down the river in a watertight basket. The Pharaoh’s daughter finds and adopts him, and Moses is raised as a leader and prince of Egypt. But at the age of 40, he’s forced to flee Egypt and start a new life.
The drawing shows Moses years later, at 80, living peacefully in exile in a place called Midian. Here he is considered a foreigner but has married a local woman, had children and settled into a new community. This is when he sees the burning bush and hears the divine voice that will summon him into the next phase of his life.
On first glance, it seems impossible that any of us could relate to this scene. But there is beautiful symbolism here for those times when it seems like opportunity is both interrupting us from a comfortable life and inviting us to receive something we believe we’ve always wanted or were somehow always meant to do. In the background of the drawing we see herds of sheep and shepherds, symbols of a routine and likely satisfied existence. Whatever Moses might have aspired to in his younger years, he is now a shepherd and settled in his responsibilities and community. Like many of us, whose lives are satisfying to a certain degree but might not have turned out exactly as hoped or expected. Life has this funny way of not deferring to our expectations or our preferred timings.
Moses is out in the middle of an ordinary day when he has this otherworldly, life-changing experience. Most reflections on this scene focus on the miracle of the burning bush, but sometimes I think the greater head-shaking element is that Moses was invited to step into a role he could never have created for himself, at a time in his life when he probably felt least ready to carry it out. Not to mention that accepting the invitation would require irrevocable life changes or fierce trust in the unfolding unknown.
Hoet shows him kneeling and taking off his sandals in front of the flaming bush, as an angel directs him that he’s now on sacred ground. I can’t help wondering if the ground is also sacred because it is where Moses’ life is being broken open anew, inviting him into an adventure that will affect not just his life but also those of many others. And this does not happen in any special place, but right in the middle of his ordinary life. There is always the possibility of discovering the extraordinary in our seemingly ordinary lives. Perhaps the line is thinner than we allow ourselves to imagine. If we dare risk it, we may yet see ourselves as still holding more promise than we’ve believed possible.
What I also love about this story is that ultimately the opportunity didn’t come too late for Moses. His 40 years as a shepherd, acquiring patience, learning to read signs of danger, had prepared him for the role he was now being asked to step into, shepherding an entire people from bondage to freedom in new pastures. At any other time of Moses’ life, even when he thought he was most ready, he simply would not have been. More often than we might think, the seemingly untimely invitations of our lives arrive once we’ve had time to grow into being the people who could handle them.
But even a good thing can be a challenge to accept into our lives. We might find ourselves wrestling with the idea of becoming a new iteration of ourselves. Rembrandt’s “Jacob Wrestling with the Angel” is another 17th-century painting I find strikingly symbolic of times of transition and growth in our everyday lives. Also taken from the Hebrew scriptural tradition, it depicts the scene from the story of Jacob, a scheming character who’s travelling back home to seek the forgiveness of his brother from whom he cheated a birthright. He’s been away for years, and this painting depicts a scene from a night on the journey. Jacob can’t sleep and at this crossroads, this in-between place from where he was and where he is going, he is visited by a stranger who ends up wrestling with him all night long.
It is often at night that we are kept awake by our worries and fears, when we play out the different scenarios if we choose one course of action over another. At dawn, Jacob and the stranger are still battling. The stranger injures Jacob, marking him so he will forever remember the significance of this night, then tells Jacob to let go of him. But Jacob, who knows that the stranger is a divine guest, refuses to do so until the stranger blesses him.
Rembrandt’s painting depicts the wrestling like a loving embrace or dance, with the stranger portrayed as an angel because the narrative eventually reveals that Jacob was wrestling with God. The blessing Jacob receives is a new name, Israel, meaning “one who wrestles with God”. He now has a new identity to help him in the life ahead of him. But Jacob had to be willing to look the opportunity, the gift, the invitation in the face and courageously wrestle with it until he could truly understand what he both wanted and needed.
It’s funny how rarely we talk about the fear that can come with getting what we most want, and the courage we sometimes need to say yes to the very thing that could transform us. The call to expansive opportunities, experiences or responsibilities, is seldom aligned to our sense of readiness for it. It often seems it’s more about our willingness to step up and into a promising unknown.
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