I have twice been to the top of Cannon Mountain, near New Hampshire’s Franconia Notch. An aerial tramway carries visitors to the mountain’s pinnacle. One of my family visits there was on a clear, sunny day. You could see in every direction, as far as Vermont, Maine, and even Quebec – a stunning vista of mountains, forests, and lakes. A decade earlier we had ridden up to the summit on a day of dense fog. Visibility was about ten feet. It had been a waste of time and money. We had seen nothing – or so it seemed.
But as I think back on those two very different experiences of the same mountain, I realize that there were some things I saw in the clouds that I did not see in the sun. From the foggy trip I remember vividly the look and feel of the scrubby vegetation which grows at that altitude. I remember the shape of the bushes, and the way their roots grow across the rocks, hanging on for dear life. I remember those huge boulders and granite ledges, pock-marked and flecked, their stark beauty disappearing into the fog. Were those things there on the sunny day as well? Sure they were. But I didn’t see them. There was too much else to absorb on the more distant horizon. Clouds, it seems, can bring certain things into focus.
Just before entering this season of Lent we read once more of The Transfiguration. Peter and James and John go up on the mountain to pray with Jesus. They see Jesus transfigured – his dusty robes changed to a dazzling glow, his familiar face so brilliant they can barely look. They see Moses the Lawgiver and Elijah the Prophet with Jesus the Messiah, the whole scene spelling out his identity clear as crystal. But for all that brilliant clarity, they still didn’t quite get it. So God says, “Okay, you don’t get the dazzling brilliance bit – so let me try to spell this out for you in a cloud!” Then a cloud overshadows them, and from the cloud comes a voice: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” Illumination comes to them not in the sunshine, but in the cloud! Revelation comes in a cloud.
Can it be that God is often revealed to us in the clouds? Can it be that intimate details of our lives are more evident when sparkling distractions of the world are blocked out for a time? When things are troubled in our lives, when the world is “clouded over,” might we then be brought to notice all the minute miracles which are close enough to touch?
I suggest that this is so. I think that our most vivid experiences of God often occur precisely at those times in our lives when things seem the most unclear, or the most dreary, or the most frightening. I suspect that on our sunnier days we can be too distracted, too oblivious, or too self-confident to notice the small rays of light by which God often enters our lives. Clouds remind us of the mystery of the Almighty. They remind us of how little we really know, and how much less we can control. Clouds remind us of how much we need the Light. And the Light, when it shines through, is revealed to us as the gift which it truly is.
It has seemed rather overcast to me lately. Our national life – and by extension our local lives and the lives of people we know and care about, and perhaps our own lives –have been darkly troubled. The turmoil and uncertainty of political transition, the ways in which protections and compassion for vulnerable members of our society seem to be in question. All of this feels like having been overtaken by a very thick cloud.
In the midst of that cloud, I also find myself renewed in my awareness of certain blessings in our midst. Ecumenical and interfaith religious cooperation is galvanized in ways we have rarely seen. People are thinking in new ways about the implications and demands of our faith. Sometimes we are arguing with one another about what conclusion or action our faith demands – but disagreement is much better than indifference or irrelevance.
Please do not misunderstand me. The turmoil and challenge we face, if comparable to clouds, are clouds that we earnestly hope to make our way through, to see beyond, and to banish to a sunnier day. But it is some redemption to notice that in the midst of our clouds we are finding cooperation, connections, action, and common cause, for which to give thanks.
In these days, and in all times, I hope that my clouds of distress, danger, or discouragement, and yours, like the fog on Cannon Mountain, might provide us with a change of perspective which allows us to see the blessings, grace, and miracles close at hand – rays of light which redeem our lives.
The forecast for my life and yours: cloudy, with a chance of revelation.