“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.” (Matthew 13:44-46)
Treasures, pearls, or precious stones were not part of my childhood world. My parents were not rich people, my mother did not wear jewellery and it had not been long since holding gold or important valuables, in my country, had been a reason for deportation and imprisonment. It never occurred to us to spend money on precious stones. But in my town there was a salt mine, which I entered from time to time, especially with visitors, for whom I served as an occasional guide. I discovered that in the piles of salt crumbs salt crystals could be found—translucent, more or less regularly shaped. I started to collect them, to clean them of matte deposits, to mould them into shapes as similar as possible to the geometric ones. My imagination had been awakened. The idea that I had discovered things of unspeakable value, that I had brought something beautiful from the darkness into the daylight, something that had long been hidden in my back yard, excited me. I liked to show them to my friends, and I enjoyed their amazement.
At the same time, I began to see that not everything that had enchanted me was appreciated by others. My parents sent me to violin and German lessons. Although there weren’t others that were learning German, the boys in my class were not impressed at all. Instead, they berated me mercilessly for my incompetence in football. There was also another point of difference. My family cultivated faith in God, which put us in open conflict with the political ideology of the time. In addition, the concrete expressions of faith did not coincide with those of most Christians. I felt this tension quite early.
It was hard to explain why I was doing some of these unusual things. But there was something that helped me to go against the flow, to endure misunderstandings and hostility. I liked what Jesus called “a hidden treasure” and I was willing to sell “everything”.
Outside of family and the small circle in our religious community, I did not expect any support. However, from time to time, I came to know that there were others who had the intuition of the existence of a hidden treasure. I was impressed when I read these words from a Christian poet: “The earth is full of You/Carvings of fine stones”. It was a corrective perspective, at the stage where I had begun to learn evolutionary ideas and worldviews at school for exams. It was even more astonishing when, in the textbooks and books of the time, carefully checked and repeatedly purged of anything that could confirm Christianity, I would find tiny signs of implicit faith. It was a revelation when I came across two verses from “Belșug” (Wealth), by Tudor Arghezi: “For God, striding nearby/You see His shadow cast between the oxen.” Do others know about the hidden treasure? I wondered at the time. The thought, this hope, provided me with the courage to believe, and to hang on.
Later I started to notice that the beginning of the journey of faith differs from person to person. That is why the answers they get in their quest for the “hidden treasure” reflect different perspectives and needs and come to complete their own vision. When I was a teenager, I heard about Pascal’s famous bet: if God doesn’t exist and yet you live as though He existed, you will not lose anything. You’re still where you would be if He didn’t exist. But if He exists and you do not believe, then you have lost everything.
It didn’t seem like a conclusion worthy of Pascal. However, my life did not resemble his, nor had it been marked by acute crises, or dramatic decisions. Much later I read that around 1890, American philosopher William James suggested that “you probably feel that when religious faith expresses itself thus, in the language of the gaming-table, it is put to its last trumps.”
However, as Pascal had said, we find evidence of God in our lives, in the world around us, and in history—”too much to deny and too little to be sure.” That is why Nathan Brown has concluded: Faith “is always a matter of choice. But we respond not as a gambler but as a pilgrim on a journey toward truth.”
With Spinoza at the pizzeria
As I grew older, I met a special man, an American Jew with a history of atheism and writer’s ambitions, who had experienced a “close encounter” at a pizzeria in Miami. This is how Clifford Goldstein talks about his meeting with the idea that truth exists:
“One evening, I wander out of my second-floor apartment and into a pizza joint. I’m drinking beer, eating a pepperoni pizza and reading Spinoza, when I come upon something that grips me. Spinoza says that to live the most perfect life, we need to find out why we are here and then live accordingly.
“Instantly, all the years of being taught that truth is relative, that existence precedes essence, that there are no absolutes—it’s all wiped out, as if Spinoza entered my head and severed the nerves that wired these beliefs within… I know one thing: I exist and, because I am here, I had to come from somewhere. But to know from where and why—this is the essence of all truth. Somewhere, objective truth, the truth, must exist because I exist.
