Who am I to tell you anything about the Lord our God Creator of the Universe? Why should you listen? Any authority I have arises from the journey I made seven years ago. Santiago de Compostela was the end of that journey. Now I share with you the beginning, and from that you must determine whether or not to continue on with me.
In the spring of 2007, I attended an international women’s conference in Amman, Jordan. On the way home, I stopped over in Rome for a brief vacation with my daughters. Rome has long been one of our favorite cities, and we enjoyed a lovely, leisurely few days together. Then the older daughter traveled north to Poland, where she was embarking on a course in Yiddish, which she had realized she needed to learn in order to complete her Ph.D. dissertation. Younger daughter and I went south to Sicily, where my girl wanted to show me the art works she had written about for her senior honors thesis at NYU. This was her fourth trip to Sicily—at age twenty-three!—even as it was my first.
I tell you a bit about my daughters as a way for you to have a few important details about my family and me. First of all, obviously I suppose, the nuclear family is important to us. Above all else, our closeness has given shape and meaning to our lives. This value system we share with so many upper-middle class Americans of our time. Where we are somewhat different, and rather old-fashioned, is that we cherish our privacy. Separately, my husband and I both brought this propensity to our marriage; our daughters have inherited it.
Also characteristic is our intellectual bent, unusual for individuals who did not grow up in academe. If my husband and I are well-read and have travelled—our children are even more so. They are part of the globalist vanguard of this new century, and in that sense my husband and I follow in their wake.
Arriving in Palermo, I did not give this framework of my life a second thought. It was the bulwark that I took for granted.
The next morning, May 22, I awoke at the Villa Igiea in our corner room with its long windows overlooking the sea. Although it was very early, my daughter had arisen and gone. I had been having a vivid dream, one that, unusually for a wordsmith like me, unfolded as a series of illustrations. Excited to turn the dream into a book for teenagers, I pushed aside pillows and reached for the Villa Igiea pen and pad on the table next to the bed.
The dream was a romantic triangle, a young woman and two young men—really a ménage a quatre, counting the hunting dog who was also a major character. In the fluidity between sleep and waking, absurdities open appear reasonable. How else to account for that second when I was inspired by the possibility of a sexual ménage, one in picture book form no less, as a teenage novel? Even as I grabbed the Villa Igiea pen, however, the lusciously detailed vision began to dissolve, sequence by sequence. Despite my efforts to hang on, I was left with only the last illustration, which, along with its meaning, I still hold to this day. But in the moment I was bereft, for I had always wanted to be a writer—and now this, too, this lovely story, was coming to naught. In a spasm of loss, I was tumbling into despair.
“The dream is a gift. Just for you.”
Propped on right elbow, pen in left hand, I turned from the bedside table and looked up. On the bed—to be precise, on the side of the bed, in the space between my feet and the baseboard—sat a Woman, and Woman with a capital W is appropriate, for even as she was there in being she also filled the large room and filled my mind.
In mind, a name. Sophia.
And Sophia said, “You are to write. You are to keep writing, no matter what.”
What. the. fuck. What the fuck, what the fuck, what the fuck. My consternation could find no better words.
My first coherent thought: I am a Presbyterian!
And Presbyterians, like most Protestants, do not go in for Beings, neither angels nor saints, much less divine manifestations.
I stewed. Should I tell my daughter? What did Sophia mean? Did she mean that I should soldier on with the monograph I was writing on my great-great-grandmother Mary Wood Hill? I had finished the history, written for family, of her husband Napoleon Hill, but I was finding the humorless Mary rather hard-going. Maybe Sophia wanted me to turn to my grandfather’s personal correspondence, which I owned. He had been mayor of Memphis in the 1930s, and I had his letters to FDR and other political figures of the Depression. Was this what Sophia meant?
And why Sophia? I did not know any Sophia.
The following day, I realized that I did know of a Sophia. Two summers previously, my younger daughter and I, travelling in Turkey, had made the usual tourist visit to Hagia Sofia in Istanbul. I had found this relic of Byzantine Christianity to be a depressing derelict and had quickly put it from my mind—or so I thought, but somewhere in the depths I must have retained some notion of Sophia, incarnation of divine wisdom.
Quickly, realization followed realization.
Why Sophia? Because God needed a way to get through to me.
I was not much of a Christian. Although I had been born again at age sixteen, that conversion experience had not radically changed me—maybe because even from childhood I had always been sure of the existence of God. But I seldom read Scripture; I prayed only sporadically.
Remember the thriftiness of God that I wrote about last? In Palermo, Sophia was an example of divine thrift. To characterize God in human terms for a moment, God reached for something to hand that would get my attention. The image that came to me that second day in Palermo had nothing to do with thrift, however. I saw a heavy sheet of glass. God on one side. I on the other. He had been rapping on the pane. Sophia had been the knock-knock.
In the next moment, I realized that what Sophia had been ordering me to write had nothing to do with me myself at all. It was not about me. Somehow I grasped instantly that likely I would never know the reason I had been given this task. But do it I must. Do it I would.
In the instant I understood, the glass dissolved and I stood in the presence of God the Father Almighty, Creator.
I do not know how long I stood before Him. Likely nothing to be measured on earth. At one and the same time, I hovered, as if at a threshold, while, opened to His Immanence, I experienced how completely God is present in every atom of his creation. How He is always with us even as most of us do not recognize Him, the one and only truly real thing. I felt the Completeness of His Love, and its Finality outside time.
As I write, I cannot think what else to tell you about that second day in Palermo. Since then, I have never been afraid of death. On the contrary, I long for the day when, in the words of the Psalms, I finally get to fly for God’s holy mountain.
May 23, 2007 is a demarcation line for me. Before. After.
And the afterwards is history. Tomorrow I will take up the story of Sophia’s command and how that worked out, as I look back upon the events of 2007-2008.
For now, I will end with the same observation that closed my last piece on Paulo Coelho.
God is not interested in Fairness. Let me repeat. He is not about being Fair. My theophany is an even better example than Coelho’s popularity of the (from a human viewpoint) divine unfairness.
Why me? I was not a good Christian. I did not deserve to stand in the presence of the Living God. What about the millions of believers who will never have this experience? What about God’s devout who live by faith alone? Why not any of the Christians and Jews and Muslims I know who have better loved and honored God?
I cannot answer the question. Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son encapsulates the way of our Creator, but as often as we digest, or think we have digested, the lesson, a new iteration gobsmacks us. For our century in the West, with its struggles towards social justice and equality, this is a hard truth.
Who is God then? Well, first of all, He is God—and here is a corollary that should be obvious but somehow never is. Everything He does works towards His own ends, not ours.
August 4, 2014
Farther and further:
Luke 15: 11-32