“Patches of Godlight”
People make interesting distinctions between what they call “sacred” times and places, and what they call “secular” times and places. Being inside a church, they would say, is sacred; hiking in the Sawtooth mountains of Idaho is secular. When they enter a temple of wood or stone they may put on a veil or take off their shoes in honor of what they call a “holy place.” I have no quarrel with such customs, but I confess that for me the holy places keep expanding and the distinctions we try to make between sacred and secular become less and less obvious. I have been hushed and solemn in the great cathedrals of Notre Dame, of Amien and Chartres, of York and Salisbury and Winchester. I have been exalted in the simple, light-filled purity of this room. But I have, at times, been equally awed and worshipful under open sky in the great temple of God’s natural world.
I like that story about how Moses, way off in the middle of nowhere, heard a voice saying, “Take off your shoes because the place where you are standing is holy ground.” In my own heart, more than once way off in the middle of nowhere I have heard that voice. One beautiful morning in Colorado I went by myself to the top of a mountain and sat for a couple of hours looking out over rolling ranges untouched by human hands or voices. Sitting so still that mountain bluebirds all but landed on my shoulders, I listened to hymns of silence, and thought of the words of Jacob when the sun woke him up one morning out in a lonely desert: “Surely, the Lord is in this place.” He even set up a pillar and named the place Beth-el, which means “The House of God.” Years later, in Florida, I would meet Barbara Brown Taylor for the first time and hear her say that perhaps Jacob was mistaken to do that — that naming and locating — because if the word “God” God means anything it surely means that the holy is everywhere. In the words Barbara used that day, “If pillars marked all the places in the world where God has come among us, we could not move without cracking our shins.”
Far away from designated churches and temples, the sudden grace of some given moment can fill you with the wonder and joy that are part of worship. The famous philosopher George Santayana was lecturing away one morning at Harvard when, after about 10 minutes he stopped, looked through the open windows, and said to the startled class, “It’s springtime. The Earth is alive. The forsythia is in bloom and that is far, far more important than philosophy. Let’s go walking.” The brilliant professor understood that there is more than one temple. As did C. S. Lewis, from whom I stole the title for my remarks this morning. He writes that “Any patch of sunlight in a wood will show you something about the sun which you could never get from reading books on astronomy. These pure and spontaneous pleasures are ‘patches of Godlight’ in the woods of our experience.” Patches of Godlight — it’s a fascinating phrase, and in the words of Paul that long-ago day in Athens, such moments are not confined to “temples made with men’s hands.”
So I read with ever-increasing delight people like the two just mentioned, and especially Loren Eiseley and Annie Dillard who write about the most ordinary things and leave them bathed in the light of holiness. More and more I want to see with their eyes, these people who get a double magic from seeing simple ordinary things as if they were pure magic, who find themselves knee deep in miracles when I am only seeing a world of the commonplace. I want that twist of focus that suddenly brings the holy into view where I thought there was only the prosaic and the mundane.
I don’t know whether you have read any of the Father Brown detective stories by G. K. Chesterton, but the reason that bald, unassuming little priest was always so successful was that he solved the mystery by means of the most everyday, common-place observations. He saw ordinary details invested with more meaning than the rest of us see. It’s a childlike trait, of course. If you walk with a child or a grandchild, you know that destinations are not nearly as important to them as things seen along the way. You can’t hurry because they are forever bending down to study a worm, a bug, a colored stone. The world is still a marvel to them. They have the kind of awareness one of the old church fathers named Irenaeus was celebrating when he said, “Human being fully alive! Such is the glory of God.”
I chose to double up my life in the university and in the church, a decision that required learning how to do things quickly, and the quickness brought some good things, but one of my keenest regrets is that I did not slow down a little more often. I once read an essay called “An Entrance to the Woods,” in which a man named Wendell Berry describes how he kept himself open to the mystery and holiness of ordinary things. Rushing by interstate highway to a retreat in the woods one weekend, he was keenly aware at first of his dis-ease on entering the threatening silence of the woods. He slept restlesslythe first night. But by morning his mind and body had begun to forget the highway and the dissonance of the previous day. He lay in the sun on an outcropping of granite, and in his forgetting there was also anamnesis, a deep remembering — something, I suppose, about the why’s of human life and how briefly we have been upon this ancient earth, until he became one with the silence around him.
