You Are That (.org)
The resurrection of my late lamented website (mostly) on spiritual matters.

The God Behind the Gods We See

God Without Form As Portrayed in Stained Glass at
The Episcopal Church of the Ascension, Sierra Madre, CA

[This essay was originally posted to]

On June 21, 2006, I mentioned the Church of the Ascension in Sierra Madre, California, where I worked back in the late '70s. In those days I considered myself an Evangelical Christian and a Western Man, with a worldview shaped by Plato, Jesus, Leonardo, and so on.

But even then, I had inklings of something more waiting for me out there.

In the 80s, I read a book called The Mists of Avalon (Amazon). It's a retelling of the story of King Arthur, from the point of view of the women, and mainly of Morgaine (Morgan le Fey), who in Bradley's book is a priestess of the pre-Christian religion in England (read "paganism"). Rather than insisting on the "reality" of the pagan gods, however, Bradley repeatedly uses the phrase "the gods behind the gods we see."

Years later, I have arrived at exactly that belief: that our words about "God" are metaphorical, and that the Reality behind those words is what's important. (Read my Foundations essay "A View of God" for more on this idea.)

But even back in my Bible-thumpin' days, I must have been thinking about this nameless, formless God, and I have incontrovertible photographic proof of that predilection.

Ascension Church is a small, magnificent jewel of architecture. It was built in 1889, and while I was working there, in 1977, it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. (I hung the plaque near the front door that says so.) One of the building's nicest features is the little bell tower.

Another of Ascension's attractions is its fine collection of stained-glass windows. A little-seen feature of the tower is four small windows (one is visible here, just to the right of the porch, and another can barely be made out around the corner to the right). You can see three of the windows from the base of the stairs as you look up the staircase that leads to the belfry; you can only see the fourth if you climb the stairs.

Now, as you look at the first three here, you can see that they represent:

  • the Father (a hand reaching down);
  • the Son (the Chi Rho [looks like X P] standing for Christ); and
  • the Holy Spirit (the well-known symbol of the dove).

But what about the fourth window? It's blank!

There's a perfectly reasonable explanation. As mentioned above, without climbing up the stairs, visitors can only see the first three. Why spend money on a window that only the acolytes or other bell-ringers will see?

And yet, if this were the only answer, I don't think I would have taken that photo so many years ago. No, even then, I felt that this window was significant.

And now that I've "gone East," I think I know why: It represents nirguna Brahman, the "God Behind the Gods We See," the unknowable Ground of Being. In Buddhist terms, it's sunya (emptiness).

Or maybe it's just a plain, undecorated window.

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