About jimfriedrich

I am an Episcopal priest, liturgical creative, filmmaker, writer, musician, teacher and retreat leader. My itinerant ministry is devoted to religious imagination and holy wonder. My blog is a space where diverse ideas and perspectives - theology and culture, liturgy and spirituality, arts and religion - can meet and converse with one another.

Come, Holy Spirit

Gerard David, Annunciation (detail), 1506

The heart itself is but a small vessel, yet dragons are there, and there are also lions; there are poisonous beasts and all the treasures of evil. But there too is God, the angels, the
life and the kingdom, the light and the apostles, the heavenly cities and the treasuries of grace—all things are there.

–– St. Macarius

Not, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist––slack they may be––these last strands of man
In me or, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.

––– Gerard Manley Hopkins

 

Even in the midst of immense and alarming crises, we remember to celebrate the Holy Spirit, who even now––especially now––broods over “the bent world. . . with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.” There is much more to be said, but for now, on this Whit Monday, let me simply share a video prayer I prepared for our parish Pentecost liturgy stream, combining the ancient supplication, Veni Sancte Spiritus (Come, Holy Spirit), with the biblical account (Acts 2:1-11) of a wondrous day when a power beyond all knowing dissolved the boundaries of separation and otherness, and a diverse crowd gathered in the streets experienced a oneness they had deemed impossible.

Easter Wings: An Ascension Homily

All the other Distance
He hath traversed first –
No new mile remaineth –
Far as Paradise –

 His sure foot preceding –
Tender Pioneer –
Base must be the Coward
Dare not venture – now –

 –– Emily Dickinson, “Life is what we make it”

 

“He ascended into heaven. . .” We say this every time we recite the Creed. But what does it mean? Why do we say it, and what are we being asked to believe? Is it an embarrassing myth, a problematic metaphor, or an inexplicable fact? Many Christians would prefer to hurry past the doctrine of the Ascension, as if it were not something we should examine too closely. Nothing to see here, folks, just keep moving.

But maybe wondering what we do with the story isn’t the right question. What we really need to ask is: What is the story going to do with us?  Where does it want to take us? How might it change us?

John Calvin, the great Reformation theologian, called the Ascension “one of the chiefest points of our faith.”[i] Really? Compared to the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Savior’s disappearance into a cloud seems a relatively minor part of the story. How much does it matter for Christian faith and practice?

Let’s begin with three things that the Ascension is not. First of all, it is not the end of Jesus’ presence in the finite and temporal world, the world of human experience. In the sixth-century Ascension hymn by Romanos, the disciples express their anxiety about being abandoned:

Are you leaving us, O Compassionate?
Parting from those who love you?
You speak to us like someone going on a journey. . .
Do not take yourself far away from those who love you. [ii]

We know that feeling. In a secular age, sometimes is seems that all divinity has just up and left this world without a trace. But if the Ascension was the end of one kind of presence, it was the beginning of another. Jesus is still here, but in a different way.

Secondly, the Ascension is not the Incarnation in reverse, as though God was briefly one of us, and now he’s not. A human life is finite, vulnerable, dependent and particular. It’s radically different than being the infinite God of power and might. But when, as the Bible puts it, Jesus ascended to “the right hand of the Father,” he didn’t leave his humanity behind. He took it with him into the heart of God.

Finally, the Ascension is not just about Jesus.
It’s about us as well.
If we are in Christ, then wherever Jesus goes, we go too.

Let’s look at each of these themes more closely. First, the question of presence and absence. The unique particularity of Jesus of Nazareth, a first-century Jewish male who lived and died like one of us, could only be experienced the way every finite existence is experienced: in its own place and time. If it’s here, it can’t be there. If it’s then, it can’t be now. Once Jesus was laid in the tomb, he could no longer be one object alongside all the other objects in the world. That physical walking-around-the-neighborhood Jesus was gone for good.

When Jesus rose from the dead, his identity and presence were no longer bound by the rules of time and space. His risen body could be both here and there. And the reason the resurrection stories lack the chronological realism of the Passion narratives is because they occur outside historical time. Encounters with the risen Christ were not additional chapters in the life and times of the earthly Jesus. They took place outside of history, at the border between our spatiotemporal world and whatever lies beyond it.

If Easter is not a historical narrative following the rules of space and time, then Ascension was not the next thing that happened after the resurrection appearances, because things don’t happen in sequence outside of time. So instead of thinking of the Ascension as another event in time, think of it as another dimension of resurrection. In his Easter appearances, the risen Jesus assured his friends that he would be with them always. In the Ascension, however, he made it clear that his presence would now have to be experienced in new ways and different forms. First there is Jesus. Then there is no Jesus. Then there is.

Ever since the resurrection,
seeing Jesus has required an act of recognition,
a moment in which we ask, “Jesus, it that you?”

