Moments of Illumination
By Ardis Whitman
IT WAS twilightof a winter evening. I was on a lecture tour and had been traveling all day across the flatlands of the Midwest. I leaned against the dusty cushions of the train, tired with that bone-tiredness which separates you from everyone and makes you feel that the work you are doing is futile. What had I to say to the audience which awaited me, or to anyone? Wearily, I closed my eyes.
When I opened them a few minutes later, the train had stopped at a siding in the midst of a woodland, and snow was falling. Down the tracks, the swinging signal lantern of the brakeman was circled with an aureole of lighted flakes, and the windows of the train sent a warm radiance over the nearest patch of snow.
Suddenly there stepped from the shadows a small graceful deer. For a moment he stood there, poised; then he soared into the air and with the loveliest of grace gamboled-I would almost have said danced – on the lighted carpet of snow. A whisper ran down the aisle and, one by one, the passengers moved to the windows, each reaching a hand to bring another into the circle. No one spoke, but a warm current flowed amongst us. In that instant my isolation fell away, and I could almost have gathered the strangers around me in my arms, so beautiful was the world we shared.
How rarely such luminous moments come to us-moments when the gift of life is almost more than we can bear, when we are beyond the little island of our fretful selves! Most of the time we spend our lives on a treadmill, eating, sleeping, going to the job. Like laborers born underground, we live in the dark, scarcely knowing what the light is like until one day a door is opened and, for a fleeting second, we catch a glimpse of blazing sun and eternal sky. Yet how few of us realize that the door is always there, ready to swing wide.
A distinguished judge once told me of an incident that changed his whole life. As a boy in a little New England mill town he had been forced to leave school at 16 and get a job as sweeper in a factory. The depression struck and on a gray March afternoon, along with hundreds of others, he was dismissed. As he came out into the street at the end of the shift, he was borne alone in a silent, sullen column of workers. Young though he was, he felt himself in a world without hope.
Ahead of him walked a thin, shabby figure. This man too had been dismissed, yet he was whistling. My friend caught up with him. “What will you do?” he said.
“ I think I’ll go to Africa,” the stranger said casually. “there are stars over the desert there, boy, big as plums. Or maybe I’ll head for Rio. The lights there climb all the way from the beach to heaven. The world is a big place, son, and there’s enough in it to make any man happy if only he’s not afraid to go as far as his brains and his heart will take him.”
“For me,” said my friend the judge, remembering, “it was as tough a window had opened in a cell and I could see for millions of miles. I walked home with my head full of plans. By the following week I was not only enrolled in night school but I had found a way to support myself. More than that, the shape of what I wanted to be was growing clear.”
In the lives of all of us there are blazing instants of reality, moments when we suddenly seem to understand ourselves and the world. Once a pilot told me of an experience when he was flying a plane crowded with passengers. A sudden storm had struck just as they passed the dangerous defiles of the Rocky Mountains, and for a few terrible minutes he had not been sure they’d make it.
Then with one final flash of lightning, one last crash of thunder, the storm broke away and they emerged into a tremulous sunlight. And now keeping pace with them, as they flew, was that lovely symbol, the pilot’s cross-the shadow of the plane on the clouds. Flung round it was a halo of light and beyond that, the victorious circle of a rainbow.
“For a single instant,” he said, “I saw the beauty and perfection of the world and I felt as if I were one with it.”
It is in moments like these that we truly live. For any one of them we would sacrifice a thousand others. “A kind of glory,” said John Steinbeck, “lights up the mind. Then a man pours outward, a torrent of him, and yet he is not diminished.”
If only they would last! If only we could learn to open the door more often. Perhaps we can. Perhaps the door has been opened and we have simply failed to see it. We spend ourselves on so many small matters which have no heart or spirit, fretting about money and tormenting ourselves over popularity or success, that we lose the capacity to live each moment to the fullest. La Rochefoucauld said: “Those who apply themselves too closely to little things often become incapable of great things.”
What must we do so that quickening light can find its way to us? First we must open our eyes. We grow so used to loveliness, e see so hazily through “the cloud of sleep and custom” that most of us could not tell how a bird wing tilts to match the wind, or a line of light meets a line of shadow.
Becausewe are blind we set out no welcome for our moments of glory; because our faith is small we do not really believe that when they come they speak the truth. Yet, truly, nothing can come to us unless we have somewhere within us the capacity to believe it, to dream about it.
“One can’t believe impossible things,” said Alice to the Queen, in Lewis Carroll’s beloved story.
“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” reproved the Queen. “When I was your age I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
Moments of illumination come rarely to cynics, more rarely still to imitators, those sad folk who take other people’s values instead of their own. Perhaps it is a law of life that, as the great Sir William Osler said, “he who follows another sees nothing, learns nothing, nay, seeks nothing.” Nor can we expect such moments when we are trying to think what someone else would like us to do. Fear of other people, said Bertrand Russell, seals up the spontaneous joy of life in a perpetual frost.
And so it appears that moments of illumination come from many sources in human experience. “A great cause does it,” said Rufus Jones, the Quaker leader. “A great faith does it. And a great love does it.”
Bing Crosby once said of Mary Martin that she “gives you the feeling that she not only loves you as an individual but the whole human race as well.” May it not be for lack of this that most of us forfeit our great moments of love? It is only when we feel the burdens and hopes of all people as though they were our own that we make ourselves worthy of that transcendent joy which comes when, through loving each other, we love and understand all God’s world.
Moments of illumination come, too, to those who are strong enough for suffering. Perhaps when in our pain we reach out for strength to help us, we touch that grace and love beyond the human which underlie our lives and once in a while by some lovely miracle break through. Perhaps in the knowledge of our own fragility, of the brief tenure of our lives, we understand the fragility and anguish of our fellows, and tenderness grows in us so that at times it bursts the shell of habitude.
In the end it may seem to us that the best thing we have done in life is to cultivate these moments of illumination, not out of a selfish wish to pleasure ourselves but because we know we are made for them. Our capacity for joy is indeed a measure of our greatness as human beings. “Joy rather than happiness,” said Rollo May, “is the goal of life, for joy is the emotion which accompanies our fulfilling our natures as human beings.”