“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 voice that allows us to remain human

Moses before the Burning Bush, 13th century icon, Monastery of St. Catherine, Mt. Sinai

Moses before the Burning Bush, 13th century icon, Monastery of St. Catherine, Mt. Sinai

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.

Mary in The Burning Bush, Nicolas Froment (1475-6)

Mary in The Burning Bush, Nicolas Froment (1475-6)

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