Discerning the myriad forms of Christ’s presence is a fundamental practice for God’s friends in these latter days. We find Christ in sacrament and community, prayer and Scripture. We find Christ through forgiveness and reconciliation, compassion and service, justicemaking and peacemaking. Christ meets us in our neighbor and in the stranger; in solitude and solidarity; in church and on the street. Christ hangs on every cross, and returns in every resurrection.

As Jesus said before he left,
“I am with you always, even to the end of time” (Matt. 28:20).

But if Christ now tends to appear incognito, quietly “as One unknown,”[iii] what do we make of the Ascension’s theology of exaltation, celebrating the Christ “whose glory fills the skies?”

Hail the day that sees him rise,
Glorious to his native skies;
Christ, awhile to mortals given,
Enters now the highest heaven. [iv]

Charles Wesley’s familiar hymn is one of many envisioning the enthronement of Christ as the governor of the world. And we all appreciate the theological irony: the humiliated and rejected one turns out to wear the crown. But such a dramatic reversal risks undoing the Incarnation, as though the finite and vulnerable humanity of Jesus were only a temporary thing, given back after Easter like a rented costume. But that’s not what happened. The Incarnate word came to stay.

Yes, divine and human are radically different. Infinite and finite are radically incommensurate. Creator and creature can never be confused. And yet, without God ceasing to be God or Jesus of Nazareth ceasing to be human, heaven and earth have been joined in holy union, never to be put asunder.

The understanding of Christ as the divine Word, the shaping power of love through whom all things are created and sustained in their being, is not a theological footnote. It is key to the story of redemption that our Savior not only has the whole universe at his back, but that his way, the sacrificial way of self-diffusive love, is the very truth of God, and therefore the truth of how things are meant to go in the world which God has made. To be in Christ is to conform to the most fundamental reality, and the Ascension imagery of divine enthronement celebrates this crucial fact. Christ is the way, the truth and the life. Self-diffusive love is the law of the universe.

However, too much of this and we risk highlighting the divine at the expense of the human in the story of Jesus, as if more of one means less of the other. If we fully embrace our humanity, is there less room for God? Or if we are to be more like God, must we diminish or abandon our humanity because it is essentially incapable of receiving and containing divinity?

Jesus answers these two questions with “no” and “no.” In the self-emptying act of becoming flesh, God lost nothing of the divine nature, for the essence of God is love: the ceaseless mutuality of giving and receiving that constitutes the Holy Trinity. As for human beings, whose very existence is dependent upon, and constituted by, the reception of God’s gifts of life and breath and Spirit, our creaturely nature was never more itself than when Jesus managed to receive divine fullness with an open heart.

In other words, God was never more like God than in the act of giving Godself away. And humanity was never more perfectly realized than when Jesus exercised his created capacity to receive that gift in a finite way. Communion with God does not obliterate our humanity. It fulfills it.

Irenaeus, one of the first great theologians, said in the second century that “the glory of God is a human being fully alive.”[v] And this fullness of creaturely life is attained, he said, not by “a casting away of the flesh, but by the imparting of the Spirit.”[vi] God loves us just the way God made us: finite, vulnerable, embedded in the absorbing and messy narratives  which comprise human be-ing. And what God desires is for us to live into our creaturely capacity to receive every gift, every blessing, and ascend into the divine communion which is our true and lasting home.

And this brings us to my final point. Ascension is not just about Jesus. It’s about us as well. As members of Christ’s body––with Christ and in Christ––we too are being drawn up to dwell in the vivifying presence of the Holy One––to enjoy God forever.

We call Jesus the Word made flesh because he showed, in the language of human flesh and earthly story, how the divine life could be translated into finite form as a life for others. From birth to death, Jesus was pro nobis: for us. And his Ascension was for us as well, to take us heavenward with him. Jesus did not abandon us. He went on ahead, as the “Tender Pioneer,”[vii] to prepare a place where we may join him.

John Calvin explained the Ascension’s shared, collective dimension in this way:

“Christ did not ascend to heaven in a private capacity, to dwell there alone, but rather that it might be the common inheritance of all the godly, and that in this He has also, by the power of the Holy Spirit, made it possible for us to share in the divine presence [viii]. . . . “Ascension follows resurrection: hence if we are members of Christ we must ascend into heaven.” [ix]

If we are members of Christ, we must ascend. This is the pattern of the Christian life: moving Godward. When I walked the Camino de Santiago, pilgrims encouraged one another with a wonderful word for this Godward movement: Ultreia!, which means Beyond! We are all pilgrims to the Beyond. Growth is our vocation. Transformation is our vocation.

But we can only advance with Christ and in Christ. No wings of our own can defy the gravity of our situation. The sins of the world weigh us down––all that heavy baggage that Thomas Merton called “the contagion of [our] own obsessions, aggressiveness, ego-centered ambitions and delusions.”[x] And in a time of pandemic, fear, illness and grief pile on their own crushing load.

