In a recent edition of The Mendicant, the regular newsletter of Richard Rohr and his organization, Center for Action and Contemplation, Fr. Richard reflects on his recent experiences being diagnosed with and treated for prostate cancer. He writes,
About ten days after the surgery, during my attempt at some spiritual reading, I opened the Bible to that obscure passage in the Book of Exodus, where Moses asks Yahweh to “Show me your glory” (33:18), and Yahweh shows it in a most unusual way. “I shall place you in the cleft of the rock and shield you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I shall take my hand away, and you will see my backside, but my face will not be seen” (33:22-23). In several sermons, I have used that verse to teach that our knowledge of God is indirect at best, and none of our knowledge of God is fully face-to-face. God is always and forever a Mystery.
This time, it was not the indirectness that hit me in this passage, but the afterward-ness! My best spiritual knowing almost always occurs after the fact, in the remembering — not seen “until [God has] passed by.”
While I have not yet had to face the sort of health crisis that Richard Rohr was reflecting upon, I nevertheless find that my own experience of noticing the presence of God is very much like his: that mostly I don’t really see that God is in the midst of something until after the fact. Only by looking behind me, as I reflect on the bits of my life that have passed by, am I able to see how God is a part of my life. It seems much harder to notice that presence in the unfolding now.
It strikes me that perhaps this is why sacred scripture is always written after the fact. The writing of a scriptural text — whether the author is conscious of writing this sort of text, or whether the text is later declared sacred by the community after it was written — is necessarily an act of remembering, at looking back over moments of communal and individual life that have already passed by. And as those moments are remembered and “locked into place”, so to speak, by the written word, the presence of God is seen and interpreted in the very act of remembering.
One of the fascinating qualities of sacred text is that stories are often and even usually told as if they are enfolding before the author’s very eyes. But, of course, that is not the case. Rather, the author is crystallizing the memory of the event about which he is writing as that memory has been passed down to him, and the stories are written as though God’s presence and role were quite clear and obvious to everyone who experienced that event.
I suspect, however, that ancient people’s experience of the sacred was not terribly different from ours (with the very notable exception of their generally having had a greater openness to the sacred). I suspect that they, too, found it hard to notice the presence of God in the unfolding now, just as we do. But as they remembered these events and looked back on them, they could — like us — see where God was present in them.
Even this practice of seeing God in the rearview mirror, however, remains a limited sort of seeing. As Rohr says, following St. Paul, our knowledge of God is never face-to-face, and God remains always and forever a Mystery. Part of what makes our knowledge of God partial is that we only ever see God through our particular lens or frame of reference, and that necessarily limits what we are able to see in the first place.
Yet this does not diminish the power of our sacred remembering, and the discovery of God’s presence in the moments of life that have gone by. In Hebrew thought, to remember something is not just to recall an event, but it is to bring that event into the present, as if we ourselves were actively a part of what we are remembering. It is in this sense that Christians celebrate the Eucharist — as an act of sacred remembering that makes the presence of Christ with his disciples at the Last Supper available to us in the unfolding now of our lives.
If you find it challenging to discover the movement of God in your own life, spend some time looking in your life’s rearview mirror, and see if you cannot find that movement in the act of sacred remembering.