Moments of Insight

Friday, November 11, 2011 — Week of Proper 27, Year One

Martin, Bishop of Tours, 397

Today’s Readings for the Daily Office (Book of Common Prayer, p. 992)

Psalms 88 (morning) // 91, 92 (evening)

1 Maccabees 1:41-63* *found in the Apocrypha

Revelation 19:11-16

Matthew 16:13-20

There are moments of intuition. Occasionally in an instant, things become clear. Sometimes we see profound, complex things that have perplexed us, and suddenly it all seems so simple. Insight happens.

As I read again the story of Peter’s confession — “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” — I can imagine him speaking in a tone of voice and with facial gestures conveying that even he is surprised by his own words. Where did this insight come from? “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you…”

Years ago our local radio station broadcast a winsome little program by Earl Nightingale, a motivational speaker. It only lasted a minute or so, but Nightingale tried to offer listeners a nugget of his brand of wisdom or encouragement. One story that has stuck with me concerned a chemical engineer who was trying to solve a complex problem about the molecular structure of a particular substance. He had spent hours in the laboratory. He had wasted much paper trying various sketches and equations.

One day at home, as the scientist was watching something distracting on television, his mind in neutral, the answer to his research just appeared to him like a 3D vision in mid-air, between his lounge chair and the television screen. He saw the structure of the substance in its entirety, and it made complete sense. He could even ask the vision to turn around so he could see it from all angles. The answer was given to him.

Of course there had been hours of preparation that set the foundation for his discovery of a moment. But isn’t that often how these things happen? We dig and struggle and persevere, sometimes with great futility, then, in an instant something is revealed.

In the back of my mind there is a story about Einstein’s discovery of relativity coming in a flash of insight from a mind game he was pondering. Many of us treasure Thomas Merton’s Louisville epiphany on the corner of 4th and Walnut where he “suddenly realized that I loved all the people and that none of them were, or, could be totally alien to me. As if waking from a dream — the dream of separateness.” (Private Journal, March 19, 1958) Gerald May tells the story of an addict who found equanimity and freedom in a moment while walking his dog.

Today is St. Martin’s day. Legend has it that while Martin was a Roman soldier and a catechumen, a beggar approached asking alms. Martin impulsively drew his sword and cut off a portion of his soldier’s cloak and gave it to the poor man. That night in a dream, Jesus appeared, clothed in half a cloak, and said, “Martin, a simple catechumen, covered me with this garment.”

These moments happen to us. They are full of grace. They also seem ephemeral and fleeting. Though we may be changed, we must claim the change. It helps to write things down, like Merton’s journal. It helps to tell another, like Peter’s witness to Jesus. We can forget. We can also, like Mary, treasure these things, and ponder them in our hearts.

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