The Genesis: 3 Project
Come, let us go up to Bethel, and I will build an altar there to the God who answered me when I was in distress and who has been with me wherever I have gone. Genesis 35:3
I am not much of a mystic, but it does not prevent me from recognizing the mystery in the world around me (I hope). I can’t help but see intention in the great beauty of nature and in the capacity of human beings for extraordinary acts of kindness and courage.
In fact, the two most memorable spiritual experiences of my life (so far) were every-day events that I encountered for the first time. The first was sunrise over the Sinai desert. Standing atop the mountain identified by some as Mount Sinai, having climbed from an encampment below by the light of the moon and a flashlight, I watched the rising sun transform the darkness into purples and reds, oranges, yellows and browns. The long shadows of mountains to my east scampered toward the brightening sky, dragging the deep palate with them as momentary flashes of reflected light made it look as if the stars kissed the earth before retiring until the evening. Pockets of fog rose toward us and evaporated into the brightening air.
My senses were flooded. I have never experienced synesthesia, the experience of one sense responding to the stimulus of another, but I came pretty close to hearing the light and feeling the colors. My body was alive in a new way.
Rumor has it the sun rises that way every day. But not for me.
The other time was at the birth of my eldest child. I had never witnessed childbirth before, but I can tell you it is contagious. My wife had the hard work to do; my job was to stay out of the way. But as the baby crossed that threshold from utter dependence to full-on life, every cell in my body fired simultaneously with a palpable and independent energy. I was aware simultaneously of the tip of my big toe, the ducts in my kidneys and the roots of my hair. Were I not mesmerized by the scene I was witnessing, I believe I could have lifted off the ground to fly. And I had a sudden insight that produced the overwhelming urge to call my parents and apologize for everything.
By this time, the doc and his team were getting ready to put some other pending parents through the experience.
(BTW, our other two kids had surgical assistance coming into the world, broadening the focus of my attention from just the birth.)
Do I want to identify those experiences with an encounter of God? Yes, I do. But the reason I choose against mysticism has to do with my continuing battle against arrogating a knowledge of the unknowable to myself. If I was touched by God’s presence at those moments, I am grateful. If not, I am grateful still. However, insisting that God was in that place and I knew it gives me no credibility to disbelieve the claim that God selectively saves lives, bestows riches or, once every 108 years, permits a certain team to win the World Series. Seeing God in the narrow results of those multivalent moments makes for idolatry -- the idolatry of privilege.
I was privileged to spend a single sunrise on Mount Sinai out of millions. I was privileged to witness one birth out of billions.
The statistics do not diminish the power of my experience, but neither do they validate the uniqueness of anything other than my arrival at a particular place at a particular time.
Just before the verse that tops this short essay, Jacob told his entourage to discard their idols. Then he invites them to a tribute to his accessible and portable God. I might choose to frame the blessing of believing as Jacob did a little differently for myself – a God who is always present when I commit to being conscious of the divine potential in each place and time.
It is a mystery how that can even be possible. And there lies the limit of my mystical inclinations: to live my life prepared to acknowledge the mystery of God in a world that seems, most of the time, to present no evidence beyond personal conviction.
But would I have gone with Jacob to “Beth-El,” literally “House of God?”
Sure. You never know.