In other words, there is more than one kind of pilgrimage, and some that seem quite secular and ordinary turn out to be holiness at its highest. An old story tells of a rabbi who disappeared every Sabbath Eve, presumably, his congregation thought, “to commune with God in the forest.” They assumed he was ascending to the heavens through prayer and meditation. One night a cantor from that congregation followed the rabbi, just to observe this holy encounter so that perhaps others might learn the ways of heaven. Deeper and deeper into the woods the rabbi walked until he came to the small cottage of an old Gentile woman sick and painfully crippled. Once there, the rabbi cooked for her, carried her firewood, and swept her floor. Then, when the chores were finished, he returned to his little house next to the synagogue. When the man who had followed him returned to the village everyone was eager to know whether their rabbi had lifted himself toward heaven by prayer and meditation. After a thoughtful pause, the cantor said, “Oh, no. Our rabbi went much, much higher than that.”
Patches of Godlight can be seen unexpectedly, perhaps more often in that rabbi’s kind of simple compassion than in church or synagogue. The sacred touches us in many ways, including thanksgiving for some of our most familiar blessings. I like the 19th century Catholic theologian who said, “It is a good exercise, in empty or ugly hours of the day, to look at anything — the coal-bucket or the bookcase — and think how happy one could be to have brought it out of [a] sinking ship onto [a] solitary island.” I saw a list the other day, compiled by someone who had found a way to find patches of Godlight even in the most common chores. “I am thankful,’ she said, “for a lawn that needs mowing, for windows that need cleaning, for gutters that need fixing — because they all mean that I have a home.”
I was never quite so taken with Alice Walker’s novel The Color Purple as some of my friends, but Shug Avery says a wonderful thing once in that book: “Everything want to be loved…..You ever notice that trees do everything to git attention we do, except walk?” Well, sometimes we DO notice. I came out of the cancer center at Barnes Hospital in St. Louis one day, a long time ago, after two or three hours in rooms where life was going out in ways I hadn’t even been able to imagine before. Some moments you don’t forget, because they change the way you look at things, forever. I came out into bright sunlight, holier than I had ever known sunlight to be. There was a huge old tree close by. I stooped down to touch the grass for a moment, and then I walked over and put my hand on the tree. In my strange mix of compassion and gratitude, I felt as truly in church and at worship as I have ever felt inside a building.
I have said before that I think the most stunning moment in the Christian story is when Jesus purzzled some people by thanking them for feeding him when he was hungry, for giving him shelter when he was homeless. “But we never fed you,” they said, astonished by his praise. “We never came to comfort you in some illness.” His reply is classic: “Oh,” he said, “if you did those things to any ordinary person, you did them to me.” In other words, every person we meet is in some way Christ. Do you need a moment to think about that? I know how strange it sounds, but it is, believe me, part of the divine madness of the Christian gospel. See Christ in each person you meet, and the world changes. How can we despise ourselves, as some of us do, if we are a mask for the holy? How can we despise our neighbor, if she is?
Religion can be so pompous. It yearns for marvel and mystery and sensation. “You want a miracle,” Jesus sighed. “You want me to give you a sign.” He was wearied by that, knowing that patches of Godlight were all around, waiting to be seen. In that amazing play of Shakespeare’s called King Lear , so rich and profound in places that it can be overwhelming, there is an unforgettable moment when the old king, wise at last, speaks to his daughter, Cordelia, whom he had so foolishly disinherited. He speaks eloquently of how the two of them will spend the rest of their days aware of life’s prosaic mysteries. I hope the paradox registers: Prosaic mysteries . A contradiction in terms? No, a truth beyond truth, a journey into the deepest heart of things. With the vanities of kingship put behind him, Lear is ready for the miracles of simple, daily life. So we’ll live,” he says to his daughter…..”So we’ll live,/ And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh / At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues / Talk of court news; and we’ll talk with them, too — / Who loses and who wins, who’s in, who’s out — / And take upon’s the mystery of things / As if we were God’s spies…..”
