The World’s End

The World's End

When I was 8 years old, I read in LIFE magazine that in so many millions of years, the sun would burn out and life on earth would cease. This worried me, so I asked my parents, “If the world is going to end, how come we say “world without end” when we pray?” And they told me what the Bible says, that heaven and earth may pass away, but God remains. That relieved some of my anxiety, but I still wasn’t sure I liked the idea of the world ending, even if God was in charge.

Of course the world ends all the time. When I moved from California to Puget Sound in the 1990’s, my first Northwest winter felt like today’s gospel: the sun was darkened and the moon gave no light.

Who among us has not seen their world end? Adolescents exiled from childhood. Black teenagers robbed of their future. Elders deprived of their health. Unemployment …retirement …divorce … the death of a parent, a spouse, a child — in every one of these, a world comes to an end.

For anyone who has known serious loss, this is more than metaphor. The experience of grief can be so total and unrelenting that you can’t see anything beyond it. You can’t imagine the future. It feels like the end of the world.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good. [i]

W.H. Auden was invoking apocalyptic metaphors to express personal loss, but shared, public worlds also come to an end. As in 1789, or 1914. The Holocaust. Hiroshima. 9/11. My Lord, what a morning, when the stars begin to fall.

But why bring up such dreary stuff on this first day of the new Christian year? Shouldn’t we be breaking out the party hats, blowing horns and shouting “Happy New Year?” The wisdom of the Advent season is that it never begins with “A Holy Trinity Production,” or “The Creator of the World Presents.” No, it always opens with “The End.” Advent knows that every beginning involves some kind of ending. In this season’s Scripture, preaching and prayers, the present arrangements of collective and personal life are judged and found wanting. God’s imagination is far too rich and fertile to settle for our barren and diminished versions of human possibility.

Selfishness, greed, consumerism? Fear, racism and violence? Poverty, militarism, war, environmental degradation? That’s the best we can do? Really? God must be saying, “Come on, people. I made you a little lower than the angels, and this is what you came up with?”

George Eliot said “it is never too late to become what you might have been.” But to get to that “might have been” requires an Exodus into the wilderness beyond the way things are; an Exodus beyond even the best we can imagine for ourselves, into a place of unknowing, where only God possesses the language to speak our future into being.

So much of what we hear and pray and sing in Advent is profoundly disruptive. Bob Franke’s great Advent song, “Stir up your power,” gets right to it in the first line: This world may no longer stand. We are meant to be unsettled, to be driven beyond our narrow boundaries, our constricted realities, toward a beckoning horizon. The Christian life is a perpetual series of departures for a better place.

The world as it is – the world of racial hatred and toxic violence and economic injustice and perpetual war and addictive consumerism and pollution for profit and all the other evils which poison our common life – this world has no future in the emergent Kingdom of God. This world may no longer stand.

But the story doesn’t stop there. In my end is my beginning.[ii] Even when we have gone far astray, even when our story seems over, God remains deeply present in the processes of creation, tenderly leading and luring us into newness of life, making a way where there is no way, opening doors that none can shut.

Advent people do not just wring their hands or shake their heads over the latest news from Ferguson or the Middle East. We work and pray for something better. What we can do on our own is limited, but when we offer our priorities and energies to the larger purposes of God, Love will have its way with us.

As the Christian mystic Hadewijch put it in the thirteenth century:

Since I gave myself to Love’s service,
Whether I lose or win,
I am resolved:
I will always give her thanks,
Whether I lose or win;
I will stand in her power. [iii]

It is not always easy to stand in Love’s power and keep the faith. In some situations it is almost unimaginable. Forty years ago the African-American author James Baldwin wrote:

To be an Afro-American, or an American black, is to be in the situation, intolerably exaggerated, of all those who have ever found themselves part of a civilization which they could in no wise honorably defend – which they were compelled, indeed, endlessly to attack and condemn – and who yet spoke out of the most passionate love, hoping to make the kingdom new, to make it honorable and worthy of life. [iv]

This passionate mixture of protest and love sounds a lot like the Old Testament prophets who permeate our Advent lectionary. The very first reading of the season begins with a prophetic plea for history to be broken open by divine justice:

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down …
to make your name known to those who resist you,
so that the nations might tremble at your presence! [v]

