It was early spring and raining. My family and I went looking for adventure in a woodlot near our house. A two-day downpour had melted much of the winter’s snow and the little stream that we could jump over in the summer now barely fit under the footbridge. When you walk in the rain you feel the relevant facts. Things are wet, cold, slippery. What’s true and important is obvious, which is to say it’s different than taking in the news.
As my wife and I talked, two of our boys ran ahead to explore. They had their bright rain jackets on and several layers beneath. It was still relatively cold. I was focused on our conversation when I saw a child in the water up to his shoulders. He was wearing a red rain jacket. For some reason, I did not comprehend what was happening. We learned later that our son had been walking through shin-deep silty water when he stepped over the submerged edge of a curve in the streambed. Immediately he was unable to touch bottom. He tried, quite calmly, to swim.
By the time I understood the danger and ran to him, my son had sunk below the surface. I slid down the bank and shot my hand into the water toward the back of his jacket. I pulled him up and rolled back onto the mud. We lay there on the cold shoulder of the stream for half a minute, me simply holding him, saying that I had him, that he didn’t need to worry. I had him. It was okay.
Later, when we got back to our house and he was taking a warm shower, I asked my son why he was so calm and quiet when he was in the flooded stream. “Why didn’t you yell for help?” He didn’t bother to look at me. He just said, “I knew you would save me,” and then stomped mud from his washcloth. I knew then that my son had caught the message I had been trying, in my own faltering way, to send since the day he was born. I would trade my breath for his. I would walk into a fire for him and his brothers. I would fight giants and dragons, space robots if necessary.
It has now been several months since the incident. Still, I cannot shake the image of my son’s jacket in the swirl of brown water. I have been fashioned by his trust. Yet the truth lurks. Facts lurk. They upset and do not comfort. What I know is that someday he will know his confidence has been misplaced. I worry that the knowledge of this will be the stuff of night terrors.
The fact is that there are many things from which I cannot save him. I learned this around midnight the previous year when I watched him stand alone before an x-ray machine, his shoulders bare and uneven. There in the blue light he was the frailest thing in the world. The technician made me move to the far side of the room. I would rather have stood with him, lead cape or no. My absention felt criminal. That time I propped up his flagging trust and mine with a bag of Cheezies for the dark car ride home. With Paleolithic bravery I procured sustenance from a vending machine. Yet I knew then that it would not last. Ignorance and facts flashed by, beyond them the churn of the night.
At some point in the fourth century the theologian Gregory of Nyssa was asked to describe how a human life should be lived. He responded, not with an easy how-to guide, but with the biography of Moses. In Moses, Gregory believed, we can see the never-ending press for virtue that constitutes the sort of life we should respect. One of the stories that particularly fascinated Gregory was that of Moses’ encounter with God on Mount Sinai. There the creature of virtue meets God in the swirling darkness. As I think of my son in the water and as I think of his growing command of the relevant facts, I am drawn to Gregory’s description of Moses’ conference with darkness.
I find Gregory’s reading of Moses’ life helpful because he believed that each part of this ancient leader’s biography overflowed with meaning. That we are told Moses meets God in darkness, then, is not happenstance. For Gregory the intent of this scriptural surprise is to unsettle the way we speak of knowledge. We usually say that to know something is to move from darkness to light. When Moses meets the profoundest truth of all, it is the other way around.
I believe that it is a profoundly good thing for children to trust their parents. Their confidence may not be based on facts, but it is appropriate for childhood. At some point, though, the bonds of attachment must be tempered by the rain in their faces. That is why my wife and I shoo our boys outdoors. There are things we learn by touch and by the feeling of air beneath our feet that we cannot learn from the printed page or from the TV commentator.
What I gather from Gregory is that at some point our maturation depends wholly on our ability to recognize the swirling darkness. There are times when what is needed is not just a fact—not just information that is true and relevant—but a reckoning with the reality that knowledge always fades into cloud. To live well, and much more so to lead well, requires us to encounter the limits of our knowledge and to brush the edge of the holy. Virtuous knowing includes, as Gregory says, a “seeing that consists in not seeing.” It is important that we know the facts, but it’s more fundamental that we have had the experience of being caught in the cataract.
I am a person who prays. And so I pray that each of my sons will gain the wisdom to sidestep alternative facts, but I also pray that they will gain the humility to know that it’s what we do with knowledge that matters the most. For this they, like each of us, need to encounter something that supersedes the rain in our faces and the mud in our hands.