No one shall see me and live.
—Exod. 33:20 (NRSV)
The memory came upon Derek unexpectedly. He was sitting outdoors at a café, sipping a cup of coffee, editing a paper he was to deliver the following month at a colloquium in London. Reviewing one of the paper’s references, he recalled a conversation from over thirty years earlier, when he was a graduate student at the University of Tübingbruck. It had taken place the week before the defense of his dissertation. He and Karen had dined with Professor König, Derek’s doctoral advisor, at the Professor’s home. After dinner, seated comfortably on the sofa in the Professor’s living room, Derek, inspired by the delicious dark brown liqueur the Professor had served cold, asked if he might share an idea he had been exploring lately.
“I’m not sure how to begin,” he said, “but, in short, the idea is this: I believe it’s possible to see God in this life. I don’t mean to see him figuratively, in one’s imagination, for example, or through an intermediary like nature. I mean to see the Divine being, whatever it is, directly.”
“I’ll wait on that,” Karen said.
“We believe God is pure spirit,” he continued, “one, simple, unique being. On the other hand, we say humans are a combination of spirit, which comes from God, and dust, which comes from the earth. The Bible says that God formed man out of dust from the ground and then breathed into his nostrils ‘the breath of life.’ This dust became a living being. We find the same idea in other places in the Bible. In Ecclesiastes, for example, the author states that, in the end, this dust shall return to the earth but that the spirit will return to God, its source. It’s this dust that I believe separates us from God. The key to experiencing God, it seems to me, is to remove it, this barrier, to eliminate contact with the material world.” He paused.
“Death does this,” he resumed, “precisely this, but it’s irreversible. I’m talking about experiencing God while living and continuing to live after the experience. To do this, I think, is simple. It requires temporarily eliminating sensory input—the source of our awareness of matter—and then restoring it after seeing the Divine.”
“What you’re describing,” Professor König said, “reminds me of St. Teresa of Avila’s description of the fourth stage of the soul’s ascent to a mystical union with the Divine, the stage in which one’s awareness of being in a body disappears. In this stage, she says, ‘the soul neither hears nor sees nor feels.’”
“Ah! But she’s referring to a cognitive state, awareness. I’m referring to a physical one. Both mechanism and end-state of her achievement are mental. Even highly experienced practitioners of meditation don’t eliminate all sensory input. They reduce it—at times, to an extraordinarily low level—but only reduce it. I’m talking about stopping the processing of sensory data: a physical, not mental discontinuance. It’s not that we see through a glass darkly; we don’t see at all. It’s physical blindness. Paradoxically, to see God, we have to be blind. Not only blind, though. What I’ve said of sight would be true for all the senses. Daunting, a little frightening too, but in the end, what wouldn’t we give to see God while living in this world? The question isn’t what to do, but how to do it.”
While Derek was speaking, Professor König refrained from giving his opinion. When Derek finished, however, the Professor gently but firmly disagreed with him. He began by quoting Exodus chapter thirty-three, verse twenty—the reference that had aroused Derek’s memory of their conversation.
“Notice that God says no one can see him and live. The Jewish commentator Obadiah ben Jacob Sforno comments on this verse. No one can see God and live, he says, because of a human’s inability to survive the intense outpouring of light from a perfect being. Not even Moses could survive this. It’s not, as you’re suggesting, an ontological difference between God and humans that separates them. Humanity’s materiality isn’t the problem. What separates God and humans is the moral gulf between them. Anyway,” he concluded, “a plan like the one you have outlined could turn out to be a lot more than, as you put it, a little frightening. It would be psychologically and physically dangerous. It’s imprudent, I suggest, for a young man just starting in life, as you are, to undertake such a plan. You have responsibilities, Mr. Adler,” he said, looking at Karen. “Never forget them.”