Advent is not just a season of quiet waiting. It is also a time of protest and vision. Advent announces an insurgency against the way things are, a revolution to scatter the proud, cast down the mighty, raise the lowly, gather the lost, free the captive, and bind up the brokenhearted. Advent re-imagines the world as paradise restored, a new heaven and new earth suffused with the peace of God.

this is the day of broken sky
this is the space of conflagration-breath
speaking border-trespass
this is the feathered swoop of heaven
on the wing of now …
forking lightning into language …
breaking god into prison …
breaking the truth from jail! …

This is the fire-tongued fork of holy-ghost howl
making love on the tongue …
spitting flames of reconciliation
in the sky of war
making messiah-praise out of the air itself!

this is pentecost in your head
like becoming what you never dared
for the first time and forever

This ecstatic prophecy is from a poem by Jim Perkinson. [vi] He was talking about Pentecost, but his theme fits Advent as well:

“the day of broken sky”
the earth in conflagration
God breaking into the prisons
the truth being set loose at last
and “the fire-tongued fork of holy-ghost howl
making love on the tongue …
making messiah-praise out of the air itself!”

And each of us, all of us, becoming what we never dared.

When Jesus tells us to stay awake, he is warning us not to sleep through the day of God’s coming. Stay alert. Pay attention. Don’t miss it! Become what you never dared. Shake off the sleep of complacency, the sleep of complicity, the sleep of despair. Awake and greet the new dawn.

Jan Richardson describes this dawning reality in her beautiful poem, “Drawing Near.” [vii]

It is difficult to see it from here,
I know,
but trust me when I say
this blessing is inscribed
on the horizon.
Is written on
that far point
you can hardly see…

Richardson accurately expresses the sense of distant horizon that prevents the dominant reality of the moment from closing in on us and locking us in. That reality wants to be believed as fixed and final, permanent and stable. But the horizon calls every finality into question, disrupting its stability with the boundlessness of divine possibility. The horizon draws our attention from what is given to what may yet be. Keeping our eye on the horizon, feeling its pull, is the spiritual practice of Advent. Richardson’s poem expresses the deep longing produced by the distance between the already and the not-yet.

And then the poet discovers what every pilgrim knows: the goal of our long journey is something that has already been inscribed deep within us even before our journey began. Even before the day we were born, we were marked as God’s own forever.

And that is where Advent ultimately leaves us – finding that the thing we have been seeking so long has been with us all the time – within us, and all around us. While we have been walking our Camino to the Promised land, our feet have already been on holy ground, every step of the way. And the God of the far horizon turns out to be the path as well, keeping us company as we stride deeper and deeper into the world.

So when Advent people talk about the end of the world, we are speaking about end in the sense of purpose rather than termination. The word “apocalypse” means “unveiling,” and the apocalypse in our future will not be an annihilation, but a revealing of the world’s ultimate purpose and destiny.

Yes, all the inadequate, incomplete versions of world will come to an end (some of them kicking and screaming!), but creation as it was intended will be restored, not discarded. Like a poet who creates a new language out of old words, Love will remake the ruins and recover the lost. And the Holy One who is the mystery of the world will be its light and its life forever.

This Advent faith is expressed memorably in a short story by British writer Carol Lake, “The Day of Judgment.” On the Last Day of the world, God sails into England aboard a new Ark. But instead of bringing history to a close and pronouncing judgment on everyone, God leaves the Ark to enter the city of Derby. Heading for the run-down inner city neighborhood of Rosehill, he joins the crowd at a local pub, a multi-ethnic mix of the working poor and the unemployed. And there God gets so caught up in being with these people that he loses track of time, and the Ark sails away without him, heading off for the horizon of eternity. As the story describes it:

The Ark is on the edge of the horizon now, its destination the heartlessness of perfection. Most of the inmates already know what they are going to find – endless fruit, endless harmony, endless entropy, endless endless compassion, black and white in endless inane tableaux of equality. It sails off to a perfect world; the sky has turned into rich primary colors and in the distance the Ark bobs about on a bright blue sea.” [viii]

Meanwhile, God is still in that Rosehill pub, in the very heart of imperfection. If you had walked in there, you would have had a hard time picking him out. He blended right in. But if you were paying attention, you might notice that there was now something different about Rosehill. The old non-descript streets and dilapidated buildings had taken on a strange beauty. Maybe it was the warm slant of afternoon light, but people were beginning to see their neighborhood in a new way. And their own faces, too, seemed to glow with an inner radiance, as if they were carrying a wonderful secret, tacitly shared with everyone around them, as if they suddenly knew there was more to life than meets the eye.

