The way Herod liked to listen to John the Baptist, summoning him from his cell for private chats but could make no sense of what he said; the way Festus kept the apostle Paul locked up for two years because he enjoyed hearing him talk, although his words made him afraid; the way the German guards, terrified by night bombings, sought out Pastor Bonhoeffer, even though he was, by his own account, a provider of cold comfort, writing to a friend, “I can listen all right, but hardly ever find anything to say. Yet perhaps the way one asks about some things and is silent about others helps suggest what really matters”—did not stop the sharp rap on the prison door or the words “get ready to come with us” as if for one more quiet conversation about what really matters.
Holy Spirit: do not descend as a dove. Better to return as a millipede hidden beneath decaying bark than anything that can soar. Ponder the incarnational worth of Pneumodesmus Newmani, the oldest known form of life on land, linking air breathing with the surname of the Scottish bus driver and amateur paleontologist who chiseled its fossil from harbor rocks north of Stonehaven, observing through his field lens small openings in its exoskeleton used for inspiration, meaning it moved its many legs on dry ground, not seabed. Or consider this descendent of Pneumo, younger by four hundred million years, curled for self-preservation on my palm, a hard button of red legs whorled inward, circled by dark armor plate, both of us breathing air while we wait for a sign that it is safe to resume whatever it was we were scurrying to do prior to this disruption of our forward flow to make a theological point: Of what use are metaphors of flight for things with feet?
After four years, Michelangelo has reached the end, and now Jonah, whom he has reserved for last, dangles his bare feet over the Sistine’s void, sharing his precarious aerie with a dead fish, two cherubs and a vine. A marvel of foreshortening, he reclines on his arm and eyes God, still arguing petulantly that he is not the man to undertake such a harebrained job, lacking both talent and inclination. His fingers point in opposite directions, one to the threat of Nineveh and Rome, the other to the safety of Tarshish and Florence, regarding his own death as a small price to pay to make a point. Yet as the fresco dries to stone, he gazes beyond the gap between his intractable pique and God’s intractable grace, dumbfounded at the resplendent vault arching above a city at peace.
The trouble is the halo. He’s never dissected one, prying it open with a blade under cover of night to determine its component parts: seeking with his fingertips for the thin band of cartilage that holds it erect, or the branched nerves channeling light as coldly steady as foxfire on a rotting log. The same goes for wings. Without evidence from his cadavers, he dispenses with them, painting angels as fit as young quarrymen and pasta-loving cherubs to whom aerodynamic principles will never apply. Even God looks as if he climbs into bed each night stiff from a hard day’s work but not ready for sleep, his brain crammed with thumbnail sketches of airy beings aglow with inexhaustible fuel flying by faith in unborn Bernoulli’s constant.