“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

The Woven Light: Reflections on the Transfiguration

James Turrell, Arrowhead (2009)

James Turrell, Arrowhead (2009)

We would have thrown our clothes away for lightness,
But that even they, though sour and travel stained,
Seemed, like our flesh, made of immortal substance.
And the soiled flax and wool lay light upon us.
Like friendly wonders, flower and flock entwined
As in a morning field. Was it a vision?
Or did we see that day the unseeable
One glory of the everlasting world
Perpetually at work, though never seen
Since Eden locked the gate that’s everywhere
And nowhere?…

– Edwin Muir, “The Transfiguration”

Martin Scorcese’s 1988 film, The Last Temptation of Christ,” was criticized by many for its eccentric portrayal of a Jesus deeply conflicted by the fierce struggle between his two natures. As one reviewer wondered, “Is he God or is he nuts?” Scorcese, who specializes in tormented, confused male characters full of nervous intensity, defended his approach as an attempt to explore Christ’s humanity without the blinding glow of divine self-assurance that made many movie Jesuses seem stiff, complacent and unreal.

“What we were taught in Catholic schools emphasized the divine side of Jesus,” said Scorcese, who had considered priesthood in his adolescence. “Jesus would walk into the room and you would know he was God. Maybe he glowed in the dark or something, I don’t know, but this is the impression they gave us as children.”

The Jesus of Matthew, Mark and Luke does not glow, except in that strange moment called the Transfiguration, celebrated on August 6th in the liturgical calendar. This feast day goes largely unnoticed now in the western churches, who have essentially transferred it to the last Sunday of Epiphany. This neglect of August 6 is in part a concession to the decline of weekday celebrations, but it may also reflect a discomfort with the story itself, which feels like myth or vision rather than actual history. Not even the risen Christ matched the glow of the Transfiguration. What are we being asked to believe here?

We can never know the phenomenon behind the reported perceptions by Peter, James and John. But the symbolic dimensions of the narrative are clear, linking the incident to the ancestral epiphanies of Moses and Elijah. There is a mountain, where earth below meets heaven above. There is a cloud of unknowing, veiling divine presence in hiddenness and mystery. And there is a voice, making contact with human sense, rupturing the boundary between holy and profane to affirm the unique filial status of Jesus as God’s Beloved “Son.”

But what about that “dazzling” glow? What did the disciples actually see in Jesus on that mountain? Was it an unrepeatable moment, a temporary endowment bestowed upon Jesus to make a point to doubting disciples, or was it something Jesus always possessed?

Gregory of Palamas, a 14th century Orthodox theologian, argued the latter. He based his influential meditation practice of Hesychasm on contemplation of the “uncreated light” first seen at the Transfiguration. This light, he taught, was not an ephemeral experience of the senses but the unmediated presence of God. Although this holy light could be seen through physical eyes, it was not a natural light. It was, in fact, the uncreated energies of the Godhead, the splendor of the age to come, a light shining from God’s future into the present moment.

Christ is transfigured, not by putting on some quality he did not possess previously, nor by changing into something he never was before, but by revealing to his disciples what he truly was, in opening their eyes and in giving sight to those who were blind. For while remaining identical to what he had been before, he appeared to the disciples in his splendor; he is indeed the true light, the radiance of glory.[i]

Whatever we make of Gregory’s metaphysical claims, which were disputed by many of his contemporaries, the spiritual resonance of light is undeniable and universal. It is always seems to be about something more than physics. It seems inevitably imbued with Spirit.

Annie Dillard describes “mornings, when light spreads over the pastures like wings, and fans a secret color into everything, and beats the trees senseless with beauty…Outside it is bright…It is the one glare of holiness; it is bare and unspeakable. There is no speech or language; there is nothing, no one thing, nor motion nor time. There is only this everything.”[ii]

Where does such light come from? Is it something that happens to our eyes but is not really in the world, or is it somehow there, in the heart of things, “born of the one light Eden saw play?” Is it not just a simulacrum of divinity, but a direct manifestation?

James Turrell, Breathing Light (2013)

James Turrell, Breathing Light (2013)

James Turrell, one of the most celebrated of the contemporary “Light and Space” artists nurtured under California skies, has been exploring light and its effects since the 1960s. His mesmerizing spaces invite participants to experience not objects made visible by light, but light itself in an astonishing repertoire of varying colors and brightness. If there are walls, they seem to dissolve into the immateriality of radiance. If there is a ceiling, it may have a large opening inviting us to contemplate the luminous canopy of sky. “Light,” says Turrell, “is not so much something that reveals as it is itself the revelation.”

We eat light, drink it in through our skins. With a little more exposure to light, you feel part of things physically. I like the power of light and space physically because then you can order it materially. Seeing is a very sensuous act – there’s a sweet deliciousness to feeling yourself see something.[iii]

For many of us fortunate to have savored the deliciousness of Turrell’s light spaces, feeling ourselves see something is not just an intellectual or psychological act. It is spiritual – the “glare of holiness … beating us senseless with beauty.”

Turrell’s own Quaker tradition says that prayerful attention is “going inside to greet the light.” But is the radiance of divine beauty just in our souls, or does it permeate the universe? Does it show itself to us here, there and everywhere, as it did to Peter, James and John?

David Bentley Hart, an Orthodox theologian, proposes creation as a manifestation of God’s infinite luminosity, what he calls “the agile radiance of the Spirit.”[iv] We see this radiance not by looking away from the world, but by looking more deeply into it. But when the light is in eclipse, what then? “Sometimes,” says Bruce Cockburn, “you have to kick the darkness till it bleeds daylight.” Even at the Transfiguration, according to an Anglican midrash by a seventeenth-century bishop, Moses and Elijah felt impelled to warn Jesus about the suffering and darkness awaiting him once he descended the mountain:

A strange opportunity … when his face shone like the sun, to tell him it must be blubbered and spat upon;… and whilst he was Transfigured on the Mount, to tell him how he must be Disfigured on the Cross![v]

The poet Kathleen Raine perfectly describes the utter bleakness when “the curtain is down, the veil drawn” over the world’s deep radiance. “Nothing means or is,” she says.[vi]

Yet I saw once
The woven light of which all these are made
Otherwise than this. To have seen
Is to know always.

[i] St. Gregory Palamas, The Triads, in Richard Harries, Art and the Beauty of God: A Christian Understanding (London: Mowbray, 1993), 85

[ii] Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm (New York: Harper Perennial, 1998), 67-8

[iii] q. in Michael Govan, “Inner Light: The Radical Reality of James Turrell”, James Turrell: A Retrospective (New York: DelMonico Books, 2014), 13

[iv] The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth (David Bentley Hart, Eerdmans 2003), 292

[v] Joseph Hall, Contemplations upon the principal passages of the Old and New Testaments, 1612-28, found on Google Books, p. 383

[vi] Kathleen Raine, in Harries, 87