If there is one thing that Jerry Seinfeld and I have in common – apart from our tendency to hang out with some pretty eccentric people (and you know who you are) – it's our rather childish fascination with Superman. Some of my earliest memories involve my preoccupation with such incredible notions as a flesh-and-blood human being flying through the air with little more than a cape to keep him aloft. I marveled at how a mild-mannered newspaper reporter could, in the blink of an eye, be transformed into a super-human crime stopper. Bullets just bounced off the guy's chest, for crying out loud! My faith in the man was so great, in fact, that once, when my younger sister got stuck up in an apple tree in our back yard, I started yelling at the top of my six-year-old lungs for Superman to come and resolve the situation, certain beyond a doubt that in no time I'd see him coursing through the clouds beneath his fluttering red cape, hastening to our rescue. But it was not to be. We waited, and waited, and waited some more, until finally my mother had to step in to save the day.
It probably comes as no surprise, then, that when my thoughts eventually turned to matters theological – when I was about eight or nine, I'd say – the only model I had to draw on was that of the wonder-being in blue tights leaping tall buildings in a single bound. Again, it was the miraculous that captured my imagination, the chance that somehow the numinous might break into my world like a super-action hero and turn it upside down, for the better of course. After all, this is what the media – such as it was in the late sixties – spoon-fed me every Easter season. I learned through watching The Ten Commandments what to expect from God's mighty presence in the world. To this day I cannot think of Moses without seeing Charlton Heston's face, first young and chiseled, and then aged by his extraordinary encounter with the divine. And to this day, try as I may, I cannot shake the mistaken conception that God makes Godself known to ordinary human creatures like myself only in proportions worthy of Cecil B. DeMille – with the parting of vast seas, or through dreadful plagues, or by speaking from burning bushes.
Apart from the distracting incendiary imagery, there is much about our First Testament lectionary text for this week that speaks to the human condition and the yearning on the part of every individual to attain some clear sense of vocation. It's an especially rich passage to reflect on with college students because their station in life is not so far removed from that of Moses. Here is a man who has fled the comfort and security of his home in Egypt to take up residence in the wilderness with a Midianite clan. He has been given a modicum of responsibility – tending the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro – but his vocation still remains nascent in his chosen occupation. His future remains obscure at best, but his role as shepherd nevertheless provides the framework within which he will soon be charged with a new leadership position.
When Moses encounters the burning bush, his emotions – both fear and wonder – are exactly what we would expect from someone venturing forward into a new understanding of both himself and his place in the world. Yet his call does not take place in a vacuum. On the contrary, Moses is first affirmed as a participant in an epic and ancient narrative: "I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob" (Ex. 3:6). In more common parlance, the text might read: "Moses, lest you think this call is about you and you alone, let me remind you right from the start that you are merely a participant, though a vitally important one, in a story that is much bigger than you can imagine." How big becomes immediately evident: God tells his newly chosen shepherd that God has heard the cry of the people of Israel and needs someone to lead them out of their distress. As God led Abraham out of the land of Ur of the Chaldeans, so must Moses draw his people out of their plight in Egypt.
At this point in the text we are allowed an insight into Moses' character that can in some ways be seen as a development on previous theophanies, for as Jacob strained his bodily muscles and broke his bones wrestling with the angel of the Lord, now this chosen one of God must grapple psychologically, but no less strenuously, with the profundity of his unlikely call. The first question he asks is symbolic of the struggles that so many have endured throughout Christian history when faced with a momentous choice and a new direction. "Who am I?" Yet Moses, whose identity has been called so overwhelmingly into question, is answered by the one whose name is at once certain and ineffable: "I am who I am."
And thus we have one of the great spiritual and psychological truths of our tradition and, I would also argue, of our modern age. As John Calvin knew so well – so much so that he introduced his great work, the Institutes of the Christian Religion, with the insight – "without knowledge of self there is no knowledge of God," and conversely, "without knowledge of God there is no knowledge of self" (I.i.1-2). Calvin, of course, recognized the chicken-and-egg character of this important tenet:
Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and ourselves. But, while joined by many bonds, which one precedes and brings forth the other is not easy to discern. In the first place, no one can look upon himself without immediately turning his thoughts to the contemplation of God, in whom he "lives and moves" [Acts 17:28] (Institutes I.i.1).
