Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
“And while Jesus was praying, the appearance of his face changed,
and his clothes became dazzling white.” (Luke 9)
I want to speak today about the uncanny—those moments in life when the mysterious comes to the surface, but in unsettling and peculiar ways.
Two weeks ago, I let you all know the news that I feel obliged to step down from serving as rector of this church in order to be available to care for my soon to be 100-year old father.
Then the very next day … I got a call early in the morning that he had fallen and was in the hospital, and that I was urgently needed. That was uncanny.
It’s also uncanny how often the lectionary kicks up just the right lesson for a particular circumstance. The readings aren’t designed that way—how could they be? But more often than not, there they are. Just what you needed to hear.
Take today, for instance. If I knew in advance that I wanted to talk about the uncanny, what better gospel reading could there be than the transfiguration, when the disciples are completely overwhelmed by the mysterious change in Jesus’ appearance, leaving them unsettled and nervous. What an uncanny experience that must have been! I think we can all imagine them, on their way back down the mountain, saying hesitantly to one another, “What was that about?” “I dunno. You tell me.” “I dunno.” Only later, after Jesus’ resurrection, would they be able to look back and say, “You know, that uncanny vision we had on the mountain was when it really started to become clear who Jesus was.”
In my experience, encounters with the uncanny do in fact have a way of revealing what was just below the surface all along, but which we overlook in the usual hurry and busyness of our lives. I think back to the last time I was with my mother before she died. After visiting her at home in Fort Collins, I was about to get in the car to drive back to Albuquerque, and of course was in a bit of a hurry to get on the road.
But then, something told me that I needed to slow down and take time to say goodbye to her. Not just a goodbye before leaving to go home, but a final farewell. There was no particular evidence at that moment that she would soon die, but somehow I knew that I needed to tell her then that I loved her, and out of the haze of her dementia, she looked clearly at me and told me that she loved me too. Those were the last words we spoke to one another. She died not long afterward.
What was it that told me to take time for that goodbye? I don’t know for sure, but it was somehow another experience of the uncanny, that realization that breaks through from time to time, that there is a connection and interrelatedness that binds all things together to which we need to pay more thoughtful attention.
And that’s how the uncanny often presents itself: as a premonition, or a gut instinct, or an intuition. Something outside of us just grabs hold of us and forces us to pay attention.
I remember that in my confirmation class, someone asked the priest what he thought about these kinds of uncanny moments. “Well,” he said, “it does seem to me that the world is more complex than we realize.” Slightly evasive, perhaps, but also deeply true.
So the uncanny is not quite as specific as the idea of providence—the notion that God directly directs or intervenes in human life. But on the other hand, the uncanny is more intense than the simple idea of coincidence—the assumption that otherwise unrelated things sometimes converge purely by chance. Uncanniness lies somewhere in a middle ground between those two extremes—providence and chance. And I think part of what the spiritual life is intended to do is to train us to recognize it when it’s there—a bit like Moses being drawn up onto Mount Sinai.
Sigmund Freud wrote about the uncanny, or as he called it, the “unheimlich” (unhomely) in German. What he said about it was that the “Uncanny is in reality nothing new or alien, but something which is familiar and old-established in the mind and which has become alienated from it only through the process of repression.” I think there’s some truth in that: our sense of the interrelatedness of all things is something we take for granted as a child, but we gradually learn to dissect and compartmentalize life under the pressures of competition and our anxiety for security.
But perhaps the larger message of today, when our attention it turned toward Jesus’ transfiguration, is a reminder to train our eye to see the connectedness rather than the separation of all things. In the strange vision of Jesus shrouded in light, he is shown to unite in himself both the holiness of God and the ordinariness of humanity. What we might read out of that image is that we too are to be the locus where such opposites meet in a single expression of dignified humanity. The transfiguration might then be said to be a celebration of the uncanny possibility of human wholeness—and we might learn to see even in ourselves the uncanny likeness to God with which we were created. Amen.