'The Second Tree of Paradise'

(This is the second story in a five-part series.)

By Dan Valenti

God, Who is Love - perfect and happy in Himself - created man from His very being.* We can say that Love, capital "L," created love, small "l." This act of God's creation, as reflected in Part I of this series, was an act of mercy. He brought into existence all of creation through a shear act of love, a love not earned but simply given. This is mercy.

God created us and sustains us in mercy, even though He had second thoughts because of the presence of evil in man. Though evil had yet to grasp the port of the human heart, evil had a toehold elsewhere. Christian tradition explains the presence of evil in terms of the fallen angels. Interestingly, the account of St. Michael's victory over the rebellious angels led by Lucifer ("Light Bearer") is found in the bible's last book (beginning at Rev. 12:7), not in its first book (Genesis).

Reflecting on the Book of Genesis, we can see the depth of God's mercy. Adam and Eve disobeyed God, wanting to know good and evil so as to be like God, and were driven from the Garden of Eden. Nonetheless, God promised them to save mankind from this fall - He promised the Messiah. This supports a reading of all Scripture as an account of God's mercy, a quality manifested to us through public and private revelation as an integral part of His being. He is merciful as He is almighty, good, holy, perfect, and true. God is a Unity of Love in Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, an indescribable mystery.

The Son, eternally begotten of the Father and not made, as the Nicene Creed so poetically states, was to be sent by the power of the Holy Spirit to be born of woman, in the flesh, as Mercy Incarnate. God came to mankind in all His essence, simultaneously taking on all of human essence except sin. His plan of action was to overcome original sin by the shear goodness of His absolute Being - a forever-enduring mystery meant for us to accept, not solve; meant for us to believe, not fathom.

Yellow and Red Make Orange
Our first parents' willful sin ("o necessary sin of Adam") revealed more fully the eternal attributes of God than would otherwise have been necessary, demonstrating how mercy, one with perfect Love, issued forth when needed to intervene in human affairs. Mercy did this in the person of Jesus Christ, a person both God and man, who took on human nature to fulfill God's plan for salvation.

This is the messianic, merciful Savior foretold and prefigured in the Old Testament and fulfilled in the New. Jesus - The Divine Mercy, as He revealed Himself to St. Faustina in the early 1930s - entered and forever changed human history. The birth of Jesus introduced authentic hope to humanity, a hope held out in the form of a covenant, a promise made. To use a color analogy, picture God's Love as yellow and mankind's contravention in eating the fruit as red. Love-yellow absorbed sin-red, and mercy-orange appeared.

We were created for union with God. What happened in the Garden of Eden complicated but didn't change that. That complication placed a greater demand on God's Love and required His forgiveness of sin. He did not falter in His merciful response. He promised salvation to Adam and Eve and delivered on that promise, for God is ever faithful and true.

When Will We Ever Learn?
Divine Mercy is the message of salvation offered to mankind over the ages, seen - as we reviewed in Part 1 - in the saving of Noah and also, for example, in the call of Abraham, the exile of Jacob's posterity into Egypt, and the salvation of the people of Israel by Moses through the desert.

This limitless mercy, flowing from God, also is God - God active in human affairs beginning with the Fall of Adam and Eve and continuing with us in 2008. Confidence in this mercy is the key to redemption, the "narrow gate" through which we pass to become one again with God. Mercy is at work more powerfully than ever to help us unite with God as the Mystical Body of Christ. We accomplish this unification through our faith in action, through the right choices we make in life, and through trust.

What happened in the Garden of Eden changed the planned union of man with God. God did have to extend His mercy by means of the promised messiah. He was forced to drop the preternatural gifts for humankind so that manifested mercy could repair the breach. Even God's "Kingship over His People" was later rejected, even after people asked for and were given a "king" in the person of Saul. We have to wonder: When, if ever, will mankind learn from its mistakes?

