Today’s post is by Kimberlee Conway Ireton, author of The Circle of Seasons: Meeting God in the Church Year and the forthcoming memoir Cracking Up: A Postpartum Faith Crisis.
It had always seemed to Emily, ever since she could remember, that she was very, very near to a world of wonderful beauty. Between it and herself hung only a thin curtain; she could never draw the curtain aside—but sometimes, just for a moment, a wind fluttered it and then it was as if she caught a glimpse of the enchanting realm beyond—only a glimpse—and heard a note of unearthly music….And always when the flash came to her Emily felt that life was a wonderful, mysterious thing of persistent beauty.
L.M. Montgomery, Emily of New Moon
Reading Emily’s story for the first time at the age of 13, I fell in love. I wanted to be Emily. I wanted her sixth sense, her mysteriousness, her appreciation of beauty, and especially her experience of what she called “the flash.” Oh how I wanted that glimpse of the transcendent, that thrill at the momentary parting of the veil between heaven and earth.
What I did not know then is that I did have these glimpses of the glory beyond. I think I did not recognize them because I did not understand that the flash is a double-edged sword. When the veil parts, and I glimpse—something—it fills me with awe and delights my soul, but it also opens in me a yearning, a deep and almost painful desire. The older I get, the stronger and more aching the longing becomes to plunge into this mysterious beauty and to live in those moments that shimmer with a radiance that is beyond what I usually see or know.
When I was younger, I would grasp at whatever ushered me into the enchanted realm beyond the veil—the sleeve of my husband’s crisply striped shirt, a bowl of roses fresh-cut from my rosebushes and sitting in a bowl on the counter, the crescendo of the organ as we sing the name of Jesus in church—in an attempt to replicate the experience and so quench my desire to live in moments of mystery.
This never works. After the moment has passed, the thing itself is a reminder of what I once saw or felt or heard, but it can no longer usher me into that other realm. Now I (mostly) know better than to pick roses with the expectation that they will open a window on mystery. I’ve learned that I can never enter that other realm by contrivance or desire. I can only try to pay attention, because I never know when or where the veil might part and mystery might unfold before me.
These weeks between Pentecost and the first Sunday of Advent comprise the second cycle of Ordinary Time. Smack dab in the middle of this season, on August 6, comes the feast of the Transfiguration, one of my favorite holy days. One of the things I love most about this feast is that it falls during Ordinary Time, a profound reminder that when mystery confronts us, it is often when we least expect it—God takes the ordinary moments of our lives and transforms them into something holy.
I imagine that when Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up on Mount Tabor to pray, the disciples are not expecting to glimpse the mystery of the Incarnation. How many times had these disciples prayed with Jesus in the months or years they followed him? Dozens? Hundreds? And never before had the appearance of his face changed and his clothes become dazzling white. Never before had Moses and Elijah appeared with him in glory. So it is hardly surprising that Peter, James, and John are half-asleep as Jesus prays through the night. Only when they fully awaken do they come face to face with mystery: they see Jesus in his glory, a glory that is his from before time, but which has been veiled from their sight until this moment when they finally see him as he truly is.
As Moses and Elijah are about to leave, Peter bursts out in his impetuous way, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” (Lk 9:33). He wants this moment to last, I think, but he also, instinctively, wants to contain their glory. And no wonder—perhaps he knows that we mortals can only bear so much reality before it overwhelms our senses.
Perhaps this is why the disciples are terrified as they enter the cloud. They know that the cloud signals the presence of God, and they know that no one can look on God and live. It is not simply because we are sinful and God is holy. No, it is because God is Real, and our finite minds cannot comprehend nor our frail bodies bear the eternity and majesty—the utter Realness—of God.
I began to understand this fear of God experientially a dozen or so years ago when I took a trip to the Olympic Peninsula from my home in Seattle. As I drove up to Hurricane Ridge, I stopped along the side of the road and got out of my car to look at the mountains. I gazed at the enormous peaks and valleys that rose and fell before me in breathtaking beauty all the way to the horizon, and I began to shiver in spite of the warm August sun.
I was, in truth, terrified. In the face of such vastness, such ancient and incomprehensible substantiality, I felt my own smallness and insignificance. I tried to make myself stand there and reckon with the terror I felt in the presence of a world far older and more tremendous than the one I had known only moments before, but I could not. I turned my back on the mountains and fled to the seeming safety of my car.
In my finitude and weakness, I cannot bear to look on ultimate reality any more than I can bear to look directly at the sun. And so reality is veiled, hidden from view—at least most of the time. But every so often, like Emily and the disciples, I glimpse the enchanted realm beyond the veil. I see, for a fleeting moment, the glory of God.
These glimpses beyond the veil are what sustain me, filling me with hope that, ultimately, all will be well. For in the moments when the veil parts, I see the not-yet now, I glimpse the beauty at the heart of all that is, I see things as they really are and not as they usually appear.
It is as if I, like the disciples, am half-asleep and dreaming until the glory of transfiguration overshadows me and I wake, for a moment, to mystery.
This post is excerpted from Kimberlee’s book, The Circle of Seasons: Meeting God in the Church Year.