Recently I was standing on a beach in Oregon with my son Matt. We were watching a beautiful sunset and I said to Matt ‘This is holy.”
A holy moment for me is not one of good behavior as I believed when I was young. In those days, we aspired to be holy and bemoaned our constant failures. Rather, it is an encounter with the numinous — that which lacks words and yet speaks of the presence of God. We seek words to describe the experience yet words elude us. These moments may also include emotion, often a sense of joy on the edge of tears.
As we left the house on the beach, I had another encounter with holiness, pictured above. The elk sat quietly and peacefully. I sensed a wise old presence.
Indeed many holy moments can happen in nature. When I was young, I remember at night in the Fall, I would hear the distant call of geese. I would look out in time to see their vee crossing before the full moon.
The only encounter with holiness involving a church occurred when I was taking a run through a wooded area in Ireland. I came upon a small seemingly abandoned chapel that had the smell of old books and perhaps incense.
The other association of the Holy with church is the smell of frankincense, the incense often used in older Catholic church rituals. Holiness can be encountered through all of our senses.
I have had encounters with the Holy through works of art. I was awe-struck at the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam yet experienced the Holy only when I saw his Starry Night in New York City. I have experienced the sacred through stage productions but encountered the Holy in a dramatic moment towards the end of the play “The Glass Menagerie”. I had performed in this play and seen many versions of it. Yet when I experienced my wife’s performance at the end of the third act after the Gentleman Call has left, it was an encounter with the Holy.
I have been often moved by scared music but encountered the Holy only when I heard Judy Colllins sing Amazing Grace a capella.
And, yes, reclusive introvert that I am, I have on occasion encountered the Holy through people. I think of the monet when a young woamn died and I sensed something Holy leaving her. I think of a lone policeman congratulating me for completing the New York City Marathon in 2001, setting aside his grief and shock to say a kind word to an exhausted runner. I think of a Viet Nam veteran embracing me.
I am grateful for these and other encounters with the Holy. They have sustained me in the midst of anger and doubt. These encounter with the Holy remind me of the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel: “It is not God who is obscure. It is man who conceals him.” When I encounter the Holy, I encounter the God whom I often conceal. I am grateful for those moments.
Reflections: What kind of encounters with the Holy have you experienced? How have they affected your spiritual journey?
One of my favorites that you have written! Totally agree.
Very thought provoking piece DR. Patterson. You are amazing!