My first day back in Provo after Christmas break was productive but, for the most part, unremarkable. I had gotten in late the night before, but the prospect of running a series of pre-semester errands had kept me from sleeping in. The morning was filled with the buying of books and the reading of scriptures and surely other activities which have since faded beyond the reaches of my memory, but by early afternoon my schedule was threadbare and existence weighed heavily upon me. There’s probably a neurological explanation for what I was experiencing, but what it felt like was that the world wasn’t as bright or as shiny or as grace-filled as I wanted it to be. I’d been stalked by the same sensation in the summer before my trek west, and I articulated it thusly in a poem I wrote at the time:
The crowd of weekend tourists
Unlocked in him an overwhelming sense of sadness.
It had something to do with the erasure of mythology
And a river divested of romance
But it was more than that too
It was a park ranger manning the desk
as visitors swirled around him
And the world seemed hopelessly banal
Like asphalt and sidewalks and mowed lawns
In short, what seemed to be ailing me was the nagging fear I had that if things were stripped to their essence, if the fundamentals of reality were laid bare before me, I would be saddened by what I saw.
About a month-and-a-half prior to this particularly wintry Saturday afternoon in Provo, I’d read Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, the magisterial and stunningly humane portrait of two orphaned sisters and the female figures who stand in for their late mother. Ironically (or perhaps predictably), one of the passages from this book that struck me with the most force was one that described a character having the very sort of epiphany that I feared, except that the result was a deeper appreciation for the majesty and mystery of creation, not an exposé of that creation’s essential shoddiness:
One evening one summer she went out to the garden. The earth in the rows was light and soft as cinders, pale clay yellow, and the trees and plants were ripe, ordinary green and full of comfortable rustlings. And above the pale earth and bright trees the sky was the dark blue of ashes. As she knelt in the rows she heard the hollyhocks thump against the shed wall. She felt the hair lifted from her neck by a swift, watery wind, and she saw the trees fill with wind and heard their trunks creak like masts. She burrowed her hand under a potato plant and felt gingerly for the new potatoes in their dry net of roots, smooth as eggs. She put them in her apron and walked back to the house thinking, What have I seen, what have I seen. The earth and the sky and the garden, not as they always are. And she saw her daughters’ faces not as they always were, or as other people’s were, and she was quiet and aloof and watchful, not to startle the strangeness away.
So there I was, seated in front of a wooden table that sat on metal legs, and Robinson’s stance of wonder towards the world felt like wishful thinking. But then, quite unexpectedly, I sank to the floor and tearfully and tenderly touched the gleaming surfaces that surrounded me. The table before me and the granite cou
ntertop beyond it. The floor beneath me. Perhaps even the cabinets above me. It all felt substantive and stable and real, and the objects themselves were sufficient in themselves yet simultaneously capable of pointing to larger phenomena.
In many ways, my experience was an affirmation of what Dante calls “the shining world” and a data point in support of Robinson’s contention (contained in another one of her works) that “wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration”, but it did not deal a fatal blow to my ancient fear that reality is a whited sepulchre. In fact, I believe that my faith in Christ and my trust in God (key features of discipleship) require that this primal and generative fear never be quieted for good—at least not until the veil tears, I see as I am seen and the concrete and persistent goodness of the divine makes irresistible claims upon the pathways of my wandering mind.