I’m not feeling terribly optimistic about current events–yet I don’t wish to pollute my or anyone else’s celebration of the birth of Hope with excessive brooding over our ephemeral world. Allow me, then, to share with you one chapter from the rough draft of a book that I plan to see finished in 2020.
I intend for this final chapter of the book’s first part to summarize by compacting several assertions made about the “numinous moment” or “event outside of time”. Yet before I attempt that act of stitching together, an analogy may be helpful. I’ve been racking my brain for an adequate one—for a parable, almost, that could convey to our linear-thinking minds how real time might match up to time as we know it. I at last came up with something akin to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave.
Imagine that you are walking across fog-strewn terrain toward a vague but steady light source. You really have nowhere else to go that offers any apparent sense of destination; for the mist curls so thickly about your feet that you can’t even see your shoes, and that shimmering beacon on your horizon is your single reference in the soupy haze.
Unrevealed to you, then, in any very clear manner is the enormous but very gradual staircase across which you walk. Its steps are suited to a giant’s feet, each being perhaps three yards wide; yet despite their great breadth, they rise by only an inch at a time. You’re actually cutting across these stairs at a broad angle. The result is that you can advance for fifty or sixty yards along one step before you stumble into the next one’s rise. Naturally, since you can’t see your feet, you conclude at every mild stumble that the ground beneath you is a bit uneven. You have no notion of slowly ascending a great staircase rather than moving ever forward toward the light which—you hope—will be the refuge liberating you from the milling gloom.
Those stairs that come at your progress laterally and throw it off balance once in a while are, of course, meant to represent the “outside of time” moments that subtly take us by surprise once in a while… and then, usually, are forgotten at once, since we assume that our attention should be fixed on forward motion. The biblical phrase “stumbling block” had a part in helping me weave this strange analogy, for we indeed tend to treat such moments as interruptions or distractions. We dismiss them with whatever explanation is ready at hand and get back to the serious business of “progress”. Yet what could be more serious, in a spiritual sense, than climbing the giant’s staircase and seeing where it takes us? If only we knew that it was there beneath the haze—that the little trips that sometimes throw us off stride all have an order! But our senses aren’t equipped to provide such information directly. Any knowledge of the stairs would have to be pieced together with extreme patience, most of it requiring a certain amount of inattention to that forward motion we think so full of promise.
For what kinds of experience, exactly, should we keep an eye peeled? In the course of Part One’s ramble, I believe I have volunteered three at various points. The first would be personal experiences that have stubbornly stayed with us for years, many (perhaps most) of them deeply rooted in childhood. In discussing the sort of encounter that I myself recall as having knocked me off my stride and stood me upright, I did not mention anything as numinous as an angelic visitation, a message delivered in God’s voice, or a Near-Death Experience. That’s because I have never lived through any event of the kind. I suppose that those of us to whom God does not speak plain English in a deep, unmistakable voice have a little trouble fully believing those who claim to have been so contacted. We don’t necessarily disbelieve them… but we wonder if their personality may be of a naive and very excitable type. Everybody has dreams, and some of us have vivid dreams. (Here I may include myself: my dreams are always in color and sometimes more “high-def” than any waking experience.) A stable person understands, though, that you take a dream with a grain of salt.
Near-Death Experiences I find to be far more intriguing. No doubt, some people massage a rough stay in the hospital until it looks like a trip to the Beyond, just as some people innocently mistake an escaped balloon that catches the sun’s last light for a UFO. When so many witnesses of sound mind and solid character, however, testify so resonantly to the presence of something that greeted them as their vital signs flat-lined, I can’t wave their words aside. (For that matter, a seasoned pilot makes a very good UFO witness—and there are several such reporters of strange aircraft.) In attempting to retrieve a particular title for citation here, I found that the medical doctor/author whose name eludes me is veritably buried on the Internet under a mass of similar professionals who have documented the NDE over the past forty years. Take your pick of them all. It’s a pretty impressive witness list, however you arrange it.
But, no, I have presented in my discussion no such mind-boggling evidence. The encounters I tried to describe do not grab you by the lapels, shake you, and announce sonorously, “I come from the other world!” They simply don’t fit into the routine… and they fail to fit in after a fashion that you can’t forget, because it so insistently seems to mean something. Just what it may mean, you never manage to decide satisfactorily. It’s there, sticking out… and you can’t smooth it away as the reasonable effect of some handy nearby cause.
Which brings me to a second kind of experience, and a clearly related kind: art. If I had to define an art object (or if I were given the chance to do so—for this is my wheelhouse), I should start by saying succinctly that it “expresses the inexpressible”. Then I should probably try to express myself better and end up making a mess of my definition… because the paradox here is ineradicable. A work of art assembles material impressions in such a way as to leave you convinced that their collaboration encodes a vital message, a whole greater than the sum of its parts. You proceed to write an article or a book about the work, if you’re a scholar—and the more words you weave together in trying to nab the message, the more fish slip through your net. What we academic types always seem to miss about art is its most fundamental characteristic: that it forever points to something not quite there.