“I lift my eyes from the words. After years of searching, questioning, for the first time I have one objective absolute to grasp: I exist, and as corny and simple as it sounds, this fact means that there must be an objective absolute that explains my existence.
“But what is that truth? That question is crucial. How can I live right if I don’t know the purpose of life? Imagine a native Indian from the jungle who, given a car, grows a garden in the trunk, uses the seats as a bed, and blow dries his hair with the exhaust pipe. He’s getting some use out of it, but not the best because he doesn’t know what the purpose of the car is. If I don’t know what the purpose of life is, I can get by, but something will be missing, lacking, just as with that native and the car. This concept seems so Mickey Mouse, so basic, yet I will never be the same for realizing it. I now know that what I have been looking for all along are the answers to the basic question of how did I get here and why.”
“If it’s humanly possible to know truth—why am I here, how did I get here—then I want to know, no matter the cost. No matter where it leads me, no matter what I must suffer, no matter how painful truth is–I want to know!”
No matter the cost?! One evening, Cliff sat down at the typewriter. He had a blank page in front of him, for the novel he had been writing for years and years, with a devouring passion, and for which he had wandered on three continents and endured hunger, poverty, and a precarious life. Now, the novel begins to take shape, but he feels a presence and hears a voice telling him:
“Cliff, you have been playing with me long enough. If you want Me tonight, burn the novel.” As shocking as it may seem, Cliff was not entirely surprised. He had long felt that this moment would come. But that didn’t make things any easier.
He leaves the house and walks, on the dark streets, unsettled and with a torn soul. He knows he is free to say no. “Aware that the choice is mine, I can say: Go away, God. I want my book more than you. He will, and I can continue writing. Nevertheless, the same Lord who, three thousand years ago, told the Jews, ‘You shall have no other gods before Me’, tells me this same thing tonight. For months I have been squelching the subtle conviction that my unwavering devotion to the novel needed to be directed to God alone. Tonight, however, the conviction isn’t subtle. The novel is my god (‘You shall have no other gods before Me’) and if I want the true God, the false one must burn.”
After hours of struggling and desperate pleas, he plugs in the electric grill and, page by page, the book carbonizes on the hot plates that are completely indifferent to the text that disappears with the paper. “In a few hours, the novel is scattered on my front porch—smouldering, like war ruins. The battle ends. I have surrendered, unconditionally. And though aware that my life has taken its most dramatic, radical turn and that nothing will ever be the same again, I crawl into my bed and rest quietly, in the smoke lingering like a divine presence.”
The light that conquers you
In 2011, I met Hendel Butoy, who, for much of his life, worked at Walt Disney Studios, being the author of some famous animated films, including one of the jubilee productions Fantasia 2000. I was startled when I saw his name—he must be Romanian, I told myself. And I found him, retired from the film industry where he had made a career. I talked to him in his small office as an animation instructor at a Christian university in Tennessee. He took out a file with drawings: it was the story-line for Respighi’s “Pines of Rome”, which is a segment in Fantasia 2000. Unaccustomed to the design work behind an animated film, I began to watch the drawings lined up on long strips. Whales. One, several, a whole pod of whales. One is flying. It rises slightly above the water. Others try as well. They rise. They collapse. They rise higher and higher, there are more and more. What’s the secret?
Then Hendel goes online and we watch the eight minutes of the film together. There is, somewhere, a light. Pale, but not unnoticeable. That flicker, that glow captivates the whale’s eye and renews an unsuspected potential.
The more they fly, the more earnestly, the more generous the light. It is not just an existential moment, it is not “stellar moments”, as Stefan Zweig said, but the call is followed tenaciously, with conviction.
I was looking at my new friend. It hadn’t been long since he’d distanced himself from Walt Disney Studios, one of the best places in the world to make a name for yourself, to leave a mark on film history, to be paid according to your talent and work. He was now in the tiny office of a Christian college, which did not consolidate his portfolio or his wallet. But he had seen the light and was no longer content to communicate it so subtly and harmlessly. He had paid the price for the hidden treasure, and wanted to bring it to the surface.