The moon was nearly full, but for most of the evening it skated behind thin clouds, a smeared bright spot in the sky. I stepped away from the fire under the cedars and the broad old oak several times marking its progress.
Down the gravel drive, through a field of drying hay, the clearing beside a creek had belonged to a blackberry patch that morning. We stuck chunks of meat and brats over the coals, opened beers and sodas.
“When have you sensed the unmistakable presence of God in your life?”
I have some buddies. We gather every once in a while around a fire and talk. I call it our Moon Howlin'.
It took us a while to get to the real conversation. We warmed up through discussions of books and such. But, we get there.
One of us, a straight-forward, blunt, frank fellow, threw out the question. It hovered over the orange tongues of flame licking the evening air.
“The unmistakable presence of God.”
For me the presence of God is a spectrum of interactions ranging from an impulse to do something, say something, to moments intersecting eternity.
“How about you, Will?” the frank one asked.
I cleared my throat, signaling I would share, but needing a moment to martial my thoughts, though I had been thinking and writing about this topic all week.
“Two come to mind.”
“Two is good. I can handle two.”
The others murmured agreement.
“I was pretty sick. I was staying with my uncle in Ojai, California, and I was very sick. Dying.
“I went down to that river bed often. I was very sick. I wasn’t expected to live long.”
I told them this story:
I had joined an ashram and in the previous years spent too much time doing things I am still uncomfortable talking about. Spiritual things. Yogic things. Explorations of meditation and diet and... searching and exploring what I know are not right, not for this life anyway.
Once, in Ojai, while walking slowly along the Ventura River bed, I saw 17 California condors in a single dead tree. It was estimated there were fewer than two dozen of them left in the world. I was looking at the majority of an entire species.
Those enormous vultures, creatures who’s diet consists of dead things, sat in that dead tree, looking at me uncomfortably. I stared up at them. They grew restless, dropped off their perches, their enormous wings flapping slowly.
A few weeks later I knew it was time.
I walked down to the river bed.
I lay down on the sand. I felt my body slowly giving up. I began to pray.
I didn’t pray I might be saved. I didn’t make excuses for what I had done, for the extremes of fasting and meditation and explorations of astral planes. I didn’t beg for another chance.
“Father, I’m sorry. I have been stupid. You gave me a body, You gave me a mind and a spirit and a heart, and I have thrown it away. I deserve to lose all this. I’m not asking for anything right now. All I want to say is... I am sorry.”
It wasn’t a complicated thing. It wasn’t a divine revelation. It wasn’t anything that would leave a mark on the world, but it left a mark on me.
As I lay there, as I prayed my repentance and acceptance, a wave of light poured down the valley from the mountains. I guess I would describe it as sort of pinkish, if I could say it was really a color that could be photographed or painted.
It wasn’t a crushing wave or anything disturbing the quiet of that evening, but as it swept down and over me a couple of things happened.
I wasn’t tired anymore.
I didn’t feel weak. My mind wasn’t fuzzy anymore.
I felt strong. I felt healthy and clean and whole.
The second thing was the voice.
Hmmmm... Not really a voice.
The words did not pass through the air, did not pass through my ears. The words weren’t even words. They were a complete thought, a complete statement. It was a message compacted into a single idea, a whole, and it came from everywhere and from nowhere, and from deep inside my heart:
“It’s okay. Don’t do it again. Do other things. Get up. I have things for you to do yet.”
I didn’t look up at the faces of my friends as I told this story. I didn’t trust my voice would remain steady if I did. Instead, I launched into the next story.
“March 15, 1993. It was just before dawn and I was alone at Molalla River State Park.
“The moon was enormous. It was yellow, and had shifted toward orange as it descended into the naked branches of trees to the west of the field I stood alone in.
“There was that Oregon ‘Marchiness’ in the air, a promise of the coming Spring.
“And there was a color. Sort of.
“The sky was still speckled with stars, still black overhead, but it also... that color...
“It really wasn’t purple. It was too deep. Maybe a hint of violet. I don’t know... But there was this color to the sky that seemed to stretch from that field where I stood clear through to the stars.”
I paused and looked at my friends. I took one of my usual perpendicular digressions.
“A few minutes ago a small plane passed over us,” I said. “I loved the color that was bouncing off that plane’s white frame as it banked in the sunset. I see these colors around me all the time, and I think, ‘I wish I could mix that color with paint.’ I look at the clouds and I see this range of hues and values and colors I can’t describe. It is all so beautiful. I look across this field and I see that huge oak over there and I marvel that capillary action can raise all that water from those roots all the way to the leaves at the top... it is so beautiful.
“I look at my life and there is so much beauty and wonder and shit and aching and glory and pain and I see how wonderful and how awful life is...
“The color I saw above me that early morning sixteen years ago is with me still, and it is echoed in the colors I see still.
