Flash / feeling / epiphany / longing

My summer of reading Lucy Maud Montgomery continues; having made it through all eight novels in the Anne of Green Gables series, I am now into Emily of New Moon, which I am fairly certain is a new read for me. Although my mother owned a copy when I was a child — I can picture its cover quite clearly — the contents of the book are wholly unfamiliar to me. I was delighted, though, to come across this description of what Emily calls “the flash,” about halfway through the first chapter:

And then, for one glorious, supreme moment, came “the flash.”

Emily called it that, although she felt that the name didn’t exactly describe it. It couldn’t be described — not even to Father, who always seemed a little puzzled by it. Emily never spoke of it to any one else.

It had always seemed to Emily, ever since she could remember that she was very, very near to a world of wonderful beauty. Between it and herself hung only a thin curtain; she could never draw the curtain aside — but sometimes, just for a moment, a wind fluttered it and then it was as if she caught a glimpse of the enchanting realm beyond — only a glimpse — and heard a note of unearthly music.

This moment came rarely — went swiftly, leaving her breathless with the inexpressible delight of it. She could never recall it — never summon it — never pretend it; but the wonder of it stayed with her for days. It never came twice with the same thing. To-night the dark boughs against that far-off sky had given it. It had come with a high, wild note of wind in the night, with a shadow wave over a ripe field, with a greybird lighting on her window-sill in a storm, with the singing of “Holy, holy, holy” in church, with a glimpse of the kitchen fire when she had come home on a dark autumn night, with the spirit-like blue of ice palms on a twilit pane, with a felicitous new word when she was writing down a “description” of something. And always when the flash came to her Emily felt that life was a wonderful, mysterious thing of persistent beauty. (Emily of New Moon, ch. 1)

This delighted me for two reasons. The first is that it is a lovely passage describing a feeling that is rather difficult to capture in words: that of sudden epiphany. I recognise this feeling, though it feels a bit different for me than it does for Emily, and I have never tried to give it any particular name. But here, LMM seems to have captured its essentials, and that is a wonderful thing to read.

But this also delighted me because it sent my brain scurrying back to a book I read in undergrad in my Canadian Literature course: another classic, Who Has Seen the Wind by W. O. Mitchell. I love it when something I’ve read reminds me of something else I’ve read — whether purposefully or not, it’s so interesting to see authors working out similar themes. Who Has Seen the Wind is a gorgeous little book following the protagonist, Brian, as he grows up in a small prairie town.

Brian is also frequently struck by epiphany — what he simply calls “the feeling.” It comes with a sudden awareness of the grandeur of the prairie; as Brian notices, for the first time, the small perfection of a drop of water on a leaf; with the strange and sad sight of a calf born with two heads. Here’s one example:

Two days later, Brian lay under the hedge on the Sherry side of the house, his puppy in his arms. Sun streamed through the chinks in the Caragana leaves; a light breeze stirred them; Brian could see part of the road in front of the house; he could see two butterflies in lifting falling flight over the lawn patched with shade, briefly together, briefly apart. He lost sight of them by the spirea at the veranda.

The puppy whimpered slightly in its sleep; it nudged its head further into Brian’s neck. The boy was aware that the yard was not still. Every grass-blade and leaf and flower seemed to be breathing, or perhaps whispering — something to him — something for him. The puppy’s ear was inside out. Within himself, Brian felt a soft explosion of feeling. It was one of completion and of culmination. (Who Has Seen the Wind, ch. 7)

Is that not beautiful? My CanLit class was a bit of a bomb on the whole, but it gave me this book, and for that I am grateful. Brian’s feeling is close kin to Emily’s flash — and together they have sent me scurrying yet again, this time to C. S. Lewis’s sermon/essay “The Weight of Glory” (found in the book of the same name). Here Lewis takes it upon himself to pry apart our experience of epiphany, or as he names it, of longing or desire:

Now, if we are made for heaven, the desire for our proper place will be already in us, but not yet attached to the true object, and will even appear as the rival of that object. And this, I think, is just what we find. […]

In speaking of this desire for our own far-off country, which we find in ourselves even now, I feel a certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency. I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you—the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves; the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both. We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience. We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it, and we betray ourselves like lovers at the mention of a name. Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter. […]

The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.

