An angel walked through a museum. On one wall, he saw a series of almost indistinguishable, modernist abstract paintings depicting gold and orange squares on deep blue backgrounds. The squares had been rendered with glitter paint and sparkled. On another wall, there were intricate landscapes and narrative paintings of shepherds, saints and mystics in precise anatomical detail with a dramatic realism that drew the viewer deep into the brooding, vertiginous clouds, mountains and lonesome hillside towns of soaring, ancient churches and rustic belfries. The angel pondered the vastly different styles facing eachother from opposite walls, and felt his shoulders tremble. One of the caretakers immediately recognized the divine presence. Slowly and timidly he made his way over to speak to the messenger from heaven. The angel spoke: I was sent down from heaven as a temporary exile. This is the punishment for my stubbornness. I also lacked patience and mercy. Now, I fully comprehend my error. The caretaker looked at the paintings and asked the angel what he had learned. The angel replied that infinity was rich and inviting, like the classical and romantic paintings on the one wall, whereas the finite was obscure, opaque and almost too simple. It was not inviting, not hospitable at all. One could see very little in finitude, and what one did see amounted to little more than some colored tesserae that blurred and left no impression. The caretaker took the angel by the arm and led him to a distant room with large photographs of space and astronomical charts. Galaxies, nebulae, close-ups of planets, comets, stars and blackholes covered the walls. The angel marveled, and grasped the caretaker’s arm with excitement. This is utterly new to me! the angel exclaimed. I only ever saw things as a simple contrast between the infinite and the finite! Now I know there is a dimension more limited than the finite, more inhospitable than the golden and orange squares!
An old priest traveling southward met a young priest heading north at a lonesome place, where the way skirted high cliffs that fell into a dark oblivion. It was windy, and they rested behind a rock to eat, drink and converse. The old priest asked what had drawn the younger one into the way. I wanted to find safety and acceptance, said the young priest. The divine has no such words in its language, the old priest laughed. Then you do not believe in heaven! the young one exclaimed in horror. On the contrary, the old priest replied, it is because I do believe in heaven. I may not believe in earth, though.
Long ago, there were lantern trees. Young men and women would deck the branches of large, ancient trees with paper lanterns, hurricane lanterns, bottles and jars filled with candles, and other colorful decorations. In the summer twilights they drank tea and ate cake beneath these glowing trees, stole kisses in the shadows, and dreamed of other planets, other worlds, lands of faeries and elves, secret places of magic and romance. One evening, after a long party beneath such a tree, a night of long glances, soft kisses, and the enchanting glow of amber, rose, sky blue and mauve lights, a young poet fell into a river on his way home. The swift current dragged him into a whirlpool, and the whirlpool dragged him into the darkness. Morning awakened him in another land, perhaps another planet. For a day he wandered through effulgent meadows and effervescent woods until he came to a large barrow. On the summit of the great hill there grew a magnificent beech, a lantern tree covered with lanterns and bottled candles. Strange elves played music, danced, and drank ambrosia from silver cups as darkness fell and the lights grew brighter and warmer. A forward elf welcomed the poet and snaked her arms around him to entice him to a dance, but he seemed unable to emerge from a deep reverie. At last, as they began to dance slowly to zither, harp and flute, the poet asked the elf what the lantern tree meant in her world. She whispered about magic, romance and dreaming of other worlds. Her words were bittersweet to him. For it is a precious thing to share something in common with strangers, but it is a hard thing to wander, to wander after shadows cast by nothing or nobody, to search a horizon that ever drifts away, to find that those who dwell in mysterious places have unsolved mysteries of their own. The worlds are infinite, and infinity wanders off one knows not where, he whispered in the delicate ear of the beautiful elf. That is why we light the lanterns. The tree is beautiful. The tree is the only stable thing.
In the end times, young men and women left the great cities in droves, exhausted from living in little prisons without gardens and being unable to see the work of their hands or the glory of their bodies and spirits. One youth ventured northward into the land of ice mountains, marshes of snow and golden reeds, and many blue seas. There he dwelt on the shore cutting timber, catching fish and making his own clothes from hemp, bark and skins. The work arduous, the nights long, the hearth often bereft of game, the youth ailed but endured. On the shores of the sparkling sea, he built a great long ship to venture out into the horizon. It required more time, strength and craftsmanship than his wood shack or forge or clothing had. It was a dream to be shaped with his own hands and by his keen eye. The more he worked, the more beautiful it became, its oars long and elegant, its sails well woven and beautifully dyed, its gunwales and prow carved with spirals and interlacing clouds. One evening, a stranger came to the shore, a supple, soft but strong girl with laughing eyes and silken hair. She admired the boat and said that she had never seen another like it. Her hands roved over the carvings and felt the unbreakable oars. The man whispered that death would take him one night not long from now, perhaps even that very night. For too long he had worked alone in the cold with little to eat and no cure for his illness and no companion to help him. The long ship was finished, but he would never sail in it. The man stared at his workmanship and the sea beyond. The damsel asked him if he regretted wandering away from the great cities. The man shook his head and told her that in the city he knew nothing of life, death or dreams. Now that he had worked with his hands and dreamed, he knew what life was, and so he was not afraid of death. Then with his last breath, he asked her to bury him at sea, somewhere close to the horizon. When he had closed his eyes, the maiden kissed him. Morning was breaking as she sailed out from the marshes into the cold sea, the keel turned toward the endless horizon, the man sleeping in the hull, wrapped in the gift his hands had made.
It was pay day and the young wife wanted to frame a picture she had taken of her husband. A poster on a telephone pole brought her to the shop of a tall, thin gentleman, advanced in years but somehow youthful and elegant in appearance and dress. The walls of his shop were covered with elegantly framed photographs, though there were also a few empty frames showing only black matting. The gentleman poured her a cup of tea and made her sit on a chaise lounge where she could get the best view of his masterpieces. Quietly, as he sipped from his own porcelain cup, he explained how there was no greater revenge than to trap a soul in a picture and imprison it in a frame, forcing it to stare out into the world for eternity. The trapped soul could nevermore participate in life and its motion and joy ever again. The young wife swallowed her tea and forced a nervous smile. For reasons inexplicable to herself, she asked about the empty frames. They are not empty, the old man laughed and wheezed. They are just reversed. Some souls do not even deserve to see the light of day. They deserve not to see but to be seen.