By his spirit he hath garnished the heavens; his hand hath formed the crooked serpent. Lo, these are parts of his ways: but how little a portion is heard of him? but the thunder of his power who can understand?
Weather in the country
In the country the weather is indeed the great fact, linking us with powers that are daily beyond our controlling. In the country one must "make hay while the sun shines," and, I suspect, something like that was soon current when the hunter-gatherers in these northern climes first turned their attention toward agriculture. All the legends tell of a moment when, through some decisive spiritual influence, the settled life of the farmer began to replace that of the nomadic wanderers. It was not always seen as a positive change (witness the story of Cain and Abel), but as the world grows older it also grows less flexible and what had once been a smooth continuum of easy motion and little sense of the passage of time becomes more constrained and time becomes more and more dominant. Anyone past middle age has direct experience of the process! And gradually settlements spring up with fields around them and then some settlements grow bigger until small towns appear and then cities and then a situation like our own today, in which the mass of men live entirely divorced from the earth, supported ever more tenuously by farms that increasingly mimic industrial enterprises.
We have been very fortunate to have been able to live in a corner of the world somewhat removed from the trends of the day. "Yes, but you can't turn back the hands of the clock," goes
the stock response, as if it was ever a question of going backwards. It is the popular image of modern culture that is truly "going backward," that is, leading man ever further and further away from his true home. Even as he is tied more and more completely to a space, he becomes a spiritual wanderer in a spiritual wasteland, "in a dry land, where no water is." There is no going forward that does not involve a turning,, a looking back to get one's bearings. Sometimes the "veil" Isaiah describes as "covering the nations" seems very thin.
The Air and Sky Show Wonders
In that old way of thinking we dismiss as "pre-scientific" fire and water, the elements which, with earth and air, make up the substance of the visible creation, are not entirely opposites as I trust they are when I dump a bucket of water on some embers that have escaped from our incinerator. The ancient Egyptians, for example, thought of the sun, that source of fire, as being kindled each morning from the waters at the edge of the world.
The old way of seeing things, with its apparent simplicity, gave a reasonable and quite workable description of what it was that a man saw before him. What it also did, as we often forget, was to connect everything that was around him with a larger world that did not appear directly. In a way, his world-view was just like ours in that it appealed to the things that were not seen to explain the things that are seen.
I have never seen an atom, and yet I can quite happily talk about atoms and molecules and list off at least some of the "elements" that make up the Periodic Table because the scientists who work with this kind of thing assure me that that is what lies behind the apparently solid surface of my gold ring or my steel hammer.
But our fathers had their own experts, who, by dint of a discipline at least as arduous as that of modern scientists, were prepared to speak with authority about the invisible world that informed the whole of the visible world. It wasn't that they didn't know that gold was gold. What they sought though, was not physical properties in ever increasing minuteness, but the spiritual properties of what they knew to be a created order, properties which, rightly understood, would lead them to the Author of that order. The other day, that old way of seeing things seemed not old at all. It was a day which began in water and ended in fiery thunderbolts.
No fog on the mountain that morning, betokening a rainy day, and no fog in the valley, prophesying sun. Our whole little world was wrapped in fog. As an invisible sun presumably rose in an eastern sky the only effect was to intensify a greyness that was almost palpable.
It was one of those mornings when this solid world which we take for granted suddenly dissolves and we grope our way as if transported into a world only then coming into being—as if we were walking on the waters of the first creation when objects had not yet entirely gained their substance, were still rather tentative. There was not a breath of air. As I walked to the barn our little world was like a familiar face, thought never to be forgotten, whose outlines have grown dim in the mind.
Gradually the fog thinned and withdrew into higher clouds as the day advanced, but the sky remained largely grey. Some time after the sun had set in a grey sky behind us and dusk was gathering in the valley and on all the hills, we walked up to the garden to move the soaker hose.
"Look at that!" my wife exclaimed, pointing away to the east. I looked, and there rising up in the sky was a huge dome-shaped thunder head, rising so high it was crowned with a skullcap of ice crystals. Black at the bottom, it towered up beyond our evening into a day beyond our day, rose and purple and gold, luminous and majestic. It looked as if all the mist of the morning was gathering in response to the Psalmist's words: "He bowed the heavens also, and came down: and darkness was under his feet. And he rode upon a cherub, and did fly: yea, he did fly upon the wings of the wind."
Darkness, and light. Water - and fire. Even as we watched, from the very top of this vaporous mountain a bolt of lightning flashed to the ground. Again and again bright streaks hurtled down from the very summit of the cloud as if hurled by a mighty arm. So far away we never heard the thunder, the piled glory of that cloud seemed right before us.
A few moments later we had finished moving the soaker hose to another part of the garden and, when we looked again toward the east, the cloud was gone. The world was grey again. Night was falling. But what a day it had been! The Preacher was right: "As thou knowest not what is the way of the spirit, nor how the bones do grow in the womb of her that is with child: even so thou knowest not the works of God who maketh all."
We had seen some clues though. 10 September 1996