There are universal experiences everyone has and then forgets, over time, either willingly or willfully. Or maybe the experience sticks with them but they don’t know it for what it is. I remember a friend, an English jazz musician in New Orleans (whom I’ll call Peter) telling me that he’d once been a part of a foursome when he was about fifteen—he and a young friend with two schoolgirls they’d met in a park one day in London. He told me about it wistfully.
“There was an innocence about it, you know? None of us were religious, and we were just sort of playing, as children play at being naughty. I saw one of those girls a few years later in a pub and she wouldn’t even look at me. Until that moment, the moment when she turned her head away to keep from seeing me, I never felt bad about that day. But in that moment, I felt bad, dirty even. It’s not that she did anything to make me feel that way. It’s just that I saw it different after that. I saw myself different, like being naked and finding out that somebody sees you.”
It was the Eden experience. Some people don’t remember it, but Peter did, even if he didn’t recognize what it was. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil is always a self-encounter. I remember my own experience. I used to tell lies when I was a child. I lied to impress people, to get my way, to avoid punishment—whatever. I didn’t feel bad about it. I suppose it was the way I coped with my little life in my little world. I never lied to hurt anybody, thank goodness. I never even thought about it, and yes—there was an innocence about it.
I must have been very good at it because I didn’t get caught until I was nine. And then it happened. My class at school were going on their annual picnic and we were all supposed to get a note of permission from our parents and bring it to school the day of the picnic. I forgot to get my permission note. When I got to school and everyone was getting ready to board the bus, I didn’t have a permission note. The teacher sent me to the principal’s office to call my mother and get permission. I called her at her job but she couldn’t come to the phone. I lied to the principal and said she’d given permission. I went on the picnic, had a great time, and forgot about it.
The following day, the teacher told me the principal wanted to see me in her office. Mrs. Cunningham sat behind her desk and I stood in front of it.
“Dena, yesterday I let you call your mother to get permission to go on the picnic.”
“You didn’t speak to your mother, did you?”
“No, ma’am. I spoke to her supervisor and she asked her for me and she said it was okay.” (I was good at lying—very quick on my feet.)
Mrs. Cunningham had short gray curls and she wore a navy blue suit with a white blouse that tied at the neck. She was thin and small. She had one hand on her desk holding a pen. And she said, “Now that’s two lies you’ve told, isn’t it?”
And there it was. I had no fig leaf handy. I said nothing. I looked away from her. I understand why Adam and Eve ran and hid. I saw myself naked for the first time.
“Your mother called back after you left. She wanted to know if something was wrong. Now go back to class.” There was no punishment. I wish there had been.
Now, it isn’t that I’d never been made to feel bad before. I had—in fact that was the motive for the lies to impress people, to make myself look good, not just to others but to myself—because we see ourselves reflected in the eyes of other people. Lying was the remedy for all problems. Maybe I’d always believed my own lies—I don’t know. I just know that for the first time in my life I saw myself as I was. It’s an experience of being naked, and of desperately needing cover.
It’s like St. Augustine’s memory of stealing pears from a neighbor’s orchard when he was a boy. It sears consciousness and alters us with the permanent weight of conscience—“with-knowledge.” It’s the Eden experience of seeing ourselves as we are. “Nakedness” is a metaphor. Our knowledge of good and evil comes from a mirror. The girl in the pub was Peter’s mirror, Mrs. Cunningham was mine, and I suppose that Adam and Eve were mirrors for each other.
That was over sixty years ago. I’ve heard other Eden experiences or read about them. People forget, but if the experience “takes,” it’s remembered. Almost always, however, the conclusion is some variation of my friend Peter’s take on it. He somehow managed to blame “society” and religion for creating puritanical notions about sex. Exactly how that accounts for his deeply personal discomfort in the pub is not clear. It was his own knowledge that caused him shame, no one else’s, but he didn’t see it that way.
As painful as the experience is, it is indeed the “Happy Fall,” for it is the door we pass through to contrition and repentance. “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” is the prayer from the Cross of our Lord, who knew us so much better than we can ever know ourselves. It’s a prayer for the innocent, for those who are ignorant of their own nature, for those who steal pears or tell lies or play at secret unlicensed sex. There may always be people like Peter, who deflect what they see onto “society” or “religion” and who never open that door to repentance, but remain critical, intolerant, and unforgiving all their lives. Clinging to their innocent ignorance, they unknowingly become that which they accuse others of. But those who “look upon him whom they have pierced” know not only what they’ve done but also why they did it, and they pass through that door, and find to their everlasting joy that far greater experience of forgiveness, an ocean of divine mercy.