They were still poor, the world was still a mess, but something new was in the air, a spirit of change was awakening. And from that day on, the people of Rosehill found themselves becoming what they’d never dared, for the first time and forever.

[i] W.H. Auden, “Twelve Songs (ix)”, Collected Poems, ed. Edward Mendelson (NY: Random House, 1976), 120

[ii] T.S. Eliot, “East Coker,” Collected Poems 1909-1962 (London: Faber and Faber Ltd, 1974), 191

[iii] Hadewijch: The Complete Works, trans. Mother Columba Hart, Classics of Western Spirituality (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1980), 213

[iv] James Baldwin, No Name in the Street (NY: Dell, 1972), 194

[v] Isaiah 64:1-2

[vi] Jim Perkinson, “tongues-talk,” q. in Catherine Keller, On the Mystery: Discerning God in Process (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008), 157-8

[vii] Jan Richardson, “Drawing Near” (

[viii] Carol Lake, Rosehill: Portraits from a Midlands City (London: Bloomsbury, 1989), 119

No place like home

Over the rainbow photo

We didn’t have enough eggs this morning to make the walnut pie, so I headed out at dawn for the village grocery. On the way, I played Charles Ives’ “Thanksgiving Day”, a tone poem permeated with fragments of American hymnody. Ives said that the clashing moods of major and minor chords represented “the sternness and strength and austerity of the Puritan character, and it seemed to me that any of the major, minor, or diminished chords used alone gave too much a feeling of bodily ease, which the Puritan did not give in to.” [i]

The irony of driving my car to the store while contemplating Puritan rigor did not escape me, but I did pass a solitary runner braving the cold drizzle, and joined my spirit to his propitiatory sacrifice.

Ives’ cacophony of broken tunes resolves in the end with the choral singing of a New England hymn:

O God, beneath thy guiding hand
Our exiled fathers crossed the sea;
And when they trod the wintry strand,
With prayer and psalm they worshipped Thee.

We are all exiles: from the Garden of Eden, from our mother’s womb, from the homes we grew up in, from ancestral lands, from pasts best abandoned and futures that never happened. Longing for home is the human condition.

As Dorothy knew, clicking her red shoes, “There’s no place like home.” And on the fourth Thursday of November, millions of Americans go wandering in search of that place, real or imagined, where they were always welcomed and known and understood.

Frank Baum, author of the Oz books, was never quite satisfied with Dorothy’s choice of Kansas over Oz. In his sixth book of the series, Dorothy moves back to Oz, dragging Auntie Em and Uncle Henry with her. As Salman Rushdie notes, “Oz finally became home; the imagined world became the actual world.”

The real secret of the ruby slippers is not that “there’s no place like home,” but rather that there is no longer any such place as home: except, of course, for the home we make, or the homes that are made for us, in Oz; which is anywhere, and everywhere, except the place from which we began. [ii]

Whether you celebrate today in Oz, or in Kansas, or out there somewhere along the Yellow Brick Camino, may it be with a grateful heart and blessed community. And if you need directions home and don’t have your ruby slippers, you might try Raymond Carver:

Left off the highway and
down the hill. At the
bottom, hang another left.
Keep bearing left. The road
will make a Y. Left again.
There’s a creek on the left.
Keep going. Just before
the road ends, there’ll be
another road. Take it
and no other. Otherwise,
your life will be ruined
forever. There’s a log house
with a shake roof, on the left.
It’s not that house. It’s
the next house, just over
a rise. The house
where trees are laden with
fruit. Where phlox, forsythia,
and marigold grow. It’s
the house where the woman
stands in the doorway
wearing sun in her hair. The one
who’s been waiting
all this time.
The woman who loves you.
The one who can say,
“What’s kept you?” [iii]

[i] Liner notes by Paul C. Echols, Charles Ives Holidays Symphony, Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas (CBS 1986)

[ii] Salman Rushdie, The Wizard of Oz (London: British Film Institute, 1992), p. 57

[iii] “Waiting,” by Raymond Carver, from All of Us: The Collected Poems (Alfred A. Knopf)

Whose world is it?

GTU Jesus icon face

I teach a course on “Jesus and the Movies,” examining nineteen features made on the life of Jesus between 1912 and 2014. And one of my favorites is a South African production, Son of Man (2006), which sets the gospel story in a fictional twenty-first century African country.

