The Bright Field
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The Bright Field
The Rev. Charles Hoffacker
The Bible contains many stories where someone receives a call from God. In the Old Testament, a number of people are called to serve as prophets or leaders among God’s people, among them Abraham, David, and Isaiah. The New Testament contains many call stories as well. These include Mary’s call to be mother of the messiah, and the call of various individuals to discipleship or apostolic ministry.
Why are there so many call stories in the Bible? Are they simply narratives of rare events, or do they suggest something that may happen in our lives as well? To address questions like these, let’s take a look at one such story.
Today’s first reading recounts one of the most famous call stories: that of Moses. Moses has fled from Egypt to escape punishment for killing an Egyptian. He has married and settled down and now cares for his father-in-law’s flock.
One day he’s out in the wilderness, tending the sheep as usual. He notices a bush some distance from him that is on fire. Moreover, the bush is blazing but is not being reduced to ashes. Moses decides to take a closer look.
This becomes a turning point in his life. The Lord addresses him by name from the heart of the fire and commissions him for the seemingly impossible task of leading the enslaved people of Israel out from their servitude in Egypt.
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I propose that we look anew at this story by the use of a poem entitled “The Bright Field.” Its author was an outstanding poet of the twentieth century, a priest of the Church in Wales named R. S. Thomas. “The Bright Field” links Thomas’ own experience with the call of Moses and with the parables Jesus tells about a pearl of great price and a treasure buried in a field. You may remember how, in these parables, the one who buys the pearl, the one who buys the field does so immediately, without hesitation, because the pearl and the treasure are of the utmost worth. Here now is R. S. Thomas’ poem, “The Bright Field.”
I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the pearl
of great price, the one field that had
the treasure in it. I realize now
that I must give up all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying
on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.
[From R. S. Thomas, Laboratories of the Spirit, quoted in Michael Mayne, That Sunrise of Wonder: Letters for My Grandchildren (Fount, 1995), p. 275.]
Thomas tells of having seen a small field illuminated by the sun and then forgetting the experience, only to realize later that this was the peal of great price, the field that contained the buried treasure, and that he must buy it at any cost.
The sunlit field is suggestive of the burning bush that Moses saw. Th comparison becomes more evident as Thomas says that life is not a preoccupation with either future or past, but precisely “turning aside like Moses to the miracle of the lit bush”. It is in pausing and the present moment, the poet claims, that we have life. For what shines in the bright field, what burns in the bush seen by Moses, is a brightness that seems transitory, as transitory as youth appears for those who look back at it, but this brightness is instead “the eternity that awaits you.” The bush which burns but is not destroyed is the shining out of an indestructible eternity.
If then R. S. Thomas is to be believed, Moses is alive because he turns aside in what is to him the present moment. That moment is for Moses a priceless pearl, a buried treasure, because in it the Eternal addresses him. In that moment he encounters One who is more than past or future but is the everlasting Now, the fire unconsumed.
It is encounter with the Eternal that is the essence of every call story. The Eternal encounters us in the one place where we truly are: the present moment. We must, like Moses, turn aside, turn aside from preoccupation with past or future, and dare the difficult task of being truly present in the now so that we may meet the eternity that awaits us. It is the simplest thing in the world to do this, but precisely because it is so simple, we find it difficult, well nigh impossible.
Yet it does happen. It happens to Moses near Mount Horeb, and again to R. S. Thomas in that little land called Wales. It occurs in our lives as well. The sun breaks through to illuminate a small field for a while. A bush burns in the wilderness and is not consumed. Or something else occurs that is our pearl of immense worth, our field with buried treasure. Eternity calls out to us through a moment of time, and though the moment disappears, eternity leaves its impress and we are not as we were before. In one moment, and perhaps in another and another, our story contains a call.
A domesticated spirituality keeps call stories safe within the pages of the Bible. But the God who inspires scripture is not imprisoned by it. Still he calls men and women and children through the one place where time and eternity meet: a single moment, the present from which we must not flee.
What we term spirituality is in large part preparation. Spiritual disciplines contribute to us being ready. They help us with what is so simple by itself but without grace is impossible for human beings, namely our dwelling in the present moment, our turning aside from distractions of future and past so that we may truly be here now without anxiety or regret or preoccupation.
The shining of the sun is past our control, the bush blazes free from our permission, we may encounter the mystery even when unprepared, but better it is that we be prepared, ready to sell everything to purchase the pearl, to buy the field and dig up its hidden treasure. To be in the present moment makes us ready to encounter the Eternal which waits behind the veil of every second.
Have you met this utterly undomesticated Mystery, fierce and alive in some present moment? Do not expect to comprehend this Holy One by some limiting name or label. He simply is who he is. Instead, he names you, calls you, gives you something to do that makes you over again and causes new life to erupt in a world that desperately needs it.
Yet do not worry much about the details of your mission. Do not fret over what you regard as failure or success. Life is not in hurrying off to the future or in hankering after the past.
Life is “the turning aside like Moses to the miracle of the lit bush,” to the miracle of the moment in which eternity awaits you. Through that moment there comes to you all the purpose and strength you need. For it is in the present moment that eternity meets us sweet as the kiss of God.
— Copyright 2006, The Rev. Charles Hoffacker. Used by permission.