What can a wine tasting tell you about prayer?
Plenty, it turns out.
I was sitting at a table with twenty other would-be oenophiles, four glasses placed in front of me. I was to number them. In glass number one the sommelier poured Sauvignon blanc. I picked up the glass like a clod and made to drink it. No, no, no. First we had to tip the glass and see the color. See the color? It’s a Sauv blanc. I know what color that is! “What color is it?” the man asked us. I was stumped. It was, for all I could see, the color of Sauv blanc—that color. “Is it lemony yellow? Sunshine?” he probed. “Golden?” I wasn’t really sure. For those with knowledge, color tells how long this wine has sat on the skins, whether it’s been in an oak barrel.
“You’re just going to look at this wine,” the man said lifting his glass like an objet d’art. “That’s the first enjoyment. You can already taste it—with your eyes!” I looked at my glass. Truly, I could not taste it with my eyes. But I could hear in his voice, see in his eyes: this man could.
“Now smell the wine,” the man said. “Get your nose in there and take it in.” He sounded like he was blowing his nose in reverse. “If I can’t hear you you’re not really smelling!” I cupped the glass over my nose and inhaled. Nada. Around me people were finding aromas of pineapple and melon and mineral. I smelled—you guessed it—Sauv blanc.
I must have seemed skeptical. The man looked at me, then said to the crowd, “About now someone usually says, ‘Oh, come on. It’s all a lot of fake fuss, isn’t it? I mean, “arctic yellow kiwi” and all. It’s a giant hoax, right?” All I can tell you is, if you haven’t spent years savoring wine, caring about wine, loving wine, noticing what makes this one this and that one that, then you won’t be able to see and smell and taste these realities. So, if you’re struggling with this, just stay with it and give it some months and some years.”
Thus spake the preacher.
If you simply substitute “spirit” for “wine” (interesting pairing), you get the standard skeptic’s response to the sage speaking of what one finds in the divine Presence. What she hears in the silence, what she knows that cannot be proven to anyone else, what she sees in the bark of a tree or the skin of an apple. What it feels like to be enfolded in Love. How astonishingly turquois is the color of nothing. What it’s like to sit still and visit what Thomas Merton called the “Palace of Nowhere.”
When the masters talk about prayer not as a dim sum list of requests but a simple resting in the Presence, people often say, “I tried that once and it didn’t work.” It’s a giant hoax, right? It seems that way, and even the saints experience periods of drought when the silence is just that and nothing more, when the stillness yields nothing but agita and anxiety. These dark passages remind us that prayer is always a gift and nothing we achieve or accomplish. But if we stay with it, as the sommelier said, over months and years, we develop a keener sense of the Spirit, a memory bank of extraordinary moments when we know we have slipped through a thin place and met with glory, a vocabulary for describing the indescribable, and a humility that is happy with whatever is.
All I can tell you is, if you haven’t spent years savoring wine, caring about wine, loving wine, noticing what makes this one this and that one that, then you won’t be able to see and smell and taste these realities.
So it is with the Spirit.