“I believe in all that has never yet been spoken. I want to free what waits within me so that what no one has dared to wish for may for once spring clear without my contriving.” — Rainier Rilke, Book of Hours, 1, 12 (trans. Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy).
There are times in our lives when the moment is so deep, so simple, as to be transparent and effortless. Within that moment we sense that the rush of events has subsided and we, quietly grateful, find ourselves turning in a gentle current to gaze, first here and then there, and to feel ourselves lifted and set upon our feet on a new morning at the edge of a far wilderness.
Those are moments that one treasures, storing them up for the times when the days turn to rust and the air sears as we sit in the stink of traffic waiting for the light to change. There are never enough of these moments, and in time they fade, although the mere desire for them can conjure up a train of images—some unrelated to the first experience—which gradually take on an iconic weight and bearing.
I’ve enjoyed enough of these that I can string them like pearls in my consciousness, holding them up to the light and seeing how they’ve changed over the years. There is curiosity in recalling which ones marked stages in my life. They are like ancient buried ships whose mounded boundaries we circumscribe unaware until we gain the heights and look back and down and gradually discern the outlines.
For me, these moments most usually come when I’m alone in the vicinity of strangers or near a lake or river or mountain or beach. I am booked up with a scripture (the Gospels, the Tao Te Ching, the Dhammapada or the Bhagavad Gita), some poetry (Rilke, Blake, Eliot, or Stafford) and some philosophy (Epictetus, Seneca, Marcel or Camus)—and a fine cup of strong, rich coffee. Setting off for these possible transcendences there is anticipation of a good experience. We cannot plan for these moments but we can be ready for them.
I had one such experience while on holiday visiting family in Banff, Alberta. Early on a Saturday morning, a time of special holiness for me, I moved through the quiet streets alone in the cool dawn. In search of a quiet shop with coffee, I found one—Evelyn’s Coffee Bar—on Banff Avenue. I was past the door when I noticed it, stopped and backed up. The sign said Saturday, 8 am to 9 pm, but it was 7:45 and the door was open, so I went in, the first customer of the day.
The only other person was behind the bar, a polite and cheerful young man from the East End of London by the sound of it. With mug in hand I sat in the window that fronted the street and gazed in wonder at the mountain that rose thousands of feet in the near distance. There was morning light all around—I could see it filling in the space between the peaks—but the town was in that blue shade that only exists in the shadow of a mountain that is blocking the sun. Streams of light shot from its shoulders and I knew that in minutes I’d be in the full glare of the sun as it crested the peak.
I was reading Rilke’s Book of Hours, in a translation I’ve come to revere, in a passage that carried all my longings to create:
“If this is arrogant, God, forgive me, but this is what I need to say. May what I do flow from me like a river, no forcing and no holding back, the way it is with children.”
By now one or two more early customers had come in. The English barista had been joined behind the bar by a young woman who spoke with a Scandinavian accent.
“Wot time are we to open?” he asked, as they worked. I could not hear her murmured reply, but he responded, “Cos I wasn’t sure if it was 7:30 or 8:00 so I opened at 7:30 just to be safe.”
“Then in these swelling and ebbing currents, these deepening tides moving out, returning, I will sing you as no one ever has,
streaming through widening channels into the open sea.”
And then the light burst over the peak and in one astonishing moment the street in front of me, the window, my books and cup—everything was shot through with white, pure light, warm to the touch but with hard-edged shadows.
“I want to know my own will and to move with it. And I want, in the hushed moments when the nameless draws near, to be among the wise ones— or alone.”
We move through this world in a sullen daze more often than not. We mind our own business, shuffling through the streets, not meeting the eyes of those around us, drifting like motes in the sun. But occasionally, if we dare to look up, if we glimpse—even in imagination or memory—the trembling, fiery annunciation of the morning, we might just be graced into joy.
“I want to unfold. Let no place in me hold itself closed, for where I am closed, I am false. I want to stay clear in your sight.”
Barry Casey taught religion, philosophy, and communications at Columbia Union College, now Washington Adventist University, for 28 years. He is now adjunct professor in ethics and philosophy at Trinity Washington University, D.C., and adjunct professor in business communication at Stevenson University, Maryland. This essay originally appeared on the author’s blog, Dante’s Woods. It is reprinted here with permission.
Image Credit: Janaya Dasiuk / Unsplash.com
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