Only the rising and ascending Christ can deliver us from so much gravity. Only Christ can give us what Anglican poet-priest George Herbert called “Easter Wings.” In his poem of that name, in which the words on the page are arranged in the shape of angels’ wings, he admits he can only fly “if I imp thy wing on mine.” He borrowed that peculiar term from falconry: to “imp” means “to engraft feathers in a wing to restore or improve its power of flight.”[xi] In other words, if we want to ascend, we need the help of Christ’s own feathers. If we’re going to fly, we need Easter wings.

As Herbert prays,

With thee
O let me rise
As larks, harmoniously,
And sing this day thy victories.

If you’ve ever heard an English lark, ascending high into the sky as it utters its ecstatic song, you will appreciate the charm of Herbert’s metaphor. A century after Herbert, hymnwriter Isaac Watts wrote my favorite Ascension lyric.

Thence he arose, ascended high,
to show our feet the way.
Up to the Lord our souls shall rise,
on the great rising day. [xii]

Of course, heaven is not susceptible to prepositions: “above,” “beyond,” or even “within” do not tell us where heaven is, since anything beyond space and time has no spatial dimension, and therefore no location. Neither heaven nor God are a place on any map. Still, by God’s grace we may discover their nearness even so, and breathe their atmosphere, in both this world and the next.

For physical and directional beings like ourselves, the imagery of ascending into the sky feels true enough. “Seek the things that are above,” St. Paul tells us (Col. 3:1). “Lift up your hearts,” says the priest at every mass. We don’t have to deny astronomy to know what these things mean. We feel the upward pull.

It’s not a matter of leaving creation behind, or shedding our bodies to become immaterial beings. “Behold, I make all things new,” says the Holy One. All things––not just our souls. The whole creation is being drawn higher and higher, further and further, deeper and deeper into God. Let everything that has breath shout “Glory!”

 

Related posts:

Ascension Day: Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow

Ascension Day “Charade”?––The Puzzling Exit of Jesus

 

[i] John Calvin, Commentary on Acts 1:9, cited in Julie Canlis, Calvin’s Ladder: A Spiritual Theology of Ascent and Ascension (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010), K1249 (The Kindle edition has no page numbers, so I use the Kindle location numbers). Canlis’ rich and thoughtful book is a great read, and has increased my appreciation of Calvin immensely. My other invaluable sources for this essay were Christ the Heart of Creation (Rowan Williams, Bloomsbury 2018) and The Word Made Flesh: A Theology of Incarnation (Ian A. McFarland, WJK 2019).

[ii] Romanos, “Kontakion on the Ascension” in Kontakia: On the Life of Christ, trans. by Archimandrite Ephrem Lash (Harper Collins, 1962).

[iii] This phrase is from a famous passage by Albert Schweitzer: “He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lakeside, He came to those men who knew him not. He speaks to us the same word: ‘Follow thou me!’ and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal Himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience who He is.”

[iv] Charles Wesley, “Hail the Day That Sees Him Rise” (1739). The prolific 18th century writer composed over 6000 hymns, at least 10 of which are on the Ascension. However, his brother John, who gave some 40,000 sermons, never preached on the topic.

[v] Irenaeus (c. 130 – c. 202), Adversus Haereses IV.20.7, cited in Canlis, K2246.

[vi] Adversus Haereses V.8.1, in Canlis, K1960.

[vii] Emily Dickinson, “Life – is what we make it.” I quote the last 2 stanzas in the epigraph.

[viii] Calvin, Commentary on John 14:2, in Canlis K1218.

[ix] Calvin, Commentary on Colossians 3:1, in Canlis K991.

[x] Thomas Merton, Contemplation in a World of Action, p. 158, cited in Martin Laird, An Ocean of Light (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2019), 11.

[xi] Helen Wilcox, The English Poems of George Herbert (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 148 n.19.

[xii] Isaac Watts, “Why do we mourn departing friends” (1707). Set to a shape note tune by Timothy Swan in 1801, it is #163b in The Sacred Harp (Bremen, GA: Sacred Harp Publishing Company, 1991). A powerful version from the 2nd Irish Shape Note Convention (2012) can be heard here: https://youtu.be/7mCFMKNJIAg

 

“Water the earth with the tears of your joy”: An Earth Day Reflection

Marilyn in Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, Felton, CA, 2016 (Photo by Jim Friedrich)

That’s the trouble with people, their root problem. Life runs alongside them, unseen. Right here, right next. Creating the soil. Cycling water. Trading in nutrients. Making weather. Building atmosphere. Feeding and curing and sheltering more kinds of creatures than people know how to count.

A chorus of living wood sings to the woman: If your mind were only a slightly greener thing, we’d drown you in meaning.

The pine she leans against says: Listen. There’s something you need to hear.

