It happens every once in awhile, and always it is unexpected.
Once, it happened in my kitchen while I was washing a bunch of rainbow chard. Another time, it was at a Taize service when we sang the name of Jesus over and over and over again. Still again, it happened when I beheld a bowl of creamy roses on the butcher block in my kitchen. Once, it was the crisply striped sleeve of my husband’s shirt hanging innocently on a hanger in our closet.
Madeleine L’Engle calls it kairos, when chronological time seems suspended and we glimpse eternity. Emily Starr called it the flash, the momentary parting of the veil between heaven and earth, when we see with a sense that is not physical, when we know with a knowing that transcends mere knowledge.
It is an encounter with Mystery, with Truth, with the ineffable Divine.
I stood in church, my brothers and sisters standing, too, all of us singing our praises. One song ended, another began, a song I have loved since we first started singing it two years ago.
Come broken and weary
Come battered and bruised
My Jesus makes all things new
All things new
The words washed over me as I sang, and toward the end, these words struck with particular force:
O hold on to the promise
The stories are true
That Jesus makes all things new
And then—the flash.
The world fell away, and I stood as if on a promontory. In the far distance, a fair city gleamed through mist. The land between that city and me lay fertile and green, a patchwork land of counterpane, and all the patches were stories, and every story pointed the way to the fair city. A whole, shimmering Reality unfolded before my gaze—and yet surrounded me, too—and I knew it was…Real.
I saw—truly saw—not just believed or surmised or accepted, but saw—that good stories matter, that they exist to point to God, to show us how to live, to reveal ourselves to us, and help us see that we are not alone.
All the stories that have most shaped me, the writers whose words have mattered most in my life—L.M. Montgomery and Jane Austen, C.S. Lewis and Elizabeth Goudge, George Eliot and the poet-king David, Asaph and the sons of Korah, Saints John and Luke and the Apostle Paul, Charles Sheldon and Sheldon Vanauken and Madeleine L’Engle, and so many others too numerous to count—I saw them all in one shining moment, saw how their words helped me to feel less alone, to realize that I am not special. And what a relief that was!
Oh, the gift of that sudden knowledge that I am not the outsider I have always felt myself to be, that my particular way of being in the world is not wholly new and therefore has been charted before. There are maps, blessed be God, and I don’t have to blunder through the wilderness of my being as if it were all new, uncharted territory. I have compatriots and kindred spirits to light my way and companion me through the dark places.
They surrounded me. Even as I stood above them, looking out from my mountaintop vista, they were beside me, even within me. I was not alone! The glorious company of the saints—real saints and fictional ones—marched before me through that land of counterpane, each of them bearing her own story to the fair city, a story that mattered beyond her story, that touched thousands of other stories beside and before and behind her. The stories were knit together, a patchwork of such beauty that tears swam in my eyes.
I stood, singing the words—hold on, rise up, awake!—and weeping for joy. The stories were real. They were true. I didn’t simply believe it. I knew it.
It was a strong knowing—a deep and abiding sense that the stories mattered, and that they mattered deeply, because we needed them desperately. We were starving in a paradise of plenty, dying of thirst in the midst of a freshwater sea, lost in a land that was charted and known.
In the silence after the song I almost shouted aloud, “The stories are true! They’re true! O friends, they’re true! For the love of God, take up and read!”
I didn’t, of course, because I’m a good Presbyterian, and we do things decently and in order. But sometimes, I wish I had.
I think people need to know. They need to know they’re not alone. They need to know the road they’re traveling has been traveled before. They need to know there are signposts to show the way, and inns where you can stop for a pint and a good night’s sleep, and friends for the journey. And that no matter how alone you feel, someone, somewhere, has felt that way before. And they’ve written a book about it.
Nine months have passed since I glimpsed this storied vista. Last week, we sang “All Things New” in church again, and though I had no moment of kairos this time, I remembered, vividly, the vision of nine months ago, and the longing came upon me again to shout from the mountains:
“The stories are true! They’re true! O friends, thanks be to God, they’re true!”