Still, I can't get past the spectacle of it all – the burning bush, that is. I can handle the psychological turmoil that Moses experiences, and even the realization that God has, miraculously, revealed God's holy name to him. But a burning bush that's never consumed by flame? It's just not a part of my daily experience. There are, however, two aspects of this narrative that give me pause for reflection, and thus offer some direction for my own life where both flora and fauna are capable of revealing their peculiar insights into the divine, though by less numinous means.
First, I have always taken great comfort in Martin Buber's translation of God's holy name in this passage. The traditional rendering – "I am that I am" – is, again, pretty nebulous to me. But Buber argues that a more appropriate translation here is, "I will be whatever I will be." In other words, God will reveal Godself to Israel in whatever form God so desires. In this case, the manifestation will involve the much-needed liberation of a people oppressed, but the name should not be limited to this act alone. In essence, God is the breath who enlivens all of creation, who enables all things to live and move and have their being. Indeed, God is the personal breath who at once calls Moses and enables the dumbfounded shepherd to turn his thoughts to his own vocation. This life principle is even implied in the susurrant name that even to this day cannot be uttered among observant Jews: YHWH.
Second, If we are professing here a God who will be whatever God will be, and this in response to particular circumstances in time and space, then this seems to provide a little more breathing room for those of us who cannot imagine that we will ever encounter a miracle of nature like a burning bush. The fact that Moses approached the spectacle with bare feet is a great comfort to me as well because it suggests – to my way of thinking, at least – that while this theophany surely issues from heaven, its holiness can be found only on the lowly ground where it becomes known, in the dust beneath our feet, the very stuff from which our most ancient ancestors were fashioned.
And this is where I have resolved to look for the holy in my life. While I do not want to discount the possibility of stupendous events breaking into mundane history, I would like to keep my hope and enthusiasm for such possibilities at bay, because in the end these only serve as disappointing distractions. Yes, God can make Godself known through the miracle of a burning bush, but more times than not the holy lies latent in the ordinary affairs of our day-to-day lives. The divine presence can be found in all things, if only we have eyes to see and ears to hear. In her book, No Moment Too Small, Norvene Vest extols the value of Benedictine spirituality in helping her to engender such a perspective on the world:
Benedict perceives God as present immediately and actively within the ordinary materials and interactions of each day. Every encounter, every incident during the day is grist for the mill of the ongoing God-human communication. No activity is too small or too unimportant to mediate the holy. Living one's faith in this way results in a much deepened attentiveness to each moment, for we learn that the specific ordinariness of a thing or a person also reveals a more "dense" reality, that is, its glory. Benedict's Rule always celebrates the simple daily actions of one person with another, and of human hand with pot and pan, all as potentially carrying a wonderful message (p. 19)
I returned to Hastings College on Monday to find that one of my best students – in preparation for a study of Irish pilgrimages – has taken to wandering the campus in his bare feet. I guess that's the danger of being a religion major – you never know what crazy saint is going to inspire you. But after reflecting on Joel's newfound passion for his spiritual journey I came to the conclusion that he's probably on the right track. Because as Benedict knew so well – no less than Brother Lawrence, and so many others throughout Christian history – we are ever on holy ground. We do a great disservice to both our personal faith and our tradition if we forget this simple truth. But we do forget, and we will continue to do so I'm sure. For too often in our insistence on seeking out the spectacle of some otherworldly burning bush we lose contact with the common miracle of the cool earth beneath our feet. Too often in our enthusiasm for waiting on the likes of Superman we overlook the fact that Clark Kent is standing right before us, in the flesh.
Art and Images
1. Marc Chagall, "Moses and the Burning Bush," lithograph for The Story of Exodus (1966), M447.
2. Antiphonary, (c. 1250), Germany.
3. St. Benedict, from a mural by Fra Angelico (c. 1440).