–– Richard Powers, The Overstory

 

Toward the end of the last century, I sat in a circle of religious environmentalists in a California wilderness. Each of us wore a mask we had made to represent a species or element of the nonhuman world: bear, eagle, butterfly, elephant, whale, mountain, river, redwood, maple leaf, wind, ocean, wetland, desert––some part of Creation which had “chosen” us to speak for them in a Council of All Beings.[i]

We began by describing our particular existences, what it was like to be whatever we were.  Then we shared our worries and our sorrows over the harm being inflicted upon us by the human race. At some point, two volunteers removed their masks, resuming their human identity in order to receive the complaints of their fellow creatures––complaints so often unheard or ignored.

Listen. There’s something you need to hear.
If your mind were only a slightly greener thing,
we’d drown you in meaning. [ii]

The Council spoke its anger as well as its hurt. Afterward, participants in the exercise seemed both surprised and shaken by the surges of fierce emotion in such a playful exercise. It was a foretaste of the Last Judgment: humanity has a lot to answer for. But judgment was not the last word. Before the Council adjourned, each of its nonhuman members was asked to give the humans one of its own attributes to assist them in the healing of a wounded Creation. The mountain gave patience. The butterfly, transformation. The bear, strength. The river, ceaseless flow. The leaf: letting go. Renewed by such generous wisdom, we departed in peace.

On the 50th annual celebration of Earth Day, despite decades of progress in both awareness and behavior, the wellbeing of “all creatures great and small” remains under grave threat. Climate change, mass extinctions, degradations of air, water and soil, destruction of habitats, deforestation, deregulation. . . who can count the ways? And the incapacity of our political and economic systems to respond justly, rapidly, or effectively is disheartening at best, fatal at worst.

In the United States, we can certainly point to the unfettered greed, stupidity, and maliciousness in White House and Senate as deplorable accelerants of environmental conflagration, but the problem goes deeper than the heartless actions of particular villains. Our entire culture has an attitude problem. Or rather, we have lost track of the narrative. We have forgotten what kind of story we are in.

The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it,
the world and all who dwell therein. (Psalm 24:1)

Who believes this anymore? Fewer and fewer. And even the faithful among us find ourselves deeply embedded in the systems and premises of secularity, where nature is not divine creation or sacred web, but an exploitable resource, valued primarily for the usefulness it provides or the pleasure it gives. Drained of its inherent sacredness, it no longer commands reverence. Its value is entirely contingent on human needs and desires.

Erazim Kohák, Czech philosopher and environmentalist, frames this epistemic crisis in the starkest terms:

“If there is no God, then nature is not a creation, lovingly crafted and evolved with purpose and value by its Creator. It can only be a cosmic accident, dead matter contingently propelled by blind force, ordered by efficient causality. In such a context, a moral subject, living his life in terms of value and purpose, would indeed be an anomaly, precariously rising above it in a moment of Promethean defiance only to sink again into the absurdity from which he rose. If God were dead, so would nature be––and humans could be no more than embattled strangers, doomed to defeat, as we have largely convinced ourselves we in fact are.” [iii]

Fifty years ago, the first Earth Day initiated an impressive legacy of awareness and action on behalf of the earth and all that is in it. And I pray that today will be a time of renewal and rededication to the immense labor of protecting, preserving and nurturing the natural world. But our work must not be limited to the scientific, the political and the economic. It must also, I believe, include the spiritual––the recovery of the Sacred in our collective awareness.

Christian ethicist Richard L. Fern has written, “the experience of living in an ‘enchanted world,’ a place of belonging where personal and communal destinies matter all the way down, depends, not surprisingly, on the adoption of a religious point of view.”[iv] But what would that look like? And how might we get there?

I have no idea. Maybe we begin by entering a forest, or sitting by a lake, becoming still enough to listen, letting our mind become “a slightly greener thing.” Perhaps then the earth may whisper its forgotten secret.

Thrush song, stream song, holy love
That flows through earthly forms and folds,
The song of Heaven’s Sabbath fleshed
In throat and ear, in stream and stone,
A grace living here as we live . . .

–– Wendell Berry, “Sabbaths, 1982––IV”

May each of us, in our own unique way, realize the grace of belonging to the “holy love that flows through earthly forms.” And may our collective awareness likewise awaken to the mystery of the world. And then . . . ?

In The Brothers Karamozov, the young monk Alyosha, suddenly filled with grace after a spiritual crisis, falls prostrate on the bare earth to kiss it, just as the Orthodox do reverence to holy icons. This scene has raised theological eyebrows, but Rowan Williams interprets Alyosha’s dramatic gesture to mean that “the earth is another defaced icon, whose inner and nonnegotiable dignity is secured only when its relation to the creator is acknowledged.”[v] In other words, when the earth is understood as a created reality, a material expression of divine intention and divine love, it becomes, like an icon, a window into the eternal reality in which it lives and moves and has its being. Dostoevky’s description[vi] of Alyosha’s revelation is one of literature’s most ecstatic moments:

The silence of the earth seemed to merge with the silence of the heavens, the mystery of the earth touched the mystery of the stars. . . Alyosha stood gazing and suddenly, as if he had been cut down, threw himself to the earth.