It begins in the desert, with Jesus and Satan sitting side by side atop a tall sand dune. There Satan offers Jesus the familiar temptations: use your power, dazzle the world, bow down to me and I will give you everything you desire.

Jesus listens for a while in silence. Suddenly he turns to Satan and shoves him off the ridge. As Satan tumbles downward – Milton’s fall of Lucifer comes to mind – Jesus shouts after him: “This is my world!”

Satan comes to a stop at the foot of the dune. He picks himself up and looks back defiantly at Jesus. “No,” he cries. “It’s my world!”

The film cuts abruptly to a village caught in the crossfire of a civil war. Terrible atrocities are taking place, making Satan’s point perfectly. It’s his world after all.

Tomorrow is the Feast of Christ the King, created by Pope Pius XI in 1925. Originally observed at the end of October as a prelude to All Saints Day, it was later moved to the last Sunday of the liturgical year, where it provides both a grand finale to the calendrical Christ narrative and a dramatic overture to Advent. In 1970 it was adopted by other churches using the Common Lectionary, including Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists, and Presbyterians.

The pope was responding to the apocalyptic violence of World War I, where evil and madness seemed to have seized control of the world. He wanted to establish a clear reminder that it is Christ to whom the future belongs; it is Christ whom we must follow and serve.

Or in the words of Bob Dylan, “It may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you gotta serve somebody.”

While the imagery of Christ as Lord of all may require some unpacking for interfaith dialogue, the pope’s original encyclical was clearly focused on Christian practice. If we profess Christ as our way, our truth, our life, then, in the pope’s words, “none of our faculties is exempt from his empire.”

But what do we do when Christ’s “empire” is in conflict with our other allegiances? How much do we give to Jesus, and how much do we hold back? Jesus gets Sunday mornings; does he get the working week? He gets our spiritual life; does he get our worldly affairs? Does he get our relationships, or our stewardship of time? Does Jesus get our politics, our economics?

Clarence Jordan was a Baptist preacher, New Testament teacher, and farmer in rural Georgia. In his celebrated Cotton Patch Gospels, he translated the Jesus story into a southern idiom, explaining that “the Scriptures should be taken out of the classroom and stained-glass sanctuary and put out under God’s skies where people are toiling and crying and wondering; where the mighty events of the good news first happened and where they alone feel at home.” [i]

In the 1940’s, in the middle of “the Good War,” in the heart of the segregated South, Jordan founded Koinonia, an interracial, pacifist farming collective using a communitarian model more like early Christianity than late capitalism. For his faithfulness to the dominion of Christ, he and his community were harassed, shot at, and bombed. The local church expelled him.

He was often invited to speak to groups around the country, and he would ask them, “What’s the biggest lie told in America today?” He’d let the question sink in for a bit, and then he’d say, “The biggest lie told in America today is: Jesus is Lord.”

I first heard this story when I visited Koinonia in 1980 and had a long conversation with his widow Florence (Clarence died in 1969). And in these latter days his words ring truer than ever.

Last year the Ohio legislature, hoping to derail the Affordable Care Act, blocked an expansion of Medicaid that would provide health care to 275,000 people who had no coverage. But the governor, John Kasich, made an end run around the legislature and got it done anyway.

As he said at the time: “For those who live in the shadows of life, for those who are the least among us, I will not accept the fact that the most vulnerable in our state should be ignored.”

The lawmakers howled. How dare he put the needs of the poor above our political agenda! So this is how the governor explained it to one those legislators, whom he knew to be a fellow Christian:

“Now when you die and get to the meeting with St. Peter, he’s probably not going to ask you much about what you did to keep government small; but he is going to ask you what you did for the poor. Better have a good answer.”

Governor Kasich, himself a Republican, was denounced by many in his party for appealing to a power higher than their ideology. The Wall Street Journal, wanting to make it clear that Jesus, lover of the poor, was not in fact Lord in America, offered a tart response: “Republicans get a vote before St. Peter.”

In Matthew’s gospel, the last parable Jesus tells before his arrest and crucifixion pictures all of humanity gathered before the glorified ‘Son of Man’ – the Lord of history – who reveals that he has always been among them in the bodies of the poor and needy: “I was starving … I was naked … I was an undocumented alien … I had AIDS … I was a convict …”

Everyone is of course quite surprised. But they all take his point. When you kneel before Christ the King, it won’t be at the foot of a mighty throne, but before the holy icons of “the least of these” – the vulnerable, the marginalized, the broken, the forgotten.

