Annie Dillard once said that when we come to church we must be prepared to strap ourselves to the pews and put on our crash helmets. God might just show up, and turn our world upside down.
High on a mountaintop, Jesus, Elijah, and Moses, are bathed in light. Dead prophets and spiritual leaders come back to life, and God’s voice booms like thunder. The disciples are overwhelmed. They just expected a lesson on the mountaintop, and then the whole universe is drenched in light. They experience first hand the words of William Blake, “If the doors of perception were opened, we would see everything as it is – infinite!”
Mystical experiences don’t happen all that often. Most of us manage to live good lives, faithful to God and compassionate to our families and neighbors, without dramatic spiritual experiences. And, yet, the experiences of mystics do occur and such experiences gave birth to the great religious traditions. We can think of Jacob, dreaming of a ladder of angels, and waking up, shaken and stammering, “God was in this place and I did not know it!” We can remember Moses on the mountaintop filled with light as he receives the Law and Commandments. We can cherish that young girl Mary, encountering the angel Gabriel, who gives her the mission of being the bearer of God’s child.
A little closer to home. We might have thought of a friend we hadn’t seen for years only to have her call us at that very moment. Someone we know might have experienced what they believed to be an angel or a deceased relative, giving them comfort and guidance. And, of course, however we understand them, we all know someone who claims to have had a near death experience, an encounter with deceased relatives and a being of light, and the command to return to earth to complete their life’s mission. Or perhaps one night as you gaze at the heavens, you realize the grandeur of it all, and the wonder of the universe in its immensity and the unique singularity that you are.
We don’t know what to make of these experiences and we can’t control them or conjure them up at will. But, as Shakespeare’s Hamlet says to his friend Horatio, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
Author Annie Dillard describes an experience from her childhood, reminiscent of what I experienced with my own son and grandchildren. When Dillard was five years old, growing up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, she regularly gathered pennies her parents had left around the house, and planted these pennies in cracks in the sidewalk, the arms of trees, on porch steps, and benches. Her hope was that someone would notice and accept the penny as an unexpected gift from a generous hand. Dillard then asks, “Who cares about a penny?” and responds to her own question with the affirmation that God has generously provided us with all sorts of gifts and surprises. They are everywhere, but we need to open our senses and notice.
In our class on Celtic spirituality, we considered the phenomenon of “thin places,” special spots where God’s energy is focused and where the boundary between heaven and earth disappears. “Thin places,” like Stonehenge, or Avalon, or Sedona, and the Grand Canyon, or a sacred grove of trees. Places like Mecca or Mount Calvary in Jerusalem. Believers affirm that these places are portals into the heart of God, and when we are in such places, we can feel a sense of God’s presence.
That day, the disciples were bathed in light, the flesh and blood Jesus radiated divinity, and for a few moments, the doors of perception were opened and they saw the radiant infinity of life.
We may not have such an experience. But, we can pause and notice – pay attention – to this amazing world. Everything bears God’s imprint – the seagull flying, the child playing, the mother giving birth, the family gathered at the bedside of a dying parent, a couple falling in love and then forty years later enjoying the quiet company of reading books beside each other, caring for the grandchildren, or waking up in the morning grateful for another day together, and the holiness of your own lives.
The ordinary is chockfull of wonder. We would do well to allow ourselves to be amazed and then treasure and protect the blessings of ordinary earth, water, sky, and sea. Magic pennies are strewn everywhere, the gift of a loving God, and every moment can be a moment of transfiguration, when we experience holiness right here, and then do ordinary things – cooking a meal, making a casserole for the homeless, visiting a sick friend, welcoming a stranger, calling your representative or reading with a child – with great love, knowing that God’s light shines through the ordinary and God is in this place – and now we know it.