For the next four weeks, we will be publishing the second round of essays by our 2020-21 Emerging Writers, beginning with this story of an encounter with God by Catherine Hervey.
The other day I sat down on my bed to pray. My laptop was open on my knees, displaying an ongoing Zoom call with a friend who prays with me. She asks me questions as I pray, questions that help me notice both God and myself, and when she prays I do the same for her. At her prompting, I closed my eyes and thanked God for the white crowned sparrow that has been visiting our yard. In my imagination I could see it, pecking through the wood chips with its black and white stripes, hopping back and forth between the foliage. I asked God to come, too, and there in the backyard I was imagining God sat down beside me in one of our camp chairs with a beer. The beer surprised me, but God did not. I see God all the time; he’s just never had a beer before. We sat in our green chairs on the cement slab. I had just finished stenciling with a white border, looking at the peonies and the ferns under the shade of a buckthorn bush that had become as tall as a tree.
My laptop was open on my knees, a Zoom call with a friend who prays with me.
This is when I see God–when I ask. Not every time, but sometimes. For many years I only ever saw Jesus but now occasionally I see the Father too, like this time, and I hesitate to admit this but he kind of looks like God in the Far Side comics. He’s a vague appearance, physically, an outline more present as a sense and a feeling. Sometimes God isn’t something I see at all, rather a warmth I feel or something I hear instead.
Now, I’m aware that I’m supposed to keep this sort of thing to myself. As a teenager I shared accounts of one or two of my God experiences with friends and was met with looks that said something like Okay, Joan of Arc (and not in a good way).
Christians seem to be of two minds when it comes to these direct, seemingly mystical encounters. There’s a long tradition of written accounts of this nature–Julian of Norwich, Theresa of Avila, Margery Kemp. Or, if you want to go Protestant and a little dark, Martin Luther and his regular conversations with Satan. We read these accounts at my evangelical college as though they were genuine spiritual experiences with something to teach us, and I found many of them illuminating and inspiring. But as strange as they sometimes were, there was also something very safe about them. I think it was their centuries-distant remove from us–they’d been tested by time, hammered into trustworthiness.
But me, telling you I saw God the other day? It’s different. It makes people nervous. There’s the possibility of lunacy or heresy or both at once. Hearing messages from God starting in young adulthood, as I did, can be a sign of schizophrenia. There’s something about encountering God all by yourself that seems inherently unstable–how do you know where it’s coming from? Sometimes it feels like me imagining things is the most benign of many dark possibilities. I have to feel my way through, look back later and examine. And even when I’m convinced, I worry what other people will think. But this time I’ll risk it, and get back to what happened when God showed up.
But me, telling you I saw God the other day? It makes people nervous.
So he sat there and looked around at all the work my husband and I had done to finally subdue a portion of our feral yard. Before, the ferns and peonies had been indistinguishable from prolific weeds. The cement slab with a crack in it had been bare, fringed by creeping Charlie and dandelions instead of the new gravel border that gives the whole thing an air of purposeful existence.
As God scrutinized these improvements, shame settled over me. I once heard shame described as emotional nausea, and that’s exactly how it felt. I placed my hand on the epicenter of this unpleasant sensation–my lower abdomen–and what became clear was this: I was ashamed that I had done any of the work at all. There was a global pandemic, people were sick and dying and unemployed, need was everywhere. The idea that I could spend energy and money making my yard look pretty in the midst of such a situation… I was ashamed of it. Especially when God was right there, looking at what I had done.
I once heard shame described as emotional nausea, and that’s exactly how it felt.
God pointed out that it has never taken a global pandemic for me to have trouble with the idea of spending money on myself. My deep discomfort at my own wedding, for instance– the spectacle, the expense, the way I felt I was telling the whole world, “Yes, I am worth all these resources and undivided attention.” You are afraid to value yourself, God told me. He wondered what would happen if I did, and I told him I was afraid of going too far, that I would much rather undervalue myself just to make sure.
If I were scripting this encounter, next God would tell me what I’m really worth and it would be extravagant. But that’s not what happened. Instead of telling me what I was worth, God told me what I was like: a simple person by nature, easy to please, happy to let something be good enough. He said he loved that about me–that I would rather use my energy caring for other people than making something look perfect. He said it’s a gift to the world, people like me. And if a simple, easily contented person like myself didn’t think the yard was fine, then it probably wasn’t. And he trusted me not to go too far.
Relief unclenched my abdomen. God said he trusted me. I could trust myself.
Then came my anger, as it always does when other negative emotions dissolve. See, several years ago I thought God promised that the novel I was working on would get published. I wouldn’t have finished writing it without that promise, because writing a book feels a bit like having a wedding–like a declaration of your own importance. I don’t ever want to get caught reaching for more than I’m supposed to have. The book has never been published, and I’m furious at God for what looks to me like a cruelly laid and sprung trap. I have been drawn out and burned, and sooner or later, every time I am with God, I end up angry.
God directed my attention once more to my yard. The weeds, before, had been taller than my children. I’d been sunk in depression, struggling to be a parent. Simply glancing out the window had left me feeling tired and defeated. It would not have been a kindness, God said, to hand me the challenge of traveling internationally to ready the manuscript (as I would need to), of editing it, of promoting it in a season when my own yard overwhelmed me.
I must begrudgingly admit this makes sense.
Then I thanked my friend and said goodbye. I think I went and made myself some tea, possibly grabbed a tissue. I felt a little more able to trust that God might be who he says he is, and whether or not I can prove that what happened was real, I think there must be some spiritual value in that.