By William O’Malley
At some prestigious university – someplace on the cutting edge like Southern Cal – they’re doing sophisticated studies of people’s auras. I have to take their word it’s on the up and up, but they say they can detect a kind of emanation from the body on special cameras and film. Everyone’s is apparently unique: different intensities, different colors at different times, depending on your moods. It’s almost as if they’re taking a picture of your soul. Maybe artists who painted saints with those big golden haloes tacked on their heads weren’t so far off. “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Or in your theology, for that matter.
It’s humbling – and therefore liberating – to realize the limits not only of our vision but of our understanding. How could anyone, even anyone as knowledgeable about astronomy as Galileo, have conceived a universe enormous beyond our power to imagine, in which there are galaxies with thousands of suns so huge they’d make our own sun look like a firefly. How could anyone, even anyone as steeped in genetics as Gregor Mendel, have imagined one day we’d decipher the strings of DNA and be able to restructure our own bodies. How could anyone, even a skilled engineer like Edison, have predicted we’d one day routinely sit at machines with twenty book-length manuscripts stored in their electronic memories – and still be half-empty.
At this very moment, sitting in our rooms, we’re being skewered by neutrinos – with no discernible mass, no electric charge – and yet they can slice through the whole earth without hardly being slowed down. Every time we bite into a burger, a hundred million unseen agents in our bodies come to life to process it through us without our even realizing. And think of the miracles of our eyes: two blobs of jelly in our faces (so we can see in three dimensions), twin cameras with bellows and lenses that take color pictures automatically eighteen hours a day, even for developmentally disabled children – and you never have to change the film. And then – even more unfathomably – our minds change those pictures into abstract ideas. As St. Exupery said, “The essential is always invisible.” Like our souls.
At the transfiguration, the godliness in Jesus’ soul burned through the surfaces of what we mistakenly believe is the really real. And his aura nearly blinded the three disciples. So I suppose we’re lucky we can’t see God, shimmering and simmering under the surfaces of everything we think we see.
Gerard Manley Hopkins, the Jesuit poet, put it about as well as anyone:
The world is charged with the grandeur of God, It will flame out, like shining from shook foil…. Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward springs– Because the Holy Ghost over the bent World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
But we live in a world addicted to surfaces, where the essential is not the invisible but only the visible, the tangible, the marketable. We’re mesmerized by the surfaces of mirrors: complexion, hair, jewelry, clothes, bodies. Image is more important than substance, personality more important than character, notoriety more important than genuine achievement. All you have to do to prove that is turn on TV talk shows any day of the week. They’re sure proof that nothing succeeds like the appearance of success.
But we really could come into electric contact with that fiery Reality that coruscates under all the surfaces, that divine fiery pool of existence out of which everything that exists draws its “is.” If only we had the time to pull aside and rest awhile, away from the busy-ness, the distractions, the surfaces. We might see the aura surrounding those we love – and those we don’t. We might be able to see our own auras, our own souls. We might be able to reach with our souls into the heart of things, and find God there.
But I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep.
And all the while, like a great underground river of fire and light, God passes us by.
— William J. O’Malley, S.J.
Gospel MT 17:1-9
Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother,
and led them up a high mountain by themselves.
And he was transfigured before them;
his face shone like the sun
and his clothes became white as light.
And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them,
conversing with him.
Then Peter said to Jesus in reply,
“Lord, it is good that we are here.
If you wish, I will make three tents here,
one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
While he was still speaking, behold,
a bright cloud cast a shadow over them,
then from the cloud came a voice that said,
“This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased;
listen to him.”
When the disciples heard this, they fell prostrate
and were very much afraid.
But Jesus came and touched them, saying,
“Rise, and do not be afraid.”
And when the disciples raised their eyes,
they saw no one else but Jesus alone.
As they were coming down from the mountain,
Jesus charged them,
“Do not tell the vision to anyone
until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
But we live in a world addicted to surfaces, where the essential is not the invisible but only the visible, the tangible, the marketable.