01 May 2006

Holy Place

No matter where we go, we are in a holy place. Having recently come back from a trip to the Holy Lands I have been repeatedly struck with the holiness of God. He is holy above and holy near. One experience on the trip that encapsulated the force of this realization could be expressed by a description of our climb up Mt. Sinai.
Our group set off through the Sinai mountains about 2 am. The sky was pitch black, but the bright crescent of the moon and the sharp, white pinpoint stars actually made it as bright as day. All around us loomed stone mountains. The mountains in the Sinai are nothing like our mountains here; they are solid granite lumps, simply rock mountains. For hours we climbed up and up the winding stone path—layers upon layers of craggy mountains surrounding us on every side as far as the eye could see. After about two hours, we came to a place where we could see the summit of Mt. Sinai. How absolutely terrifying to think of the glory of God resting in “thunder and lightning flashes and a thick cloud upon the mountain and a very loud trumpet sound.” [Ex. 19:16] How could Moses climb all that way, since, “so terrible was the sight, that Moses said, ‘I am full of fear and trembling.’ ” ? [Heb. 12:21] When I whispered to one of my classmates, “Imagine going up this to meet God?” he responded, “I would just jump off the edge!” God is overwhelmingly awesome and holy. Even those mountains by themselves—without the fire and billows of smoke— struck me with a terror at God’s power. How is it that we can presume to meet with Him?
However, we reached the top just as the sun rose. How small the sun seemed! Like a tiny disk in midst of that heap of mountains. There on the top of Mount Sinai, we had the Ten Commandments read, a devotional, and singing of “How Great Thou Art.” Afterward, we were able to have a few minutes by ourselves on the summit. Undoubtedly, that was the most life changing experience of my life so for. To be in a place where God spoke to man face to face as one speaks to a friend! Our God is both all-powerful and all-knowing. He terrifies us with His transcendence and He and is with us in His immanence. His loving kindness endures forever. How can it be?
“To Him be the glory, both now and to the day of eternity…” [II Peter 2:18]
Never forget that you are in a holy place.


Iambic Admonit said...

This beautiful piece of writing is entirely relevant to an issue I'm struggling with right now: How does one write about the ineffable? Well, here's an example of how. Your overall experience "could be expressed by a description of our climb up Mt. Sinai." By focussing on that one event, you generalize to the enormity of the entire trip, your personal faith, and the accounts of the Old Testament!
You have described both the physical location and the emotional experience well, while using identifiers of the ineffable or the Sublime, such as "absolutely terrifying," "overwhelmingly awesome," and "Undoubtedly, that was the most life changing experience of my life so far."

I am working on an abstract for a paper about how Dante expressed the inexpressible. It's a timeless artistic problem. I'll put it on here soon. Meanwhile, I'd love to see some of your photos!

Iambic Admonit said...

Here's the abstract for my Dante paper. I'd love feedback from those who know how an abstract should go!

Speak Now the Ineffable:
Dante’s Paradoxical Poem of Christ

ABSTRACT: Exalted to the fifth heaven, Dante wrote:
And here my memory defeats my wit:
Christ’s flaming from that cross was such that I
can find no fit similitude for it…
my seeing Christ flash forth undid my force.
(Paradiso XIV: 103-105, 108)

This is the central contradiction of Paradiso and other visionary works: the supra-sensory vision of Christ is beyond language, yet the mystic poet inscribes ineffability. In this paper, I explore the problems, consequences, and ultimate success engendered by this paradox.

Through varied textual examples, I demonstrate that ecstatic experience is beyond comprehension, and too large a signified to be borne on a linguistic signifier. If this is true of all attempts at expression, how much more of the utterly inexpressible: God the Son, glorified. Authors of transcendence resort to the distortions of simile and metaphor.

However, reiterations of putative spiritual failure are accessory to literary achievement. Some writers retreat into stated silence; others exploit the power of the fragment; others rely on repetition—techniques designed to enhance the emotional power of the account. This paper proposes that Dante’s “weak” words comprise a consummate piece of craftsmanship. Only in admission of failure can a visionary succeed; only by inscribing the incompatibility can he overcome it. “Passing beyond the human cannot be / worded” Dante claimed (I:70-71)—eliciting admiration for how far his do travel, after all.

Such journeys are not without precedent. God Himself communicated encounters with Christ in the Scriptures. Christ is a mystical poem incarnate: the Word made flesh. Because of His leap from ineffable timelessness into expressive time, all who see Him will continue to scribble furiously, capturing the holy passion in fragmentary words, offering the success of their failure to all who will read and hear.

Rosie Perera said...

Wow, what an exciting paper on Dante! I'd love to read the whole thing some day.

That phenomenon of ineffability is exactly what John had to contend with in his Apocalypse. So the metaphors he uses stand for much greater realities than could ever be described in words. Some people are granted visions of things beyond human knowing. They despair of ever communicating them to others in writing. Yet we are blessed that they tried, even though they might have felt like they failed to come close. There is something joyful about these people's "weak" attempts, for it is a privilege to describe, even in a tiny and imperfect way, the glory of the Lord.

Consider something else: In the Incarnation, there is an ineffableness about Christ's divinity that he had to lay aside in becoming human (cf. the kenosis or self-emptying of Philippians 2). So in getting to know the man Jesus, we are only seeing a limited picture of his godhead. And yet all of that godhead is somehow encompassed in Jesus. That is totally mind-boggling.