On a rare solitary walk recently, I came across a snakeskin in the middle of the road. Now I don’t have a particular fear of snakes—not like my late grandma Irene who used to faint at the sight of one. (Actually, family lore maintains that she would faint at the sight of even a plastic snake, though I was too sensitive a child to ever test the theory out.) In a dramatic departure from maternal precedent, I encourage my children to welcome summer's onslaught of backyard garter snakes. Look, I coax them near; see how we've made a safe home for all creation! I watch their boyish spines relax as unrest leaves, watch them stop shifting weight foot to foot and stand wordlessly in awe.
But even a would-be Franciscan has to admit there is something chilling about coming across a vacated snakeskin. There is an element of terror there, no matter how small the specimen. Snakes have too heavy a mythological significance for it to be otherwise.
I’ve read that all animals shed their skin—including humans, who experience it in ongoing and microscopic degrees. But ecdysis, the shedding of a reptile’s skin, happens dramatically in one fell swoop. While human skin grows with a person, a snake’s skin does not. It will stretch, but at a point can do no more. Not only has it become too small for comfort, but parasites have latched on to the scales. For the health and continued existence of the creature the skin must be removed, and the snake instinctively knows it.
To accomplish the grim task, the snake will glide into the water to loosen the old skin. Under, under, into the dark: a baptism unto new life, unto second chances, the snake arises to rub its head against a hard edge and kick starts the molting process. Eventually, the escape is made; the parasites left behind. When you sidestep it crossing the street, the skin will be inside out—a discarded sock long forgotten, and still in one piece. The snake itself might be miles away, ready for life once more. Unencumbered by that which it has outgrown.
The analogy is familiar and much could be said of it; after all, no one does metaphor and archetype better than Mother Nature herself. I, for one, know the itching of a skin stretched too thin—skin that served me well for years and years before suddenly, it didn't. The Lord is giving you a new wineskin, the charismatics I used to run with would have said, but baby Jesus knows I can't be trusted with that much alcohol. Best to stick to reptilian metaphors.
I know the anxiety of willing myself not to molt, not to shed the protective layer of belief that once preserved me. It's not safe to let go of this, I've thought. This is the only right place to be. It's happened before and is happening now and will one day happen again. But I'm beginning to accept that the loss of light is grace and it is only the dark of the waters that will usher me into the emergence of a new, better-fitting self. I talk to God and remember only one of us is afraid of the dark.
On my better days, I realize my understanding of God is a skin to be outgrown: it's meant to be. How contrary to nature if I were never to stretch too wide for the old and require the new. Yes, the new. New skin will form; I can trust the process. A new container to put the enormity of God in—despite my robust insistence on a God who fits no container—until eventually I slither out of this one and a fresh one forms in its place. A treasure in earthen vessels, the Good Book says, but the mysteries of God are a strain on my pottery.
Such shedding is required if I am to follow a God so elusive, a God who cannot be grasped. It has been neither something I've sought nor something I've been able to avoid, but rather something I've learned to bow to when I can tell resistance is futile. Eventually, the parasites and the overgrowth win out. Eventually I grow so uncomfortable that I am willed to find myself under, under, into the deep: a plunge of uncertainty, but for the lingering presence of Spirit and clay.
I am over my head, under the water, but clinging to the hope that I will emerge with another chance at a spirituality that fits, awed and made new.
Psst, check out Waiting in Liminal Space.
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