Several years ago, about this time, I went to Paris. The City of Light. And sights. So much, too much to see.
A friend suggested Musée d’Orsay. An old converted railway station, it had charm. And it was smaller and filled with the seascapes and portraits of Monet and Renoir. These impressionists, who with deft, small strokes of primary color simulated reflected light, enthralled me. Yet as I drew near, I lost sight of the impression. In order to see, I had to turn aside and stand back.
Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight”.
Moses, in righteous anger, slew an Egyptian overseer who was beating a slave. In fear, he fled. A safe distance removed, he remembered his people in bondage. Drawing near a mountain, he turned aside to see a bush that was aflame, yet not burned.
Like an impressionist painting, had Moses looked too closely would he have seen this great sight? I also wonder. Was the bush on fire in an objective, physical way? Or is this the poetic language of Hebrew narrative to be read with imagination, for what it conveys is beyond the power of the most precise prose?
I think so. Moses experienced God. Fire. An ancient symbol of divine presence. Then turning aside to see, he heard God’s voice calling, “Moses, Moses!”, summoning him to his life’s calling to be a liberator.
In some religious traditions, the highest human aspiration is to be lifted above sense experience, beyond time and space into immediate union with infinite reality, where one’s individuality, as a drop of water in an ocean, is immersed completely in the divine. (However benevolent this cosmic act of absorption might be, it is, I think, the ultimate boundary violation.) Not here. Moses turned aside to see. In seeing, he heard. In hearing, he saw himself more clearly.
Reflecting on my often dizzyingly busy life, I understand why I, at times, try not to take time to turn aside. For what I often see and hear is the sight and sound of my own frailties. Among them, my insecurity about my identity as I strive to maintain who I am amid life’s always pulls and pushes to be otherwise. My admitted occasional envies of those I perceive as more fortunate. My anxiety about trying something new and failing or succeeding, which always raises the stakes as “they” (even I) will expect a similar or greater result the next time.
A cross that hangs in St. Mark’s Church, Capitol Hill, where I live and work, is made of broken mirrors. Every time I turn aside to look at it, the images, my images are fragmented. Together they constitute a truer representation of who I am than my “integrated” reflection from an unbroken mirror (the way I’d like to think of myself). But at best I appear as a solid image of a fractured inner reality. In turning aside, I honestly, humbly can see myself as I am. In that seeing, I hear a call no less awesome, fearsome than God’s word to Moses.
Turning aside to see myself is an act of liberation, freeing me from my practiced pretenses by which I try to impress others and to justify myself. In seeing myself as I am, I am free to hear the gospel message that God loves me just as I am and calls me to become who I was created to be, telling me that my freedom already is, always has been in my hands.
Long ago, I recognized that I was, I am a prisoner of myself, indeed, my prison was, is myself. Whenever I come afresh to acknowledge this truth, I hear a Voice telling me:
Open the door, your door and come out.
Why do you choose to remain captive to yourself?
Come out. Turn aside. See and be who you already are in me. Free.