That Witnessing Presence

Sometimes the mountain
is hidden from me in veils
of cloud, sometimes
I am hidden from the mountain
in veils of inattention, apathy, fatigue,
when I forget or refuse to go
down to the shore or a few yards
up the road, on a clear day,
to reconfirm
that witnessing presence.

~Denise Levertov “Witness”

Even on the days when the mountain is hidden behind a veil of clouds, I have every confidence it is there.  In the off-chance that it might be visible if we took the time to drive up the highway to the foot of it, we did just that last night, risking seeing nothing but pea soup clouds at the higher elevation. Mount Baker remained behind its impenetrable veil, unseen.

A bit lower, at the foot of Mount Shuksan, initially massive clouds obscured it completely – invisible to us except the knowledge that we knew it was there as we had been in that exact spot before and witnessed it first hand. Yet due to powerful winds that blow in the Cascades, over the course of a few minutes Shuksan was exposed before our eyes in all its glory, first in shadowy profile and then crystal clear reality: it was there, movingly unmoved, a revelation of constancy.

No, it had not vanished overnight, gone to another county, blown up or melted down.  My vision isn’t always penetrating enough to see it through cloud cover, but it is still there. 

I know this and have faith it is true even when, within a few minutes, the clouds blew back over the mountain’s face and veiled it completely again.

Some days I simply don’t bother to look for the mountains, so preoccupied I walk right past their obvious grandeur and presence. Then they reach out to me and call me back.  There are times when I turn a corner on the farm and glance up, and there Baker is, a silent and overwhelming witness to beauty and steadfastness.  I literally gasp at not noticing before, at not remembering how I’m blessed by it being there even at the times I can’t be bothered.

The mountains confirm my lack of witness and still stay put to hold me fast yet another day.  And so I keep coming back to gaze, sometimes just at clouds, yearning to lift the veil, and lift my own veil, just one more time.

As the Light Went Out

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The second before the sun went out we saw a wall of dark shadow come speeding at us. We no sooner saw it than it was upon us, like thunder. It roared up the valley. It slammed our hill and knocked us out. It was the monstrous swift shadow cone of the moon. I have since read that this wave of shadow moves 1,800 miles an hour. Language can give no sense of this sort of speed—1,800 miles an hour. It was 195 miles wide. No end was in sight—you saw only the edge. It rolled at you across the land at 1,800 miles an hour, hauling darkness like plague behind it. Seeing it, and knowing it was coming straight for you, was like feeling a slug of anesthetic shoot up your arm. If you think very fast, you may have time to think, “Soon it will hit my brain.” You can feel the deadness race up your arm; you can feel the appalling, inhuman speed of your own blood. We saw the wall of shadow coming, and screamed before it hit.

This was the universe about which we have read so much and never before felt: the universe as a clockwork of loose spheres flung at stupefying, unauthorized speeds. How could anything moving so fast not crash, not veer from its orbit amok like a car out of control on a turn?

Less than two minutes later, when the sun emerged, the trailing edge of the shadow cone sped away. It coursed down our hill and raced eastward over the plain, faster than the eye could believe; it swept over the plain and dropped over the planet’s rim in a twinkling. It had clobbered us, and now it roared away. We blinked in the light. It was as though an enormous, loping god in the sky had reached down and slapped the Earth’s face.

When the sun appeared as a blinding bead on the ring’s side, the eclipse was over. The black lens cover appeared again, back-lighted, and slid away. At once the yellow light made the sky blue again; the black lid dissolved and vanished. The real world began there. I remember now: We all hurried away.

We never looked back. It was a general vamoose … but enough is enough. One turns at last even from glory itself with a sigh of relief. From the depths of mystery, and even from the heights of splendor, we bounce back and hurry for the latitudes of home.
~Annie Dillard from her essay  “Total Eclipse” in The Atlantic about the February 1979 eclipse in Washington State

 

sundown

 

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In February 1979, I was working as a medical student on an inpatient psychiatric unit in a large hospital in Seattle, less than a hundred miles from the band of total eclipse Annie Dillard describes above happening just to the south.

Our clinical team tried to prepare our mostly psychotic and paranoid schizophrenic patients for what was about to happen outside that morning.

Our patients were clearly more anxious than usual, pacing and wringing their hands as the light outside slowly faded, with high noon transformed gradually to an oddly shadowy dusk. The street lights turned on automatically and cars moved about with headlights shining.

We all stood at the windows in the hospital perched high on a hill, watching the city become dark as night in the middle of the day. Our unstable patients were sure the world was ending and certain they had caused it to happen.  Extra doses of medication were dispensed as needed while the light faded away and then slowly returned to the streets outside. Within an hour the sunlight was fully back, and most of the patients were napping soundly.

