For me, the life of faith emerges from participation in narrative. I am attracted to the influences upon our daily lives of the metaphysical dimension – the ultimate inquiry into the hidden nature of reality. For example, someone sent me a quote from the New England Transcendentalist Walden:
Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains.
I find such a perspective inspirational, a pointer to the ineffable. Yet, for me it’s the power of narrative or story and my participation in the zone where narrative shapes my experience more directly. In my own experience, and through my observation of others, humans are storied beings.
This is why the first two books of the Bible, Genesis, and Exodus comprise a series of grand narrative cycles, each centered on a central figure. These figures are known to the Tradition as the Patriarchs and their unfolding story cycles introduce us to their encounters and subsequent relationships with God.
These are story cycles of epic proportion worthy of the description saga. Abraham’s is the first and those of Jacob, Joseph, and finally, Moses follow. Isaac appears briefly but simply to bridge the Abraham and Jacob saga cycles.
Although we are introduced to Moses at his birth in Exodus 2, it is in Exodus 3: 1-15 that we take a grandstand seat to view the first encounter between Moses and God. This encounter is set against the grand vista of a place evocatively described as a place beyond the wilderness. Here, God self-reveals through the phenomenon of a burning bush. What a story!
Moses, having taken flight after his killing of an Egyptian overseer is now living as a shepherd. While tending his father-in-law’s flock he wanders beyond the wilderness. This leads him to the foot of Horeb, the mountain of God. This seems a Lord of the Rings kind of place and so we are not surprised that Moses sees in the distance a bush that blazes and yet was not consumed.
Moses’ curiosity is aroused and he takes a detour from the track he is following so that he can get a better view of this amazing sight. God sees Moses detour and calls to him from the heart of the burning bush. Moses responds to the sound of his name, but is immediately stopped in his tracks as God calls to him to come no further for he is about to tread on holy ground. First, he must remove his sandals.
God now self-identifies to Moses. It’s important to note that God’s self-identification is in terms familiar to Moses who understands that he is in the presence of the God of his fathers – Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Moses’ first response is one of terror and he hides his face, for he knows well enough that no one directly encounters God and lives to tell the tale.
To cut to the chase, God now gives Moses a job to do. Moses pleads inadequacy – God who am I to do this great thing -but God is having none of this. Moses knows who God is but tests God further asking but what will I say if they ask me who is it that has sent me?
God does something very interesting at this point. He does not repeat God’s familiar name but gives Moses a new name to use. He instructs Moses to tell the Israelites that I am who I am has sent me to you. God is now revealed under a new name, a name not familiar to Moses or the Israelites, yet, a name that is still linked to the familiar. Moses is instructed to say that I am who I am has sent me and to remind the Israelites that I am is none other than the God of their ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob. The God, henceforth to be known as YHWH –Yahweh is born into the collective consciousness of the Children of Israel.
I began by saying that despite being drawn to the metaphysical inquiry into the hidden nature of reality, it is the power of story that in my religious experience allows the divine presence to take shape for me. This is a truth not limited to the religious or spiritual domain but applies to all aspects of identity construction and sense making. The power of story lies in the invitation to participate in the story and thus let it shape our experience. Our experience is limited or expanded by the quality and nature of the stories we tell about ourselves, and to ourselves about the nature of God and the world.
This is a story of theophany – the revealing of God. We participate in this story when we allow it to shape or reshape our expectations. It does this when we notice and pay attention to it.
Beyond the wilderness
I’m profoundly struck by the phrase beyond the wilderness. If I don’t pay attention I conflate this place with the wilderness itself. The image of wilderness is so familiar to me, and no doubt to all of us. We picture Moses leading his flock through a barren landscape, a wilderness of Sinai. But the text tells us that Moses is now beyond the wilderness at the foot of Horeb, the mountain of God – a place of mysterious encounter. This is a metaphor for a place that is no-longer-familiar to us in which experience is no, longer boundaried by familair expectation. As we listen carefully, this story shapes us by a powerful realization. Are we willing or not to enter a new landscape, one beyond the familiar, where like Moses, we encounter / are encountered by God?
Moses is wandering along the familiar track through the wilderness when in his peripheral vision he notices something that arouses his curiosity – I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up. Curiosity is a crucial ingredient of the spiritual life. It’s the ability to notice and become curious about the unexpected flashing to us in our peripheral vision. The path that opens through curiosity is the route from the familiar wilderness to a new place; a place beyond the wilderness.
God comes to us as we risk making choices and taking decisions that take us beyond the confines of the safe and sure, the tried and tested. Here, we have the possibility of a new experience, one in which God identifies as both new and yet with enough familiarity for recognition. The tension of ambiguity lies at the heart of the name I am who I am, for it also means I will be who I will be. The name’s instability of meaning pivots us towards future possibility. In the place beyond the familiar who might God become for us? More importantly, who might we become if we allow ourselves to be shaped by God’s new name; a name beckoning us into possibility, yet to become known?
The paradox of the new
The significance of the place beyond the wilderness lies in the paradox that the new, the yet to become known, very often hides as possibility at the heart of everyday experience. It’s when we pay close attention, become mindfully aware in everyday experience that we discover the new possibility. We need enough familiarity, but not too much otherwise we will miss the necessary ambiguity that opens us to the new. I have discovered the new emerges from the encounter of Tradition with the reality of the life I am actually living.
Daniel Deffenbaugh puts it rather neatly when he says while
theophany surely issues from heaven, it’s holiness can be found only on the lowly ground where it becomes known, in the dust beneath our feet.
I interpret this to mean that our longing to find meaning and purpose for our lives can only be satisfied when we accept God’s call for a partnership to journey to a place beyond the wilderness. This is found not on the mountain of God, but at the center of where our daily lives, live themselves out.