Carry That Weight

Photo by Davidson Luna on Unsplash

“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.

  1. Heschel, Abraham Joshua. Man is Not Alone. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1952, p. 98.
  2. Heschel, p. 98.
  3. Heschel, p. 98.

Regarding the Distance Between Us

”The decisive thought in the message of the prophets is not the presence of God to man but rather the presence of man to God.”1

Photo: Filipe Resmini, Unsplash.com

I had a recurring dream as a child, one that continued well into my adulthood, showing up every few years, as if to say, “I’m still here. I’ll be here as long as you are.”

In my dream I see my father floating in the deepness of space, like an astronaut untethered, helmetless, a fragment of light. He is drifting away from me, his arm outstretched, like God straining to touch Adam’s fingertip. But we will never touch, and I know it and I know he knows it too. In my mind I call out to him, although I know he can’t hear it, because sound does not travel where there is no air. We remain like that, suspended, until he is a point of light among the thousands of diamond-hard points of light out there.

I can recall this image with perfect clarity even now, although it has been years since it came to me unbidden. Its meaning seems quite clear to me. No doubt there are depths still unplumbed, but I don’t need to plumb them. There is wonder enough that such a remarkable image could arise from my unconscious, almost as some kind of mythic totem.

My parents divorced when I was nine months old. Three years later, having lived with friends and family, I was taken in by my father’s parents and given a childhood that was unusual for my time and place, but wonderfully secure and loving. Like any child of divorce, there were moments of bewilderment and uncertainty, and tears were shed. If I were to write a memoir it would not be about a childhood of violence and trauma, like so many have suffered. But it might move in the regions of how our image of God is influenced in our earliest years.

When I read the Psalms, I read the cries of a child to a father, one who is all-powerful, yet who inexplicably does not appear when the flood waters rise, and death is near. The Psalmist rages at his enemies, cursing them and threatening a showdown between his father and theirs. Then there are the many texts in which the writer is comforted, exalted, swept up in love for God. He even rejoices in the Law, as sweet as honey to him, something to be meditated upon day and night. Reading those passages, I marvel at that surety and love. The Psalmist tells his Father—and us—everything, even that which for us might be too much information.

The Psalms are memoirs of corrosive violence, abandonment, family loyalty, and the ache of love. They make my staid and quiet upbringing seem like the placid hours of a cow.

***

In the last decade of my teaching career, I taught ethics and philosophy at Trinity Washington University. Most of my students were young women, many of them Hispanic. In their papers, essays, and presentations they would often mention their families, both here and in other countries. There were strong bonds there, so much so that if any family member was in a situation which put them in the emergency room, my students would leave class immediately, texting me with apologies later. There was simply no question: family came first.

Some of the young women found their fathers to be overbearing at times and felt themselves to be caught between cultures. They wished to honor their parents, but they also wanted to forge their own identities as confident young women. In our discussions in class, particularly those about the nature of God, I could sense that their views of God were colored by their relationships with their fathers and with their priests.

Is it inevitable that we transfer our feelings about our caretakers, particularly our male caretakers, onto our impressions of God? Are we like ducklings, imprinting our familial muscle-memory from whoever cares for us in our earliest years, our perception of who they are and how we are to be with them?

If that is true, then my grandfather was my first God-model. Kindly, patient, reticent in his Englishness, my grandfather held integrity without revealing his feelings. He had emigrated from Yorkshire as a young man, purchasing a ticket in steerage on the Titanic, but then selling it and sailing instead on another ship, one that picked up the survivors. He had landed in Nova Scotia, hitchhiked across Canada and ended up in a mining camp in Alberta, where his honesty and forthrightness meant that he held the men’s wages in trust when they went into town after paydays for drinking and women. Eventually, he found his way to a small Christian junior college on the Alberta prairie, where in time he met my grandmother, a farm girl from Vancouver Island. They became teachers, working for a total of one hundred years in Seventh-day Adventist colleges in Canada and America. My father, their only child, was raised as a campus kid in Alberta at Canadian Union College and left home early, heading out to Toronto and eventually, the US.

I used to play a game as a child in which I imagined having been born to other people, perhaps in another time and place. Would I still be me? These were intriguing questions to ponder—questions of identity, personality, even epistemology. What could we really know about others and about ourselves? What was our lineage? Whom did we “take after?”

I could not see any resemblance between my grandparents and me. The only photograph I had of my mother showed a girl of nineteen, blonde, pretty, a Canadian teenager in the late Forties and early Fifties. I couldn’t see the boy I was in my mother either. Photos of my father holding me in his arms on one of the visits he made to me and my grandparents, showed a tall, lean man with deep-set eyes, high cheekbones, and hair combed like Elvis.

We would pick him up from Toronto International Airport, his long coat smelling of travel and cigarettes, and he would scoop me up in his arms, where I could survey my surroundings from a new vantage point. There are photos of my father smiling, looking up at me. I look bewildered. Then he would be gone again and after his departure my grandmother would tell me the story of his quick-wittedness in saving a child whose scarf was caught by an escalator, nearly choking her to death. God-like qualities of heroism to a four-year-old.

***

In time, my father remarried and settled in Chicago. Later, he worked for IBM when it was centered in New York and then took a transfer to San Jose, where he and his wife raised five wonderful children. I was living with my grandparents in Northern California, so he and the family would come up for visits.

I finished graduate school in Southern California and moved east to teach near Washington, DC. It was not his way to write or to call, so years went by with no words between us except for family Christmas cards. One day he left a message on my answering machine. He was consulting for Lockheed and would be in Philadelphia. He wanted to take the train down and spend some time together. I erased the message with a swiftness and coldness that was involuntary, almost instinctual. I was shocked at myself, but nevertheless, I didn’t respond. That’s when I knew there was much more under the surface that I was not facing.

Just before my fortieth birthday my father wrote me a letter, one of two I received from him in my life. He wanted to fly out from San Jose and tell me what had happened all those years ago, why he had made the decisions he did that had resulted in our separation. I picked him up from the airport and we talked until late. The next day he sat in my classes and watched me teach.

And I know a father

Who had a son

He longed to tell him all the reasons

For the things he’d done

He came a long way

Just to explain2

***

I have a memory of my father teaching me how to ride a bike. I am quivering with excitement. His hands are on my shoulders; he leans down next to me. I feel the warmth of his face next to mine. “Are you ready?” he asks. I nod. His hand is on my back then, and I am pedaling, slowly at first as my front tire wobbles. I hear his footsteps behind me as we gain speed. My legs are pumping now and the bike is cruising straight and true. I am exhilarated and I shout over my shoulder, “Okay, Dad, you can let go now!” I don’t hear an answer, so I throw a quick glance backwards and I see him half a block behind me, smiling, his hands on his hips and I am flying.

“My soul thirsts for God,

for the living God.” (Ps 42:2)

Are we to desire God? I’m not sure what that means, to desire God. Would it be God, there behind us, kindly seeing us to the door to the world, “Go on now, you’ll be fine. Trust me.” —and in that moment to know, with a pang, that we have never loved God more?

  1. Heschel, Abraham Joshua. God in Search of Man. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1955, p. 412.
  2. Paul Simon, from Slip Slidin’ Away, 1975.