We all breathed a sigh of relief, having witnessed such glory from the heavens, acknowledging we did not cause it but a power far greater did.  The eclipse swept, with its racing shadow followed by restoration of light, the edge of our sanity to accept that our light can indeed be taken away.  For some, they live their whole lives consumed by shadow.

Miraculously, the Light has been returned to us.  We may not be able to look if in the Face —  too blinding — but we need never dwell in darkness again.

 

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The Price of Restoration

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We live in an unbelieving age
but one which is markedly and lopsidedly spiritual…
an age that has domesticated despair
and learned to live with it happily.
There is something in us
that demands the redemptive act,
that demands that what falls
at least be offered the chance to be restored.
…what <modern man> has forgotten is the cost of it.
His sense of evil is diluted or lacking altogether,
and so he has forgotten the price of restoration.

This is an unlimited God
and one who has revealed himself specifically.
It is one who became man
and rose from the dead.
It is one who confounds the senses and the sensibilities,
one known early on as a stumbling block.
There is no way to gloss over this specification
or to make it more acceptable to modern thought.
This God is the object of ultimate concern
and he has a name.

~Flannery O’Connor from a 1963 lecture published in Mystery and Manners

He has a name,
this God of specificity,
and asks us to say His name.
It sounds like a breath,
so we say it
with each breath we take
even when we don’t believe.
And He knows our name
and calls out to us
even if we don’t listen.

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The Word’s Embodiment

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Delicate hot-pink bloom,
The first chill hint of spring,
Aflame outside my room,
What message do you bring?

Some think you self-sufficient,
Spontaneously there,
Mute matter’s co-efficient,
Unfolding unaware.

But I can only deem
As holy petioles
and pedicels that teem,
Leaf-tongues and petal-scrolls.

Thus taken, in their stations,
All things are angels sent
Blazing into creation,
The Word’s embodiment.
~David Middleton “Azaleas in Epiphany”

 

This feast for the eyes
draws me in,
dazzles my senses,
awakens a revelation
so that I too unfold
to let the fiery Word
transform me,
a mere bud,
to glory.

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Infinite Weight and Lightness–Epiphany

A Hopeless Dawn by Frank Bramley
A Hopeless Dawn by Frank Bramley

…to bear in her womb
Infinite weight and lightness; to carry
in hidden, finite inwardness,
nine months of Eternity; to contain
in slender vase of being,
the sum of power –
in narrow flesh,
the sum of light.

Then bring to birth,
push out into air, a Man-child
needing, like any other,
milk and love –

but who was God.
~Denise Levertov, from “Annunciation”

Today, the day celebrated in the church as Epiphany (His Glory revealed and made manifest in all lives), bookends the day Mary accepted her role as an earthly vessel to become the Mother of God.

Epiphany is our turn for this glory to be revealed in our lives; with infinite heaviness and lightness we accept our new role as weak and crumbling vessels, yet even so God is made manifest within us. It is not the easy path to accept the ultimate freedom that requires true sacrifice, just as it was not easy for Mary whose heart was pierced. She could not know what this announcement meant for her life, but yet she said yes to God.

And so, we shall say yes as well.

“Like Mary, we have no way of knowing… We can ask for courage, however, and trust that God has not led us into this new land only to abandon us there.”
~Kathleen Norris from God With Us

Inner Renewal

dragonfly wings photo by Josh Scholten

…God’s attention is indeed fixed on the little things. But this is not because God is a great cosmic cop, eager to catch us in minor transgressions, but simply because God loves us–loves us so much that the divine presence is revealed even in the meaningless workings of daily life. It is in the ordinary, the here-and-now, that God asks us to recognize that the creation is indeed refreshed like dew-laden grass that is “renewed in the morning” or to put it in more personal and also theological terms, “our inner nature is being renewed everyday”.
~Kathleen Norris

It is easy to be ground to a pulp by the little things: waiting in line too long, an insistent alarm clock, a mouse (or more) in the house, a third head cold in less than a year.  The small things tend to add up to irritable annoyance and total inability to feel gratitude.

God is in the details, from the dew drop to tear drop and even to nose snot.  It is tempting instead to look past His ubiquitous presence in all things, to seek only the elegant grandeur of creation.   It isn’t all elegance from our limited perspective, but still, it is worthy of His divine attention.

The time has come to be refreshed and renewed in our inner being.
His care is revealed in the tiniest ways.
He has my attention.

photo by Josh Scholten