And through thy creatures pierce and pass
Till all becomes thy cloudless glass,
Transparent as the purest day. . .
Henry Vaughan, “L’Envoy,” Silex Scintillans, 1655
There was a day, a few years back, when I started up my car and discovered that something had gone haywire with the thermostat, causing my engine to overheat. My neighbor disconnected the thermostat for me, and I was able to drive it the few miles down the road to our local mechanic. He said he could fix it, but it would have to wait until the following day. Unfortunately, no one was able to give me a ride back home; I had no choice but to walk.
It wasn’t really that unfortunate: it was a beautiful June day and the road passed a horse-farm and a small lake. What’s prettier than a New England country road in June? But I wasn’t having any of it. I was mad and miserable, thinking of the plans I’d have to cancel and the unexpected expense that I really really couldn’t afford.
Not far from the side road that leads to my house is the trail-head into a nearly 6,000-acre wildlife preserve. I hadn’t visited there at all that year, and for some reason – I think mostly because I still needed to blow off steam – I decided to walk part of the trail. I turned off the road and was swallowed in the cool green dimness of the woods.
The shade was pleasant after the long hot walk on the open road, but other than that I wasn’t paying much attention. I was still roiling inside and completely caught up in trying to figure out what I needed to do. I passed over a plank bridge that forded a shallow stream, and the path turned up the hillside, out of the dense woods and into the sunlight.
A spot of color beside the path caught my eye. It was a painted trillium – large and beautiful. I stopped and knelt down to look at it. Off to the left and up a little, I noticed another – and another. Then I actually pulled back and looked at the slope. It was covered with them. I really could have sworn that they weren’t there a few minutes earlier. It was as though they appeared out of nowhere.
I sat and looked at them for awhile, and I felt better. My fuming had settled down. I decided it was time to turn back and go home.
Do you remember that moment in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy steps out of the black-and-white world of her Kansas house and into the technicolor glory of Oz? That was what it was like when I returned to the plank bridge over the little stream. The banks of the stream were in full sparkling bloom: plumes of tiarella, dwarf ginseng, trout lilies, violets, wake robins, clintonia, lady’s slippers – pink, yellow, red, purple, white – a gorgeous carpet of color.
It was as though a curtain had opened, a veil had been lifted, a window had been wiped clean. I literally had not seen any of this, though I had looked right at it on my way up the hill. The veil that covered my eyes was the veil of my own self-absorption, my mind focused on running the hamster wheel of worry and calculation.
And Jacob awaked out of his sleep, and he said, Surely the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not. And he was afraid, and said, How awe-some is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” Genesis 28:16-17
I think I know a bit how Jacob felt. The shock of sudden awareness of the divine Presence is an awesome thing. Very much like stepping into another world. A world filled with meaning and mystery and light and Love. I know that I am never outside of that world for one second, whether by a woodland stream or on a city street. But I, like many of us on the spiritual path, still live in two worlds – the world of ordinary life and the world of the sacred Presence that I make appointments to step into from time to time. Living this division has a deep soul cost. In my self-absorption, I can step through the gift of God’s garden unseeing, and I can brush right past a person in need, a crying child, a wounded animal. I can pass by “angels unaware.” To live an undivided life is my greatest longing.
The 20th century American mystic, A.W. Tozer wrote:
The Presence and the manifestation of the Presence are not the same. There can be the one without the other. God is here when we are wholly unaware of it. He is manifest only when and as we are aware of His Presence. On our part there must be surrender to the Spirit of God. . . (The Pursuit of God, 1948)