I know you weren’t there, but you may remember it anyway…
It was on my way from the chapel back to the cabins, a short walk through the woods at Quaker Haven Camp in Northern Indiana, that I first had a glimpsing experience of God. Christ had been obligatorily named in the obligatory evening chapel service and we were now released–finally!–for a few hours of free time until lights-out. I was eight years old. As I hurried up the hill cabin-ward something terrifying happened. I froze.
I was stuck staring at something invisible and everywhere, at nothing and everything. There were trees. There was transcendence. The earth had lost its horizons. My vision stretched the present into forever and I saw myself for the first time, as if my shadow had turned around and discovered itself in new dimension, only then realizing how sad and flat was the one it had unwittingly been hiding in.
I was enveloped, but not I alone. The whole cosmos had been tucked away like a bird hidden in an old man’s inner breast-pocket. It was, in a moment, a rush of Wonder and, in the next, the strike of Revelation. And in an experience of unsolicited arrival, I found myself at the crossroads of a longing I didn’t know I had and a Joy I didn’t know I could have, a place I wanted to call home–in the way Peter on the mountain wanted to build three tents.
I had just stumbled into the living God. It was the one they had named at chapel. And I knew it in the way you can only know shame or fear or trust or hope. God was there with me and throughout me. I extended myself to take hold of him. And then—gone.
The most troubling thing about it was that the moment I named my experience was the very moment it disappeared, like when my two year-old chases a bubble and loses it the moment he captures it. And not because it was the wrong name but because it was the right name—it seemed. I had been nudged by some slippery Force who spoke in an unmistakable voice and then ran off and called out to me from the distance, almost taunting me, as if I had been tagged and was now ‘it’.
It had lasted for maybe ten seconds, maybe for all eternity. I couldn’t tell. And I wasn’t even sure it had happened. It only now existed as a longing that feels like a bashfully hopeful heartache. I remember trying to adjust my body, refocus my eyes, send my thoughts back to where they just were, run back in time, stop time, start my whole life over so I could run into this Moment again. But I could do nothing like that. It was gone and I was still there. Just me and time and the uncertain future. My experience was now over, my memory now haunted.
As I proceeded up the hill I felt like I had stolen something and everyone, indeed everything, suddenly became terribly suspicious. The universe had become one giant, illusive conspiracy. So I never told anyone. What was there to tell anyway? And who would have believed me? It was a pearl and the disbelieving world was swine.
But I treasured it in my heart like a thief treasures a diamond in his pocket. Except that I never wanted to use my treasure to purchase something else. I only wanted to discover it again, along with it my infinitely unfindable heart. Born in me that day was a deep awareness that something had been found and something had been lost. It was beautiful. It was tragic. It was and would forever remain henceforth the only longing my soul ever knew, like the pure and faithful longing of my lungs, or the singular longing of loneliness. My only consolation was in this: from that point forward, my Longing had a Name.