Arjuna: Just as you have described your infinite glory, O Lord, now I long to see it. I want to see you as the supreme ruler of creation. O Lord, master of yoga, if you think me strong enough to behold it, show me your immortal self. (BG, 11:3-4)
Moses makes a similar request in Exodus 33:18. After insisting that they will not go to the Promised Land unless God accompanies the Israelites, God reassures Moses that God will certainly go with them. Then Moses says, “Show me your glory.”
There is a long tradition in holy writing that seeing God comes with a risk. You will die, be driven mad, or be permanently changed. (And if you’re lucky, probably all three). So God grants Moses’ request, but with some conditions: Moses must hide in a cave, God will pass by, and Moses may come out and see God’s back. Seeing the face of your Creator will unmake you. Seeing God’s unfiltered glory is simply too much for us limited beings to handle.
In the Gita, the next long section of Chapter Eleven is narrated by Sanjaya (who is telling the story) and Arjuna. Krishna is silent for a moment while the author tells us what Arjuna sees. Toward the end, Arjuna says:
I rejoice in seeing you as you have never been seen before, yet I am filled with fear by this vision of you as the abode of the universe. Please let me see you again as the shining God of gods (BG 11:45).
In other words, “tone it down a bit, please—just go back to being a God I can handle.” The vision pushes Arjuna to the limit. I cannot help but think of how Elijah also experienced God:
The Lord said, “Go out and stand at the mountain before the Lord. The Lord is passing by.” A very strong wind tore through the mountains and broke apart the stones before the Lord. But the Lord wasn’t in the wind. After the wind, there was an earthquake. But the Lord wasn’t in the earthquake. After the earthquake, there was a fire. But the Lord wasn’t in the fire. After the fire, there was a sound. Thin. Quiet. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his coat. He went out and stood at the cave’s entrance. (1 Kings 19:11-13).
Elijah knows that he is limited in his ability to see God’s presence unfiltered. He wraps his face in his coat because he knows the unfiltered vision of God carries risk. Yet he also understands that as spectacular as wind, earthquake, and fire are, they do not contain the presence of God. God is in the stillness.
The consistent message is that whatever we think God is, God is both more and not what we expect. God is Other, yet also strangely familiar.
Infinite Motion, Eternal Stillness, fill me with your presence. Help me to hear and see You.