“Every common bush afire with God”

Weatherbeaten pines near the summit of Mt. Tallac.

Earth’s crammed with heaven
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes.
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries
And daub their natural faces unaware…

–  Elizabeth Barrett Browning

August 6th marks the Feast of the Transfiguration, that strange moment in the gospel narrative when the divine glory in Jesus is glimpsed by three disciples on the summit of a mountain. Scholars have puzzled over the strange mysticism of the story, an anomalous intrusion into the more historical tone of the gospel texts. Was it a misplaced post-resurrection story, or did the glory of heaven really blaze for a moment in an ordinary place on an ordinary afternoon?

Although some scholars locate the event on the higher, wilder summit of Mt. Hermon (9232’), tradition commemorates the story on the gently rounded crown of Mt. Tabor, a solitary knob rising 1500 feet above the Galilean plain. To the romantics among us, in love with the sublime majesty of high mountains, Tabor’s humbler setting seems an uninspired choice for a manifestation of the divine. Doesn’t the experience of divine presence require the less accessible, more transcendent heights of a Mt. Sinai, reached only with bleeding feet and gasping breath?

The lectionary readings for the Transfiguration don’t seem worried about the comparison. Sinai and Tabor are both remembered as summits where the divine presence was revealed to mortal sight. The gospel description of a cloud overshadowing the mount of Transfiguration is clearly meant to echo the theophany at Sinai. But the two mountains are in fact very different places.

Sinai is austere, barren, and forbidding, rising out of a desolate landscape that Deuteronomy aptly describes as “a terrible and waste-howling wilderness.” The mountain consists of 580 million year old red granite, overlaid by dark volcanic rock of more recent origin (ten million years ago).Travelers over the centuries have spoken of Mt. Sinai as “dark and frowning”, with its “stern, naked, splintered peaks.” One 19th century pilgrim said, “I felt as though I had come to the end of the world.”

For Moses and his people, its summit was wrapped in the Cloud of Unknowing, where human sight must become blind before it can see the divine light. It is a place apart, inhospitable to ordinary life and everyday knowledge. Its mystery remains hidden from the casual quest. “The knowledge of God,” said Gregory of Nyssa, “is a mountain steep indeed and difficult to climb.”

The Israelites were smart enough to know this. They stayed down in the valley where it was safe. Even there, the thunder and lightning around the peak made them shudder. The Exodus text says that just touching the edge of the mountain could kill you. So they were happy to let Moses go up alone. As one ancient writer put it, he “left behind every divine light, every voice, every word from heaven, to plunge into the darkness where the One dwells who is beyond all things.”

Medieval mystics said that on the summit, inside the cloud, Moses fell asleep in a supreme self-forgetfulness. Whatever he saw up there was beyond words, but the description of Moses descending is unforgettable: the skin of his face shone because he had been talking to God. The Israelites were afraid to come near him until he had veiled his face.

This is a story about the otherness of God, the one whose incomprehensible mystery is utterly beyond our world, beyond our knowing, beyond our grasp.

In choosing Tabor as the site to commemorate the Transfiguration, tradition has invoked God’s less forbidding aspect. Tabor is what geologists call a monadnock, a native American word for “mountain that stands alone.” Resistant to the erosion that reduced its surroundings to a low plain, its solitary rounded shape draws the eye from miles around. Set in a fertile portion of the Galilee, it is adorned with grasses, shrubs, and groves of pine, oak, and cypress. Where Sinai is fierce and forbidding, Tabor is gentle and welcoming, pleasant and hospitable. Its modest scale and cheerful greenness made me feel at home when I climbed it nearly thirty years ago.

The attributed setting of the Transfiguration is very different, then, from Sinai; but so are the details in the gospel text. Instead of a dark cloud, there is a clear, bright light. Instead of an unspeakable mystical experience by a solitary Moses, there is a describable vision to which several disciples are witnesses. And instead of requiring a long and arduous pilgrimage to a distant place, the Transfiguration takes place in the familiar geography of the disciples’ home turf.

In other words, this gospel story is about the immanence of God, the presence of the divine in the very midst of our stories, not just at their remotest edges. We don’t have to leave where we are in order to find God. God can be found right here, where we are living our lives. Epiphanies come in unexpected places. God may be found in the humblest dwelling.

