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Thinking Out Loud

Angels Hill: Serendipitous Pilgrimage, Part Three

by Michael Jinkins | May 13, 2016

Editor's note: Periodically throughout the 2015-2016 academic year, "Thinking Out Loud" readers will receive blog posts that explore concepts of spirituality. We'd love to hear what you have written in your "spirituality notebook." E-mail us!

Thin Places v3 with cap

"Be still, and know I am God," says the Psalm.

What kind of knowledge is this that requires stillness? Not bustling about, nor test tubes and Bunsen burners, nor microscopes, nor telescopes; not searching through the nooks and crannies and endless stacks of the world's great libraries, nor examining, exploring, translating, factoring, or any of the myriad activities we usually associate with knowing.

"Be still and know ..."
"Be still, and know I am ..."
"Be still, and know I am God. I am exalted among the nations. I am exalted in the earth."
(Psalm 46:10)

This year, a very interesting event occurred in my life. I now know something I never knew before. I now "know" red and green, and a lot of other colors and hues that depend upon these essential colors.

I did not acquire this new knowledge because I finally took time to buy a box of crayons or read up on the difference between these colors. I had "known about" red and green since I was a child. And I now "know" red and green because this Christmas my wife, Debbie, bought me a pair of spectacles that correct for the misshapen innards of my eyes which have caused me to be red/green spectrum color blind my entire life.

There were a few specific reds and a very few specific greens that I was able to see before, but these were exceptional. Most reds, most greens, I just couldn't detect. I didn't know them. I adapted myself to my lack of knowledge, sometimes more successfully than others.

Driving at night, especially through small towns in the country, has always proven a challenge for me, because I discern traffic signals ("stop, go, and whoa you better go slow!") primarily by their positions relative to one another. And at night that just doesn't work too well.

Color blindness isn't fatal, of course, unless you mistake a red light for a green one, or unless you always wanted to be a representational painter, in which case, you'd better find another vocation. No, color blindness usually isn't fatal, but it does represent a real loss. But, now, thanks to medical science, technology and Debbie, I know red and green. Which means I know a lot of other things, too.

The first time I wore these glasses on a bright, sunny, spring day (although Debbie bought the specs for me for Christmas, it took awhile to get the prescription right), I was driving and the strangest thing happened. I pulled up to the traffic light at the corner of Alta Vista Road and Lexington Road, and the light was green. I mean the light actually looked green to me. I knew it as green, and I'd never before known a green light. When I was a little boy, in fact, I thought the phrase "green light" was some sort of weird adult idiom, a figure of speech. The lights looked white to me, a pretty common experience among color-blind people. But, this time, and for the very first time in my life, the light was green.

And, "wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles," when I turned the corner onto Lexington, something else really strange happened. I saw a redbud tree in full bloom, and the darned thing was purple - fuchsia to be more exact - with outrageously pink highlights! I still remember the first time I told someone I couldn't understand why a blue tree was called a “redbud tree.” Now I knew. It isn't blue. In a sense, I was seeing a redbud tree for the very first time. I now knew something I had never known before.

The kind of knowing necessary to know colors isn't the same kind of knowing necessary to solve a quadratic equation or to know the chemical makeup of table salt, or to know whether there's a previously undiscovered planet lurking in the Edgeworth-Kuiper belt. Knowing colors requires a particular facility, an experiencing, an understanding that is different from attaining even the most sophisticated insights or the most profound wisdom. This kind of knowledge has to do with being able to see what is there, to know what is right in front of you. It's really just the easiest, most natural thing in the world; unless, of course, you can't do it, in which case there are things you just don't know. (By the way, it makes no sense to ask a color-blind person, "what do you see when you see green." It really doesn't matter. IT ISN'T GREEN!!!)

"Be still, and know ..."
"Be still, and know I am ..."
"Be still, and know I am God."

"See" what I'm getting at?

Knowledge of God isn't waiting at the end of a philosopher's proofs; it doesn't depend on the results of a scientist's experiments; this kind of knowing isn't even lurking within the intricacies of a theologian's pious mental webworks. All of these ways of knowing have their contributions to make. And we are deeply indebted to them. But knowledge of God doesn't yield to these sorts of searches, though each of these ways of knowing (and many others) may bring us profound insights about many things and need not be seen as a barrier to knowing God and may complement our knowledge of God. Knowing God is a different kind of knowing. More like knowing green for the first time, though green has always been there.

