I had a gardener who saw Christ once. She was working in a garden and sensed someone behind her. She turned, and there he was. After the vision she made changes to her life. She kept on working in gardens because that was her livelihood, but she learned to write icons. That’s how we had met. I had bought her icon of St. George and the dragon at a local gallery. Later I bought a small head of Christ, which looks down on me in my study as I write this.
The nearest I have come to a vision was when I was four years old. I was walking along the sidewalk in front of my house in Weaverville, North Carolina, and looked up to see an overwhelming cumulus cloud bearing down on me. I knew it was called a cloud but knew nothing of its provenance. I hadn’t yet learned that it was “just” vapor. And what I felt was holy dread. I knew this thing was beyond anything I could control or understand, bigger than anyone could protect me from, and I felt it wanted something from me. I turned and ran for the safety of the house.
My shelves are full of evidence of my decades of grappling toward the holy, yet I have never desired to be one of those who turn around and find themselves face to face with God. I’m not sure I could survive it. I’m definitely in the Jonah camp and must have known it by the time I was four. If something too big comes after you, run for the house.
Yet, paradoxically, I have been a pursuer of that “something” all my life, so here I sit, facing my shelves (so many books on God!), gazed down upon by a Christ evoked by an iconographer who once saw him face to face in a garden…
I had tried everything else but desperately addressing God to break a drinking habit begun sixty-one years ago when my eleven-year-old best friend and I sat down at the kitchen table, experimentally polished off a pint of my new stepfather’s Kentucky Tavern, and then, infused with a powerful “spirit” new to both of us, flew into a fighting frenzy. I sustained bites and scratches, but I made her head bleed and ripped all the buttons off her blouse. Back at school, we attempted it once more on the playground, without alcohol this time, until the nuns separated us. After that, we became adversaries but remained fascinated with each other to the end. When she was dying of cancer (we were in our fifties by then) we sat in her den putting away the white wine, and I asked her to visit me in dreams after her death. She has done so and our relationship continues to evolve.
The dreadful cloud at age four, from which I fled, and the instant removal, at age seventy-two, of the affliction that was well on its way to destroying my life—these have been my two religious experiences.