Even in the darkest hours of mankind, there might be a voice within us that allows us to remain human.
– László Nemes, director of Son of Saul, accepting the Oscar for Best Foreign Film
These words, spoken last night at the Academy Awards, struck me with particular force, since one of the most famous accounts of that voice had just been told in the morning liturgy. Although Exodus 3: 1-15, the story of the burning bush, does not describe a voice coming from “within,” I believe that the voice which Moses heard at the foot of God’s mountain was the same voice which the Hungarian filmmaker longs to hear, the same voice we all long to hear in a dark time when the humanity of our country, our world, and ourselves is being called into question.
Whether it speaks in an interior whisper, or calls to us from an exterior source, the voice “that allows us to remain human,” to remember (or discover) our true humanity, is the voice which has been speaking us into being since the beginning of the world. It is the voice of revelation.
Revelation, in the words of Ashton Nichols, is “a moment when the soul of the recipient is filled with something outside the self. A literal inspiration occurs. Consciousness finds itself flooded, or breathed into, or simply filled, by a force it ascribes to an external agency. The metaphoric agent may be a wind, a flash of light, or a disembodied voice. Divine grace descends; the voice of God is heard in the whirlwind; a spirit inspires the prophet or poet with a truth that comes from outside the self and is incorporated into the soul of the recipient.”[i]
The sense of a truth coming from “outside the self” may seem a contradiction to Nemes’ “voice within us,” but only if we understand ourselves as separate, autonomous beings more or less self-contained and complete. If we are made in the image of the Trinitarian God, then we are part of a larger, interdependent flow of self-diffusive love in which outside and inside, or divine and human, are not strict opposites, but partners in a dance. We are constituted by a process of receiving our being from somewhere else, and in turn giving ourselves away. We “lose” our life to find it, as Jesus said. Like that bush in the Sinai, we burn with divine fire, yet are not consumed.
The first time I went to the Holy Land, in 1989, I saw a burning bush. It happened to be Ascension Day. I was visiting the Anglican sisters in Ramallah, with whom my mother had once worked to teach and care for Palestinian Christian children. Since a border closing prevented us from going to mass at a Benedictine church known for its beautiful chanting, a couple of the sisters took me for a walk in the local hills. As we descended a ravine, we encountered a shepherd with his small flock. And behind him, a little further on, I saw, with considerable astonishment, a burning bush. Why it was on fire, I never learned. If it spoke, I did not hear. Sometimes the voice is for the shepherd’s ears only. But I never forgot the wonder of it.
The bush which will burn and speak to you, or me, is out there somewhere, waiting for the proper moment of holy meeting. Anglican poet/priest R. S. Thomas described his own encounter in “The Bright Field.”
I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the pearl
of great price, the one field that had
the treasure in it. I realize now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying
on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.
In an exquisite fifteenth-century tryptich by Nicolas Froment, Moses beholds the Madonna and Christ Child in the “burning” bush. There are no prominent flames. The Word made flesh is both voice and fire. God incarnate is the ultimate revelation by whom and through whom and in whom we may, at last, become fully human.
[i] Ashton Nichols, The Poetics of Epiphany: Nineteenth Century Origins of the Modern Literary Movement