That's why in the Bible we hear people's awakening to God described as "coming to themselves" or "having their eyes opened." This is why, at the end of some enigmatic parable, Jesus often uses that cryptic statement: "for those who have ears to hear, let them hear."

And, in the Psalms, we find: "Be still, and know that I am God." Some people interpret this passage to mean "easy does it" or "stop and smell the roses." But this passage isn't about slowing down and taking it easy. It is about epistemology; it is about what we need to do to know God.

Still Knowing
You have to know where Angels Hill is in order to find it. It's not really hidden, you just don't know what it is or what to look for or where unless someone with local knowledge shows you. Fortunately, we had David, the session clerk of the Kilninver Church, (about which I wrote a few weeks ago) to show us the way. David lives on the shores of Loch Feochan virtually in the shadow of Angel's Hill.

The day that David showed us Angels Hill, he met Debbie and me about a half-mile from his house. He led us up a steep, unpaved, deeply rutted gravel farm road that threatened to break the axles of our rental car. Among the fir trees on the hillside, suddenly a sign appeared by the road. It said, "Old Manse."

Pulling to a stop in front of the house, the actual "old manse" where John McLeod Campbell was raised, we parked in front of an ancient burial ground where McLeod Campbell's father lies under a headstone bearing a touching (and remarkably long) tribute his children had carved. Among the weathered gravestones lie a few broken and eroded remains of a medieval church building. Within a few steps of these largely forgotten stones, across a wire fence and through a stand of thick gorse, is an outcropping of rock known as Angels Hill.

On this high point, from which you can look westward out to sea to the Isles of Kerrera and Mull, and northwards to the whole fjord-like inlet of the sea loch, Loch Feochan, a lookout fire was once kindled to warn farm families living along the banks whenever Viking longships appeared on the horizon. This is likely why the bare stone outcropping is scarred and fire-fractured as it is. And this is almost certainly how the hill got the name, "Angels Hill." Angels are the messengers (Gr. aggeloi) of God. And it surely must have seemed like a message from God to get a timely warning when Vikings were coming.

People have settled in this area, in these highlands and valleys and all along this sea loch, since just after the last Ice Age. The centuries - from prehistory, to medieval, to now - huddle together on top of this hill watching a scene below that hasn't changed at all in millennia, and that changes all the time with every shift of the wind.

I have a special fondness for Angels Hill, and have returned to stand quietly on it dozens of times since first being shown where and what it is. Looking west from its summit, pastels of the most subtle shades of pink and lavender indicate the presence in the distance of vast islands above a quicksilver sea. The line of the distant horizon looks like it was drawn with a straightedge across the streams of blues, shifting moment to moment from deep midnight to aquamarine to shimmering navy, and (I'm told) to green, before fading to black. Outrageous. Extravagant. Unlikely, garish colors appear as sun plays on clouds, reflecting pinks and reds and oranges and yellows you can scarce believe are possible in nature's palette. (I can hardly wait to look at it again and this time through my new correctional lenses so I can see all the colors I never before knew.)

Sometimes when you stand quietly enough and long enough and still enough on the crest of Angels Hill, you become aware that the gorse bushes and clusters of heather all around you are shivering, twitching and humming. They are all alive with tiny birds and bees. And in their shadows are sheltered all sorts of small animals, like small rabbits and hedgehogs. Walking through the gorse, you might not notice the birds and other life at first because they will scatter so quickly before noisy feet get that far. The first time I visited the hill, I certainly wasn't tuned into anything as small as a bee, my eyes were set on the distant horizon of sea and sky. But if you stand still, listening beyond or beneath the sound of the wind that never ceases, watching the subtle movement among the gorse and heather, and listening to the even more subtle sounds, you will become aware that you are not alone on Angels Hill. If you are very still, you will know you are not alone.

And maybe that is exactly what we are supposed to be doing all the time wherever we find ourselves. "Be still, and know that I am God. I am exalted among the nations. I am exalted in the earth." (Psalm 46:10)

This isn't good advice. It is good news.

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