Well you kneel to the Lord and you will bless yourself…
Ain’t no need to kneel to no one else. [ii]

[i] G. McCleod Bryan, “Theology in Overalls: The Imprint of Clarence Jordan”, Sojourners (Dec. 1979, vol. 8, no. 12)

[ii] Bob Franke, “Trouble in This World (It’ll Be All Right),” on Heart of the Flower (Daring DR3016), © Telephone Pole Music, 1995

Dies Irae

Biblical prophet at Moissac Abbey on Le Chemin de St. Jacques

Biblical prophet at Moissac Abbey on Le Chemin de St. Jacques

Mr. McCleery, my seventh grade Latin teacher, had us memorize verses of the Dies Irae, a medieval chant describing the Last Judgment in strikingly lurid language. Most boys in junior high do not walk around chanting Latin poetry about the end of the world, but I rather enjoyed it. The tune was catchy, and those terse rhyming triplets beat time like the sensuous energy of a drum circle.

Dies irae, dies illa, 
Solvet saeclum in favilla,
Teste David cum Sibylla.

Day of wrath, O day of mourning,
See fulfilled the prophet’s warning,
Heav’n and earth in ashes burning.

The text of Dies Irae is inspired by the first chapter of Zephaniah, which was one of the eucharistic readings last Sunday. I sometimes wonder what churchgoers think about when asked to consider “a day of wrath, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom.” In Syria or Ukraine, it’s just the latest news. But for those of us not living in one of history’s infernos, Zephaniah might be dismissed as a colorful crank carried away by the thrill of his own hyperbole.

The effect of the Bible’s more fiery rhetoric is often muted by the flat, inexpressive way it is usually read – or worse, mumbled – in the typical liturgy, as though no one really means it. Readers of prophetic texts should be given bullhorns. They should walk among the people as they shout, looking them in the eye.

I will bring such distress upon people
that they shall walk like the blind;
because they have sinned against the LORD,
their blood shall be poured out like dust,
and their flesh like dung.[i]

The church growth people might have something to say about that sort of messaging, but there is no denying that the prophets are working hard to get our attention. And in these last weeks of the Christian year, both the Sunday lectionary and the daily liturgical readings resound with the trumpet blasts of biblical warnings. People get ready. History’s chickens are coming home to roost.

Those prophetic rants have sometimes been read as endorsements of sacred violence – angry outbursts of a moody and unpredictable god – but God’s best friends have long rejected that crude picture as a tragic misreading of the divine. Nevertheless, there is no denying the violent imagery woven into some biblical texts, and we must find a way to make sense of it.

Walter Brueggemann explains that the prophets “speak in images and metaphors that aim to disrupt, destabilize, and invite to alternative perceptions of reality … [They] speak in outrageous and extreme figures because they intend to disrupt the ‘safe’ construals of reality, which are sponsored and advocated by the dominant opinion makers.”[ii] In other words, prophets blow up the old paradigms in order to make room for the new. They take seriously the power of language both to enslave and to liberate.

Zephaniah targets those “who rest complacently on their dregs,” who are blinded by their illusions, who assume divine indifference to the damage they do to the poor, the vulnerable, and the whole interdependent system of life on earth. We can find similar voices in our own time.

German writer W. G. Sebald’s apocalyptic poem, After Nature, is as harrowing as anything in the Bible. As he contemplates the dark and barren landscape of Matthias Grünewald’s Crucifixion, painted in 1505, Sebald finds a predictive warning of the planet’s own death unless we change our ways.

Here in an evil state of erosion
and desolation the heritage of the ruining
of life that in the end will consume
even the very stones has been depicted.[iii]

Today the United States Senate came just one vote shy of approving the Keystone XL pipeline, a massive fossil fuels project to enrich a few people at the expense of the whole earth. The effects of exploiting the Canadian tar sands, according to climate scientist James Hansen, could well be of biblical proportions.