He did not know why he was embracing it, he did not try to understand why he longed so irresistibly to kiss it, to kiss all of it, but he was kissing it, weeping, sobbing, and watering it with his tears, and he vowed ecstatically to love it, to love it unto ages of ages. “Water the earth with the tears of your joy, and love those tears. . . ,” rang in his soul. What was he weeping for? Oh, in his rapture he wept even for the stars that shone on him from the abyss, and “he was not ashamed of this ecstasy.” It was as if threads from all those innumerable worlds of God all came together in his soul, and it was trembling all over, “touching other worlds.” He wanted to forgive everyone and for everything, and to ask forgiveness, oh, not for himself! but for all and for everything. . .

Comet Falls, Mount Rainier National Park, July 2005 (Photo by Jim Friedrich/Karen Haig)

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The divine power that sustains the universe has been described as an immeasurable flow or fountain of energy, and in celebration of Earth Day’s semicentennial, I offer this video pairing of Charles-Marie Widor’s exuberant Toccata for organ, played by Paul Roy, with footage of three western rivers I shot over the last two summers. May it be an icon of the divine energeia, pouring ceaselessly through the life of the world.

 

 

 

[i] The Council of All Beings is a communal ritual developed by Joanna Macy. https://www.rainforestinfo.org.au/deep-eco/Joanna%20Macy.htm

[ii] Richard Powers, The Overstory (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018), 4. See epigraph above. Powers’ extraordinary novel takes the reader into a new way of seeing the natural world and one’s own place in it.

[iii] Erazim Kohák, The Embers and the Stars: A Philosophical Inquiry into the Moral Sense of Nature, 1984, p. 5), cited in Richard L. Fern, Nature, God and Humanity: Envisioning an Ethics of Nature (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 120. Kohák died at 86 on Feb. 8, 2020.

[iv] Fern, 121.

[v] Rowan Williams, Dostoevsky: Language, Faith and Fiction (London: Continuum, 2008), 225.

[vi] Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, trans. by Richard Pever & Larissa Volokhonsky (New York: Vintage Classics, 1990), 362.

Lost at Sea: Retelling the Flood Story in a Pandemic

Row on, row on, another day
May shine with brighter light.
Ply, ply the oars, and pull away,
There’s dawn beyond the night.

–– Traditional sea shanty

 

At the Easter Vigil, we light a fire in the dark and tell our sacred stories. One of them is the saga of the Flood from the Book of Genesis. Tonight, as we stream the Vigil liturgy from our living room for our local parish, this is how it wants to be told. 

When we wonder about things, we tell stories.  One of our oldest stories describes a great flood that sweeps away everything in the world until there is nothing left but an endless sea. Some people say it’s a story about God getting fed up with the world’s violence and greed and wanting to start over. Others say the story is about everything being thrown out of balance by human sin––the harmonies break down, and God’s beautiful creation is swallowed up by chaos.

But tonight, when a new kind of flood is sweeping across the earth, washing away the world we know, maybe the story needs to be about the ark. We’re all in this boat together, hoping and praying we can survive the raging sea until the storms are over and we can anchor in some safe and peaceful harbor.

That’s where we are now, in the middle of the story––cooped up in this ark with a bad case of cabin fever, wondering if the flood is ever going to subside so things can get back to normal. It’s not easy, being stuck in this boat. It’s strange and stressful for us. Meanwhile, the sea gets rougher, the storms wilder.

It’s like that Psalm we say in Holy Week:

Save me, O God! The waters have risen up to my neck.
I am sinking in a deep mire. The waves wash over me.
Do not let the flood swallow me up! (Psalm 69)

That’s how it feels, here in the middle of the story, in the middle of the flood. We have our fears. We have our doubts. We have our losses. And frankly, some of us are getting sick and tired of this stupid ark. Been in the storm so long, Lord! How long? Too long.

But this isn’t where the story ends, with us lost at sea, sinking into oblivion. The One who made us will not forget us. The One who loves us will not forsake us. Already, God is imagining a future for us. Maybe it will be something better.

God never said we won’t be afflicted.
God never said we won’t be disquieted.
God did say we shall not be overcome.

When through the deep waters I call thee to go,
The rivers of sorrow shall not thee overflow,
For I will be with thee, thy troubles to bless,
And sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.

Dancing with Death: Mortality in Cinema

Caravaggio, St. Jerome Writing, 1605-06

In the midst of life we are in death.

–– Burial Office, Book of Common Prayer

It is life that is the danger.