Recently I climbed one of my own favorite summits––Mt. Tallac, which at nearly ten thousand feet towers above Fallen Leaf Lake in California’s Sierra Nevada. When I was a child, we took family vacations at the lake, spending a week every summer in a rented cabin. While we rarely ventured far from the water, Tallac always loomed above us like a beckoning power, and even as a small boy I felt its summons. I was about ten when I finally made it to the top, and I have returned a number of times since. As a young man, I went up by moonlight to watch the sun rise over Lake Tahoe. In middle age, I ascended at sunset to view a lunar eclipse.

This time, there was no celestial display, and certainly no mountaintop theophany. The only words I was given at the top came from a conversation between two young women who were starting back down. As they passed me, I only heard one sentence: “Was she drunk at the time?” What could I make of such an oracle? On this hike, all my mountain revelations would turn out to be nonverbal.

“Oh, these vast, calm, measureless mountain days,” exclaimed Sierran saint John Muir, “inciting at once to work and rest! Days in whose light everything seems equally divine, opening a thousand windows to show us God.” And on my 12-mile Tallac pilgrimage,  there were many windows indeed.

The journey up the mountain begins gently, along the banks of Glen Aulin.

Checker-mallow halfway up Mt. Tallac.

Jeffrey pine west of Tallac.

Wooly mule ears, looking west from Mt. Tallac.

A marmot at the summit.

Lake Tahoe from the top of Mt. Tallac.

More than halfway down the steep side, a view of Fallen Leaf Lake and journey’s end.

Anglican poet-priest R. S. Thomas described a natural epiphany of his own in “The Bright Field.” At first it seemed a common enough sight: the sun breaking through clouds to illuminate a small meadow. The image quickly slipped from his mind as he went on his way. But in retrospect he realized that the gift of that moment had been “the pearl / of great price, the one field that had / the treasure in it.” If only he had been prepared to give it his full attention.

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.

If only we too would turn aside from our headlong forward rush to notice the illuminations strewn along our way. As I made my descent from Tallac’s summit, taking a steeper, shorter return route to Fallen Leaf, I was less prone to dally. There were snowfields and rockslides to cross, and I needed to reach Fallen Leaf Lake before sunset. Halfway down I spied a magnificent corn lily nested in a thicket about twenty feet from the trail. In my haste I almost passed it by. But then my soul stepped on the brakes, and I turned aside to behold the miracle of its beauty. I waded through the brush for a closer look. Was it “only” a corn lily, veratrum californicum, or was it, as the poets and mystics say, an epiphany “afire with God?”

Corn lily on the southern slope of Mt. Tallac

Related posts:

The Light We May Not See: Thoughts on Dust and Transfiguration

The Woven Light: Reflections on the Transfiguration

Society for the Preservation of Amazement

I am always so grateful for the community of readers who linger here to read and ponder. In response to my recent post on the “priest/artist”, my friend David Fly was stirred to write a beautiful reflection, which he has graciously allowed me to publish here.

A professional clown before his ordination to the Episcopal priesthood in 1966, David has served in urban, rural, and campus ministries throughout the Midwest. Since his early retirement in 1998, he has been in demand as a preacher, teacher, and conference leader. In 2004, his memoir, Faces of Faith – Reflections in a Rearview Mirror, was published by Church Publishing Company. This summer marked his 50th anniversary of ordination to he priesthood. His own faithful artistry has long inspired my own priesthood.

In the foreword to David’s book, Bishop Hayes Rockwell wrote: “David Fly is fluent in the language of the lighthearted. He knows, as far too few in his calling know, that you can be serious without being solemn. He connects with us in a rich, entertaining and humorous way that points as well to joy, which lifts our hearts and spirits. David knows well, as Peter Berger said, about the “comic relief of redemption” and he is fluent in its vocabulary.”


Artists and Priests: A guest post by the Rev. David Fly

When Jim Friedrich discusses the “priest/artist” connection, he says “Whether ordained or not, . . . artists perform a priestly function, inviting us to the mystery of the world, in which “things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new.” And he asks, “What I wonder, as an artist/priest myself, is whether those officially ordained by traditional Christian communities, such as my own Anglican tradition, fully understand the implications of this connection for our own work. Do we bring to our own priestly vocation the same degree of passion, creativity, imagination, curiosity and daring displayed in the work of the artist?”

