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 was first encountered by God. I was eight years old.
I had just be released–finally!–from the obligatory chapel session where things were obligatorily said like, “Jesus died for your sins.” The camp director gave us an extra hour of free time until lights-out since it was the last night. Unassuming, I began to hurry back to the cabin to get my flashlight and black everything to play capture the flag. Then—I froze.
I was stuck staring at something invisible and everywhere, at nothing and everything, but not like the Holy Spirit people at church always talked about—perhaps more like the Holy Spirit. There were trees. There was transcendence. The earth had lost its horizons. My vision stretched the present into forever and rebounded back. I saw myself for the first time. I felt like a shadow that had suddenly turned around and discovered just how sad and flat was the world it was stuck hiding in.
I was enveloped in something like the Present tense. It was not an emotion. I did not feel a sensation or get cold chills. It was not a phenomenological impression of the world that translated into interiorly to a sense of spiritual contentment or a strange heart-warmedness, like love filling an inner vacuum or a wooden triangle filling out an idea or a deep itch satisfied by a hard scratch. It was inexplicably the opposite. A vacuum had opened up, an idea had been emptied out, a deep itch became an untouchable ache. I was an inner vacuum, and yet I was not 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. And I may as well have been dead, or I may as well have had just been born.
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. It is not something you can prove but something that somehow proves you. The thing I distinctly remember thinking, and thinking as with letters of lead, was, “God is here.” And not “in here” or “around here.” Just “here.” Also, not separate from the Jesus I had heard about. Jesus had always been there, but that name had just descended like lightening. In a rush of greed, I extended myself to take hold of him, and then—gone.
The most unsettling thing about it all was that the moment I thought I figured it out, the moment I could put Jesus and God into a formal equation, was the very moment it ended. It was the start-and-stop of wonder in capturing the invisible now, like the moment my two-year old son finally seizes the soap bubble to take as his captive-now-vanished. And it was gone not because I had matched it with the wrong name, but I think precisely because it was the right name. I had been nudged by some slippery force who spoke the primal Word in an unmistakable voice and then ran off and called from a distance, as if to taunt me from behind the trees, only to reveal that it was I who was hiding.
It had lasted for maybe ten seconds, maybe for all eternity. I couldn’t tell. And I wasn’t even sure it had happened, or I wasn’t even sure that anything else had ever happened. It only now existed as a longing that felt 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 untamable God who escaped my grasp and was forever on the loose in a world where he was everywhere at once and yet nowhere to be found.
To be clear, I cannot say in any sense that this was a fond memory. The memory remained in my heart like a ghost refusing to die. There was now a hollow that made life in this world always sound like a fading resonance with some song just out of reach. It was like I had heard the all truth of Psalm 19 in a single moment, but could never really believe Psalm 19 about all other moments combined. The heavens had opened the trees in a chorus and the glory of God had sounded, but it now only resounded in my own shallow voice—the echo without the glory, the song without the heavens.
When I convinced myself to let go and continue up the ordinary hill into a now very unordinary world, I may as well have been a stick man with a long nose tearing himself away from his paper kingdom. I wasn’t sure if it was just me or everything other than me, but I was absolutely certain that something about the surface world was either full of miracles or smeared with illusions. And I was at any rate disillusioned by the division between my certainty of knowing something was phony and not being so certain it wasn’t me. There were two kingdoms now, and they had declared a war inside of me, or I had become aware of some invisible war engulfing everything. A strained and constant negotiation was now underway between essence and appearance, heart and surface, shame and pride, fear and bullshit. And while the idea of negotiating has with it a sense of, indeed the goal of, control, the fact of the negotiation was wholly out of my control. Soldiers can be master marksmen but they do not have the power to announce a ceasefire, just as diplomats are master negotiators but neither do they have the power to announce a ceasefire. I was now both duplicitous and diplomatic, like a man or like a cold war. But a man never admits he is two men anymore than a diplomat admits he is a spy, so perhaps it was more like the teenage couple walking back downstairs at the party, now bound for all eternity as one flesh but having never felt so torn at the heart.
So I had now to face the sad world as a man half hiding. I had stolen something sacred and everyone, indeed everything, suddenly became terribly suspicious. The universe had become one giant, illusive conspiracy, a house of mirrors with that had been shattered in a moment by a windows into the Real, a window that somehow provided the first reflection of the naked world as it truly is, and the naked self inhabiting it. I had lost all grounds for trust in the world, in myself, but I did long now to find something to trust. And I wanted only to trust that moment. But that moment was gone.
So I never told anyone. Not a single person. What was there to tell anyway? That I had seen God? Who would have believed that? And what if they didn’t believe? What if they convinced me not to believe? It was a pearl and the disbelieving world was swine.
But I treasured that moment in my heart like a thief treasures a diamond in his pocket, too afraid of being found out to ever cash it in for its power of purchase, for something else, but never really wanting to anyway. I would have sold all the highlands of earth for this treasure. I was not sick with wanderlust but diseased with a lust of wonder. It was not power I was after; it was Beauty. I wanted to be overcome by its power, to drown like light into a diamond, but never to return again, too greedy to want it to shine for anyone else, not realizing that that was the very greed that buried the world, that turned the star-spangled earth into a lump of coal. I didn’t realize that if God hadn’t stopped shining on me in that moment I would have taken him hostage and crucified the world.
For I did not yet know that creation is a diamond imprisoned in a coal mine, that it is the treasure of God’s giving heart and God is the beauty of its hidden soul. I did not yet know that God would have sold all the highlands of heaven for the power of its purchase, and that he would be plunged into the heart of darkness if only to retrieve one of its treasures. The only way to know that truth in any real sense, I would first have to become well-acquainted with the darkness of my own heart.