I watched Werner Herzog’s documentary, “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” the other night. The film tells the story of the recently discovered Chauvet cave in southern France that houses the world’s oldest paintings- paintings of a prehistoric people whose life and times can only be faintly reconstructed through the remains they left behind.
Their story is as much the story of those now doing the excavations. These eccentric men and women- archaeologists, paleontologists, curators and art historians, even a perfumist, whom we meet strangely sniffing for air holes along the cave’s periphery- share their connections to the subterranean mystery of this silent monument to a past people. They are the few who have been let into the one steel, locked door that seals off this land of forgotten dreams; and, it is a place where only these perfectly preserved etchings of the first human beings, and their bones and those of the animals they drew, have lain undisturbed for thousands of years under layers of calcification.
I suppose we, many of us, have our caves of forgotten dreams. They are those places where our once youthful aspirations and our highest ideals, or our visions of life as we had thought it would be, or our once restless zeal for adventure, or our place in grand, suspenseful stories of heroes and villains, now seem like artifacts from a far-off past. A magical, wonder-filled land where we once dwelt but now only catch glimmers of. A place guarded by a padlocked door that we dare not open for fear of what it might show us about who we once were, or how little we’ve known our selves, or how far we’ve strayed from the people we once were.
When Jesus bids the little children come to him, for “the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (Matthew 19:14), I wonder if he has in mind something along the lines of this cave of forgotten dreams. We must go through the small door- through the tiny opening- in order to enter into the depths. To do this, I must not run away from those things that call me out of my comfortable, often myopic status quo, in this case, the hypnotic tedium of a mostly stay-at-home mother and her domesticated hopes and dreams. Such things call me back to the joy of a little girl whisked away to the mission field in Malaysia, growing up in an exotic, foreign land. They remind me of a young woman dancing among her Sudanese friends in a camp in northern Uganda. They call me to a life of freedom in the Spirit and adventure, passion, and purpose. They tug at me, these strange, forgotten dreams, telling me that there is more even as “the More” may be here now, right in front of me.
I suspect the church has its cave of forgotten dreams, too- its “forgotten ways,” as missional church thinker Alan Hirsch puts it. Somehow the subversive, foreign ways of a people in exile, on the margins of empire, meeting in houses to pray, break bread and share everything in common, including the truth about our brokenness, seems so far away from the church most of us know today. The institutionalization of power and the gradual calcification of traditions over time- these layers of sediment- need to be gently poked and prodded away in order to see how we once danced, how our lives once exuded motion, like the legs of a running bull scribbled on a wall epochs ago.
Yet these old, prehistoric dreams are still there, mysterious and subterranean as they may seem. They call out to the “eccentrics” among us to go looking for them. To excavate them. To keep their memory alive. To dare to open the door and traverse the depths with our headlamps and tools. To remind the rest of us that the forgotten dreams are still there, wooing us back to where the dreams first originated. To go sniffing out all the air holes where the Spirit is still wafting as it once did long ago.