When I was young, I amused myself on car trips by picking the tiniest detail from the oncoming scenery and focusing all my attention on it – an askew shaft of pussywillow or a sprightly sprig of grass. It thrilled me to think that no one had ever done just this before, had never given such rapt attention to this single, particular nook of creation. We’d drive by it at seventy miles an hour, and my eyes fastened on the twig as if hooked by a line, and I smiled.
I learned later that Hassidic Jews do something similar. Creation can be hallowed, goes the thinking, by exercising just the sort of focus of will that I was mustering as a boy. Concentrate with your very spirit on a thing, anything, and it can – under some conditions – be redeemed from the mediocrity of the mortal coil. There may be something to that, but a question: just what in creation itself is not already hallowed?
The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it.
The omnipresence of God. When I was a boy, the thought had to do with his size. If he was everywhere, he was very large. God stood from on high, spinning the earth on his forefinger, juggling distant planets with his other hand, swishing his robes and leaving a million new galaxies birthed in his wake. God, the Invisible Giant. It stretched the imagination, but didn’t burst it.
Then I met an old theologian, a crusty duffer with a bristling beard and a short temper. He’d tried to be a pastor, but quit because he “didn’t like people.” So, he read books instead now, which suited him just fine. He introduced me to Bob Dylan music and the concept of ubiquity. Both had a marked impact.
Ubiquity. God is not just all around us – he is wholly everywhere. All of him is completely present in every place at all times. “Whither shall I go from thy spirit?” cried King David. “We can never escape God’s lovely essence,” said Sonnett Branche.
What was I to do with this new puzzle? My mind was wholly exploded by it. We are responsible for whatever wisdom gets caught in our webs, so it is unfortunate that wisdom must be cast about so recklessly. Ubiquity. God was no longer just big, foot there and arm there. I wrestled for a mental image. Not a great giant in the sky then, but a trillion, trillion persons with one essence, covering every inch of reality; a hive mind. That didn’t work.
Perhaps a fine mist that swims throughout the universe – an ethereal cloud that winds up and down halls, streets, chasms, comet tails, quasars. A sheet, maybe. Or light, invisible light – shining all over everything everywhere, equally luminous, spiritually luminous, on every sinner, saint and star.
And does he settle in then, around the bookcase or does his essence shoot through that too? Is God’s omnipresence mindful of our materials, respecting their firmness the way we must? I thought it unlikely; “all” must mean “all,” so here was another hurdle for my mind to leap, and a seemingly insurmountable one. God charges through reality with no respect for our stuff. I surrendered. Omnipresent, God may be, but he has no place in my mind’s eye.
The world in pieces, and God as the one whole who swims over and through and in and around and above and beneath it all – this is the world from the bay windows of my apartment. I drain coffee down my throat and eat eggs with a knife. I brush my arms and bits of my skin scatter in floating, luminous strands. I rub my bare feet together, and the whole of God passes between and through and inside the knuckles of my toes.