“Religious insights have to be carried over a long distance to reach expression, and they may easily shrivel or even perish on the way from the heart to the lips.”1
I wish I could remember a moment, some white-hot flash, when I first realized the sacred in the flood of the senses. I’d like to think my search for God began early in life, but that would be claiming too much. What I do remember is saying goodbye to a friend when I was five.
My grandparents and I were moving from Canada to California and I was leaving behind my first-grade friends, the hill behind our house where I sledded, and the stand of junipers in our back yard that grew so thick I could crawl beneath them to watch the world and dream.
I knew we were moving away because my grandfather had explained it to me. My impression was we would first be here and then we would be there. The logistics of it didn’t occur to me. There were no pictures in my head of us climbing into our Studebaker and driving from Ontario to California. Neither did I understand how long it would take nor what California was. There was a gap of experience that simply did not rise to imagination. So, I cheerfully went about my young life, immersed in the pursuit of bugs, building roads and tunnels in my backyard sandbox, and peering out through the branches of my juniper fortress.
Bustle and commotion, the moving van pulling up and the contents of our house boxed up and carried down stairs and up ramps into an enormous box on wheels. It wasn’t until we were finally in the car — me in the back seat with my books and the box lunch my grandmother had made for us — and my grandfather was praying for traveling mercies, his head bowed over the steering wheel and his murmured words gathering into me, that the truth hit my gut.
“I have to do something!” I yelled, and I wrenched open my door before my grandparents could stop me and dashed around the house to the sandbox in the back yard. Squatting down, I clawed a hole in the sand and sat back on my heels. And I saw not wet sand and twigs, but a green, lush, and fertile canopy of trees far below and at the lip of the hole, his legs dangling, my merry little elf, my invisible friend.
I told him I would miss him, but we were going away and I was pretty sure they didn’t allow elves in California. He would guard the fortress under the junipers until I should return. This was not goodbye. That was understood. And then he grinned and waved and leaped and I covered the hole. I stood up, brushed my knees, and ran to the car idling in front of our house and we drove away.
We arrived in California in due time. We built a home on the side of a mountain overlooking the Napa Valley, on a site tangled with manzanita bushes and strewn with volcanic rocks that were pitted and bubbled. I immersed myself in that nature, with acres of abandoned vineyards just up the road and streams and lakes to explore. There in Nature was the depth of the mysterious, clothed in the familiar forms of animals, trees, stone, and clouds.
There may not have been a law against elves in California, but I never saw another one nor did I apparently need to. The companionship of an invisible elf gave way to visible friends. It was my first experience with the numinous.
Our impressions of the divine coalesce early and later we subject them to reflection. The absence of my father from my life — alive, but far away — shaped how I regarded God for many years. Our separation was the result of fate, forced choices, and the slow accretions that time and habit build up from settled ways and random circumstances.
God-hauntedness has run like a dark thread through my life. Alongside a quietly intense religious upbringing there was the constant presence of the absence of God, an absence with a voice. We have no images of God nor definitions. We have only God’s name, “I Am,” a name that in its utterance brings us to silence and dissolves all time into a present pregnant with the future.
“Something is asked of us. But what?” wrote Abraham Joshua Heschel.2 It is a recurring theme in his books. It is the question, Who — or what — is God? The question is our silent companion, standing off to the side as we move through the world under the sky, give and take with others, and face our eventual death. This is what we can only begin to respond to when we have decided to listen, to feel, to receive, instead of first postulating, arguing, or explaining.
Faith, said Heschel, begins in wonder and awe. That doesn’t preclude rational thinking about God at all, but as one of my professors was fond of saying, “No one was converted by the ontological argument.”
We cannot live on mystery alone; desire to know gives rise to language and language both orders and liberates. We wield the structures of language in shaping the welter of sense impressions flooding in on us from the world. Though we are limited creatures, there is almost no limit to how we may express that ordering through imagination. In our creativity is the strongest evidence of our family resemblance to the Father of us all.
“Religious insights have to be carried over a long distance to reach expression,” said Heschel, “and they may easily shrivel or even perish on the way from the heart to the lips.”3
I have thought about this vivid experience now and then in the intervening sixty-four years. Even now, if I shut my eyes, I can see the backyard, the sandbox, the febrile green of the forest canopy (only visible if seen directly from above), and the wizened, mischievous face of my elf. At the time, I easily made a distinction between what I saw and what was “real.” Yet, I felt compelled to do it and there was a sense of completion in having done it. It wasn’t something I discussed with my grandparents at the time nor with anyone since. Writing about it now breaks up the ice on a long-frozen river.
Any moment in our history can be a window to our interior life. When I gaze through this one, I see a child putting away childish things — without which he could not have imagined later the unseen presence of the Son of Man.