for Carol and Dennis who asked…
I am profoundly aware in Eastertide that so much of a faith journey is Mystery. We often recite the Mystery of Faith when we gather at the table for communion: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ is coming again! Yet I am surrounded by a mystery-intolerant culture, both public discourse and in personal conversation. I am very apt to leap to ask the questions of proof, of evidence, or reason before I can be still with the unknowing or Mystery. Yet over and over again, I am faced with intimations of the “Mystery we call God,” and Easter illuminates and poses the challenge all over again. I am comforted when I read from spiritual teacher Esther DeWaal, when she says in her book Lost in Wonder, I try to walk in reverence, taking off my shoes, remembering that this is holy ground, and having to accept that there is much I shall never fully know. (122)
I don’t see myself as a Mystic, especially when I read Julian or Mechtild, yet I have had enough encounters with the Mystery to recognize it when I encounter it. Neither am I a relaxed traveler, although I really savor and delight in the gifts I encounter when I am on a trip. Yet, one day close to the end of a trip to Norway, I was particularly anxious and fretful. We had spent the days afloat on a beautiful fjord, and were headed to a lovely hotel, but the road signs were unclear, and one of our party had a longing to follow a trail to a stave church in Urnes on Sogn og Fjordne that we had not seen yet, a UNESCO World heritage site. Our detour took small side roads, and required waiting for a small ferry that carried only a few cars at a time and seemed to move on its own schedule. Although the day has been full of sunshine and light, it seemed to darken while we waited for the ferry. At last we crossed to the hill and up to the stave church, centuries old, adorned with carvings on its side, honoring its pride of place at the top of the fjord. As we waited for the guided tour to begin, I looked back down the fjord to see an impressive storm gathering and coming our way. Although our guide was winsome and articulate, the Celtic carvings on the exterior wall intricate and mysterious, and the narrative of the people here new to me, my anxiety was focused on the looming storm. The group filed into the pews of the small dark church, and just as we did, the storm hit the building: lightning lit up the gloom, winds pushed the simple chandelier until it was horizontal with the floor, rain teemed down with an intensity that I had never experienced, and we could see and feel the tall staves rocking the building. My own interior distress became gargantuan–because of my newly implanted artificial lenses, I could not transition from light to dark very well, so could not see clearly; the woman in front of me was translating the guide’s lecture from English to Norwegian, so i could not hear. I was sitting in the middle of the pew, so could not get out. I felt frightened and alone. I was terrified.
It was at that moment, realizing my utter inability to save myself, that I gave up, and in an experience for which I have no adequate words, I dropped into God. As I have tried to use words subsequently to relate what happened, I might say that I surrendered to the Mystery we call God. Or that I “let go and let God.” But I had no other resources, and something primal is me propelled and/or allowed me to relax into the familiar Hands of the Holy that would not let me go. I heard no words, no familiar Scripture or image came to mind, but I knew that I was safe and that I would be all right. The Presence was as strong and palpable to me as the wind, the storm and the shaking church.
In a matter of minutes the tour was over, the storm subsided, and we walked out into a sunshiny afternoon on the hill overlooking the fjord. None of my traveling companions knew of my terror, my sense of helplessness, nor that I had encountered the Holy in a riveting way that could be a touchstone for me when I encountered moment of great fear and and certainty. I could not speak of it for a long time. Yet I was changed.
As I go back to that moment, I recall how often I had recited these words from Psalm 139:
If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your right hand shall hold me fast. If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light round me become night,even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, and darkness as is light to you.” (9-12).
That reality had been alive in my body and spirit in those dark and light moments in the stave church at the end of the fjord. And I still can’t explain it adequately, or understand it. Yet I know what I know about what happened to and in me. It is a mystery, and it is Mystery. I pray to keep staying open to the possibility.