SHOOTS OF SNAP PEAS POPPED UP from the ground this week. Nearby the first flowers have appeared on the tomatoes. Hyacinth vines that in a few months will cast showers of purple on the side of our house, stand in a row an inch or so tall. The Irises, allium, and salvia are in bloom.
Our garden is a small space, two patches on either side of the driveway and a border along the postage-stamp back yard. But when I step into it, even if it’s en route somewhere else – leaving for work in the morning, for example – I feel I’m entering sacred space.
At this time of year, I’m stopped by the miracle and mystery of life springing forth. Before long, with the right mix of sun and rain, it will be wonder at ripening tomatoes, basil, string beans, rosemary, and greens.
Over the years, I’ve come to respect that different people experience the sacred in different places and ways. For some it is entering a timeworn place of worship: a spare, simple Quaker meetinghouse with worn benches, or an ancient, spacious cathedral. For others it is in nature. One friend goes to the beach; sitting there, with the ocean stretching out before her, the waves coming in, she feels closest to God. My Dad feels it looking out onto his farm in summer, the wheat, corn, and soybeans shimmering in the breeze.
Reading the Old Testament for school this spring, though, I’ve been wondering if I’ve placed too narrow a boundary on sacred space. Encounters with the sacred can happen anywhere in scripture. Jacob is visited by God in a dream one night on his journey from Beer-sheba toward
In one of his lectures, the poet David Whyte says that for him the moment of “sudden insight” for Moses – what in Zen is called “kensho,” revelation into one’s true nature – comes not when God calls to Moses, telling him to “take off your shoes, you are standing on holy ground.” (Ex 3:5: “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”) Rather, it is when Moses looks down, Whyte says, and realizes “in the echo of the voice, not only was he standing on holy ground but had been for the whole of his days.”
My professor probably would call that “gap-filling.” The Old Testament does not say what goes through Moses’ mind. It’s a gap in the narrative. Moses’ first words – after God has gone on to reveal that He has heard the misery of the Israelites in their enslavement in Egypt, has “come down to deliver them” to a “land flowing with milk and honey,” and wants Moses to go to the Pharaoh to seek their release – are astonishment: “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?”
But I think David Whyte makes a good point. Who is to say but that the ground we’ve been walking on the whole of our days is holy? Rather than trying to confine sacred space, maybe we should think of it as expansive, reaching beyond our safe, predictable sacred spaces of church and nature to wherever we may be.
Would it change how we are at work? How we are with others? How we approach tasks? Would we work harder? Do something else? Would it change how we are in the quotidian tasks of life, in the subway, the supermarket, bringing the kids to school, paying the bills? Would we be more present? More charitable? Stronger in our convictions? Would we see and hear more of the life unfolding around us and be more aligned with what Whyte calls “the particular conversation with the deity, with God and Creation, the ground itself,” that only we can have?
Once, after reading a poem on Moses’ encounter, Whyte was approached by a rabbinical student who offered a further insight. In the original language, the student said, the word in God’s command to Moses to “take off” his shoes is “the word that is used for an animal shedding its skin.” In that moment when we have an encounter that takes us beyond ourselves, we go through “a falling away of old skins.”
We all need a “periodic molting” to reveal new possibilities, Whyte says. While that can happen stepping into the garden and being awakened anew to the mystery of new life, it can also happen at any time, anywhere, perhaps when we expect it least.
More on David Whyte is available at his website, http://www.davidwhyte.com/. A poem based on Moses’ encounter with God, “The Opening of Eyes,” is available on the website, http://www.davidwhyte.com/english_opening.html. Whyte’s comments on the encounter are from his lecture “Midlife and the Great Unknown.”