One of the more interesting lies that my family told me as a child back in Arkansas was that the ghost of a twelve-foot tall headless woman haunted the woods around my grandparents’ house.
She was known as “Tall Betty,” and there was a warped ritual that we did at night to call her spirit forth from the netherworld. We would stand outside, lanky-legged and shivering, and call out as loudly as we could “Tall Betty!” and wait. And there, across the field at the tree line, we could see it: the light from her lantern swinging back and forth as she searched for her missing head.
I can’t remember how many times we did this. And, honestly, we didn’t really believe that this decapitated phantasm prowled around the pine thickets. But then again, we knew our family, and the whole image of a headless ghost actually fit in quite well with the rest of the warped existence we shared. So, who knew?
One night, as we stood there calling out to Tall Betty, she came forth. Her lantern swung and we watched as it grew closer…and closer…and closer. Until, we actually squinted and saw, for the first time, that the headless ghost of Tall Betty was actually my uncle holding a pvc pipe with a flashlight duct-taped to the top of it, waving it back and forth. The truth was out: our family really was disturbed. I’m not sure whether we were relieved or disappointed that the headless ghost wasn’t real, but we had seen behind things…
In his marvelous book Original Goodness that delves deeply into the Beatitudes, Eknath Easwaran makes this statement: “we don’t see reality the way it is; we see reality the way we are.” So true, isn’t it? Perhaps it’s painful when we come to realize this, but it’s true. The boundary of our vision is set by our own spiritual myopia, if you will, that so often inhibits a more expansive perception of things.
We see this dynamic in the readings appointed for the Feast of William Temple.
In the Letter to the Ephesians, we see St. Paul describing what is really his understanding of his vocation: “to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things.”
It is a fascinating reflection that truly does pick up on the image from the Gospel reading when St. John describes how Christ, the Incarnation of God in our created existence “was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.”
We encounter this depth of reality that infuses our very being, surrounds us, through which creation came into being—yet there is a hiddenness of things, an apparent secretiveness of the Divine presence… The Deus absconditus as others have described.
The very word St. Paul uses to describe this secretiveness is apokrypto…that the deep essence of reality is, somehow, cryptic.
So, our vision, our sight, is veiled. Our understanding is limited. Yet our desire, our yearning for a fuller—a whole—comprehension of God’s presence makes our hearts swell and lean us forward.
St. Augustine was right: “our hearts are restless until they find their rest in God.”
Now, given the culture in which we live where religious practice often gets reduced down to fixing problems, achieving interests, helping sports teams win, or focusing on life after this life and some guarantee of admittance into heaven to escape the struggles of the world, this yearning can get a bit blurred. We can get off track a bit and get distracted from what our heart truly desires…
As Fr. Richard Rohr describes, “True spirituality is not a search for perfection or control or the door to the next world; it is a search for divine union now.”
Divine union now.
I believe strongly that this is the common vocation we all share as the Church, as the Body of Christ: to cultivate a space, a community, in which we can all lean forward into an awareness of this infusing presence of God, this union that is the ground of our reality but which we fail to see.
Actually, to go back to the Letter to the Ephesians for a minute, there is a very interesting element there to pay attention to. The text is translated as this: “to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things.” But…there is a hiddenness in the very text itself, because the word used for “plan” is actually koinonia, communion, or partnership, or community. So, this description of St. Paul’s vocation sounds like this: “to make everyone see what is the communal experience—the reality of communion—of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things.”
Now, that opens things up a bit…perhaps that makes our hearts stir a bit…we lean forward…something interesting is going on here…
Our encounter with this hiddenness of things, somehow, takes place within the communion itself—within our shared existence, our common life.
If, then, our shared vocation as the Church is, somehow, to correct or amend the spiritual myopia we all share in order to more fully comprehend the union which is our true nature—which I think it is—we are bound to do it together. Perhaps our vision is corrected by sharing with one another what it is that we see.
If the deeper nature of our spiritual reality—the deepness of things (to put it that way)—is indeed cryptic, then our shared vocation as a communion is to become cryptographers—a fellowship of the beloved children of God who take on the job of studying life to notice how the pieces fit, what the clues are. Holy cryptographers paying close attention to see what the patterns are, what is unveiled when we look at the pattern at a slant, perhaps.
Perhaps our own difficulty in seeing, the fuzziness of our vision, comes not from God being so far away but from God being so so close.
Maybe we need new lenses…
Maybe it’s impossible for us to see it alone, or to get a clear image…like telescopes scattered all over the world who share their data with each other, with the compilation of the images making the picture clearer…being able to look more deeply into the heart of things.
At the end of the day, this is our vocation: to listen, to pay attention, to cultivate a degree of watchfulness that helps us strip away the distractions of our lives so that we can see the truth of things…there, on the tree line, while we stand lanky-legged and squinting trying to make sense of the phantasms we encounter every day.
It reminds me of words by the poet Rilke:
Why am I reaching again for the brushes?
When I paint your portrait, God,
But I can choose to feel you.
At my sense’s horizon
you appear hesitantly,
like scattered islands.
Yet standing here, pointing out,
I’m all the time seen by you.
The choruses of angels use up all of heaven.
There’s no more room for you
in all that glory. You’re living
in your very last house.
All creation holds its breath, listening within me,
because, to hear you, I keep silent.
 Eknath Easwaran, Original Goodness….
 Richard Rohr, The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2009), 16.
 Rainer Maria Rilke, The Book of Hours, Translated by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy (New York: Riverhead Books, 2005), 79.