by Maria Evans
I’ve read the story of Saul’s (later Paul’s) experience on the road to Damascus many times, but with The Great American Eclipse only a little over a month away, I couldn’t help but think about how that light from Heaven flashing around him must have been a little bit like staring into the sun during an eclipse–something we’ve all been told since childhood to never, ever do. (I have to confess it weirds me out a little bit that there are now ANSI approved lenses that are now deemed “safe for eclipse watching.”–although the warning label clearly states not to look directly at the sun for more than 3 minutes.)
I was suddenly struck by something while thinking about this in the frame of the upcoming eclipse–There must have been something Saul could not peel his gaze from–at least for a few seconds–when that light started flashing around him. The human eye can detect an image in 13 milliseconds, and we’ve recently discovered the human eye can blink far faster than the 4/10 of a second we originally thought it took. If Saul had wanted to avert his eyes, chances are he could have–and he does, at one point, falling to the ground–but something caught his gaze.
The story has echoes of the Exodus story (unfortunately, not one of our readings today) when God instructs Moses that no one can look upon the face of God and live–Saul’s look at the light of God isn’t fatal, only temporarily debilitating. The Exodus story sets the stage for us to understand that there is something about God that, full-on, it’s simply too dazzling for us to comprehend. It’s human nature to desire to see what we are told we cannot. In Saul’s case, though, he didn’t ask for this–the light comes without warning, and precisely at the time he is busy asking the high priests if he can persecute more Christ-followers. Something got him all fired up at the stoning of Stephen, and he seems almost obsessed–yet this light is so powerful it is enough for it to blind him for three days. How fearful that must have been for him–and how powerful that it stops his obsession dead in its tracks!
Yet…in this story is a marvelous paradox–and a modern metaphor when we think about it in terms of eclipse viewing. Saul hears a voice his traveling companions can’t hear and is blinded by a light they didn’t see. All they see is evidence of his blindness. When a solar eclipse occurs, the way we generally “see” it is by noticing the darkness. Without special lenses, we are reduced to viewing an eclipse indirectly–for instance by making a pinhole projector and viewing the shadow of the eclipse on a piece of cardboard.
Perhaps thinking about this story on the brink of the Great Solar Eclipse of 2017 is a reminder that far more often, when the dazzling light of God shines through the darkness, we are generally only able to see it indirectly–in how it affects other people, or how we see a mere shadow of it. Yet it is still there. Other times we might have gotten a few milliseconds of the light directly, but we are temporarily blinded by it; time and forbearance is the only way we ever understand it. Sometimes, we never do. It just slides over into the broad category of “things left undone.”
Just maybe…now and again, we get our three minutes…or our 30 seconds or so…of the special lenses in which we can see God in a way we’ve never seen before. If you could have that glimpse, how might it change you?
Maria Evans splits her week between being a pathologist and laboratory director in Kirksville, MO, and gratefully serving in the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri as a Priest Associate at Church of the Good Shepherd and Chaplain of the Community of St. Brigid, both in Town and Country, MO.
Image: From the US Post Office