After fifty years as an Anglican priest, I’ve had the opportunity to look back on my experience and as I do a couple of stories come to mind. They illustrate, for me, an answer the question Jim is asking.

My “training” for priesthood began very early. My grandmother and my great-aunt Susie were my teachers. They were the first who taught me a description of the world, that W. H. Auden describes as “a temporal one, where nothing is as it seems.” This was particularly true in summertime when my sister and I had lots of time to spend with them. Summer gave us a chance to see magic in the ordinariness of our lives, and Grandma and Great-Aunt Susie conspired to help us see it and celebrate it. They taught us that the future is like summertime. It’s always there, stretched out before us, a canvas empty and waiting. It calls us to explore and discover the wonder in commonplace things and to uncover the secrets of our lives. There will always be surprises to find and capture. They’re out there like lightning bugs on a dark summer night.

My family didn’t take vacations very often because we simply didn’t have the money. But, once in a while, we pooled our funds and rented a couple of cheap cabins in southern Missouri or northern Arkansas. One of my favorite places was a little town in northern Arkansas named Popover, which has now disappeared from the map.

Once, in the late ‘40s, when we stayed in Popover, I went walking along a riverbank with my grandmother. The bank was made up of large, flat river rocks. She held my hand to keep me steady as we moved next to the rushing water. The sound of the river almost drowned out her voice as she said to me, “What do you suppose is under those rocks?”

Already a rather cynical six-year-old, I replied, “Just more rocks!”

But she surprised me. She had me kneel with her and then began to gently turn over stones. I discovered under each of them a myriad of life forms: beautiful lichen, colonies of tiny ants, spiders, snails, and even an occasional snake! Beneath the stones life was teeming; you only had to look for it. And as we knelt there, my grandmother leaned close to me and whispered:

The angels keep their hidden faces
Turn but a stone and start a wing
‘Tis ye with your estranged faces
That miss the many-splendored thing

After their husbands died, Grandmother and Aunt Susie lived together in my grandmother’s house. Though their were getting along in years, they chose to continue sleeping in the upstairs bedrooms even though they would have to climb a very steep set of stairs every night. Being the proper ladies they were, they would never have considered pitching their camp in the living room. So, to avoid falls, they crawled up the stairs each night and down them every morning.

Once, long after I had moved from that town and my parents had moved away, I went to visit the two women who had meant so much to me as a child. While we were talking, my Aunt Susie said, “You know, David, I can’t get to church much anymore now that there’s no one to drive us. So my altar has become this flight of stairs. Each night, when I crawl up the stairs, I stop on the last three steps, say ‘Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,’ and then I say my prayers. When I come down each morning, I stop on the bottom three steps, say ‘Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,’ and say my morning prayers. And God meets me whether at the top of the stairs or at the bottom.”

After years of reverence for the altar at little St. Stephen’s church, Aunt Susie had found another altar and approached it with the same respect. And because of her reverence, she was open to finding God whether at the top of the stairs or at the bottom.

These women were the first to teach me the truth of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s words:

Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees takes off his shoes.
The rest sit ’round it and pluck blackberries
And daub their faces unawares.

I don’t know when it happened for these women, but somewhere along the way, they stopped to see bushes burn and listen to the sounds of angels. Iris Murdoch says, “We should thank the gods for great artists who draw away the veil of anxiety and selfishness and show us, even for a moment, another world . . . and tell us a little bit of truth.” The artist/priest must do the same.

Many years later, after my ordination, when I was a college chaplain, I was given the gift of a wonderful definition of the Church. I went to the snack bar one afternoon for a cup of coffee. Because the place was so crowded, I ended up sitting with a young woman I had never met. She was reading a textbook. Suddenly, she slammed the book shut and said, “Statistics! That’s all they are. I’m taking a course in which people have been reduced to statistics. They’re not human beings anymore. All the mystery is gone, all the beauty. I’m being trained to treat people as if they were numbers on a page, and I’m afraid that when I leave this place, I’ll do just that.” As she rose to leave, her parting comment was, “You know, I think I’ll go someplace and start a Society for the Preservation of Amazement!”

She walked away before I could tell her that one already existed. My grandmother and great-aunt were charter members. Artists and priests are called to that Society, called to point beyond the present to a future filled with hope.