On their way home, Derek had continued to talk about what he’d begun to call “the plan.” Karen listened respectfully; after a while, however, she grew tired of the topic, stopped, turned, and faced Derek. She took his hands in hers and said, “Enough of this Derek, soon to be ‘Doctor,’ Adler. You heard what Professor König said. The opinion of the Distinguished Professor of Theology at the University of Tübingbruck isn’t to be taken lightly, especially by his brightest student.” Then, in mock seriousness, she concluded, “You hefe rezponzibilitiez, Mizter Edler. Nefer forget dem.” Derek laughed and then dutifully turned the conversation to other things.
At home, Karen went to bed. Derek continued to think about the plan. He took five sheets of paper and wrote at the top of each one the name of one of the senses: sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch. He added two sections to each sheet labeled “Removing” and “Restoring.” He thought about the sequence to follow in removing the senses. He shuffled the sheets several times, arranging them in different orders. Growing tired, however, before solving the problem, he placed the papers, unnumbered, into a folder, which he put into a portable file box where he kept his academic papers.
Such was the memory. Derek finished his coffee and gathered up his things. Walking home, he thought, “When I get back from the conference, I’ll take a fresh look at the plan.”
Derek’s talk went well. He was pleased with the paper’s reception and the follow-up question and answer session. Professor König had taught him an invaluable lesson with the first paper Derek had written for him at Tübingbruck. He returned the assignment with an entire section circled in red ink. In the margin, Professor König had written: “There is no glory in defeating a straw man. It’s the truth we’re after, not victory.” Derek had learned the lesson well. Ever afterward, he gave his opponents the benefit of the doubt and, when necessary, recast their arguments in the most effective possible form.
At the end of the session, several people stood in line to congratulate him. The last was Gerhard Müller, an old friend from Tübingbruck. Unlike Derek, Gerhard had chosen the administrative path in academia. He had done well and was as gifted in administration as Derek was in theology. He was at the pinnacle of a distinguished career; he was Chancellor of the University of Tübingbruck.
“Well done, Derek!” he said. “I can hear Professor König’s ‘Not bad, Mr. Adler. Not bad, even now.”
Derek laughed. “Thanks, Gerhard. I appreciate it.”
“I was extremely saddened to learn of Karen’s death. It’s hard for me to believe it.”
Derek was silent.
“When I saw her at Professor König’s funeral, she looked so beautiful, as though time had left her untouched, as if, in some way, she existed outside of it. She was always very good to me. I remember how on my sometimes melancholic days at Tübingbruck, she always knew the right words to say to me, words that would lift my spirit. It was as if she was experiencing what I was, feeling what I was feeling. Amazing, when you think about it. Every time I think of her, I recall the old proverb that still waters run deep.”
“Thanks, Gerhard. In Karen, the waters ran very deep indeed. I miss her enormously.”
“Well, on a different note, I’d like to invite you to dine with me this evening. Out of respect for your vegetarian principles, assuming they’re still intact, I’ve located an excellent Indian restaurant nearby. Please, do me the honor. We can catch up on things. There’s also something I’d like to discuss with you.”
“Do you ‘the honor?’ Gerhard, it’s my pleasure. I look forward to it. And my vegetarian principles, as you call them, are still firmly in place.”
They met in the hotel’s lobby at nine, then walked the short distance to the restaurant. The restaurant served south Indian food, Derek’s favorite. During the meal, they did their best to bring each other up-to-date, to fill in the gaps in their lives since leaving university. Over payasam and Madras coffee, their conversation turned to other things.
“Derek, two years ago, Professor König’s widow, Alma, some wealthy alumni, and several prominent philosophers and theologians, began working to endow a chair of theology in Professor König’s memory. As you might expect, several universities wanted it. It was quite a struggle. Alma was adamant that the Chair resides at Tübingbruck. Do you know her? She and Professor König married after we left Tübingbruck.”
“I don’t know her. I met her only briefly at Professor König’s funeral.”
“Well, the Chair’s financial details were completed at the end of last year. We’re now in the candidate selection process for the Chair.”