We need to treasure the writings and records made by holy men and women over the ages for the way they attempt to describe the reality and experience of our divine destiny. We should marvel, also, at their frustration to articulate the spiritual excitement of this experience. The inadequacy of words runs as a constant theme throughout spiritual literature, as in this excerpt from St. Faustina:

I understand the spiritual espousal of a soul with God, which has no exterior manifestation. It is purely an interior act between the soul and God. This grace has drawn me into the very burning center of God's love. I have come to understand His Trinitarian Quality and the absolute Oneness of His Being. This grace is different from all other graces. It is so extremely spiritual that my inaccurate description knows not how to express even a shade of it (Diary, 1020).

'What a paradise it is ...'
The plan for Paradise Restored was and still is the manifestation of Divine Mercy. Mercy is capable of the "reconstruction" needed in wake of human sin. It brings to mind another entry St. Faustina made, this one in her final notebook, as she was approaching death: "What a paradise it is for the soul when the heart knows itself to be so loved by God" (Diary 1756).

This is an instructive sentence. Faustina writes of "paradise" as the realization of being loved by God, an apt definition. Because of our flawed nature, though, this love must be actualized by mercy itself. God, Who is Mercy, freely offers that love. We can accept ... or not. The choice is ours.

To become enveloped by God's mercy is to choose, through absolute trust, to open our heart and accept what God wants to do. Once we make such an acceptance a binding decision, God does the rest, a "rest" we experience passively. Though we can't see Him and can't name Him, God sees us and knows us better than we see and know ourselves. He counts the very hairs on our heads. Our decision to trust, therefore, is well placed.

The awareness of how much we are loved is the fruit of Divine Mercy. We don't have to "do" anything to merit God's "given" love. We need only to become aware of it and accept it (once aware, of course, our actions will begin to reflect goodness in mercy).

When we wake up to God's love, we notice how complete we are, unlike Adam and Even, who, when they wake up to the knowledge of good and evil, become aware of themselves through self-centered love. The first thing they notice is their nakedness. It is not a positive awakening. Pride drove them to want to know good and evil. They wanted to be like God, as the serpent tempted them to believe.

Pure love, on the other hand, is to love God in Himself without expectation of gifts or rewards. So, too, is a love pure for another person when they are loved in and of themselves and not for what they do or give. This type of love, for example, characterizes the best of marriages. Adam and Eve's eyes were open, and they saw themselves as they were in their nakedness, but they did not wake up. Their newfound knowledge was not theirs when they lived in what we might term "blessed ignorance."

'Who told you that you were naked?'
When we become aware of God's infinite, immeasurable, and absolute love, we begin to know divine love and mercy to a small degree, knowledge we can only fully comprehend in heaven. Our "completeness" can only be realized in the Beatific Vision. Saint Faustina and other saints have been taken into the "seventh heavens," but this is rare. Most of us have to keep believing in hope: "Faith is the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen" (Heb 11:1). "Hope," as the poet Emily Dickinson wrote, "is the thing with feathers/That perches in the soul/And sings the tune without the words/And never stops - at all ..."

Suddenly self-conscious, Adam and Eve they try to cover up. God sees them and asks why they are hiding. They explain it's because of their nakedness. God replies with a fascinating question: "Who told you that you were naked"? (Gen 3:11).

This question reveals much about God as Love, for He realizes what has happened and intends to surpass Adam and Eve's sin with grace: He promises the Redeemer. He also knows that this same capacity of human self-awareness, activated in the Garden of Eden by sin, can be used to rectify what man has wrought.

In his goodness, Gods puts enmity between the serpent and the woman, between its offspring and hers. This "offspring" is He, the Promised One, who shall strike at the head of the serpent (that is, "evil"), just as the serpent will strike at the heel of the Promised One. Thus is engaged the spiritual battle, won by Christ with His death, the death overcome by Resurrection (see Gen 3:15 and Heb 2:1-18).

