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Encountering the Holy

When my younger son was studying philosophy in his early college days, he was home for a visit. One morning, while we were standing in our kitchen making breakfast, we began talking about my faith in God. I said I really couldn’t explain it. I had a feeling deep in my heart, a sense that there was a Presence outside me who cared for me, loved me, wanted the best for me. Very occasionally I encounter this Presence as I live my life. These are surprising moments in which I sense an ephemeral resonance – a recognition that something true and important and meaningful is sharing my space, touching my heart, brushing my soul.

Of course, I couldn’t articulate that sense of visitation or encounter in any coherent way over yogurt and cereal. I remember commenting that if there isn’t a God, where does our sense of right and wrong come from? I feel a moral compass deep within me. When I’ve been mean, selfish or angry, when I’ve harmed someone, even unintentionally, I feel a pain deep in my heart – I am “off,” misaligned somehow – I have strayed.

In Greek, the word translated “sin” is better translated, “missing the mark” that is, transgressing God’s expectations for us. That is what it feels like to me when I have harmed someone. I can’t explain how I know it is wrong – it isn’t any reference to a law code or rules – it is interior knowledge, a deep knowing, that the behavior is not consistent with what is “right.” I choose to think of that “right” as what God calls me to be. I feel physical pain, a “hurt heart,” when I have harmed someone. That pain is accompanied by a drive to fix what I’ve done, calling me to make it right, to heal the wound in the other, to come back somehow to center. And when I do make those efforts, I feel a movement toward wholeness; when I throw my heart into the repair, I feel a sense of mission, a resonance deep within.

I choose to recognize this internal impetus, this deep need to make “it” right somehow, as God calling me back into relationship through repentance. In Hebrew, this is teshuva, a “return” to the right way, the holy, to God. This feeling arises in my interior, my soul, my mind, without my active thought – what or who generates this feeling I cannot say. When I do something that harms another, I feel sad, disappointed in myself, and sometimes also guilty or ashamed, a less healthy reaction for sure! I also feel a visceral and urgent need to set things right. Not at all pleasant, this feeling, but it eases as I address honestly my part in a harmful exchange and move forward honestly and authentically toward healing – an apology for my role, an honest attempt to make amends, a change of heart demonstrated by action. This sense of knowing that I have wronged another, and the segue to wanting to make it right, are not generated from my head – i.e., by moral teachings. Rather I seem hardwired for this reaction and dynamic deep within my consciousness.

While this sense of the need for repentance is one way I feel the Presence, I also encounter the holy or sacred in happy sparks or jolts of recognition as I move through the world. There is mystery around us if we are attentive. Have you had the sense of encountering “something” healing, magical, holy, inviting, comforting, wholesome, abundantly joyous? Maybe you have had an unexplained vision, a sense of something beyond our human knowing, beckoning, ephemeral, shimmering, inexplicable but connecting with a sense of goodness and deep truth.

This coming Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of a penitential period Christians call Lent, lasting for 40 days leading up to Easter. Our lessons this past Sunday included the Torah portion where Moses goes up to Mount Sinai, and “the appearance of the glory of the LORD was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel.” Exodus 24:17. Our Gospel reading was the story of the Transfiguration, where Jesus goes up on a high mountain with his three most trusted disciples and Jesus is suddenly transfigured, “his face shone like the sun,” he is dressed in “dazzling white,” and he is seen visiting with Moses and Elijah. Matthew 17:1-2. Light and fire often signal an encounter with the Holy.

Our visiting priest Bruce Bramlett this past Sunday talked about the Celtic tradition of meeting the Presence in the “thin places.” He quoted a book, Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, where the author describes a powerful encounter, a vision, a sense of meeting the holy. She observes “I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck.” This resonance with something true and right, this to me is like encountering the peace of Shabbat – a sense of wholeness, abundance, peace, and love – God enjoying the Creation with us.

Through our Interfaith Bridges™ program, we ask our participants when they might have encountered the Divine or holy. There are lots of experiences out there. Some encounter this sense of the Presence in relationship. People mention being embraced by a friend at a time of despair, the birth of an infant, the joy in singing communally. Others have an encounter walking alone in nature, struck as Ann Dillard was, by an unexpected and incredible beauty. One common theme is being open to the Presence, being able to feel or see the holiness sharing our space. Suddenly one’s heart moves. The experiences don’t change based on the faith of the person sharing. The language shifts, the vocabulary is a bit different, but the sense of the Presence whispering just beyond our reach, connecting, caring, guiding, supporting, is a common theme. It is exciting to bring together people of different faiths to share these stories and honor our collective experiences together.

While Christians prepare for Easter, this year on April 9, Jews will be preparing for Passover, beginning April 5 and lasting seven or eight days, depending on one’s tradition. Muslims will begin Ramadan March 22 and this joyous fast runs through April 21. Members of the three Abrahamic faiths are engaging over the next few months in preparations to meet the holy. Perhaps mindful preparation will lead some of us to a “thin place” where we may individually encounter that sense of the Divine. As we move along in our respective observances over these next days, may we all be open to a shimmer, a shiver, a jolt of recognition, a brush with the Holy.

If you encounter the Presence, please share a comment.

And please go live as if God is with you, and cares for you.

Shalom and blessings

Diane Frankle, Founder and Chairman of the Board, Building Bridges Together

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