Sometimes the mountain
is hidden from me in veils
of cloud, sometimes
I am hidden from the mountain
in veils of inattention, apathy, fatigue,
when I forget or refuse to go
down to the shore or a few yards
up the road, on a clear day,
that witnessing presence.
–Denise Levertov, “Witness”
Thirteen years ago, during my last semester in seminary, I encountered this poem in a seminar called “Poetry and the Care of Souls.” It has stayed with me since then, through changing beliefs, and now provides a useful structure for exploring what I mean when I say that I don’t believe in God.
Sometimes I am hidden from the mountain
Most days, my not-believing is a practical kind of atheism. The dog needs to go for a walk. We’re out of bread, so I fill the breadmaker with flour and water, yeast, sugar and salt. Facebook calls. Friends visit. The final episodes of Lost are on TV. I drive to Anchorage for a committee meeting. Library books are due. It’s time to pick up the mail at the post office.
Ordinary living obscures “the mountain,” and in those moments, God does not exist for me.
Sometimes the mountain is hidden from me
Not-believing goes deeper than distraction, however. When I stop to think, and feel, I have to admit to myself that I do not experience God. And it is a relief to admit this truth.
Even at my most passionately religious, I always felt God’s absence much more deeply than I felt any sense of God’s presence. The opening words of Psalm 42 resonated deeply with my experience: “As the deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.” I wanted to feel God’s presence. I wanted to believe. I thought there was something wrong with me. I tried harder. I went to seminary, determined to find God. I became a minister because I loved helping other people in their search for God.
But then I found love, and with love came exile from the church. And without the day in, day out affirmation of a God-based reality, I was free to discover and accept my own beliefs: that the reason I could not see God, feel God, or find God was because God does not exist. It was like waking from a nightmare.
That witnessing presence
Still, I resist the label “atheist,” and the God-believers who surround me are quite willing to aid my resistance. Sure, some of my reluctance is probably leftover bias from my fundamentalist days. But it’s more than that.
A few years ago I completed a year-long Clinical Pastoral Education residency. The CPE process invites self-examination, and deep relationships form among the residents as they share their stories with each other. During that year, I was shaking off the last remnants of my belief in God. It was a very difficult process. My supervisor insisted that it was just that I didn’t believe in the patriarchal God; she thought that if I used different names for God, I would rediscover my faith. One day one of my fellow residents, a Nazarene minister, said, “Heather, I think you’re someone who believes very deeply in the second commandment.”
That was it, exactly. The words, the naming, are in themselves problematic for me. Naming inescapably diminishes. A name is a golden calf, not the ineffable experience, the witnessing presence.
When Moses encountered the mystery of the burning bush, and wanted to communicate his experience to others, he asked:
If I come to the Israelites and say to them, “The God of your ancestors has sent me to you”, and they ask me, “What is his name?” what shall I say to them?’ God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am.’ He said further, ‘Thus you shall say to the Israelites, “I am has sent me to you.” ’ God also said to Moses, ‘Thus you shall say to the Israelites, “The LORD, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you”: This is my name for ever, and this my title for all generations.
The unspeakable name of the holy is existence itself–I am. And yet translation and common practice have consolidated this mystery into the club-like “LORD,” with all the dominating associations of that word.
I do believe that there is meaning in life, and obviously I believe in trying to discover and communicate meaning. But what I believe in, in my heart of hearts, barely survives attention, let alone the crude process of naming.
Once, in a conversation where I was being intentionally flip, I said that if I believe in anything, it’s in the “sparkle” of all things.
“Sparkle” is the zip of conversation between engaged minds. The glint of sunlight on snow. The green vigor of inch-tall basil sprouts. My dog’s faithful love.
But any name for these experiences, even one as flip as “sparkle,” and especially ones as encrusted with history as “God” and “Lord,” inevitably traps the light, leaving us worshipping a firefly, dying in its jar.