Falling, falling. Gusts of wind whistling down the shaft, past your ears. A shooting sound, so shrill that it shakes the earlobes. Falling … fast. You cannot see the crack in the limestone wall, where groundwater seeps into joints and faults of the rock. You cannot hear the drip in the pool below, that incessant plop, plop from the porticoes above. You cannot see the spongy fungus, clinging to the greenish ledge, where at best a shaft of sunlight shimmers on the rising water levels. All that you see is black upon black: ebony layer on sable dark deepening into the shaft. Your finger dislodges a pebble. It falls. No sound. Why should it not bounce off the slick walls? Ricochet, stone to stone, then drop distantly into the water below? But no, no sounds at all. You are falling into a depth without a bottom. Reach out and scrape the sides of the shaft. Nothing! As if the shaft were opening wider, wider, into an immeasurable, inconceivable space. ‘It makes no sense!’ your lips call out into … The space cannot hear. Wring your hands, cool and slick as a salamander’s back. Open your eyes. A Light shines upward from the bottomless depth. A pure, silvery-white, such as no sun that ever shone on earth. You yearn to close your eyes. Crouch low like a cricket, as pale as a salamander in a cave, a blind bat clinging to its portico ledge above. You yearn for legs immobile, unable to send you plunging into the abyss.
A familiar dream. Consulting your handbook over a fried egg on toast, you read: ‘You will undergo a great struggle, then rise to honour and health’. But this time, it is no dream.
For thirty-eight years, this nightmare has haunted you. Falling, always falling off a familiar precipice bove the unfamiliar pool. Wet stones line the waters below, slick with greenish white fungus from the little sunlight that ever enters. Paralysed, you lie on a kind of porch with a roof overhead. You long for the water that could make limbs bend, joints untwist in the light. But should you actually enter, fall into the pool, nothing shall be the same again. Why did you dream it again last night? Saturday night used to be so simple. A pint or two in the pub. A round of darts, a pack of Walkers crisps. A whinge about that old Romanian hag in the headscarf, selling The Big Issue in front of Tesco. What is this country coming to? Used to be: fry-up on a Sunday, then the eleven o’clock sing-along. A practical talk by Canon Smythe-Sudbury about the effects of acid rain on late spring hydrangeas. Gone is my gloomy Sabbath, you muse. No organs, no pews, no plaque of Thou shalt not’s – only wailing Byzantine chant, swishing of silks, and a lot of obscure words about an ‘ineffable, inconceivable, incomprehensible’ God. What on earth possessed you to plunge into this particular pool? Give me back my little green hymnal, you moan. My four-part harmonies, wafting on soft rains. Puritan-pale faces, awaiting to-do lists of do’s and don’ts.
A Gospel as practical as the portico at the shallow end, far, far away from the depths.
For years, perhaps decades, you long to join the ancient, apostolic Church. To sense the incense wafting over, to receive the fiery coal of God’s own Body on your tongue. To kiss a tattered volume of Saint John Chrysostom and call him your kin. Guard well your limbs. Paralysed by Protestant prattle and Latin lies – for three, thirty, thirty-eight years – muscles atrophy. Eyes grow faint, in unfamiliar sunlight. Safer to stay on the porticoes by the pool. Once you plunge deep … nothing, nothing at all will ever be the same. An Anglican craft, set adrift on an Orthodox ocean, shatters on rocks that it cannot see. A blind salamander, its eyes hurt by acid rays, withdraws into the sweet, soft shadows of the cave. Paralysed legs need never strain, if they choose never to walk.
The Physician never forces you to rise. Instead, he asks: ‘Do you want to be healed?’
For thirty-eight years, this dream has haunted you. Gently, always gently lowered into the pool when the water is troubled. Wet stones line the dark shaft that they call Beth hesdá, house of mercy, slick with a greenish-white fungus from the little sunlight that ever enters. Paralysed, you lie on a kind of porch with a roof overhead. A stench of urine, dried faeces clings to your pallet. You long for the healing water that could unbend your limbs, untwist your joints. Forcing your elbows, you inch closer to the edge. You dip your hand in, when from nowhere, a blind man staggers in front of you. Should they not call it Beth zathá, the house of shame? ‘Let me not be put to shame, O my God’, you pray. In the pale shafts of afternoon light, you see his Image. His voice asks: ‘Do you want to be healed?’ ‘No one’, you bark bitterly, ‘no one helps. No one cares’. Breathe in a sweetly bitter sweat, that old familiar stench of living death on the porticoes. Your paralysis is yours. Who takes it from you? But the Physician reads your heart better than you. ‘Rise’, he commands you. ‘Rise and walk’. With every agonising step, every twist of an unused muscle, you leave behind everything that you once were. You fall into a depth without a bottom.
In the light rising, you see the Son. ‘Sin no more’, he says. That is, ‘never look back’.
Beloved in Christ: you are free to stay paralysed, as long as you like. Skim the surface of the pool, from the quiet comfort of a familiar stench. No one thrusts you into the waters of Bethzatha, troubled from … below. Once you plunge deep, however, nothing is the same. Puritan-pale faces, enamored of a gloomy Sabbath, offer you a ‘practical’ gospel: do this, don’t do that. Salvation simply guaranteed. Only Christianity is not faith in do’s and don’ts. It is faith in Christ – and Christ is a depth without bottom.
It is not the five porticoes of the Law. It is the bottomless pool of Mercy.
Shout out ‘Christ is risen!’ with all your soul, you fall into the abyss. You leave behind the soft crumbly limestone walls; the half-hearted, man-made faith of the practical; the sullen, sanctimonious naysayers who protest that a corpse bound to a pallet rises on a Sabbath. You leave behind ‘religion’: that pale, pitiful mockery. Groundless and unstable, as a gust of wind. If Christ is risen, no faith is real but falling, falling – into the hands of the living God.
THE BOTTOMLESS POOL (John 5.1b-15)
By Father Alexander Tefft