God’s spies — another wonderful phrase, and that’s what we are meant to be, poking around, always on the lookout for a moment of insight to light up the darkness, finding behind the mask of ordinary things the face of God. Years ago I read the ancient Gospel of Thomas, one of those long-lost biographies of Jesus that did not make it into our New Testament, but that nevertheless has some splendid moments in it. Listen to this one: “Split the stick, and there is Jesus.” I read it to mean, Do the most ordinary thing, and find it full of wonder. It’s only partly true, of course, as so many things are. My backyard trees, the wonder of simple work, reveal no mysteries unless my heart is receptive — which is why Jesus had to say to his literal-minded friends, “If only you had eyes to see the reality behind what you see.” Here is the rest of that verse from the Gospel of Thomas: “Split the stick, and there is Jesus; lift the stone, and one finds the Lord.”
A preacher wastes your time unless these abstractions are made concrete, are are brought so close to real life that you won’t be able to forget them. So I tell you how once I split a stick by accident, lifted up a stone and found the holy face of God. It happened some time ago, but I want to tell it in the present tense. I am in Oklahoma City to help my son do some work, and I meet a little boy named Fletcher Baldridge, favorite playmate of my OKC grandson . I think to myself how tough it must be to carry that boy’s names to school in Oklahoma. Bobby or Tommy, maybe, or even Small Red Feather, but “Fletcher Baldridge,” with its exotic sound of English fox-hunting aristocracy? Not very helpful in a third grade classroom in Oklahoma.
Then I learn that his name is not this child’s only burden. At age nine, with a mother but no father, he is physically awkward because of a terrible car wreck in which he had been thrown through the windshield. He has an enormous ridge of scar tissue down the middle of his chest and stomach, and on one side of his throat a plastic tube where the carotid artery used to be. Somehow, although I don’t t understand it, he was changed in the trauma from being lefthanded to being righthanded, and he isn’t well cordinated anymore. So who wants to choose him when the teams are being picked on the playground at recess?
But he is bright — bright as can be. He uses precise language, he is creative and imaginative, and I think how lucky my grandson is to have him as a friend. As I watch them at play, I ask Fletcher if he would like to be a soldier when he grows up, so he could use one of those guns they are playing with, and he says, “Oh, no! I would not wish to be a soldier. I do not like it when people are violent. I would not want to be violent.” You begin to see why Fletcher is an odd ball at school, where many of the daddies have gun racks in their pickups, and where most of the kids think he is a freak. He can’t run well, so that even if a teacher insists he be chosen on somebody’s team he messes things up and the kids laugh at him as he lumbers in about 20 feet behind everyone else. Fletcher, I realize, is learning about a lot of things besides English and math.
It’s dinner time suddenly, and my son, arrives home from work. He often forgets the rest of the world completely, and doesn’t care if everybody in the block hears him, so he yells for my grandson, Blue, to come and give him a hug. (“Blue” is hardly a typical Oklahoma name, either, but that’s another story) Anyway, Blue doesn’t hear, or is embarrassed and pretends not to hear, so his dad turns up the volume: “I WANT A HUG!” Blue, who gets all the hugs he can use, is in no hurry. He has something else on his mind and rejects the invitation — at least for the moment. Fletcher sees this happen, and I don’t know what is in his head, whether he feels sorry for Blue’s dad and wants to be a substitute, or whether he just suddenly forgets everything but the huge hunger in his own heart. But what I do know is that he walks over to my son and looks up and says, “I sure would like a hug, Mr. Meyers. I don’t have a daddy.”
A New Testament letter says, God is love. In some completely ordinary event, if you look thoughtfully, you sometimes discover that truth. You may wish to look this week for places where the holy lies hidden, and where, if you are lucky, you may find yourself a patch of Godlight.
We dare not ask for too many things, gracious Lord, lest we forget
some of them. So we ask for one thing this week: that we may hear
the Voice behind the voices, and see the Miracle that hides in the
the commonplace. Amen.