“On that front, I am pleased to tell you that I’ve been authorized to offer you the position of, to ask you to become the first holder of, the Johannes König Chair of Theology at the University of Tübingbruck. I’d very much love to have you there. We all would.”
There was silence as Derek processed what he had just heard. “Gerhard, I…I’m flattered and honored, of course. This news is entirely unexpected.”
“Since Karen’s death, I suppose, I’ve seen my life as mapped out. It’s as though my life went into the grave with her. In the future, places and people would be familiar; there would be no new significant destinations, no important objectives, no new goals. Your offer, of course, was not on that map. I want to ask for some time to think about it.”
“Of course. There are several administrative processes we have to complete, bureaucratic, red-tape kinds of things. They’ll take some time. I’m guessing; I don’t know, twelve to eighteen months perhaps. Do you think you can have an answer for us in three or four months?”
“Yes, I do. Gerhard, thanks. I appreciate it. I’m very honored.”
Back in his room, Derek thought about two paths with very different destinations. One, the way of the plan, if successful, would allow him to see God; the other, that of the Chair, and he laughed to himself as he thought it, would let him be a god. He had three months to decide which path to take.
Derek opened the folder and withdrew five yellowed sheets of paper. Where to begin? The first task was to determine the sequence in which to remove the senses. Best to lose them one at a time, he thought, over an extended period, allowing him to adjust to the loss of one before moving to the next. He ran through several scenarios. In the end, he decided the order should be: first smell, then taste, then hearing, then sight, and last, the most difficult, so it seemed to him, touch. He placed a corresponding number on each sheet.
The next problem was to learn how to temporarily remove a sense, keeping in mind the need to restore it subsequently. Derek decided to ask Karl Janson, an old acquaintance in the university’s medical school, for assistance.
“Hello, Karl. It’s Derek. I’m wondering if you might be able to help me with something.”
“I’ll be glad to help if I can, Derek. What are you looking for?”
“I’m working on an article on the philosophical movement called British Empiricism. I’m especially interested in its theory of knowledge. Its core concept was that knowledge comes from experience, and experience comes from sense perception.”
“You’re bringing back terrible memories of my undergraduate intro to philosophy course, many moons ago.”
“Oops, sorry about that! One of the things I like about my field is that it doesn’t change much over time; the basic issues are relatively static. It makes my teaching a heck of a lot easier. Other fields, however, evolve, some of them a lot. That’s where you come in. I want to read some current research about the causes and effects of sensory loss, mainly temporary sensory loss. For example, I’m thinking about the impact on a person’s knowledge following the loss of one of his senses: smell, for instance. If a man loses his sense of smell, does he remember the smell of a pineapple? And if later, somehow, the sense returns, can he then remember what pineapple smells like, without smelling one again? That sort of thing.”
Karl laughed. “Derek, you’re always interesting! Sensory loss isn’t my area, but if you give me a little time to reach out to some colleagues, I’ll let you know what I find out. I’ll try to get something to you next week if that’s OK.”
In interoffice mail the following week, Derek received a seven-page list of articles on sensory loss, typed and neatly organized by sense. All of the pieces were from prominent medical journals. He spent several days working through the list, focusing on each article’s etiology and treatment sections. Two things stood out. First, while many cases, particularly permanent sensory loss, were due to genetic causes, or illness, not all were. Some resulted from exposure to, or ingestion of, toxic chemicals commonly found in the workplace or environment, even in the home—bleach, dishwasher detergents, drain cleaners, oven cleaners, pesticides, flea powders. Second, and this he found worrisome, the restoration of a sense lost due to environmental factors, the very kind of loss he might be able to induce, is not guaranteed. Recovery does not always happen. If he were to act on the plan, he would have to accept the possibility of the permanent loss of one or more of his senses. Was he willing to do that? Was it worth it?