–– Pascal Garnier, C’est la Vie

 

Many of us are not accustomed to thinking about mortality on a daily basis. There’s no skull on my desk as I write. But the pandemic has changed a lot of things. A single sneeze or a stranger’s touch is now a memento mori. Death lurks everywhere––the supermarket, the subway, the street. Where can we go to flee from its presence?

While sheltering in place, I took a break from virtual choirs and amusing videos to screen a pair of films where death draws near during a pandemic: Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957) and Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice (1971). In each film, death is an embodied figure to whom the protagonist is inseparably bound. However, for Bergman’s medieval knight death’s visage is terrible and stern, while for Visconti’s ailing artist the gaze of death is youthful and alluring.

Death (Bengt Ekerot) in The Seventh Seal

Tadzio (Björn Andresen) in Death in Venice.

The Seventh Seal takes place during the Black Death of the 14th century, when bubonic plague killed as many as 200 million people in just five years. Antonius Block is a knight who has just returned home from the Crusades only to find Death waiting for him there. Whether by war or by plague, the knight’s fate is inescapable. He is doomed no matter what he does. It is not accidental that this film was made in the wake of the Second World War, and in the shadow of nuclear annihilation.

Another medieval knight, in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, blames God for the injustice of the human condition:

How is mankind more blessed by you
Than sheep who cower in the field?
For slain is man just like the beasts,
Locked in prison cages, and given sickness
And great adversity, often for no good reason.
What governance is in this prescience,
That thus torments guiltless innocence? [i]

But Bergman’s knight isn’t even sure God exists. Death appears to him, but not the Divine––at least not in any way he recognizes. Although Bergman was an atheist, believers will discern God in the traveling players: Jof, Mia and their baby, a “holy family” who embody the life force carrying on despite every mishap. God may also be seen in the sacrificial act of the knight, who helps the players escape Death even when he himself cannot. And in the sweetest moment of this anguished film, the family share their strawberries and milk with Block, who receives it like a sacrament, a taste of unconquerable life:

“I shall remember this hour of peace: the strawberries, the bowl of milk, your faces in the dusk, Michael asleep, Jof with his lute. I shall remember our words, and shall bear this memory between my hands as carefully as a bowl of fresh milk. And this will be a sign and a great content.”

 

Antonius Block, the knight (Max von Sydow), plays chess with death.

As Block makes his way toward the refuge of his castle stronghold, he sees Death at work everywhere, working furiously through both plague and human cruelty. The knight tries to postpone the inevitable by engaging Death in a chess match. Death is amused, but not outwitted. Always the supreme ironist, he lets the knight get all the way home before finally taking his life. No one gets out of here alive.

And yet, in the famous dance of death at the film’s end, six of the film’s characters are missing. The “holy family” still wander the earth, untroubled by death because they belong to grace. And three who died (a woman executed for witchcraft, Jof’s wife, and an enigmatic maid) are also absent from Death’s chorus line, perhaps because they had chosen acceptance over fear when their end came.

The Dance of Death in The Seventh Seal.

Death in Venice, adapted from Thomas Mann’s 1912 novella, follows a German artist, Gustav von Aschenbach, to Venice, where he hopes to restore his health and sooth his nerves. In the book he is a writer, but Visconti makes him a composer, modeled after Gustav Mahler, whose Third and Fifth symphonies amplify the film’s luscious imagery and deep feeling.

While enjoying the Belle Epoque luxury of the Grand Hotel des Bains, Aschenbach becomes obsessed with the beauty of Tadzio, an adolescent boy on holiday from Poland with his family. Mann aestheticizes the composer’s forbidden desire into a metaphor for immortal beauty and perfection, comparing the boy to the finest Greek sculpture. But in the cinematic version, the explicitness of a visible gaze is hard to defuse with metaphorical rationalizations, and the film was indeed controversial when it came out fifty years ago.

But as I watched through quarantined eyes, I could not escape the idea of the comely boy as the angel of Death, drawing Aschenbach out of himself toward a kind of oblivion. For the artist, mortality means incompleteness. There is never enough time to reach perfection, to say everything that wants to be said. So Tadzio’s evanescent, unattainable beauty mocks the artist’s failure to find a lasting container for the longings of his heart.

The story’s title and content support this interpretation. Death––the sense of an ending––is everywhere in Venice. A plague of cholera is approaching from the east, and despite official assurances that everything is fine, tourists have begun to flee, leaving a kind of ghost city behind. Aschenbach’s heart is beginning to fail. And Venice itself, ever threatened by rising seas, suffers the melancholy of a diminishing future.

In the film’s final scene, Aschenbach is sitting in a beach chair, watching Tadzio wade into the bright sea beneath a declining sun. From a distance, the boy looks back at him, then points off toward a formless blur of light, as though only the infinite can receive the fullness of our longing. As Mann put it, “To rest in what is perfect (ideal, complete in itself) is the longing of those who strive for what is excellent, and is not nothingness itself a form of perfection?”[ii] If the angel of death mocks our incompleteness, does it not also invite us into an ultimate wholeness beyond our imagining, what Mann calls “an immensity full of promise?”[iii]

Tadzio points to “an immensity full of promise.”

