Even before noon, the high summer heat and humidity of South Georgia can be stifling. So it was not unusual for me to run into several of my elementary school friends at the city pool of our tiny town.
On that particular morning, I noticed that my classmate Mary was standing chest-deep at the pool’s edge. I had an enormous crush on her. So my heart leapt into my throat when I noticed her stealing glances at me and quickly turning away with a shy smile.
No way I was going over to talk to her. But to my surprise she motioned our friend Roger over to her, whispered something into his ear, urged him in my direction, and watched him expectantly as he padded over to me.
I prepared myself for a secret love message.
Roger strode up to me and announced in a voice that carried across the length of the pool and maybe to the neighboring town, “Mary told me to tell you that you’ve got a split in your swimming trunks.” Laughing, he added, “Boy, you sure do. You’re hanging completely out!”
Sure enough, my trunks were a carryover from the previous summer. They were too tight, and the seam in the back had given way. From waistband to crotch. I was exposed.
Judging from the look on Mary’s face, she hadn’t meant for the news to be passed along in such a public way. It was not her intention to embarrass me, but to warn me and to give me a quiet exit.
But embarrassed I was. To borrow a phrase from Brene Brown, I had a hurricane-force shame storm. I rushed home and, to the best of my recollection, never returned to that pool.
Many of us, maybe all of us, have things that we do not easily or readily share with others.
Sometimes, people intentionally hide bad things like past wrongdoing or cruel thoughts or evil intentions. But mostly we hold parts of ourselves in reserve for the sake of emotional self-preservation.
We bear old wounds, carry tender feelings, nurture fragile dreams, and retain painful regrets. Letting someone else in on such personal matters makes us very vulnerable. We can experience intimacy this way. But we also risk rejection, ridicule, judgment, or indifference.
Imagine what it would be like for someone to see everything about you. None of your filters, none of your habitual defenses and practiced facades prevent that person from seeing you just as you are. You’re exposed.
Encountering the holy involves being exposed: experiencing being seen at the most granular level. Becoming aware that we are being known in all our lunacy and beauty and messiness and fragility. And I believe that all true religion, all meaningful spirituality begins in and ever returns to just such an encounter.
The theologian Karl Rahner once said that, if there are to be Christians in the future at all, they will be mystics. For some, mystics are people who see the divine. And in part this is true. The late Mary Oliver, for instance, perceived the holy in the depths of nature.
But in addition to an awareness of God’s presence, mysticism also includes a felt sense of God’s loving awareness of us. The philosopher Jean Paul Sartre once said that we experience another person’s inner life—their consciousness—when we feel her looking at us.
By way of example, Sartre asks you to imagine the experience of looking through a keyhole and hearing a footstep behind you. You know yourself as caught in the act by another person’s sight. You feel what it is like to be seen. You’re exposed.
Christians frequently talk about Jesus as the perfect revelation of God. We can see God’s true self in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. But it is also true that in Jesus we experience being seen. Being known. At least initially, this can feel like being exposed.
Take for example Luke’s account of the call of the first disciples. (Luke 5:1-11)
Jesus has just closed a teaching session at the shore of Lake Gennesaret. A large crowd had pressed him to water’s edge, so Jesus had commandeered a boat in order to teach from the shallows. Once the lesson had ended, Jesus asked the boat’s owner to push out to deeper water and to cast his nets.
The boat’s owner was Peter. Luke doesn’t tell us if Peter had listened to Jesus’s teaching. Ostensibly, he could have been there simply because he had returned from fishing. We do know that the night’s catch had been a complete bust. Peter tells Jesus as much when Jesus tells him to lower the nets, but he does as Jesus tells him anyway.
The nets snare so many fish that their weight threatens to swamp both Peter’s boat and a second one that has come alongside to take in the enormous haul. At the sight of such a catch, Peter falls to his knees and tells Jesus to step away. “I am a sinful man,” Peter says.
There are a number of ways to interpret Peter’s confession. He was overwhelmed by the power implied by the miracle he had just witnessed. He recognized the divine in Jesus and repented of his sins. I don’t reject either of these readings, but I ask you to consider another one.
Peter was exposed.
He experienced being seen. Being known to his very depths. And he was understandably shaken by it. Maybe he expected to be shamed for not measuring up or punished for his imperfections. But after the initial shock, Peter felt a powerful attraction.
There is nothing so attractive as being loved as a gift. With no conditions. No payback expected. Love as an expression of the lover’s very being.
No wonder Peter followed Jesus. Love itself had drawn him and sent him into the world with a message. The message of love.