Canada’s tar sands, deposits of sand saturated with bitumen, contain twice the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by global oil use in our entire history. If we were to fully exploit this new oil source, and continue to burn our conventional oil, gas and coal supplies, concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere eventually would reach levels higher than in the Pliocene era, more than 2.5 million years ago, when sea level was at least 50 feet higher than it is now. That level of heat-trapping gases would assure that the disintegration of the ice sheets would accelerate out of control. Sea levels would rise and destroy coastal cities. Global temperatures would become intolerable. Twenty to 50 percent of the planet’s species would be driven to extinction. Civilization would be at risk.[iv]

Hansen concludes that Keystone and its aftermath “will be game over for the climate.” The apocalypse was defeated today in the Senate, but there will be another vote early next year, when many of the “no” votes will be out of office. Alarmingly, the next head of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works will be a climate change denier who believes in a god who would never allow earth’s climate to be affected by the actions of mortals. If the senior senator from Oklahoma were to study his Bible, he might find that God takes human freedom far more seriously than he does. We do have the power to destroy God’s creations and disrupt the fragile balances of life.

The prophets are trying to make us renounce that power before it is too late. When Zephaniah warns of “a terrible end” he isn’t simply condemning us; he’s trying to save us. The “day of wrath” will not be an arbitrary vengeance from the sky, but the sum of innumerable bad choices here on earth. Zephaniah and his fellow prophets hold before us a chillingly graphic picture of where those choices are headed. What has been called the wrath of God is really something bearing our own signature.

Will God ride to the rescue? In a poem called “Emmanuel’s Nightmare,” African-American poet Gwendolyn Brooks wonders what it might be like if we were simply left to our own devices. She imagines the Second Coming of a Christ who would “clean the earth / of the dirtiness of war.” But the Savior finds himself thwarted. Humans love war too much. It is “what they lived for.” So God’s Son gives up and goes home. Mission not accomplished. “He had not the heart / To take away their chief sweet delectation.”[v] 346

The prospect of being abandoned to our own suicidal impulses is not a happy one, but – thankfully – it is not in fact the story we tell. God has destined us not for wrath but for salvation.[vi] The means of that better destiny will turn out to be quite surprising, not at all like the terrible clamor of the Dies Irae. But that is a tale for another day.

[i] Zephaniah 1:17

[ii] Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), 625

[iii] W.G. Sebald, After Nature, q. in Colin Riordan, “Ecocentrism in Sebald’s After Nature,” in W.G. Sebald – A Critical Companion, eds. J.J. Long & Anne Whitehead (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2004), 51

[iv] New York Times, May 9, 2012

[v] Robert Atwan, George Dardess, Peggy Rosenthal, eds., Divine Inspiration: The Life of Jesus in World Poetry (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 346

[vi] I Thessalonians 5:9

Two hours in heaven

Musicians in the Pôrtico de la Gloria (12th century), cathedral of Santiago de Compostela

Musicians in the Pôrtico de la Gloria (12th century), cathedral of Santiago de Compostela

Belief is hard – at least when you dwell within the bubble of secular modernity, where reality seems to function well enough without invoking divinity as a causal mechanism. As long as there is money in the bank and a storm hasn’t knocked down the local power lines, as long as I am healthy and not spending any time in foxholes, it might slip my mind that life is a gift rather than a possession. God doesn’t make it any easier by being invisible or in disguise, and preferring to be subtle when it comes to manifesting presence.

In The Poetic Imagination: An Anglican Spiritual Tradition, William Countryman sees the ebb and flow of divine presence as “the central rhythm of Anglican spirituality.” Like the elusive behavior of waves and particles, the Holy seems to leap unpredictably between available and unavailable, known and unknown, intimate and distant, withheld and given. This can be hard on believers.

Oh that thou shouldst give dust a tongue
To cry to thee,
And then not hear it crying! all day long
My heart was in my knee,
But no hearing.
Therefore my soul lay out of sight,
Untun’d, unstrung:
My feeble spirit, unable to look right,
Like a nipt blossom, hung

– George Herbert (“Denial”)

There is no other sound
In the darkness but the sound of a man
Breathing, testing his faith
On emptiness, nailing his questions
One by one to an untenanted cross.

– R. S. Thomas (“In Church”)

When Herbert or Thomas felt God’s absence, they still remained in relationship with divinity. They missed its nearness. They longed for an intimacy lost. For the totally secularized, God is not merely absent. God is not even missed. The sense of longing inherent to the human condition has been transferred to more tangible, less ultimate objects. For those who do not reside within the practices and discourses of a faith community, is a relationship with the transcendent recoverable? The arts have been proposed as a substitute for religion. But instead of replacing God, the arts often seem to incarnate the divine, even for those who would never think to describe their experience theologically.

