A short walk from my college campus, there’s a mile-or-so-long path that leads to the reservoir. One unseasonably warm September day I tore out of Greek class, hopped on my bike, flew down the path, stripped to nothing, and jumped in the water. Lord, the relief, the blazing blue of the sky, the way the cool water closed in and drowned every anxiety. I don’t know if I’ve ever had a more perfect moment.
When I need to be serious or solemn, I look for deserted places. Back home there was a baseball field with covered bleachers where I would spend time haranguing the Lord. There was the factory roof where I could glance between the steam from the vents above and the foam from the river below. There was the hilly road where you could see wild turkeys in the daytime and fireflies at night, and far away the Sugar River slowly unfurling over the landscape like a slumbering anaconda.
These are places where the self can be penetrated, whether by God, by nature, or by some small number of other people, usually just one. The word penetration is apt, not only for sex, but for that thing of which sex is only one among many instances. It was at the reservoir that I fell in love, had an honest-to-goodness fist fight, despaired at the unattainability of friendship, gloried in the attainment and enjoyment of the same, and in short, did all of the most human things I could do, all in that place of solitude.
Solitude in this sense1 is not the same as loneliness, but its opposite. Solitude is the state in which your inner self opens out and drenches the whole world in meaning. Loneliness, on the other hand, is when your inner self shrinks to a tiny fist, clenched at the core of you, brittle: nothing can get in or out.
This true solitude, when the scope of the inner eye expands to take in the whole universe, must be the source of every painting and, especially, of every icon. This is why, in medieval paintings, the sky itself seems to have a texture. The air is experienced as something too rich and pungent for mere transparency — it must be heavy, layered, golden. Yeats saw it when he talked of the “sages standing in God’s holy fire / As in the gold mosaic of a wall.”2 John the Evangelist must have been seeing the same thing: his reports are all filled with bronze, opal, diamond, jasper, sapphire.
There are counterfeits of this experience. One is, I think, the experience of paranoid schizophrenics, for whom everything means something, but it is a hostile and oppressive meaning. The way a stranger darts his glance away means he is hiding a secret. The siren on Main Street is for you. The scrap of paper peeking out of your friend’s pocket is a secret message betraying you to the authorities. For the paranoiac, the absence of all this meaning would be a relief.3
Another is the vision of meaning (or meaningfulness) induced by hallucinogens. The problem with drug-induced visions, as my mother once pointed out,4 is their non-transferable nature: a Nirvana that doesn’t survive the journey back down from the trip was never really Nirvana. It’s just precisely what atheists think all religious experience is: chemicals doing their dance.
But if there are counterfeits, there is also the real thing: the sudden lifting of the veil and the glimpsing of the splendor behind it.
This is what Christians believe about the world: that it is just the tip of the gorgeous, dangerous iceberg, just the visible bits of unimaginable splendor. It’s what John of the Cross means when he suddenly yelps (perforce I picture him yelping), “¡rompe la tela de este dulce encuentro!” — tear away the veil between me and you, rip the fabric and let us have our sweet encounter, onwards to the intensest rendezvous!
It is very like, but very different from, what other serious-but-not-Christian people think of the world. I just finished Neil Gaiman’s extraordinarily beautiful and devourable novel The Ocean At the End Of the Lane. This bit jumps to mind now:
One of the hunger birds reached a sharp beak down to the ground at its feet, and began to tear at it — not as a creature that eats earth and grass, but as if it were eating a curtain or a piece of scenery with the world painted on it…This was the void. Not blackness, not nothingness. This was what lay beneath the thinly painted scrim of reality.
It was jarring, in a book filled with so many glories, to think that this was how Gaiman might see the world: 5 as a thin covering over the fundamental void. It was a bit too close to the miserific vision voiced by the decaying soul of Dr. Weston in Lewis’ Perelandra:
All the dead have sunk down into the inner darkness: under the rind. All witless, all twittering, gibbering, decaying. Bogeymen…Picture the universe as an infinite globe with this very thin crust on the outside. But remember its thickness is a thickness of time. It’s about seventy years thick in the best places. We are born on the surface of it and all our lives we are sinking through it. When we’ve got all the way through then we are what’s called Dead: we’ve got into the dark part inside, the real globe. If your God exists, He’s not in the globe — He’s outside, like a moon. As we pass into the interior we pass out of His ken.
Weston and Gaiman5 are right, in a way, but so are John of the Cross and Yeats. All see that the world as we know it is not the final reality. But the former have glimpsed Hell, or anyway Sheol, and the latter have glimpsed Heaven.
It is a great privilege that we, as Christians, may confidently believe in both.