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    14th-century tapestry


    Water of Life, Water of Change, Water that Flows from Earthly to Heavenly Paradise

    By Lisa Deam

    March 1, 2021
    • Erin Kahn

      This article was amazing! I've been researching the idea of this river (along with the tree of life) in the Old and New Testament recently, and found this article very enlightening and moving.

    • Steve

      Very Pretty & Peaceful

    Last fall, during one of the many pandemic surges in our area, my two daughters and I took a day trip to Grandfather Mountain State Park. We came across a small river, whose name I no longer recall. My city girls will use any excuse to stop hiking, so I let them pause at the water’s edge and remember what it’s like to play, free and unencumbered. It would have been better to keep walking though; I’d forgotten that standing still gives me too much time to think. Watching my girls on the riverbank, tossing stones and exploring the ecosystem, I ached for them. I ached for the season they are living through, the upheaval and the fear and the isolation. As my daughters played and I mused, the river flowed on, like a timeline I wished I could travel to a better place.

    If I followed the river many eons back, perhaps I would encounter the earth’s mother river, the one that fed the Garden of Eden (Gen. 2:10). There wouldn’t be any aching along those banks, surely. In fact, this river couldn’t contain its goodness. It ran with so much life that it spilled out of the garden, dividing into four rivers that branched out and watered the earth. I wonder what the earth’s mother river was like. Majestic and crashing? Shy and chuckling? I think about it whenever I encounter a waterway or a gurgling mountain creek. They all flow with the memory of a better world.

    In the Middle Ages, geographers and theologians believed that the earth’s great rivers flowed with a gift more tangible than memory. The book of Genesis names the four Edenic rivers as the Pishon, the Gihon, the Tigris, and the Euphrates (Gen. 2:10-14). Medieval scholars identified the Pishon as the Ganges and the Gihon as the mighty Nile, and they viewed these rivers as a living link to the Garden of Eden. What is more, they believed the garden still existed on earth. Called Earthly Paradise, it could be found at the easternmost point of the world.

    I’ll kneel close to the water and listen for echoes of the earth’s formation and ripples from a world yet to be.

    While I encountered a wistful nostalgia in my mountain river, medieval travelers who went far enough east expected to find physical remnants of Paradise in the rivers that sprang from Eden. Their waters, it was said, flowed with precious stones like emeralds and carbuncles and also with healing fruits. They carried apples whose very scent nourished the body. According to the thirteenth-century chronicler Jean de Joinville, the inhabitants of eastern lands spread nets in the Nile to harvest cinnamon, ginger, and aloes that washed down from Paradise.

    These stories prompted a fervent desire to set foot in the garden whence originated such abundance. Although most medieval theologians thought that Earthly Paradise remained inaccessible to humans, a number of travelers tried to reach it via those four rivers. In the mid-fourteenth century, the travel writer Sir John Mandeville said that “many great lords have assayed with great will, many times, for to pass by those rivers towards Paradise, with full great companies.” Mandeville’s lords sound rather prideful, but other travelers convey awe and respect. One of these, a fourteenth-century Dutch cleric named Johannes de Hese, sailed through the Far East and reported that “around the hour of vespers, when the sun goes down . . . the wall of Paradise can be seen in great clarity and beauty, like a star.”

    These accounts are treasure troves for the historian, recording the geographical mindset of an era. They might sound somewhat naïve: Carbuncles! Cinnamon! The very wall of Paradise! But I see these travel logs as, at heart, spiritual journeys, dripping with longing; each one records an attempt to go back in time, as I wished to do on my own North Carolina river.

    Yet Earthly Paradise is devilishly hard to reach. Mandeville wrote that the great lords who tried were rendered deaf by the roar of the rivers and weak by their useless attempts to row. Mandeville himself, who claimed to wander the distant reaches of the world, didn’t even get so far as these rivers. Reflecting on his fellow travelers’ attempts to reach Paradise, he concludes, “I was not worthy.”

    14th-century tapestry

    Jean de Bondol, The New Jerusalem, from the Apocalypse Tapestry, 1373–87

    A river also flows through the paradise to come. In the book of Revelation, another John witnesses the New Jerusalem coming down from heaven. “Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city” (Rev. 22:1-2). The city glittered with precious stones, reminding us of the emeralds and carbuncles that, according to medieval accounts, flowed out of Eden. Echoes of the biblical creation story are also present, for John goes on to say that the tree of life stood by the city’s river, and the curse of the first paradise was gone.

    A river flows from earthly to heavenly paradise, sweeping past us as we walk its banks. That fall day in the mountains, I sensed my place along this great river. I stood on its timeline, poised between one paradise and another. It’s where humanity itself stands. It can be disorienting, this world in which a burbling stream can alternately whisper to us of things that will be and mock us by recalling what we have lost.

    Sometimes, the river goes underground. It feels a little like that now, during Lent, when we take stock of our mortality and our failings; we grieve for our sins and the existence of sin itself. With Mandeville, we doubt our worthiness to enter any paradise, be it earthly or heavenly. I’ve heard many people refer to the pandemic itself as a Lenten experience, and I can see why. They are two seasons that highlight our inbetweenness. Coronatide makes us feel stuck. And so, sometimes, does Lent. We haven’t achieved heaven, not by a long shot. And as the medievals taught us, we can’t go back to what used to be.

    But the river always surfaces again, gurgling and teasing and leading us on. Maybe, by the time the girls and I get back to our small North Carolina river, the pandemic will have ended. My children will be a bit older and a bit more battered by these strange days of isolation, and I will cry tears of relief. Then, when I’m calmer, I’ll kneel close to the water and listen for echoes of the earth’s formation and ripples from a world yet to be.

    Contributed By

    Lisa Deam is a historian and an award-winning writer in spiritual formation. She’s the author of 3000 Miles to Jesus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life for Spiritual Seekers (Broadleaf 2021).

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