In A Natural History of the Arts: Imprint of the Spirit, Anthony Monti cites Sir Thomas Browne on the way music restores us to a spiritual mode of awareness:

There is something in it of Divinity more than the ear discovers: it is an Hieroglyphical and shadowed lesson of the whole World, and creatures of God; such a melody to the ear, as the whole World, well understood, would afford the understanding. In brief, it is a sensible fit of that harmony which intellectually sounds in the ear of God.[i]

In more contemporary language, Frank Burch Brown writes that the Sanctus of Bach’s Mass in B Minor “so shines and overflows with the musical manifestation of divine plenitude that in the experience of many a listener heaven and earth seem to converge, revealing the ultimate reality of their ecstatic union/communion.” [ii]

Image Journal, an exquisitely produced quarterly exploring the intersection of “art, faith and mystery,” employs both beauty and thought to counter the modernist dogma of belief’s imminent extinction. And at last weekend’s Seattle concert in celebration of the magazine’s 25th anniversary, I experienced the “musical manifestation of divine plenitude.” For two glorious hours, four choirs and a reader of poems pushed back the veil of doubt and distance so that a fortunate crowd of listeners could dwell – effortlessly, ecstatically – in the radiance of holy presence.

The design of the program had a litugical structure. There were seven sections – a sacred number – conducting us through the stages of spiritual journey: Cloud of Unknowing, After Paradise, The Contemplative Life, Longing for the Messiah, Mothering God, Blessed Are Those Who Mourn, and From Darkness into Light. Each section’s theme was introduced by a contemporary poem wrestling with the presence/absence of what Denise Levertov calls “the Other, the known / Unknown, unknowable.” [iii] And each poem was followed by a triptych of choral pieces from medieval to modern, from Hildegard and Palestrina to Arvo Pärt and John Tavener. Seattle Pro Musica, Opus 7 Vocal Ensemble, the Medieval Women’s Choir, and the Women of St. James Schola took turns lifting their voices in the resonant space of St. James Cathedral.

Sometimes the presence entered gently, as in the lyric by Jeanne Murray Walker: “Listen! Already God descends, waking us, / with his new breath, from sleep, / … like a mother.” [iv] Sometimes it clapped like thunder, as when the supplicating harmonies of Tavener’s “God is with us” were met with the sudden roar of the organ in heaven’s unambiguous reply.

The most stunning moment for me came at the end of James MacMillan’s Christus Vincit. The triumphant text – “Christ conquers, Christ is King, Christ is Lord of All” – started quietly with the sopranos, joined by the basses rumbling a rhythmic plainsong like breaking waves. The interplay of high and low, feminine and masculine, was punctuated by generous silences, allowing us to savor the fading reverberations. Then a single soprano began to rise above the other voices, with melismatic ornaments resembling the grace notes of Celtic song. Alleluia, she sang, over and over, her voice rising in a vocal mimesis of the ascending Christ. The other singers fell away as she soared on: Alleluia! Alleluia! And then, reaching a high B that seemed beyond the reach of mortals, she sang “All-le – “, but instead of the final syllables, there was sudden silence, as if she had vanished into eternity before the word could be finished.

In such an atmosphere, it was unbelief that became impossible. No more weeping by the rivers of exile, no hiding of faces from an alien Creator, no wandering in the wilderness of doubt and loss. We were home at last. God was not a dubious idea, but an immediate experience.

Alas, we are never permitted to linger long around the throne of presence. Once the vision fades, we must go forth to redeem the time being from insignificance.[v] But those two blessed hours provided a rich and lasting sustenance for those of us who continue along the pilgrim way.

[i] Anthony Monti, A Natural Theology of the Arts: Imprint of the Spirit (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2003) 121

[ii] Ibid., 122

[iii] Denise Levertov, “Sanctus,” from concert program

[iv] Jeanne Murray Walker, “And He Shall Dwell With Them,” from concert program

[v] W.H. Auden, For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio in Collected Poems, ed. Edward Mendelson (New York: Random House, 1976) 308

Memento mori

Wall relief in Castrojeriz on the Camino de Santiago

Wall relief in Castrojeriz on the Camino de Santiago

I tell my pupils to live each day as if it were their last… I don’t want children to fear death; I want them to respect life… It’s good for children to confront the idea of death, and… of their own mortality. Sometimes a child feels squeamish about death… skulls and skeletons. When this happens, I tell my pupils to touch themselves. “Why are you afraid?” I ask, “when each of you owns a skull and skeleton. We all carry death within us.” They feel themselves, and they say: “Yes it’s true, we too are made of bones.”

