Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness. —Matthew 10:1
o we’ve been talking about gifts from the dark wood: blessings that don’t look like blessings when we first experience them. Things that happen when our lives are dark. Things that happen when our lives are entangled in a dense forest thicket.
And you can plainly see why invisibility or disappearing is a dark gift, right? It’s both dark and gift. To put it another way, invisibility is both affliction and superpower.
It is an affliction. Do you know a child who is invisible in his own family? Perhaps he is a middle child. Perhaps his older sister can choose between an academic scholarship at Northwestern or a soccer scholarship at DePaul, and perhaps his younger brother is the funniest and most popular kid in every room he enters. This middle child hasn’t found his best and shiniest thing yet; he will someday, but not yet. Mom and Dad spend most days driving his siblings to games and debates and AP tests and parties, but he is almost invisible in the family.
Shy people can feel invisible. They want to be important to groups. They want to be noticed. They want to make that sleek presentation that awes the boss and wins the new client. They want to star in the school play. They want to own the dance floor like Bruno Mars. They want to sing a solo at church. But it’s hard, and it’s scary. What if I sing and they laugh? What if I dance and they scoff? What if I speak and they sleep?
You know people like this. Did you read the fascinating article in the Times the other day about Wrong-Number Relationships in India, about guys in India who dial phone numbers at random and if a woman answers, he says “May I please speak to Sonia?” and the woman says, “I’m not Sonia,” and the guy says, “Well, can I talk to you?” They’re not salacious calls; they’re just too shy to talk to women face-to-face and are hoping to hit the love lottery. It was funny but also a little heart-breaking. Shy people can feel invisible. It’s no fun.
Is it possible that young men in South Chicago join gangs because they are invisible to the rest of the world? Is it possible that young Muslims in Birmingham get recruited by the Islamic State because there is no role for them in British society?
Would it be fair to say that Donald Trump won the presidential election because many Americans feel invisible just now? These are auto workers who lost their jobs to robots, or textile workers who lost their jobs to China, or taxi drivers whose customers now tap the Uber app, or Uber drivers whose jobs will soon be done by driverless cars, or Budweiser delivery men whose trucks will soon drive themselves, or coal miners whose jobs are no longer done at all. Soon there will be grocery stores with no cashiers and bank branches without tellers.
A woman walked into a bank branch a while back and asked the teller where the ATM was, and the teller pointed her in the right direction and said, “May I help you, Ma’am?” She said, “No, I just need some cash.” She’d rather talk to a machine than to a person. That teller might have felt a little superfluous, maybe a little invisible. Donald Trump promised to restore the visibility of these folk, so they voted for him. I get it.
We want to be noticed. We want to be important. We want to fit in. We want to shine. Invisibility is no fun. But invisibility is also a superpower, right? Whenever we tell stories, invisibility is a superpower. I had such a blast this week tracing this meme through the centuries of our literature. Thank you for paying me to look into this for you.
It starts with Plato 400 years before Jesus. In The Republic, Plato tells the story of Gyges the Shepherd who finds a magic ring which makes him invisible. Thereby he seizes the throne and the queen of Lydia.
A magic ring which makes the owner invisible. Where will we hear that again? It’s the central plot driver in The Hobbit and in The Lord of the Rings.
Harry Potter has his invisibility cloak.
It’s in Narnia. In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the dwarves called the Dufflepuds are so ugly they ask a magician to make them invisible. In all these most famous and most beloved mythic worlds we create for ourselves, disappearing is a superpower.
In Das Rheingold, Alberich finds the Tarn-helm, a helmet that makes him invisible.
In Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus, Mephistopheles makes Faust invisible so that the great reprobate can play pranks on the pope.
Last year a few of us were mesmerized by Ariel in The Tempest at Chicago Shakespeare Theater; Ariel can harass the castaways with impunity while invisible.
In the film Ghost, Patrick Swayze saves the day–sort of–because nobody can see him, not Whoopi Goldberg, not Demi Moore, not the bad guys.
Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Predator is so terrifying not because of his menacing weapons but because he can materialize out of thin air.
The Klingons and the Romulans hunt down the Starship Enterprise with battleships hidden by cloaking devices.
All through our literature invisibility is a superpower, and you can see why, right? We don’t have to be the most visible people in the world to make a difference. We don’t have to be Jeff Bezos or Jamie Dimon or Bruce Springsteen or Adele or Emma Watson or Lin-Manuel Miranda.
We can accomplish our miracles surreptitiously, unseen but powerful nonetheless. We can watch everything from up close and slip out unseen. Anybody watch that FX show The Americans? We can be like Phillip and Elizabeth, put on a disguise and slip in and do our dirty work and disappear into thin air.
I have always loved the iconography by which the church commemorates the Twelve Apostles. The Christian Church has been doing this the same way since the second century, giving each of Jesus’ original disciples his own shield and symbol.
There are such cool things here. Some of these guys were so big and so famous and so prominent they changed the world. Simon Peter is the rock on which the church is founded, the first pope, the Bishop of Rome. His symbol is crossed keys, because Jesus gave him the keys to the kingdom. There’s nobody in the Christian Church bigger and more visible than Peter; well, maybe Jesus and his Mom.
