The Zoo Fence
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The Sacred Riddle
or, Gathering Herbs with Sister Mary’s Grace

This morning, I was asked to reply to a letter inquiring about the Monks of the Sacred Riddle, and specifically about the Sacred Riddle itself. In search of an answer, I drove into Cranberry County [a non-existent corner of rural Maine], where, across a cultivated field alongside a lonely country road, I saw Sister Mary’s Grace working in her herb garden.

I parked my car, and walked over to find the Sister harvesting basil, rosemary, and parsley, which, she said, would be frozen for use in her kitchen over winter. At her invitation, I joined in the work.

After a bit, the two of us sat down among the plants to rest, and I repeated the correspondent’s query.

Sister Mary’s Grace replied with this story.

“In the beginning, I asked Mother the very same question. I suppose everyone of us does so, sooner or later.

“‘;It is all a riddle’, Mother told me then, ‘and the farther along this path you travel, the more evident will that become. Consider these statements: The more you know, the less you know. In order to be filled, you must be emptied. To be reborn, you must die. To find what you are looking for, you must stop looking for it. The only obstacle between you and your goal is you. More is less, less is more; one is many, many is one. To be who you are, you must stop being who you are not.’

“‘Today,’ Mother explained, ‘you may repeat these expressions and others like them, because you have read or otherwise been told they are true. But when you say them, they come out sounding like babble, for you do not yet know them to be true. You are, in effect, a well-intentioned parrot; you mean well, but you do not know what you mean. In time, you will know, truly know, that they are true. Then, from your mouth too, they will sound true. In this way, we discover that the ultimate riddle is: When does a riddle cease being a riddle?’

“With that, Mother became silent. Although I had barely understood her message, I sensed that was as much of an answer as I was going to get, so I thanked her, and set out to return to other things. As I did so, Mother called my attention to a ruby throated hummingbird hovering beside a potted fuchsia plant hanging from a hook outside the window; and she asked, ‘How is that hummer like Matthew 28:21?’”

Sister Mary’s Grace interrupted her story, and laughed out loud; then, she continued. “With that, Mother dismissed me. Immediately, of course, I rushed for a bible. You can imagine my surprise when I discovered that chapter 28 of Matthew has no verse 21. The Gospel of Matthew ends at chapter 28, verse 20!

“Of course, I wondered if I had misunderstood Mother. But that seemed most unlikely; for I knew that, if I had learned anything as a seeker, it was to listen very carefully when Mother speaks. Had Mother made a mistake, I asked myself? That was even less likely. Just in case, I reversed the sequence, and consulted chapter 21, verse 28. There, I found Jesus’s story of the son who said he would not do his father’s bidding, but then did. While that condition describes many of us, I’m sure, I couldn’t see a connection to the hummingbird.

“Over the next days and weeks and months, I pored over every book in the bible, paying particular attention, of course, to those with a twenty-first verse in a twenty-eighth chapter. From there, I turned to other texts and to scriptures from other traditions, again especially those with a twenty-eighth chapter at least twenty-one verses long! Was there perhaps some other Matthew, I wondered? Another version, a different translation, or another book altogether? Maybe by some other name? Undoubtedly as Mother intended, I spent endless hours at the public library, and even longer in meditative prayer.”

Here, Sister Mary’s Grace paused. I sensed that she was remembering the long search, its ups and its downs, disappointments and joys, and the many years it had consumed.

“As a matter of fact, very nearly twenty-five years,” she said, in answer to my unspoken question.

“And did you ever resolve it?” I asked. “Was it the wrong citation?”

Sister Mary’s Grace rose to resume her work among the herbs. “No, there was no mistake,” she said, smiling, “Mother had it right, as she always does.”

“But I don’t understand,” I insisted. “How is a hummingbird like a non-existent biblical verse?”

Sister Mary’s Grace gathered a handful of sweet smelling basil, and offered it to me as a parting gift. As I took it from her hand, she asked, softly, “How is it not?”

Later, back at my desk, I realized I did not have a definitive answer to the correspondent’s question. Perhaps there is none. For whatever it may be worth, my own personal guess is that the Sacred Riddle has something to do with how it is possible that the impossible is not only possible but inevitable, and what’s more, commonplace. Perhaps it is a riddle because it makes no sense until you see it yourself, and then it becomes eminently sensible. And maybe it is sacred because it belongs to the Divine. Perhaps, I finally wrote in my response to the correspondent’s inquiry, it is you and I who are the Sacred Riddle.

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