Lewis names our epiphanies as moments of longing: our inborn desire for Heaven, which we were made for though we have not yet seen it. When the curtain between this world and the next seems to flutter briefly, and we have “the flash” or “the feeling,” that aching awareness is proof for our conviction that there must be something beyond this world. Epiphany is one of the ways that it calls to us: it is fleeting, that we would desire to possess it; it is piercing, that we would long to completely surrender to it; it will, if we let it, lead us Home.

Longing for Heaven

When I was in my early twenties, I spent about a year living in-house at a Christian mission organisation; I was an intern for the first three months, and returned after Christmas break to stay on in a somewhat more nebulously defined position. There were about ten of us interning during those first three months, and we shared the mission house with another eight or so members of the on-site team, as well as many others who came and went during the day. We were a tight-knit group, and even after the rest of the interns had gone home for Christmas and not come back, we kept in contact, at least for a while. Gradually, though, the group skype calls ended and the long email chains stopped appearing in our inboxes. While individual friendships have certainly survived the intervening years, the cohesion that we felt as a group of interns has long since been lost. I am in sporadic contact with a few people from those days; others seem to have dropped off the face of the earth.

In a way, living in the mission house meant that we all became very adept at saying goodbye. Most weeks of the year, teams of visitors would come stay with us from across the country, most often from churches but also from Christian schools and other mission organisations. We interns would take them around the city, introduce them to the work of our organisation, run teaching sessions, eat meals with them, and otherwise simply hang out. There was a typical pattern to our relations: on Monday we would all still be feeling each other out, by Wednesday we would have gelled as a larger team, on Friday we were friends — and then they would get back in their vans or on the plane and we would say goodbye under the assumption that we would, in all likelihood, never see them again. The weekend would be spent cleaning rooms, changing linens, and otherwise getting ready for the next visiting team. Rinse and repeat.

When my husband and I went to seminary it reminded me of those first months in the mission house: we fell into a tight-knit, ready-made community, whose shared purpose lent it a certain intensity as well. And, as before, it was a community where we constantly found ourselves saying goodbye as friends and classmates graduated and set off for parts unknown. It was only twice a year, generally, rather than every week — but there it was, all the same. My best friend’s husband got a job on the other side of the continent from where we’re living now. Our kids’ godparents range from 4.5- to 12-hour drives to a six-hour flight away. Now we’re reaching the point where some of us haven’t met each other’s youngest children. We are a scattered people.

This past Christmas, Anselm’s godfather, the Engineer, sent him a present of a few books. The package also contained two letters: one for Anselm, and one for us. The Engineer wrote that he was beginning to understand what it meant to long for heaven — for that time when we would all be reunited, never to be separated again. I know exactly what he means. To me, the promise of eternity with not only God, but with other believers as well — it seems too wonderful to grasp. But back when I was living at the mission house, I wrote these words:

So when I think of heaven, I think in part of these three things which will finally be allowed to fully flourish: God’s love for us, the perfection of our nature and characters, and our great glorious happy mess of relationships. What joyful reunions there will be: not just our friends and family, but also those semi-strangers who came into our lives, changed us, and disappeared again. We shall have untold millennia for those wonderful things that friendships are made of: for talking and laughter and a good day’s work accomplished side by side. And we shall never run out of time: we shall have all the time we need, with every single other person, because we will be in eternity together. Together! — what hope that word gives me: together.

In his first letter to the Corinthians, St Paul writes of what will happen when perfection comes. Now, he writes, we see but a poor reflection in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. He speaks of Christ: one day we shall see him face to face, and know him face to face, as he now knows us. But I think that the promise is even greater than that. One day we shall meet, all of us who know him, and then we shall know each other fully, there in all the company of heaven.

Amen and amen. So let it be.