“That color was deep and rich and more real than I can describe.
“The sun was coming up. The sky in the east hadn’t started to lighten yet, but there was a sort of sense that it was about to. There was a sort of anticipation to the sky.
“And I was hurting. It was three months to the day of Willy’s death and I was out alone and I was hurting.
“And it happened...
“Folks think about eternity like it is some sort of continuance of things going on around us. That it is sort of like we just keep getting dragged along this timeline we know, forever and ever. I don’t think that is how eternity is.
“As I looked at that moon, and that sky, and felt the coming sun, and my heart ached for the son I had lost, I shook, I trembled, and I dropped to my knees.
“And I felt connected.
“I felt connected to everything.
“I was with the moon and the sky and the sense of dawn. I was with the stiff cut grass, and the river flowing nearby, and those leafless branches grasping at the sky.
“And God spoke.”
My voice thickened for a moment. My friends remained silent.
“It wasn’t a voice in the air, or anything like that. It came from everywhere, and nowhere, and from deep inside me.
“It was more than a moment. I mean, I know it was only a few seconds, maybe not even that. But it was more than that. That instant shot through me. Not just the me kneeling in that field. It shot through the me that is sitting here with you guys. It shot through everything, everywhere, everywhen.
“I think that is what eternity is. It’s not a continuation of the sort of time we know. It is sideways to the time we know.
“That moment happened sixteen years ago, and it is still happening. It will always be happening.
“That experience was so real. It was more real than the heat coming off those flames. It was more real than you guys are, sitting around, listening to me talk.”
My friends listened. They heard. They talked. We talked.
Perhaps I mentioned the colors in those experiences because they help to describe what I experienced. Yet I failed to truly describe those colors.
Humans are among a small number of species on this world seeing so much of the spectrum, what we call visible light.
But even that amount of vision is tiny. If the electromagnetic spectrum was a line stretching from San Francisco to Anchorage, Alaska, visible light would comprise about an inch and a half of it. The percentage of the spectrum we see is 3.5 X 10^-28. That is a lot of zeros between the decimal and the 3.5.
I’m a very small creature. I have an extremely brief life span, less than a hundred years. I am a single organism on a small world on the edge of a rather ordinary galaxy, among perhaps hundreds of billions of galaxies.
I’m a very important creature. I have a soul which permits me to feel the reality of The Creator. And, amazingly, astonishly, impossibly, The Creator knows who I am!
He knows who I am, and He loves me.
How can that be?!
It is a terrifying, and humbling, and exhilarating thing to know that He who holds atoms together, who hears the 10,000 year beats of super galactic clusters, who spoke creation into existence and stands outside of time and space, loves me.
Those two experiences were eternal moments, places where my spirit leapt out of this entropy-driven linear plowing through time, are just a part of the spectrum of the times He has spoken to me.
There was the beautiful message He gave me in a dream, telling me to adopt my first son.
There was the moment when I was six and the stain glass image of Jesus glowed, and flooded that little church, and He turned and looked at me!
There was that whisper of His when He told me to follow Jim home and permit me to share that troubled man’s burdens.
There was that time in 1974 when I felt enormous hands grip me from behind, lift me out of the path of a car, and set me twenty feet in the opposite direction I was running.
There are moments when I am gripping a fine point Sharpie marker, writing prayers in letters so small I can hardly see them... and I feel... outside.
Or after Willy died, we had gone to get sleeping medicine from Kaiser Permanente, and Brenda and I saw someone running ahead of us in the rain at 40 miles per hour. The wipers couldn’t keep the windshield clear, and we were exhausted from two sleepless nights after Willy’s death, and we both shouted when we saw someone keepng pace ahead of us along the Willamette River.
I cannot prove God exists.
But I know it is true.
I know He is more real than I am because the life I am living seems a pale experience to those moments when He paused the world, stopped the universe, and touched my heart.
Those two experiences especially. Those moments shot through time, I experience them still. I will experience them long after this body I am wearing ceases to breathe.
I don’t know why I have been blessed with faith. Some folks struggle with it. They wonder if it is real, or a delusion of folks like me, or a scam of some televangelist.
I know it is real.
I don’t know why I have been so fortunate as to have this faith.
Hey... I’m not saying everything is lovely. It isn’t. The earth shifts and tidal waves rush across the world washing entire villages away. Diseases creep through water and air and food and children suffer and die. The entire world, our entire history, is one long groan of pain and suffering.
My own life has some ugly things in it.
It is all so beautiful. It is so lovely it makes me ache.
The world spins around the sun, and its wobble moves the stars about. If we could experience the night sky of thousands of years in a few moments we would see stars swimming around us in elegant movements just as we see the flocks of sparrows react as a whole, shifting and rising and settling as they ready for dusk.
Life is indescribably wonderful.