Out of Focus
The Red-winged Blackbird skittered just a feather’s tip above the marshy spikes of smooth cordgrass and glasswort. It seemed less a graceful bird caressing the subtleties of air currents than a dragonfly, jittering near instantly between one place and another. And then the bird plundered the carpeted bog for shelter in a pocket of thistle. Conk-la-ree, conk-la-ree. The bird cried from a hidden stage, auditioning a part for the ear of God. He cried again, and again, conk-la-ree. A guild of songbird companions responded with measured chirps and trills. And the low-tide estuary freighted the weighty chorus of an old, holy song: Holy, holy, holy…the whole earth is full of his glory. Conk-la-ree.
In a heartbeat the Red-winged Blackbird dashed from veiled chancel to chancel, and sang his Sanctus. I aimed to capture this transition – this flight of liturgy. I leaned against the railings of the planked jetty, aimed my camera at only what I could anticipate as his next flight path, adjusted my settings – a little more ISO, faster shutter speed, and extended my zoom. There was a pause in his Psalter, that breath between reception and response, and then a flutter of activity. I shot and managed to place the bird in the middle of the frame. I was pleased until I came home, loaded the image on my computer, and saw this worshipping bird completely out of focus – not a hint of detail.
There are, of course, disrupted moments when we see God. Appointed times, or kairos moments, as they are called, when we know God. But these moments of genuine revelation are so peculiar to a spiritual springtide, only positive abstractions can be trusted. God is with me. God is love. God forgives and heals. The God of clarity is the God of amassed piety, heaped on the trinkets and souvenirs of memory – toothsome lollipops pacifying a deeper, harden faith that can’t be appeased with the now and then temperament of God’s transcendent. But give me these gimcracks and frills, all the same. Let me long for and remember again when creation was interrupted. I’ll take those morsels that, if anything at all, sooth an insatiable longing.
It is the nature of kairos moments, though, to fade from their initial glory back into the world of an empty pantry, dirty laundry, and spilt coffee. So we glide down this stream of continuity, the times between. God appearing only as something we can intuit, a blur of something real – the ineffable teasing our minds with hints and oblique peek-a-boos. “The eye cannot see Him, though He is (spiritually) visible. He is incomprehensible, though in grace He is manifested. He is beyond our utmost thought, though our human faculties conceive of him….our very incapacity of fully grasping Him affords us the idea of what He really is,” taught Tertullian, the second and third century teacher of the early Church. Much later, in the middle ages, the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing wrote, “Thought cannot comprehend God. And so, I prefer to abandon all I can know, choosing rather to love him whom I cannot know.” Even greater Christian mystics would go on to say things like God cannot be real because only created things exist. This isn’t to say they didn’t believe God existed; rather, they claimed that God existed in an inaccessible way that tramples our best experience, reason, and language into quaint blurs.
In the milieu of strong opinions and certainty, when faith is set aside for knowledge, and facts are confused for truth, God appears out of focus. Be wary of the mind who knows too much of God. Shady preachers and egos proclaim proof and absolute assurance. God punditry speaks to itching ears. The truly transcendent God is out of the corner of our eye, the brilliant thought we instantly forget. The hidden God, the revealing God, the God surpassing all comprehension takes our breath away and leaves us with little to say. A prayer of listening aimed at marshy brambles. Cock-la-ree. And even as that inward awe drivels away into devotionally-tinged language, if I have said anything, it was, as Augustine said, just to say something.