The Christmas Elephant

Via The Guardian

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change.  But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.


~ William Stafford ~



There are stories that imprison us and stories that liberate us, entering us, changing our circuitry and our chemistry, lifting us out of our isolation and relating us to a larger whole.  Even if we consciously reject such a story, it is impossible to not know it because it has become part of us.  Our brains are wired to receive and remember stories, especially unforgettable stories–stories that hold out a thread to a higher level of being.  As a friend told me recently, the story of Jesus of Nazareth is now coded in her DNA, not a proposition that she “believes,”  but a response wells up from the depths, offering itself like the instinct to pray in times of dire need, a way of touching what is beyond understanding.

A few years ago, Stephen Colbert  pinned down the religious scholar Bart Ehrman, who was bravely  pressing the case that there are discrepancies in the Bible, and particularly in the New Testament. Colbert asked him if he ever considered that Jesus is like the parable about the blind men and the elephant.   In Colbert’s version four blind men stumble into a pit in which an elephant has also stumbled.  How to understand this enormous thing that was in there with them? One touched a side, one blind man said the elephant was like the wall.  Touching the leg of the elephant, another said the elephant was a tree.  A third touched the trunk and concluded the elephant was like a snake.

“Isn’t it possible that you are missing the point?” asked Colbert.  “And that Jesus is an elephant?”  Colbert beamed, explaining that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were each only able to convey a small part of what happened because the story is just too vast to be encompassed by any one witness.  Great stories are like this, mysteriously incomplete, asking something of us, asking to be part of us.

8 thoughts on “The Christmas Elephant

  1. Hi Tracy

    “Isn’t it possible that you are missing the point?” asked Colbert. “And that Jesus is an elephant?” Colbert beamed, explaining that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were each only able to convey a small part of what happened because the story is just too vast to be encompassed by any one witness. Great stories are like this, mysteriously incomplete, asking something of us, asking to be part of us.”

    It has become natural to either underestimate the distance between levels of reality or discount its importance. When I read what you wrote I remembered Ouspensky’s description of the Sphinx included in Jacob Needleman’s book: “A Sense of the Cosmos.” I’ll copy an excerpt here. The interested reader is invited to click on the link for the rest. It makes me feel humble.

    I remember sitting on the sand in front of the Sphinx–on the spot from which the second pyramid in the distance makes an exact triangle behind the sphinx–and trying to understand, to read its glance. At first I saw only that the Sphinx looked beyond me into the distance. But soon I began to have a kind of vague, then a growing, uneasiness. Another moment, and I felt that the Sphinx was not seeing me, and not only was it not seeing, it could not see me, and not because I was too small in comparison with it or too insignificant in comparison with the profundity of wisdom it contained and guarded. Not at all. That would have been natural and comprehensible. The sense of annihilation and the terror of vanishing came from feeling myself in some way too transient for the Sphinx to be able to notice me. I felt that not only did these fleeting moments or hours which I could pass before it not exit for it, but that if I could stay under its gaze from birth to death, the whole of my life would flash by so swiftly for it that it could not notice me. Its glance was fixed on something else. It was the glance of a being who thinks in centuries and millenniums. I did not exist and could not exist for it. And I could not answer my own question–do I exist for myself? Do I, indeed, exist in any sort of sense, in any sort of relation? And in this thought, in this feeling, under this strange glance, there was an icy coldness. We are so accustomed to feel that we are, that we exist. Yet all at once, here, I felt that I did not exist, that there was no I, that I could not be so as perceived.

    And the Sphinx before me looked into the distance, beyond me, and its face seemed to reflect something that it saw, something which I could neither see nor understand.

    Eternity! This word flashed into my consciousness and went through me with a sort of cold shudder. All ideas about time, about things, about life were becoming confused. I felt that in these moments, in which I stood before the Sphinx, it lived through all the events and happenings of thousands of years–and that on the other hand centuries passed for it like moments. How this could be I did not understand. But I felt that my consciousness grasped the shadow of the exalted fantasy or clairvoyance of the artists who had crated the Sphinx. I touched the mystery but could neither define nor formulate it.

    And only later, when All these impressions began to unite with those which I had formerly known and felt, the fringe of the curtain seemed to move, and I felt that I was beginning slowly, to understand


    The Christ descended from eternity into the form we know of as Jesus to create the path leading to conscious human potential. We cannot understand this through are senses anymore than the blind person can perceive an elephant.

    1. Hi Nick, I certainly know the feeling of being too small and insignificant to be seen–and not just by the Sphinx but in the eyes of the world. But slowly I have come to suspect that we are seen–and very much cared about–by the eternal, strange as that seems.

  2. As some point we learn to live within the mystery of it all, and come to accept this mystery for what it truly is to each one of us.

    And then realize that we are also a part of it all and that the mystery dwells within us.

    Perhaps it is a bit like breathing, we do it all the time, but we don’t know how we are doing it, it just happens.

    Life is happening all around us, as is the mystery, we live in it and it dwells within us, within our very midst.

  3. I love this season of Advent and what it brings, the mystery that it brings to our lives. As I love the concept of God coming to be with us, dwelling with us, coming to live with us. Emmanuel, God with us. This mid-19th century hymn seems to capture so much of that spirituality, the energy of Advent. The words and music are certainly one of my favorites. Do you know the music that goes with the words? If so, sing it with me then please.

    O come, O come, Emmanuel
    And ransom captive Israel
    That mourns in lonely exile here
    Until the Son of God appear
    Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
    Shall come to thee, O Israel.

    O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free
    Thine own from Satan’s tyranny
    From depths of Hell Thy people save
    And give them victory o’er the grave
    Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
    Shall come to thee, O Israel.

    O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer
    Our spirits by Thine advent here
    Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
    And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
    Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
    Shall come to thee, O Israel.

    O come, Thou Key of David, come,
    And open wide our heavenly home;
    Make safe the way that leads on high,
    And close the path to misery.
    Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
    Shall come to thee, O Israel.

    O come, O come, Thou Lord of might,
    Who to Thy tribes, on Sinai’s height,
    In ancient times did’st give the Law,
    In cloud, and majesty and awe.
    Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
    Shall come to thee, O Israel.

  4. Hi Tracy,
    Your blog host used to let one reply to specific comments but no more since the upgrade(?).

    Anyway in reply to your reply to Nick,
    the Eternal which does watch over us and protect us, can do so because it is big enough to encompass all of us and more and keep track of us and all our comings and goings. Ouspensky made the mistake that many make of thinking the universe was like him. He could not know anything so relatively small, but the higher worlds are not subject to the same laws and restrictions, like successiveness and time and quantity as we live under.

  5. Hi Tracy,

    I found this inversion of the story on Wikipedia’s helpful entry •Blind men and an elephant• and thought it worth sharing.

    “Six blind elephants were discussing what men were like. After arguing they decided to find one and determine what it was like by direct experience. The first blind elephant felt the man and declared, “Men are flat.” After the other blind elephants felt the man, they agreed.”

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