I’m standing in Lake Huron at sunrise. I’m all alone, except for the birds that keep swooping overhead, singing out their delight and joy. I’m up to my knees in the water, and I have my beach cover-up hauled up and knotted at my hip, and I’m thinking that I don’t want to get wet, only giant waves keep rolling in toward the beach, and as they crash around me, I keep getting splashed. Like, seriously splashed. Water all the way up to my face. And each time it happens, I laugh in sheer delight.
I’m all alone except for the birds, and except for the presence of God with me, and I’m basking in God’s presence wordlessly, silently, except for the wind and waves and my laughter and the song of the birds. It’s a moment outside of time, a moment of deep joy and peace. So much so that when I return to the campsite, one of my friends asks me what I was doing down at the beach because apparently my face is still radiating that joy.
There’s another moment like this one. I go to Niagara Falls. It’s a trip on a whim, for an utterly gratuitous reason: I want to walk across the Canada/US border. I decide that, once I’ve walked to the US, I’d better do something and not just turn around and walk right back. I walk along the Niagara Gorge to the Cave of the Winds. I wait in line with a horde of others. I descend by elevator into the Niagara Gorge, don the thin plastic rain poncho, and follow the path to the boardwalk over the rapids at the foot of the American falls. The experience is utterly humdrum until it’s not. It’s not extraordinary until it’s totally, wildly outside of the ordinary.
The top boardwalk is designated “Hurricane Deck”. Water comes rushing over the edge of the gorge, hits a rock, and sprays out across the deck, blown about by winds that must be as strong as a hurricane.
I turn around and back into the spray. And suddenly there is only me, inside this waterfall and hurricane. I’m laughing, but the roar of the water and wind drowns me out. I’m so alive. The water has a chill to it, and the sun hasn’t risen high enough to shine down into this side of the gorge. The wind keeps blowing the plastic poncho up, and my shorts are getting wet, but I don’t care. I shiver a bit, but I can’t make myself step out of the water. It’s just God and me and the roaring waterfall. I don’t know how long I stand there. It’s not about “getting my money’s worth” anymore, or taking enough time to make a walk across the border worthwhile. It’s just me and the wind and God, and I’m thinking about Elijah and the still small voice, only this time God really is in the wind, not the still small voice.
Everything about the medieval cathedral was designed to inspire awe and wonder and point the visitor to God. The medieval peasant would feel the effects of the cathedral’s design before even entering the building. From any place in town, the cathedral spires would be visible, soaring above any other building, reminding one of the glory and magnitude of God. Daily life carried on in the shadows of those spires which stood as silent sentinels, pointing the way to God.
Upon entering the cathedral, the bustle and noise of the medieval town fell away, and the hushed reverence of the interior of the cathedral would evoke the same reverence in the congregant. The light filtering through stained glass would draw the eyes to stories of God and his people, or of saints whose lives were held up as examples of holiness and service to God. The luxurious altar with paintings and gold leaf was designed to bring glory to the risen Christ while reminding one of the glorious riches of blessings available in Christ. The rising incense reminded people of their prayers, rising to God. Each colour was a symbol, each carving a wordless reminder.
I have a beautiful coffee table book called The Secret Language of Churches & Cathedrals: Decoding the Sacred Symbolism of Christianity’s Holy Buildings. I love paging through this book and seeing the beautiful cathedrals around the world, learning about their storied histories, seeing details in their design, painting, stained glass, and carving in close-up pictures. (One of the oddest details that I’ve learned from this book is that peacocks are used as a symbol for the righteous, because of a mistaken belief that when peacocks died, their bodies didn’t rot. Carve a peacock, therefore, and remind people of eternal life, of the incorruptible flesh that Paul writes about in 1 Corinthians 15.)
You’ve probably been to a cathedral or two (or lots, if you love them and love travelling, like me). You might have entered into the hushed silence feeling a bit of the awe that the medieval congregant may have felt. But consider your experience in the cathedral nowadays. In New York City, you can visit Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, a beautiful and magnificent building, to be sure. And then you can go across the street and take the elevator up 30 Rockefeller Center and look way down at the tiny cathedral from above.
In many denominations, our churches are often no longer buildings that inspire a sense of God’s glory in us. We often build them to be functional, and they might look a little like performance spaces with large stages and bright lights and big sound systems. And when they are dwarfed by other buildings, it’s hard to imagine that they might call out a sense of awe in us.
So maybe in place of the cathedrals, we need moments standing in Lake Huron, being splashed by waves. Maybe we need to stand in the hurricane-force spray from Niagara Falls. Maybe we need quiet moments of vulnerable conversation with friends who see us as we are and who remind us of God’s truth about who we really are. We need moments alone at a piano, moments watching the sun rise above a silent lake, moments snuggling a newborn baby, moments laughing with friends. We need these moments to remind us to be alive, to be aware of God’s glory around us, of God’s goodness.
These are some of my moments when I experience God. What are yours?