Art, I’m convinced, is an angel that God sends to all of us. The winged visitor might be a painting, a temple, or a mere tune—or the simple-seeming lyrics of the tune; but whatever his specific shape, the cherub manages to whack us lovingly upside the head and make us stumble a little on the invisible step of the giant’s staircase. All true art calls us to faith. It does so just by nudging us out of our determined forward stride for an instant. Its subject by no means has to be the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, or anything related to any item of orthodox belief. When I was an officer in a regional division of the Conference on Christianity and Literature, a lot of paper- and article-submissions passed under my eye—and the vast majority addressed some issue in the work of John Milton, C.S. Lewis, Flannery O’Connor, or some other overtly Christian writer. I always regretted such narrowness of focus in our undertaking. I wish we could have faced the academy head-on with the confident assertion that all true art comes from God.
For the academy needed a good stiff slap in the face—or punch in the nose—from those of us whom the angel had smacked… but we instead huddled around “our” authors who, for the most part, had been banished from contemporary college classes, anyway. As I described in an earlier chapter (and will not reiterate now), our ailing culture’s intelligentsia have exploited the free pass we gave them to dismantle art entirely, presenting its essential mystery as no more than a cheap kind of hypnotism practiced by the powerful upon the oppressed. That thick-headed, empty-souled program of demoralization should never have been allowed to pass unchallenged.
But it was… and so, as a culture, I think our sense of the mystical lurking in material things all around us took refuge in nature. Again, the overlap with other kinds of numinous experience is obvious. Many of my personal “outside of time” moments involved a particular natural setting, and many of the arts draw heavily upon nature, as well. In their quasi-scientific zeal to explain everything away in some “sensible” deterministic fashion, our intellectuals like to attribute our visceral bond with nature to a genetically hardwired response to life on the savanna. Of course we like trees! They represented safety from lions when we were naked apes. Of course we like purling streams! Every living creature needs water, and water that runs swiftly is least apt to cause illness.
You can hardly win at this game if you protest, “No, it’s not the tree’s height and the stoutness of its limbs for climbing that I like. It’s the intricate play of shadows in the pine needles—it’s the soughing of the branches in a breeze.” What do you know? You don’t have a Ph.D.!
One of the responses that most fascinates me is the one we register to distant sounds. A far-off train whistle or dog’s bark… such “racket” can induce a deep sense of peace when, a mile or two away, it is scarcely heard. Isn’t that because of its delightful (yet painful—delightfully painful) hint that even the most energetic spurts of life are but bursting bubbles on a vast ocean’s surface? The abyss of meaning here is grandly unfathomable. And how on earth would the evolutionary biologist disarm such a spiritual phenomenon? Would he say that our apelike ancestors of course perked up when they heard distant sounds, because those were warnings of approaching predators? But the approach of a predator would ignite an impulsive fear, not stir up a leisurely meditation—and to argue that the reaction has evolved as we have become less susceptible to predators might explain a diminution of fear, but couldn’t conceivably explain the emergence of pleasure. Why can our “best and brightest” not accept that their explanations won’t reach every nook of the forest?
I will wander off target again if I don’t take care… but I might point out, in passing, that even we non-scientists are now sabotaging our relationships with nature through intrusions of progressive thinking—through cultic outbursts of “future-worship”. We can’t simply let the indefinite play of light and shadow in a forest or down a mountain glen speak to us of the unspeakable: we have to bend that moment into “activism”. We must “save nature” by outlawing the removal of underbrush and deadwood, by replacing mines with the “renewable energy” of wind turbines. In the process, we create tinderboxes that will incinerate millions of acres in the next wildfire, and we erect killing machines that slaughter hawks and other high-flying species by the tens of millions annually… but we sleep better at night, because we have come home from our nature hike with a “mission”.
I’m no fan of the internal combustion engine. I recall dropping a word or two about my long walking tours in Ireland and Scotland, and I routinely walked to and from work before my retirement. I’m not out of sympathy with the general distaste for our high-tech pace of living—not at all. But, please… let nature live! Don’t be the doctor who starts cutting out organs when a little bedrest would cure the patient. After putting up bluebird houses around our property, my wife and I have seen families of bluebirds a dozen strong congregate around the watering dish almost daily. That’s a good feeling. We don’t really have to go beyond that and agitate to increase the percentage of ethanol in gasoline—which will cause yet more meadowland to be put under the plow, which will destroy yet more wildlife habitat. Every experience of nature doesn’t have to feed into a political agenda… does it?
To the extent that it does, or that we let it do so, we seal off what may be perhaps our decaying culture’s final portal upon the numinous. I have come to adopt a single word in my thoughts for the ungainly phrase, “numinous experiences”, which I shall begin using from here on out. I call these “outside of time” encounters, or smacks in the side of the head, or glimpses out the train’s window, or nudges off the tunnel’s track… I call them crosscurrents. We need to yield to these rare transverse currents whenever they briefly stroke us: we need not to attempt to wrestle them onto a vector that parallels our forward motion. They won’t go there. They are all telling us the same thing, and it is this. “The purpose of what you do is not the purpose you offer when explaining what you do.” Our actions are indeed purposive, if we are good people—but not purposive in any sense that we can define, since their ultimate objective is not of this world. When we nevertheless succeed in reducing our explanations and definitions to terms that make complete sense in this world—and when we thereafter adjust our actions to suit the verbal formulas we have produced in mutilating efficiency—we become less good. We lose touch with the spirit. We skew our forward motion so that we no longer trip over the occasional, invisible step of the giant’s staircase. We proceed, instead, along a perfectly flat surface, paying attention only to its “corrected” smoothness that permits a speedier advance… and we climb the staircase no farther, nor do we even notice that we’re straying from the beacon at our lower level.