I was a bit tired after church this morning and lay down on my bed. Four hours of deep, inky dark sleep later I woke to an amazing sight. Outside my bedroom window is an old birch tree, tall enough that I look up to it from my upstairs window. It is filled with dead wood, but because the branches near the top are so spindly, there is no reasonable way to climb into it and prune it, so even in the height of summer it has bare branches. The poor old thing lives in perpetual autumn. But not today. I looked out at it, with my head still on the pillow and its branches were filled with blossom: almond blossom. There is was, bedecked in drifts of the palest pink and white and the deep red centres of the blooms clearly visible, even from a distance of 20 metres. It was at the same time an instant reassurance of the eternal springtime of God and a sight so bizarre I raised my head sharply. And on shifting my perspective by even an inch all was resolved into normalcy. There were no blooms, just some cloud behind the tree and the sunlight shining on some smudges on the window.
In our heads we have some marvellous pieces of machinery, including a recognition engine. Our five senses take in raw data by the gallon and fire it all up to the brain which has to figure out what it all means. The recognition engine makes an instant decision about what it is that we're in contact with, and lets us know that we're looking at a cat or smelling a rose or tasting chardonnay. If the recognition engine is momentarily nonplussed, it just takes a stab in dark. So I see almond blossom on a birch tree. Or Joan of Arc hears voices. Or Moses sees a bush on fire. It's a trick of the light. It's not really there. But then again, nothing else that we see or hear or taste or touch or smell is really there either. It's all just our recognition engine, sorting stuff into categories and giving us a good enough approximation to be going on with in the meantime.
What does remain though is the feeling. It's a marvellous thing to wake from a deep and refreshing sleep and to see miraculous blossom. If someone had been with the Maid of Orleans when the saints spoke with her, they may not have heard a thing, but it didn't alter the truth of the message she was given: the English were tyrannical, they did need to be faced up to, and Joan did need to lead the people in doing so. Everyone else heard thunder, but Jesus heard the voice of God and saw a dove and knew one of the deep truths of the Universe: he was the beloved son in whom God was well pleased. The knowledge that the universe is forever new and forever surprising is a deep and eternal truth that I was glad to be reminded of, even if my recognition engine was temporarily a little less (but only a little less) accurate than usual about how the universe's atoms are arranged.