“As he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:
“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall call his name Immanuel”
which means, God with us” (Mt. 1:20-23).
I know you weren’t there, but you may remember 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. I was eight years old. I had gone to the obligatory chapel session where things were said like, “Jesus died for your sins,” but now we were now released–finally!–for a few hours of free time until lights-out. Unassuming, I hurried up the hill toward the cabins to get my flashlight and black everything to play capture the flag but suddenly—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, like 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 (Mt. 17; Mk. 9).
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 hope or trust or fear or shame. 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 in chapel. Jesus had always been there, been “around,” but that Name had just descended like lightening in a way that proved I had never really seen Lightening up close. And in a rush of greed, 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. And not because I had identified it with the wrong name, but I think precisely because it was the right name. It was like the start-and-stop of wonder in capturing the invisible now, gone the moment you begin thinking about, or like the triumph-and-disappointment my boys experience upon capturing one of those oh-so-elusive soap bubbles. I had been nudged by some slippery Force who spoke in an unmistakable voice and then ran off and called from a distance, as if to taunt me from behind the trees, as if to reveal that it was, in fact, I who was hiding and the world was lost (Gen. 3:9).
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 of the sort. 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.
What we choose to fight is so tiny!
What fights with us is so great.
If only we would let ourselves be dominated
As things do by some immense storm,
We would become strong too, and not need names.
From “The Watching Man,” by Rainer Maria Rilke