When We Don't See God Clearly
Once a widowed friend of mine shared with me her experience of witnessing God’s presence in her life. Her eyes gleaned of a vague sadness, though her wizened smile emanated joy. Despite a life of tremendous difficulty and suffering, she maintained a luminous peace. She recounted how when walking once by herself along the beach she prayed for God to make his presence known. She desired ardently for God to make visible what she believed with resolute faith—that he was ever-present. As soon as she finished her modest petition a silver dolphin breached the surface of the ocean exactly where she was gazing. I watched her reclaim the memory with delight. She smiled at me with bright and wide eyes.
It’s easy, though, to be dismissive. I could feel the temptation surfacing just like that marine harbinger she had spotted to shrug it off as a favorable coincidence with smug skepticism. But she knew otherwise with a steadfastness and calm that couldn’t be questioned. The more she spoke of her love of God, the more I knew she had indeed seen his face on the boardwalk that day.
Our ability to choose how we see in this life is a great mystery. We have been given frightening power. We can choose to gaze at the shadow of God and spot his presence “indistinctly as in a mirror”—or turn a blind eye. We can choose to see the intricate and beautiful marks of creation and identify them as God’s fingerprints—or not.
If we delve into any great realm of study with the aim of uncovering truth—science, philosophy, art, theology, and so on—with a critical and honest eye, there is an underlying sense of order, a metaphysical reality that speaks to a transcendent mind. However, this truth still crouches behind a veil just opaque enough to let us shuffle God beyond the periphery if we want. One’s miracle can just as easily be another’s coincidence.
The American author and essayist, Annie Dillard, won a Pulitzer Prize for her nonfiction narrative Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which explores God’s presence embedded within creation. Dillard ventures the seemingly paradoxical notion that God’s presence in the world is not limited to certain distinct recesses of creation, but rather is spread out over everything with such majesty that we’re unable to take it in with a single look—God’s presence becomes subtle because it’s too grand for us to comprehend in fullness:
“It could be that God has not absconded but spread, as our vision and understanding of the universe have spread, to a fabric of spirit and sense so grand and subtle, so powerful in a new way, that we can only feel blindly of its hem.”
I wonder if the problem isn’t that God’s radiance shines too weakly; perhaps on the contrary, it shines so radiantly that our eyes—unfortunately quite accustomed to darkness—are struck blind. Actively looking for God in our lives requires a type of double vision. We must see the physical and ordinary of our world while at the same time the metaphysical and extraordinary. If we can do this, then we can successfully manage the day-to-day of our concrete world while simultaneously journeying as pilgrims on that mystical path toward heaven. If we take the time, we can see God’s grace overlaid on our natural lives like dappled flowers in a field. The people we meet, the gifts and blessings we have, the sufferings that bear fruit at the dawn of spring—we can choose to see all of these things as instances of God’s presence and grace.
Ron Hansen, the acclaimed writer and Catholic deacon, speaks of this idea in his collection of essays, titled, A Stay Against Confusion. He explores the power of narrative and myth in calling attention to the union between the seen and unseen, the physical and the spiritual:
“We have a tendency to separate heaven and earth, soul and body, mind and matter, the unseen and the seen…”
Although we have such an inclination, we can’t ever wholly eschew instances of mystery and wonder in our lives.
“We act on premonitions, inklings and perplexing needs. Who among us have held time in our hands? And yet we know we are changed by it. Our lives are filled with mysteries and miracles, coincidences, hunches, and revelations, feelings that have no basis in anything we can put a finger on.”
I think Hanson echoes something that’s undeniably human: the sheer mystery and complexity of our existence. We can enter more fully into this mystery by choosing to accept and embrace it every minute of our lives. Each moment affords us the opportunity to glance the fleeting shadow of God, like a playful Father hiding from his children to create a sense of crescendoing awe and mystery. Do we acknowledge the unadulterated beauty of a melting sun at dusk, the compassionate embrace of a beloved friend, the inestimable sacrifice of God in the humble form of the Eucharist?
Or do we focus on the ugly and distorted in this world instead with a moribund myopia? Or worse, do we not look at all? We can consign beauty as a perplexing consequence of consciousness that renders a vague evolutionary advantage; we can look only at the flawed in others as opposed to the sacred; we can keep our eyes fixed ahead as if in a brittle, refusing to look at any semblance of the divine in our midst.
It’s no different than sauntering over to your car, turning on the ignition, and realizing you’ve made it to your destination without any memory of the commute. Except instead of a sixty minute commute, it’s a sixty year lifetime. It takes an active looking and seeking to witness God’s presence in our world. As Christ asks, "Do you have eyes and not see, ears and not hear?"
My widowed friend strolled the beach with eyes ready and willing to witness God’s subtle revelation. She witnessed the union of heaven and earth—the unseen and the seen—because she was looking for it. Christ didn’t always shimmer like the sun like he did on Mt. Tabor. Most of the time he walked the earth in the form of the poor and meek. Regardless of the external manifestation of Jesus, he was still the Son of God—both ordinary and extraordinary, both man and God.
We can see God peeking out from behind the ordinary by taking time to be grateful for what we have. We can see God by taking time in prayer—real, honest and committed time spent with Christ—to discern how he has touched our lives with the miraculous. We can see God by actively looking for the face of Jesus in others. Seeing the Kingdom of God cannot be done passively—the pearl of great price must be actively sought.
There are times in life when Christ is transfigured before us and we see the majesty of God clearly and undeniably, but most of the time we are invited to behold the subtlety of God with eyes of faith. We must approach our lives as the three wise men did the manger, with a humility and quietness that allows us to see Christ incarnate in our world. For if we look hard enough, we’ll come to see that nature is but God’s canvas, and strangers but our brothers and sisters.
Glory be to God for dappled things–
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
for rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced–fold, fallow, and plough;
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
-- Gerard Manley Hopkins