He tried to remember when it had started—when he’d first felt it—this obsession, this aching desire to see God, but he couldn’t, at least not with any certainty. It was veiled, wrapped in a dark cloak of dimly lit churches, of votive candles, of late-night learning, of prayers whispered at midnight. It lay hidden behind stained glass windows, lost in pictures of sacred hearts on fire, encircled by piercing thorns.
He recalled the summer between his junior and senior years in high school. After weeks of pleading with them, his parents finally relented and agreed to allow him to attend a spiritual retreat at the monastery of St. Bonaventure intended for young men thinking about a religious vocation. His parents had driven him to the train station to see him off. Even after all these years, he could still see the fear on their faces as they waved goodbye to him, fear that they might lose their only child to God.
He had enjoyed the retreat, especially the companionship of the young priest whom the abbot had selected to be his confessor and advisor during the retreat. Unlike at home, where he confessed his sins to a priest seated behind a screen in a dark confessional in church, at St. Bonaventure, he walked with his confessor in the bright light of day, confessed his sins openly, face to face. The dark confessional focused on the shame of sin, he thought, while the sunlight emphasized the healing power of forgiveness.
When his advisor learned that Derek was a runner, they had begun running together during the free time following the last class before dinner. The day before the end of the retreat, they took a final run. They finished with a victory lap around the monastery’s track. Drenched in sweat, they shared a water bottle while sitting in the upper bleachers alongside the sports field. There was a pleasant breeze. The light was that luminous golden light, like that of an Indian summer afternoon, when all of one’s senses seem to be in perfect harmony with nature.
Derek told the priest he had a question. He wanted to know the most challenging thing about religious life. Derek had expected the young, handsome, athletic man to say celibacy, but the priest hadn’t. There was no one thing most difficult for everyone, he said. What was difficult for a person depended on the person. For him, a monk as well as a priest, it was obedience. Obedience demands the subjugation of pride, the abnegation of self. It was the very model of our love of God, lack of it, the model of sin. Disobedience, he reminded Derek, was man’s first sin.
When Derek returned home, his parents greeted him nervously, fearful of what he might tell them. So it was with an incredible sense of relief that they heard him accept a suggestion they had made before he went on the retreat. They had asked him to wait before making a final decision concerning a vocation until after completing his first year at university. He told them now that he agreed.
As it turned out, they had been right. Derek received a full scholarship to the American National Catholic University. There, in his second semester, in an introductory class on Thomistic philosophy, he met Karen. She was petite, with a head full of brown curls and beautiful dark green eyes. And she had a laugh that made him feel how good the world could be. Orphaned by the death of her parents in a car accident when she was four years old, Karen had grown up in a Catholic children’s home and then had been shuttled from one foster family to another until she entered university. Growing up like this had developed in her resilience, an attitude of independence, a kind of courage that Derek found refreshing.
They dated all through their time in university. Karen, an inveterate hiker and a lover of the outdoors, introduced Derek to mountain hiking pleasures. They spent the summer between their junior and senior years hiking the mountains of Vermont and New Hampshire. Derek discovered that he loved the mountains, needed them. They were mystical, mysterious. In them, he felt close to God.
In the second semester of their senior year, Derek proposed to Karen. To his surprise, she told him she needed time to think about it. A week later, she asked him to meet her at the lake on the university’s campus.
“There is something I need to tell you,” she said. “If it changes your mind, I will understand—no guilt. I was in the car with my parents in the accident that killed them. I sustained severe internal injuries. Later, when I was old enough to understand, the doctors told me that it was a miracle that I’d survived. They also said that they had had to rebuild my insides. They said I would never be able to have children. You need to know this. I want you to think about it.”
Derek placed his hand under Karen’s chin and raised her face to his.
“Karen,” he said, “I’m in love with you. I don’t need to think about it.”
But now, Karen was gone. As he thought of her death, something bothered him, something he didn’t expect, a feeling of guilt. It floated just under the surface of his consciousness, emerging at times amid visions of his life without her. By her death, she had set him free, cut him loose from the responsibilities Professor König had reminded him of the evening Derek had spoken so enthusiastically about the plan.