We see Aschenbach struggle to stand up, reaching a desperate hand toward the sea, Tadzio, infinity, God. Then his heart fails; he falls back lifeless into the chair. Visconti then cuts to a long shot of the beach. Aschenbach is now barely noticeable on the wide expanse of sand. Hotel attendants carry his body away. What happens to him after that, God only knows.

When a monk composed the chant, Media vita in morte sumus (In the midst of life we are in death), it was on a New Year’s Eve early in the 14th century. Little did he know that a few decades later, a third to a half of Europe would perish in the Black Death. But I doubt he would have changed a word to sound more comforting. Whatever our fate––calamity or blessing––Death keeps us company every step of the way. Can we learn to live with that?

My friend Bill Coats, theologian and priest, recently wrote:

“It is hard for us not to put life first. We live longer, we are healthier, our medical system assumes and acts as if we can live forever. But a pandemic, even with a plethora of scientific and medical information is, in the last analysis, about death. Of course, in a pandemic not all will die, indeed the vast majority will live even if and when the virus strikes them. Yet the environment in the meantime is open to fear and is predicated on the nearness of death. Our generally optimistic culture is hardly prepared for this.”[iv]

 

Bengt Ekerot and Ingmar Bergman on the set of The Seventh Seal.

Death is near. It has always been so for mortals. We can’t change that fact, but perhaps it is time to rethink our relationship. I like this photo of Bergman talking with Death on the set of The Seventh Seal. They seem so companionable. No one is threatening, no one is afraid. They look like friends. Maybe it will be like that, in the end.

 

 

Related post: The Weight of These Sad Times

 

[i] Geoffrey Chaucer, “The Knight’s Tale,” 440-451, Canterbury Tales.

[ii] Thomas Mann, quoted in Philip Kitcher, Deaths in Venice: The Cases of Gustav von Aschenbach (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), 174.

[iii] Thomas Mann, Death in Venice, trans. Clayton Koelb (New York: W. W. Norton, 1994), 63.

[iv] The Rev. William Coats, personal correspondence, March 2020.

“I will not willingly die for the economy”

Mark Harris in his printmaking studio (May, 2019).

Mark Harris is an artist/priest I’ve known over 50 years. In our twenties, we did campus ministry and experimental worship together in Ann Arbor at a coffeehouse featuring concerts by Neil Young, Doc Watson, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and David Ackles. In our thirties, we collaborated on an all-night Epiphany liturgy in a circus tent. Now entering his eighties, Mark takes issue, brilliantly, with the Republican suggestion that America sacrifice its elders on the altar of capitalism. As another elder, protest singer Faith Petric, once wrote in “Grandma’s Battle Cry”––”I’ll shield you with my brittle bones! I’ll nourish you with rage!” Mark originally published this “J’accuse” on his blog, Preludium, and he has kindly allowed me to share it here. As Mark makes clear, COVID-19 isn’t just about health and economics. It’s about values.

 

A little personal clarity. I’m 80 years old this year, provided I make it to May 21st.

1. If I am in hospital and the medical folk make a decision that others, younger than I, need to be treated first, or me not at all, I get it. Triage is a sometimes miserable ethical fact. Got it. Perhaps in some way my death could be a noble or valuable or even holy contribution to the life of the world.

2. If I am out there in the world (but of course social distancing) and the bumbling system of supply and manufacture of needed medical gear fail, and I end up in the hospital and am triaged out of care, I get it. But I won’t forget that the “greatest country in the world” screwed up. There is no reason for these shortages except poor planning and bad use of resources. I will die of systemic governmental and business failure. There it is. But it will not be noble, or valuable or holy that I died. It will be stupid.

3. If I am out there in the world and the President or the government, or whatever the powers that be, decide that social distancing and its value to the health and safety of the world is less important than the economic safety of corporations and business enterprises, I will die because someone decided that the triage decision is really about whether my life was worth attending to rather than the life of money-making entities. So when I get the virus, end up in hospital, find myself triaged there and die, I will die because Boeing and some damn cruise ship company would otherwise lose money, place, or even go under. Not because of too many people in hospital. Not because of lack of equipment. Because of the economy. I got it. I will die for the almighty dollar. They will say, no no, you will die because the wellbeing of so many relies on our keeping the economy going. You die so that others may live. But I know. I will have died for reasons of greed, not reasons of need. It will be evil.

If this third possibility takes place, I will hold those who made the decision to go for the economy and not for the health of the society accountable. If alive I will scream in your faces unmercifully. If dead, I will plea to return to haunt you, ruining your sleep, your digestion, and your health. I will be pissed beyond imagination.