– María Antonieta Sánchez de Escamilla, a kindergarten teacher in Mexico (The Skeleton at the Feast: The Day of the Dead in Mexico, Elizabeth Carmichael & Chloë Sayer)

No leaves, no flowers, no light, no warmth, November. The eleventh month, as the year begins to slip away, evokes mortality like no other. Though it begins with the festivity of All Saints Day, celebrating the friends of God now radiant with the light of heaven, it immediately shifts to the more shadowy realm of All Souls, the Day of the Dead. Death itself, rather than what lies beyond it, becomes our focus. We visit graves, light candles, speak names, gaze at old photographs, tell stories of vanished presences.

In Mexico, death is playfully treated in comic skeleton images and candy skulls, but it is not mocked. A resigned acceptance of mortality pervades the festivities. The living remember not only the dead, but the skeleton inside themselves. They too are “made of bones.”

In American culture, we are not so adept with death. We always seem a little surprised by it. We avoid speaking its name. Memento mori is not a common spiritual practice. Few of us keep skulls on our desk, or sleep in coffins while we still have breath.

Forty-five years ago this month, I had my closest brush with death. I was sleeping in the back of a Volkswagen bus hurtling down a New York thruway at 65 miles per hour. A friend and I had been traveling all night, and it was my turn to rest. Suddenly the bus went out of control and flipped sideways, rolling over and over six times until finally coming to a stop upside down on the grassy median.

I remember two things about that long roll. My mind sped up to make everything appear in slow motion. It was like being inside the giant rotating barrel at an old amusement park. It carries you up and up until gravity kicks in and you are dropped back to the bottom to begin all over again. Slide up, drop. Slide up, drop. But slowed down, so I could observe it all in detail. Meanwhile, guitars, suitcases and croquet balls were flying around in similar motion experiments.

The other thing I remember is how familiar death seemed. I was not thinking, “This can’t be happening.” I was thinking, “Oh, so this is where we finally meet.” I’m sure the words were not so precise in the moment, but the sense of recognition was. When the rolling finally stopped, I lay face down on the ceiling of the inverted bus. I probably blacked out for a moment. Then I heard a voice, “All you all right?” I wasn’t sure how to answer – not until I actually tried to move. What if I couldn’t? I hesitated a moment, delaying the verdict. At last I tested my hands; my arms; my legs. They still worked. I rose slowly to my feet. Thankfully, nothing was broken. My friend was unharmed as well. Life was never so sweet.

The bus itself was totaled, and one of the guitars, my grandfather’s Gibson “Roy Smeck Stage Deluxe” Hawaiian guitar from the 1940’s, was pretty smashed up as well. Its broken body still hangs in our garage, my own memento mori.

In the predominant secular imaginary, a peek through death’s door finds no stairway to heaven, but only darkness. Termination. Void. A terrible forgetting. Emptiness.

This is a reasonable outlook, especially after the charnel house of the past century, but it’s not much to live by. And it is no more provable than belief’s alternative. None of us knows for sure. It’s a gamble either way.

In the 1950’s, Sylvia Plath summarized the modern formulary in her journal:

You don’t believe in God, or a life-after-death, so can’t hope for sugar-plums when your non-existent soul rises… Cats have nine lives, the saying goes. You have one; and somewhere along the thin, tenuous thread of your existence there is … the stopped heartbeat that spells the end of this particular individual which is spelled ‘I’ and ‘You’ and ‘Sylvia.’

John Donne, who himself never took death lightly, saw the outcome differently:

All mankind is of one Author and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated.

Just a month before his death from cancer in 1631, Donne preached his final sermon, Death’s Duell, at St. Paul’s, London. “That which we call life is … spent in dying,” he wrote, but “a gate into heaven I shall have.” Then, though weak from illness, he posed for a sketch that would be used to make the sculpture for his tomb. After having a fire lit in his study (it was February), he stripped naked and wrapped himself in a burial shroud with only his face showing. Rather than lie down in the traditional sleeping position, he stood erect for the sketch. The resulting statue, the only monument to survive the Great London Fire of 1666, resides in the south choir aisle of St. Paul’s. Donne is standing to greet the resurrection. His eyes are not yet open, but he is smiling with expectant delight. His epitaph reads:

He lies here in the dust
but beholds Him whose name is Rising.