Forty days and forty nights. Forty is a mystical number in many spiritual writings. One Greek scholar told me that the 40 days was not literal but was representative of “time sufficient for a great change to take place.”
I have always liked that explanation. It satisfies me. I like the idea that we can be transformed, that great change can come to us. I also feel connected to important spiritual teachers and traditions as I move toward my own “great changes.”
Forty days appears in the Hebrew scripture in regard to the Children of Israel in the wilderness. In the Christian New Testament writings, Jesus goes into the wilderness for 40 days after his baptism and before he begins his public ministry. In the Islamic tradition, the Prophet Ibrahim spent 40 days in a fire that Allah had made like flowers. The Torah, The Qur’an and the Christian Bible all include a story of the great flood that Noah encountered during which it rained for 40 days.
Forty days has past meaning in my personal life. When I took my comprehensive exams for my graduate degree, I studied and wrote for 40 days. Looking at it then and now, a great change did take place. I was not the same person after the exams that I was before, or even during the exams. The transformation was painful and difficult because I was trying to understand concepts and numbers that were difficult. It felt as if I descended to a place of darkness and emerged to a place of light at the end of my 40 days.
The fire is yet another 40 days and 40 nights. Tomorrow is the 120th day after the fire so I cannot say that it is literally 40 days since it is three-fold of 40 days. What I can say is that it has been the kind of 40 days and 40 nights that represent “time sufficient for a great change to take place.”
Because of the fire, there have been so many changes it is hard to tell what a “great change” is. We have changed where we live, we have changed what we wear, we have changed the bed we sleep on and the sheets that we put on it. We have changed the plates we eat off of and the food we have to eat. For a while, it seemed that we had changed ourselves so much that were drifting in a sea of “great change” without much to anchor us.
I think it works thusly. A great change happens and it takes 40 days and 40 nights to incorporate that change. We had the great change when the fire burned our house. Then, we have had our 40 days and 40 nights to catch up with the change. I think that might be more common than we imagine. The change takes place and the 40 days and 40 nights are there to help the person who had changed incorporate the change into themselves. It is time to mourn the loss of the old self, experience wonder and finally recognition of the current change and time to look with expectation on the horizon of the future. It is time to integrate the old ways with the new ways of being in the world. This is another idea about 40 days that is satisfying to me.
I am reassured that our ancestors and spiritual teachers showed us the tradition of 40 days and 40 nights. It makes me feel less anxiety and concern in dealing with all that has happened to us. I come from a tradition of having time and of using time to transform from what I was to what I am in the wake of a change. I feel safer in accepting that I will need time to learn to accommodate the events that have changed my life because I know that men and women who are stronger and more wise than I may ever be needed time.
One hundred and nineteen days after the fire, on Wednesday the day before the Thursday that is the 17th week since the fire, I know I and we are different.The time sufficient for a great change to take place is true. We can look back and recognize enough of our old life that we can remember it as a benchmark, neither a high-water or low-water mark but a benchmark that is both a referent point and a place to rest.
We are changed in the present by having been in the past. We are changed by our 40 days and forty nights. For a long time it was hard not just to see what was in our past but what could be in our future. The present was even difficult.These days as we plan for our new house, it requires us to look toward what the future will bring. It is taking up so much room in our souls that there has to be accommodation for it. I am not sure if we shift space from our past to the future or from the present to the future but I do know that more is focused toward what shall be, God willing, than what was.
I am glad that I will have another and another and another and 40 days and 40 nights to adjust to this fire-wrought challenge and my future large and small transitions that need “time sufficient for a great change to take place.”