Story last updated at 2/14/2017 - 8:11 pm
We are dazzled by God’s beauty, but He is hidden to us by the intensity of His light, just as the sun is hidden to our eyes, which are too weak to apprehend it directly.
The dunes at Truro on Cape Cod: that was the first place that I encountered it. It was like an old wind, a Paleolithic wind as old as the oldest art, moving from water to water across the narrow spit of land. It shivered across the skin of my face and stirred something inside me and left me silent.
I went back to Truro the following year to find it again, but it was gone. Or I was different. Something had changed, or everything had changed: the place, the time, the weather, me. The curious thing about sacred places is that they aren’t always. I think there’s some kind of grace that tunes us in when it decides we’re ready.
It was three or four years before I encountered it again, this time on a hilltop outside the chapel of a Catholic seminary. Christmas was a week away. Exams were over at nearby Ramapo College where I was a student, and before the winter break the seminary was offering a special Mass in Latin, with the Ramapo Choir singing Gregorian chants. An atheist at the time, I went for the chants, and I had no idea what the Latin liturgy was about. But when it was over I walked out into the bright winter night and looked out on the dark Ramapo Mountains and on the valleys scattered with light. There it was: Silent Night. And I felt a little more confused, a little more agnostic.
There were other encounters over the years.
Once on top of Sheep Mountain Table, a small butte in the South Dakota Badlands where you can watch distant thunderstorms scudding toward you across the plains and listen to the wild turkeys that, after you, are the tallest things for miles and miles. Only later would I find out that Sheep Mountain, which I discovered quite by accident, is one of the Lakota people’s sacred places.
And once briefly, I think, in the great hall at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Again it was a week before Christmas, but I had started drinking early that day, so it might have been something else entirely. I fell asleep on a marble bench listening to the music of Gabrieli being piped into the hall.
And never when you’d expect.
You’d think that the birth of one’s kids would bring on that sense of being in a sacred place at the right time. But witnessing the birth of a child is an experience too emotionally overwhelming to discern anything but the tiny face suddenly before you, this new person in the world.
I expected Notre Dame in Paris to be a sacred place. I’d told myself for years that my soul needed to visit the great Gothic cathedrals of Europe, and Notre Dame is, arguably, the greatest.
Seeing it from a car on the way into the city from the airport, I thought I began to feel it. In the distance Notre Dame seemed to float on the city, or rather amid the city, part of it but separate, distinct, like a boat on the sea or the way a vivid dream floats on your consciousness after you wake.
I take Notre Dame’s sacred character on trust from writers like Victor Hugo and Allan Temko, but I myself missed it. I stood on the parvis before its towering western façade and walked through its portals, but my companion at the time could not have been less interested in the place, and the experience left me feeling like my soul had been pickpocketed by one of Paris’s petty thieves.
A few years ago, my wife Michelle suggested that we go to St. Paul in the Pribilofs. It was a most incredible adventure all the way around: from watching fur seals to sitting amid swarms of least auklets; from gabbing in the tavern with local entrepreneur Phil Philemonof to dancing with the locals until after midnight at the Saturday night dance.
We had rented a car that was falling apart from a guy named Biff (whose rent-a-car operation we affectionately but accurately named “Biff’s Beaters”), and after the dance, we gave a ride home to an 86-year-old woman who was on the island in 1942 when its denizens were evacuated to the internment camp at Funter Bay. “I was 16 at the time,” she told us. “It was all very exciting to me then, a real adventure.”
Then, on our last day there: we drive to the end of the road on the island’s southwest corner and hike up along the western coast, out on Einahnuhto Bluffs, 600 feet above the Bering Sea. It’s cold and rainy, but we are intrepid tourists: we are from Juneau.
Crawling on our bellies in the wet grass, we inch up to the edge of the cliffs to get some photos of the hundreds of puffins and cormorants and murres nesting on the cliff-face and riding the air currents up from the surf far below us. To get a good shot, Michelle braces her elbows on my back and forbids me to breathe.
I’m cold, I’m wet, I’m turning blue. And suddenly there it is again. That silence inside me. And this time, it brings with it a sense of incredible well-being. Suddenly, I could not have felt more comfortable, more at home, were I lying in my own bed.
When I describe the feeling to Michelle, she understands immediately: “You feel like you belong here.”
And that was it, a feeling that I belong here—not in St Paul, not in Alaska, not in Juneau, but here on earth, here in the world, a part of the great fecundity, separate but a part of it all.
These days I sometimes get that sense at Eagle Beach, but less dramatically, more matter-of-factly, as if Eagle Beach is one of its frequent hangouts, but only very early in the morning, when I’m out there walking along the river before sunrise with my dogs.
Jim Hale formerly wrote the award-winning “On Writing” column for the Capital City Weekly. His website is www.jimhalewriting.com.