Friday, August 24, 2012

The Numinous

A couple of weekends ago Ellie had a hard time sleeping, so I took her outside to see if we could catch the tail end of the Perseids, to watch the sky rain stars. Ellie is often calmed by the natural world—by the feeling of sun or stars on her skin. There is something remarkable and humbling and holy about a sky full of small, bright, distant specks of glory. “If a man would be alone,” writes Emerson, “let him look at the stars. The rays that come from those heavenly worlds, will separate between him and what he touches. . . . If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown! But every night come out these envoys of beauty, and light the universe with their admonishing smile.” A good metaphor for the ubiquitous, commonplace glory that we swim in: like the miraculous, life-sustaining air we breathe, the beauty and grandeur of God’s creativities become invisible to us precisely because we see them so often.

"Celestial Rose" by Gustave Dore

How often has the green ground slipped out from beneath my feet as I’ve stared into the brilliant black and glistening night sky? I drove across a lovely blue and gray desert with my family, and as the sun lay down to rest, the stars came out to play. I felt for a few moments that smallness that comes from observing the tilting, whirling universe of light. Hopkins writes exuberantly, “Look at the stars! look, look up at the skies! / O look at all the fire-folk sitting in the air!”

But that night with Ellie the stars were not out, and we could not see brightness hurtling through the dark universe. The sky was closer, covered. It might have been smoke. The mountains around our home have been smoldering like Sinai for weeks. It has showered ash on our heads and on our lawns. Or it might have been clouds.

Lydia, who, like her mother, has exceptional olfactory capacities, sniffed loudly one day when she was probably three years old as we passed a gas station. “What’s that yucky smell I smell?” We told her we thought it was probably gasoline. She sniffed for a minute more. “I only smell one good smell.” She took a deep draught of air. “It’s the clouds,” she said.

I am struck by how often clouds are the manifestation of God’s presence in scripture: “And, behold, the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud.” Or, “And the Lord came down in a cloud, and spake unto him.” God leads Israel out of Egypt by a cloud in the daytime. He promises to spread a cloud over His people for a covert in a day of heat. On the Mount of Transfiguration, the bright cloud overshadows Jesus and His three dusty, weary friends, and the voice of God the Father rains down out of the cloud. Peter’s simple and apt response has long resonated with me: “Lord, it is good for us to be here.” I wonder what kind of cloud it was that covered the Son of God on that bright day. Cirrus—(which comes to mean “a curl of hair”)? Nimbus—(“rain”)? Cumulus—(“a heap”)? For a long time I thought the word numinous  must have something to do etymologically with clouds. In Spanish the word for cloud is “nube.” But I was wrong. It comes from the Latin for “nod,” and signifies God’s divine approval shown by a nod of the eternal Head. Oh, numinous clouds. There was a summer when I was a teenager in which I climbed up the fence onto my roof and sat watching the sunset every night. I took pictures. I wanted to document a whole summer of sunsets. That was a good summer.

But as often as not, the cloud also represents the hiddenness of God, our inability to perceive all that He is. Our failure to see. He’s always there on the fringe, just out of sight: just the hindquarters, but not the face. And yet, one day Christ will come in a cloud and in glory. And all people shall see it together. “For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first; then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord.” So I watch the clouds as well as the stars.

No comments:

Post a Comment