The Universal Pattern
The “Backside” of God
Monday, April 13, 2020
I feel a deep solidarity with individuals throughout the world who are wrestling with health issues. In 2016, I was diagnosed with prostate cancer and underwent a complete prostatectomy. The wisdom lessons that God offered me before, during, and after the surgery were pretty much constant. The experiences were initially disempowering, sometimes scary in their immediacy, and only in hindsight were they in any way empowering. Prayer was both constant and impossible for much of this period.
About ten days after the surgery, during my attempt at some spiritual reading, I opened the Bible to an obscure passage in the Book of Exodus. Moses asks YHWH to “Show me your glory” (33:18), and YHWH shows it in a most unusual way: “I shall place you in the cleft of the rock and shield you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I shall take my hand away, and you will see my backside, but my face will not be seen” (33:22–23). In several sermons, I have used that verse to teach that our knowledge of God is indirect at best, and none of our knowledge is fully face-to-face. God is always and forever Mystery. All we see is the “backside” of God.
During that time, it was not the indirectness that hit me in this passage, but the directness! My best spiritual knowing almost always occurs after the fact, in the remembering—not seen “until God has passed by.” I realized that in the moments of diagnosis, doctor’s warnings, waiting, delays, and the surgery itself, I was as fragile, scared, and insecure as anybody would be. If I could stay with the full narrative all the way into and through, only afterward could I invariably see, trust, and enjoy the wonderful works of God (mirabilia Dei).
The foundation of faith is the ability to look at our entire salvation history and then trust that this pattern would never—could never—change! It is largely after the fact that faith is formed—and gloriously transmuted into hope for the future. Only after the fact can you see that you were being held and led during the fact. During the fact, you do not enjoy or trust your own strength at all, in fact, quite the opposite. You just cry out in various ways. Then God, for some wonderful reason, is able to fill the gap.
Adapted from Richard Rohr: Essential Teachings on Love, Joelle Chase and Judy Traeger, eds. (Orbis Books: 2018), 244–245.