The ancients believed you could not look upon the face of God and live. This is why Moses hid himself in the cleft of a rock on Mt. Sinai when the Lord passed by. His followers made him wear a veil when he came down because his face still shone from the encounter, presumably from having glimpsed God’s backside. The stone tablets of the Ten Commandments that he brought back with him were placed in a wooden box and hidden away behind a curtain in the temple. Only the high priest was permitted to enter the Holy of Holies – and then only once each year.
The ancient Hebrews were not alone in believing the divine was veiled from mortal sight. According to the Gnostics, who briefly flourished during the early Christian era, the lower material world was separated by a veil from a higher spiritual realm. The Prophet Muhammad had a vision of Allah sitting on his throne, his face covered by seventy thousand veils of light and darkness. According to Sufi tradition, souls born into this world pass successively through the veils of light representing divine qualities before the dark veils of earthly existence envelop them.
Why should God be veiled from mortal sight? The story of Moses’ descent from Mt. Sinai may provide a clue. His followers insisted that he cover his face so they would be shielded even from God’s reflected glory. Who then is hiding from whom? Is it God’s absence or his presence that we cannot abide? For those who have eyes to see, God’s countenance is never hidden. We tell ourselves that God is veiled from our sight while all the while shielding our eyes from what lies in plain view.