Saturday, May 31, 2008

The God of the Falls

Is God personal or impersonal? You choose ...

Niagara Falls came back to me recently when I read the accounts of Charles Dickens' and Anthony Trollope's visits to it in the past. I was there once myself, and carried away with me a vision that will last for a lifetime.

The most common images of the Falls, which everyone has seen, are those of the white plumes of spray cascading down the the face of it and exploding against the rocks below. But the most powerful impression that has stayed with me was the view from the top.

On the American side you can stand just a few feet from the edge of the river, protected only by a low stone wall, right at the point where it curves over the precipice. The sheer mass of the water, green and clear, makes it seem almost calm as it tips over the brink and disappears into the chaos below.
The sight is compelling, almost hypnotic--you can get lost in it as if watching the flames in a fireplace.

Looking at this, it is impossible not to imagine floating in the water yourself and getting swept over the side. Yet the feeling that came over me as I stared was not one of fear but rather one of peacefulness and awe.

It strikes me that this vision is close to the one I normally have of God--an incredibly powerful rushing torrent of force in which we are carried along like so many twigs and leaves. It is a vision of an "impersonal" God, one whose business is only to flow, without concern for those myriad individuals carried along in the current. We are sustained by the waters of existence, borne up and moved, in a state of perfect magnanimity in which none of us matters any more or less than the least of creatures or the greatest of galaxies.

Yet the personal aspect of God exists as well, within each of us. Our own fates matter greatly to us, and to those who know and love us, as they should. It is left for us each to do our portion of the personal caring, and to make our own individual connections with that great river that supports us. We are the persons who make God "personal."

There are people who really have been caught up in such mighty rivers and carried over similar falls. Some of them have survived to tell the tale. And what some of them say is that in the moment when they knew all was lost, that the river was going over the side and they were going with it, that there was nothing they could do to prevent it -- in that moment they felt a kind of peace and oneness with their surroundings, almost a form of joy.

They had become the river.

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