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On Moments

October 10, 2018


There was a moment.

Whittaker Chambers was a staunch Communist. Committed to the Party and its dictates, he had devoted his existence to leading an unapologetic double life. In the name of Revolution, he would lie and cheat. On behalf of the Proletariat, he would spy and inform. Chambers was convinced that Lenin and Stalin had pronounced infallible dogma for the faithless life of the world and especially for Depression-era America.

But then, there was that moment.

In his gripping autobiography, Witness, Chambers recalls something transcendent as he watched his young daughter eat while sitting in her high chair:

I was watching her eat. She was the most miraculous thing that had ever happened in my life. I liked to watch her even as she smeared porridge on her face or dropped it meditatively on the floor. My eye came to rest on the delicate convolutions of her ear—those intricate, perfect ears. The thought passed through my mind: “No, those ears were not created by any chance coming together of atoms in nature (the Communist view). They could have been created only by immense design.” The thought was involuntary and unwanted. I crowded it out of my mind. But I never wholly forgot it or the occasion. I had to crowd it out of my mind. If I had completed it, I should have had to say: Design presupposes God. I did not then know that, at that moment, the finger of God was first laid upon my forehead.

Chambers spoke of a thing he simply knew. Oh, he had been schooled in the Marxist doctrine. And he had subscribed to the Leninist Reason. There were no small number of tenets, precepts, and maxims serving as the “unshakeable” brick and mortar of the Communist intellectual architecture erected in Whittaker Chambers’ mind. But nevertheless, he was utterly shaken by this intrusion, this breach in the barricade.

We have all had a moment (or moments) like this. We’re resting comfortably in the lives we’ve made for ourselves with our self-satisfied philosophies and our ready-made excuses when suddenly—WHAM—a moment of epiphany hits us. And we are shaken. It is a moment when we sense the way things are as opposed to the way we would like them to be. It is the finger of God laid upon our foreheads.

While the way in which these moments occur are deeply unique, the message is often eerily universal (as if there was a Master Planner…). We sense that we are broken, but that we are in some way still worthy. We discern that we are called to something greater than our selfish appetites or our mediocre efforts. We perceive that the Thing that is calling us is both profound and unfathomable. We can’t help but recognize that a senseless relativism is contrary to experience and that a truth exists. And that if there is a truth, there must be a Source for that truth. Finally, as we cast about for elusive peace, we hunger to rest in that truth. Now and forever.

These are profound moments.

But why are these mere moments? What do the saints, who find a way to commune with God for hours, days, or a lifetime, have that we don’t?

A stillness. 

The saints have figured out that—amid the tumult and torture, distraction and death that could dominate their lives—a space of deep interiority is essential. They have a fundamental, yet disciplined, openness to such moments. The finger of God, the kiss of God, the embrace of God awaits us at all times; we are just too distracted to feel it. As Pope Benedict XVI astutely observed,

We are no longer able to hear God. There are too many frequencies filling our ears.

During one of the last days spent with his mother, St. Monica, before she died, St. Augustine described a deeply transcendent moment they shared and a truth that was revealed to them:

If the tumult of the flesh fell silent for someone,

and silent too were the phantasms of earth, sea and air,
silent the heavens,
and the very soul silent to itself,

that it might pass beyond itself by not thinking of its own being;
if dreams and revelations known through its imagination were silent,
if every tongue, and every sign, and whatever is subject to transience were wholly stilled for him
—for if anyone listens, all these things will tell them,
“We did not make ourselves;
he made us who abides forever.”

This was Whittaker Chambers’ moment. It is the moment of innumerable saints. And it can be ours. The noise of the world need not reside in our soul. The exterior life need not engulf the interior. God awaits us in the moments. But we must first be still. And know that he is God.