A few years ago, down with a bug and seeking a bit of couchside entertainment, I flipped through endless television channels in search of something fresh and new—anything that did not seem like a reworking of something I’d seen before.
I found an unusual-looking fellow performing an obnoxious dance, complete with lewd pantomime. His audience consisted of two unimpressed record-shop clerks, and when the dance abruptly ended a conversation ensued about life and music and the consequences of sullen attitudes and selfish behavior. The actors were Jack Black, John Cusack, and Todd Louiso, the film was a fairly faithful representation of Nick Hornby’s best-selling novel High Fidelity, and happening on the movie at precisely that instant was a moment of revelation. There was a freshness and energy to Black’s no-holds-barred performance and Cusack’s fourth-wall-breaking and self-obsessed monologues. After enjoying a few repeat viewings, an expectation formed: I wanted to see more work by these unexpectedly charming, gifted performers.
It didn’t last long. The actor’s subsequent projects were mostly tedious. High Fidelity had been interesting, but the performers—undeniably talented though they were—could not themselves sustain that elusive sense of freshness and depth that makes one want to keep seeking something out, keep chasing its mystery, keep refreshing one’s sense of wonder at seemingly boundless potentialities. A small thing that had seemed full of promise proved to be simply a moment, passing; it left no contrail against the empty-and-the-void.
Last spring, I had occasion to stand upon a colonnade at St. Peter’s Basilica and watch the sun come up over Rome. As it chased the damp and rising mists from the distance, I realized I was enjoying in those hills and columns and trees a prospect surveyed by Michelangelo and Raphael, and I suddenly understood the source of the particular color-choices and shadings found in much of their work and in churches throughout Rome: it all came together before my eyes in a hugely gratifying and humbling moment of revelation and wonder-connectedness.
A second revelation then hit, like a wave: the previous autumn my husband and I had stepped out on a Roman balcony high in the center of the city, and had marveled at the ancient beauty amid the bustle. Standing nearly alone on the colonnade, unable to share the view with him–or even with a professional acquaintance–dulled the power and sweetness of the moment and made me realize that what is great only becomes truly wonderful with human sharing. Lacking that, there is sterility, even where there is profundity. Again, emptiness; again, a void.
Our lives are made up of thousands of these moments of revelation—small glimpses of the less-ordinary that give a thrill—but because they are as illusory as a film or as elusive as hill-in-mist, ultimately they become a part of what fails to satisfy.
At the Midnight Mass of Christmas, before celebrating a mystery of communal prayer and worship and meal-taking, a young priest laid a plaster representation of an infant upon the straw scattered before an altar. He was completing a visual representation of a moment of revelation–and as he did it, the worshipers in a packed church sighed and dabbed at their eyes and sang with vigor:
Yea, Lord, we greet thee,
Born this happy morning;
Jesus, to thee be glory given!
Word of the Father,
Now in flesh appearing
O come, let us adore him…
The tableau before us was not illusory but illustrative; the elusive mystery confronting us was made more wonderful for the human sharing of what we do not fully understand–the empty void filled with creation and the Creator who condescends to join it for the sake of restoration–amid challenges all-too-common: disruption, humiliation, discomfort, uncertainty. In our togetherness, there was consolation, and in that consolation, a confirmation: the God willing to enter into all of that—to literally “set his tent” with us—could only do it out of unfathomable love.
The moment of this revelation is a constant: “of his fullness we all have a share, love following upon love” (John 1:16); it’s a lesson that pulses through eternity, like a sonar-blast, seeking us out; love is constrained only by your fear of losing it; do not be afraid; live in the boundless stream of my love and all shall be well, because all shall be One; there is nothing to be afraid of in my love…
Nothing becomes transcendent. Transcendence, rather, is itself: one-in-being; consubstantial with its own source; love following upon love. It is ever-fresh; ever-ancient, ever-new.
The moment of revelation that is truly transcendent is the moment without end.
Elizabeth Scalia is the Managing Editor of the Catholic Portal at Patheos and blogs as The Anchoress. Her previous articles for "On the Square" can be found here.
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