The symbol for James the Greater is a sword, a walking staff, and a sea shell. A sword because in Acts Luke tells us that is how Herod executed him, the first disciple to be martyred. A walking staff because St. James walked all the way to the coast of Spain to preach the Gospel, the sea shell because it would have made a handy canteen for food and water for his peripatetic pilgrimage, or maybe because he brought the Gospel all the way to the coast of the North Atlantic, littered with scallops. Jo will tell you all about James the Great when she takes you to his very route, the Camino de Santiago, the Way of St. James. Sant Iago: St. Iago, St. Jacob, St. James. The GREAT!!!!
But I don’t want to talk about them. Everybody knows all about them. What about Thaddeus? Did you even know there was a disciple named Thaddeus? I forgot till Thursday that there WAS a Thaddeus.
Did you know that of the 12 disciples, two were called Simon? Everybody knows about Simon Peter, Simon the Rock. To distinguish the second Simon from Simon Peter, the Church called him Simon the Zealot, because he was so passionate about his faith.
Did you know that out of just 12 disciples, two were named James? To distinguish them, the Church began calling them James the Great and James the Less. James the Great maybe because he was such a big shot in the early church, or maybe because he was physically large, or maybe because he was the older of the two James’.
And James the Less maybe because he was NOT such a big shot in the church, or maybe because he was short, or maybe because he was skinny, or maybe because he was younger, just a kid. Maybe they called him James Junior, or maybe they called him Jimmy.
James the Less. How’s that for a metaphor? How’s that for being almost invisible? James the Less, Simon the Zealot, Thaddeus. They all disappeared into the history. They are never mentioned anywhere in scripture except in the Gospel lists of the twelve. They are named and nothing more.
How would you like it if the historical record left you out, made you disappear? What if the only place your name appeared in the chronicle of the community was on lists: a list of birthday party invitees when you were eight, and a guest list for a wedding when you were 28, and a guest book for a funeral you attended when you were 84?
History knows nothing about these guys, and yet the Church assigned them these powerful shields. Thaddeus’ shield has a ship because the Church speculated that he sailed clear across the Mediterranean preaching the Good News of our Glad God. Simon the Zealot has a fish and a book because with the Bible he hooked converts and became a fisher of people. James the Less has stones and a sword because of the gruesome way he died for the Lord. They all but vanished from history but they all played their part in the construction of Jesus’ Church.
Bruce Springsteen has what he calls a “ninja cloak of invisibility.” One of the sweetest passages in his recent autobiography is that moment late in his life when he has become the most famous rock star in the world after Mick Jagger. Still, he says, he can roam the boardwalks of his beloved Asbury Park on the Jersey Shore unrecognized on a beautiful summer evening.
He sneaks into dive bars to hear new garage bands and sits there by himself unnoticed and no one asks him for autographs and no one asks him to get on stage to sing his own songs because he pulls his ninja cloak of invisibility around him—he pulls his baseball hat down low over his eyes.
Do you sometimes feel like you’re invisible? Does it seem as if you’re vanishing from the world’s attention? Use your superpower. Slip into a little drama in your life by the back door under your ninja cloak of invisibility and work your magic. I don’t know what that means for you. You’ll figure it out.
You could be Mississippi State. Mississippi State!!! I know you don’t care as much as I do about the University of Connecticut basketball team, but for us who follow them, Mississippi State just came out of nowhere! The Huskies were just not looking for this: 111 straight wins, the longest streak in NCAA history after the Miami men’s tennis program with 137 in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s, and 252 straight for the Trinity College men’s squash teams, 1998–2012. You could materialize on the nation’s radar screen out of nowhere like MSU.
History is full of great Williams. William Shakespeare. William the Conqueror. William of Orange. Prince William. Will.i.am. Billy the Kid. William the Great.
I’m William the Less. That’s OK. I’ll never own the dance floor like Bruno Mars, but I can pull my baseball cap low over my eyes and sneak in the side door of the gym at the prom and bring a Coke to a lonely girl or befriend a forlorn robot club kid so removed from all the others it looks like he’s in quarantine.
Most of the good in this world is not done by presidents and potentates. It’s done by ordinary, almost invisible people history will never notice. I love the way George Eliot concludes Middlemarch, her long, sprawling masterpiece about ordinary people making difficult but ordinary choices, and living ordinary lives in an ordinary rural village in ordinary, nineteenth-century England, beneath the notice of the history books. Ms Eliot writes, “…that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to people who lived faithfully a hidden life, and [now] rest in unvisited tombs.”
From Eric Elnes’ book Gifts from the Dark Wood: Seven Blessings for Soulful Skeptics (Nashville: Abingdon, 2015).
Ellen Barry, “India’s ‘Phone Romeos’ Look for Ms. Right via Wrong Numbers,” The New York Times, March 23, 2017.
Binyamin Appelbaum, “The Future of Work,” The New York Times Magazine, February, 13, 2017.
All four Gospels have similar lists of the Twelve, and there is also a list of the disciples in Acts 1:13.
Bruce Springsteen, Born to Run (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2016), p. 457.
George Eliot, the concluding lines to her novel Middlemarch.