Professor König had been right. It would have been irresponsible, a supremely selfish act, to pursue the plan while Karen lived. As much as she may have wanted to, Karen never understood his desire to see God. She was a pragmatic person, someone for whom data points were the critical items to consider in making decisions. For him, facts were simply shadows dancing on the wall of Plato’s Cave. She had said, “I will never be able to have children.” He had responded, “I’m in love with you.”
He felt that an even more significant obstacle than her lack of understanding, though, was the pain he knew she would have experienced in seeing the toll that acting on the plan would take on his mind and body. She had made that clear on their walk home when she reminded him of his responsibilities. His love for her would never have allowed him to cause her to suffer knowingly.
But the situation was different now. That was why Derek found it odd that though he was free to act, he hesitated. Why? Was it fear—fear of what was required or fear of what he might find out? He shuddered, like one who says a mouse just ran over his grave. Perhaps his concern over Karen had only been an excuse, something for him to hide behind.
Before deciding what he would do, he wanted to go to a place where he and Karen had always been happy. He needed to go to the mountains. The answer was there. And which mountains were better to go to than the ones that he and Karen had hiked together when they were young, where he had felt so close to Karen and God? He called Gerhard and told him he would be away for about a month and that he would have an answer for him when he got back.
Derek found the climb much more challenging in his fifties than he had in his twenties. He decided to rest before continuing. A young woman was sitting on a bench under some trees at the edge of the trail.
“Mind if I join you?” he asked.
“Please,” the woman replied, moving to make more room for him.
“What are you reading?”
“Les Misérables. Just finished it.”
“Congratulations! And in French, I see!”
“Yes, thanks. Have you read it?”
“Yes. I used it once in a class on the idea of redemption.”
“You’re a teacher?”
“Perhaps you can help me with something?”
“Do you remember where Hugo says that to love another person is to see the face of God? I like that statement, but I can’t seem to find it in the book. My husband and I saw the musical recently in New York. It’s in the finale.”
“Well, I hate to disappoint you, but I don’t believe you’ll find it in the book. Hugo didn’t write it.”
“No, but though Hugo doesn’t say it exactly like that, there is a place where he comes close to it, I think.”
“Do you remember where?”
“May I see your book a second?” Derek flipped back and forth through the book, occasionally pausing to get his bearings.
“I believe it’s in the ‘St. Denis’ section,” he said. “Ah, here we go. Hmm. Yes. Cosette is reading the letter, dah dah dah, here: ‘La réduction de l’univers à un seul être, la dilatation d’un seul être jusqu’à Dieu, voilà l’amour.’ ‘The reduction of the universe…’” he began to translate, then, with his finger on the text, handed the book to the young woman.
“‘The reduction of the universe to a single being, the expansion of a single being even to God, this,’ she read, then looking up at Derek, ‘is love.’ Beautiful! Thank you so much.”
“You needn’t thank me. Mr. Hugo wrote it.”
The woman laughed and then raised her eyes and looked up the trail toward the mountain’s top.
“Ah, here comes my husband and son,” she said. She rose and walked to meet them. She brought them to Derek.
“I’m Anne, and this is my husband, Greg. And the little one in the carrier is our son Grayson. I apologize. I didn’t get your name.”
“Derek Adler,” Derek replied, extending his hand to Greg.
“Pleased to meet you,” the man said, and then turning to Anne, “The walk was pleasant. We didn’t make it to the top, though. One of the rangers said the weather’s taking a turn for the worse and suggested we head down.”
Anne turned to Derek.
“Would you like to walk down with us?”
“Thanks, but I’ll head down in a little bit.”
“Well, we’re staying at the Lodge. Perhaps you can join us for dinner. Seven-thirty?”
“I’m staying at the Lodge as well,” Derek replied. “Seven-thirty it is.”
