Who is this person next to me? We’ve spent years in the same house, the same room, the same life. But it feels at times like I’m an archeologist picking flecks of sand from the surface of an undiscovered city. Each brush stroke revealing some amazing new detail, reminding me of how much remains to be seen.
But there’s a difference. On a dig, the archeologist controls the learning. With enough time, patience, and attention to detail, the archeologist can uncover the treasures within. But looking at this incredible person next to me, I know there’s nothing about this that I control. There’s something complex, wild, and mysterious about a human person, especially in their innermost depths, where the real treasures lie. You don’t grasp that kind of knowledge, you receive it. To know a person is always a gift. An act of revelation.
I love the way Micheal O’Siadhail describes this in his poem “Revelation.”
Our train gains ground into the evening light.
Among the trees the sun catches in its fall
Glints and anglings of a stone in a distant gable,
A broadcast of facets, one and infinite.
I glance at you. There’s so much unexplained.
Plays of your light keep provoking my infinity;
Already something in your presence overflows me,
A gleam of a face refusing to be contained.
How little I know of you. Again and again
I’ve resolved to be the giver and not the taker,
Somehow to surpass myself. Am I the mapmaker
So soon astray in this unknowable terrain?
Twenty-one years. And I’m journeying to discover
Only what your face reveals. Stranger and lover.
Poems: 1975-1995: Hail! Madam Jazz; A Fragile City (Tarset, UK: Bloodaxe Books, 1999), 173
In the first four lines, the poem points to the intimate beauty of all creation as the sun falls through the trees and refracts from a stone on a distant rooftop. But the real power of the poem, for me anyway, comes at the beginning of line 5: “I glance at you.” In the midst of the quotidian, a simple train trip, the amazing presence of the person next to him breaks through.
Even though he goes on to explain that they’ve been together for twenty-one years, notice the emphasis on how much remains to be known. “There’s so much left unexplained” because a human person has infinite depths that instantly “overflow,” “refusing to be contained.” In a beautiful turn of phrase, he says that he feels like a “mapmaker so soon astray in this unknowable terrain.” I can just picture someone trying to map some incredibly complex piece of land, growing increasingly frustrated by the inability of lines and dots on a piece of paper to capture, or even suggest, the true beauty of the surrounding terrain.
But even in the midst of mystery, there’s knowledge. This is a person. And she has revealed herself to him in the intimate presence they’ve shared for twenty-one years. There is still the “gleam of a face,” the face of the beloved. And that face “reveals” something about her, something that provokes his own “infinity” and causes him to want to share himself with her in return.
So, in the end, there is both mystery and knowledge. She reveals her face and he is awed by how much remains to be revealed. She is both stranger and lover.
I was actually struck by this poem for two reasons. First, I loved the way it described knowing someone as an act of revelation, a personal encounter in which there is both mystery and knowledge. But I was also struck by how fitting this is for talking about what it means for God to reveal himself to us, turning his face toward us and manifesting his presence among us, provoking our infinity even as he overflows and refuses to be contained by us. Like mapmakers we struggle to make sense of him with our lines and dots, but we know how inadequate such scrawls are to the face before us. Years and decades we know him, and still we journey to discover what only his face can reveal. Mystery and knowledge. Stranger and lover.
I laugh when we grow frustrated by our inability to understand God, to resolve the tensions and paradoxes that appear on our maps. The person next to me is a mystery, and I really know only what she reveals to me. Should God be any less? That doesn’t mean we stop trying to understand God any more than I stop trying to understand my wife. But it reminds us that our understanding is always partial.
Knowing a person, human or divine, is a gift. And it’s a gift to be cherished precisely because it leaves hidden far more than it uncovers. The mystery of a person is what makes the journey worth making. And the infiniteness of the mystery is what makes eternity so exciting.
Mystery and knowledge. Stranger and lover.