Opening the Flood Gates
But another troubling question arises. Why then the Great Flood? (It is interesting to note the prevailing opinion of science is that in fact a gigantic flood did occur long ago in the earth's history). If He's got man's salvation in mind, why does God "regret" making man and show it by wiping out almost all living creatures?

The answer that immediately jumps to mind is counterintuitive, that the Flood is a manifestation of God's mercy. His love that compels Him to stretch out His saving hand to the righteous Noah and family as part of the divine plan. That would be tough love but love nonetheless.

Another understanding is that God allows the flood as a consequence of sin and out of His respect for His creature's free will. He would do this the way a parent might realize that her child might not make good cookies but allows the child to try, learning by trial and error even after being taught the right way to do it. This discipline of spirituality is similar to the discipline of nature, where a child, for example, learns from gravity the correct way to stack building blocks into a pyramid. Man's history with God from the Great Flood forward has been a record of his (lower case "h") dawning realization of His (upper case "H") nature as Love.

Mankind's scriptures and holy books - the Bible, the Koran, the Bhagavad Gita ["Song of God"], and the like - have tried to document this realization. In the same way, holy men and women from all religious disciplines who have achieved this monumental insight have tried, driven by a force they find impossible to ignore, to share what they've discovered with others. At this point, all spiritual writers face a problem: how to adequately convey the mystical experience in words. The answer lies in producing layered texts that work on many levels.

Did a Serpent Talk?
The symbolism of Genesis points beyond itself, as all symbols do. Material objects such as trees and animals represent abstract concepts such as innocence and evil. A symbolic view of the Creation story brings the thoughtful person well beyond the reductive questions of literalism such as: Were Adam and Eve actual, specific people? Did they physically bite into some fruit? Did a serpent talk? After one passes a certain valuable point in literalism, this kind of inquiry becomes prejudicial to understanding when considered against the richness and depth of scriptural words.

Wisdom, not literalism, flows out of Genesis. Otherwise, formalism places meaning in a straightjacket and locks it in the padded cell of fundamentalism. That is when religion becomes perverted and subject to the malignant volatility of human whim. Such an approach would as sensible as mistaking the black, S-shaped, arrow printed on a diamond-shaped yellow sign for the road's dangerous curve.

Symbols cannot work properly if we only take them literally, except for the eminent sign of the Eucharist and the other signs by which Sacraments affect grace from God. Even then, we risk missing their vitality if we only see the exterior. At the same time, exact events and objects can and often do assume symbolic importance and value.

The literalness of the events of the first nine chapters of Genesis (something actually happened over some span of time) serves an underlying meaning. It forms the scaffolding that allows access to otherwise hidden truth.

Reduced to its essence, man's fall tells us that when given a choice, humanity often acts in myopic self-delusion against its own highest good. We take that greatest good (paradise) and throw it away on a hollow promise (symbolized by an fruit). It is a colossal mistake that has been made over and over again through the ages, as human history, especially its sociological, political and religious struggles, demonstrate.

Why would we do such a crazy thing? Why haven't we learned? What would cause us to repeat the same self-destructive actions? Why would we so willingly agree to the insanity of sin? Why would we repeat the same mistake over and over again and expect the outcome to be different? These questions remain with us today, screaming at us louder than ever.

Tomorrow, in Part 3, "The Second Tree of Paradise" considers what the forbidden trees in the Garden of Eden story say about the nature of good and evil.

* NOTE TO THE FIRST SENTENCE OF THIS ESSAY: "God, infinitely perfect and blessed in himself, in a plan of sheer goodness freely created man to make him share in his own blessed life. For this reason, at every time and in every place, God draws close to man. He calls man to seek him, to know him, to love him with all his strength. He calls together all men, scattered and divided by sin, into the unity of his family, the Church. To accomplish this, when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son as Redeemer and Savior. In his Son and through him, he invites men to become, in the Holy Spirit, his adopted children and thus heirs of his blessed life" (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1)

Dan Valenti writes for numerous publications of the Marians of the Immaculate Conceptions, both in print and online.

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