The young couple turned and began their descent. Derek could hear the woman talking excitedly to her husband about the passage he had shown her, the book in one hand, her other hand making arcs in the air. How young they were! He thought of Karen, of how she had always listened to him as though he were the most intelligent person in the world. To her, all his ideas were new, profound, and revolutionary. They had had many conversations near this spot. He remembered a rock formation nearby, a little off the main trail, close to, but below, the timberline. A broad, flat rock jutted out from the ledge there. They would lie together on it and look out over the valley below them.
He looked up and down the trail. He saw no one. He began to walk toward the mountaintop. He continued until he came to the spot where he and Karen would leave the trail and walk to the rock formation. There was no path, just an opening between some rows of boulders and brush. Prickly plants covered the ground, and roots and sharp stones made it difficult to walk. He would stop occasionally and look around him to make sure he was going the right way. At one point, he bent over and passed under some low-hanging branches. The wind changed, and the vista of the valley opened before him. Yes, this was the place. He had never been to it without Karen. A sense of her loss overcame him. He walked to where they would lie together, heads resting on their folded arms, and look out over the valley. He knelt, brushed away some loose stones and broken branches lying on the rock, and lay down.
Light snow began to fall, and the wind grew colder. Derek started to shiver. He turned up the collar of his jacket and pulled it tighter. He was tired. The hike had drained the energy out of him. Through his clothes, he could feel the cold rock against his stomach. He rested his head on his crossed arms. He lay quietly for some time, thinking of Hugo, the young couple, and of Karen. He realized that he had not understood what Hugo meant before when he said that love is the expansion of a single being, even to God. He remembered Karen lying on the rock beside him, the warmth of her body, the sound of her laughter, her touch. He imagined her beside him now.
He seemed to remember that he needed to be somewhere, but he couldn’t remember where, why, or when. He wanted to get up but felt so heavy. He needed to rest for just a few minutes. He closed his eyes and drifted into sleep. He felt warm, and after a while, stopped shivering.
At seven twenty-five, Anne and her family stepped out of the elevator on the Lodge’s ground floor. They walked the short distance to the restaurant. Greg told the maître d’ that they were expecting a Mr. Adler to join them. They ordered drinks. After fifteen minutes, Anne went to the hotel’s front desk.
“Can you tell me if Mr. Adler is in?” she asked.
The clerk checked the room box.
“No, miss, I don’t think he is. His room key is still in his room box.”
“I’m a little concerned,” Anne said. “He was supposed to join us for dinner. If you don’t mind, can you let me know once he has returned? We are in the dining room at table 3.”
After a half-hour, the family ordered dinner and ate. On their way back to their room, Anne stopped again at the front desk.
“Still not in?”
“I’m afraid not.”
“I believe we should contact the ranger station.”
A call to the station uncovered no additional information. The duty officer stated that rangers had cleared the mountain trails just before the beginning of the snow. He asked if there was a problem.
“I spoke with a man, a Mr. Adler, on the mountain this afternoon. He was supposed to join us for dinner but didn’t show up. And he has not returned to his room.”
The officer took Anne’s information concerning where she had last seen Derek. He sent five rangers up the slope to the area where Anne had seen him last. They searched in an increasing arc from that point. A little after midnight, they found him.
One of Derek’s former students, a renowned expert in Emmanuel Levinas’s philosophy, was appointed the first holder of the Johannes König Chair of Theology at the University of Tübingbruck. In the second semester of her first year at the university, she delivered a series of three lectures in memory of Professor Derek Adler, titled “Love’s Wisdom: Seeing the Face of God in the Other.”
Gershon Ben-Avraham holds an MA in Philosophy (Aesthetics) from Temple University. His short story, “Yoineh Bodek,” (Image) received “Special Mention” in the ‘Pushcart Prize XLlV: Best of the Small Presses 2020 Edition.’ Kelsay Books published his chapbook “God’s Memory” in 2021.