Be warned. Old may be just a thing to you. Old is what I have. I use old creatively, and to mostly good ends. The years I have left promise to be some of my best, in terms of action for justice, truth and beauty. But if it ends for the “economic good” I say, screw it. I know about this reasoning. It is the reasoning that was used to weed out the gypsies, the Jews, the queer, the gay, and anyone else who stood in way of the State’s grasp for economic power.

I accuse: The proposition that death as necessary to the well being of the economy is a lie. More, it is evil.

Ask what I will give for the country, but don’t assume you can ask what I will give for the economy. That’s mine to give, not yours to take.

––– Mark Harris, who understands the difference between the cross and the dollar.

 

Related post: The Artist Formerly Known as Priest

The Weight of These Sad Times

The weight of these sad times we must obey,
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.

–– King Lear

 

When Queen Elizabeth I died in March, 1603, a plague was beginning to ravage London. By July a thousand were dying every week. A month later, the number was three thousand. By the end of the year, 15% of the city’s 200,000 inhabitants were dead. The epidemic would continue to ebb and flow in the city for the next few years.

The authorities did their best to enforce social distancing. Plays could only be performed when the death toll dropped below forty per week. Bear-baiting and other sports were banned. The infected were quarantined at home with guards sometimes posted at their doors. Caregivers who treated the sick had to carry red sticks in the streets so people could give them wide berth. Penalties for breaking quarantine were harsh: a whipping if you weren’t symptomatic, possible execution if you were. When people tried to wash away the red crosses marking the lintels of their infected houses, the Lord Mayor ordered the crosses to be painted with more indelible oil-based paints.

Dramatist and pamphleteer Thomas Dekker described the ordeal of being locked up in a house full of the dead and dying: “What an unmatchable torment were it for a man to be barred up every night in a vast silent charnel-house. . . Were not this an infernal prison?”[i] But such an eyewitness is rare. We have little firsthand reporting of what it was like to live with so much death.

Many plays were being written at this time, even with all the theater closings, but the plague was never their subject. Shakespearean scholar James Shapiro asks, “Was this because it was bad for business to remind playgoers packed into the theaters of the risks of transmitting disease or because a traumatized culture simply couldn’t deal with it?”[ii]

However, it seems no accident that Shakespeare wrote King Lear, his bleakest play, during the height of the epidemic, when the parish bells tolling across the street from his study were daily––sometimes hourly–– reminders of perpetual loss. The “weight of these sad times” was crushingly apparent in the play’s premiere before the royal court on St. Stephen’s Day, December 26, 1606.

In the original story adapted by Shakespeare, Lear is restored to his throne and Cordelia lives. But when Shakespeare made it a tragedy, he went beyond the conventions of the genre, which tried to leave the audience with some sense of hope, as survivors made their exit into an implied future. But the very first version of King Lear concludes in utter negation. There is no exeunt into whatever comes next. “The play ends instead with the frozen tableau of the dead king holding his murdered daughter.”[iii]

The King James Version of the Bible, written around the same time as King Lear, begins with the making of the world ex nihilo, out of “nothing.” Shakespeare’s play supplies a grim counter thesis: the unmaking of the world. It begins with “Nothing can come out of nothing,” and ends with “Never. Never. Never. Never.” The word “no” is spoken over 120 times; “not” occurs twice that number. And around 60 of its words begin with “un-” (unfriended, unfortunate, unnatural, unmerciful, etc.). “Call it what you will––resistance, refusal, denial, rejection, repudiation––this insistent and almost apocalyptic negativity becomes a recurring drumbeat, the bass line of the play.”[iv]

The courtly audience, still reeling not only from the plague but also from the recent failed attempt to dynamite the royal family­­––and political stability––into oblivion, must have been deeply shaken by the play’s despair. A day earlier, Bishop Lancelot Andrewes had preached to the same court a Christmas homily on Christ’s light shining in the darkness (“Ever in dark times, who therefore most needed the light of comfort”[v]). But there were no such comfortable words in the royal theater on St. Stephen’s Day.

It did not take long for posterity to shape a happier text. Lear was granted the merciful delusion that Cordelia was still breathing when he himself died. The survivors were given their exeunt into some happy future, having learned useful lessons from Lear’s mistakes. And from 1631 until 1838, audiences were treated to a happy ending, with Lear surviving and a married Cordelia inheriting his throne.

The play’s darker themes were rediscovered by modernity. As critic Maynard Mack wrote in 1965, “After two world wars and Auschwitz, our sensibility is significantly more in touch than our grandparents’ was with the play’s jagged violence, its sadism, madness, and processional of deaths, its wild blends of levity and horror, selfishness and selflessness.”[vi]

In our own time of deadly contagion, how do we engage with the miasma of fear while the media death watch invades our awareness as incessantly as the tolling bells of Shakespeare’s London? Do we keep our eyes, like Lancelot Andrewes, fixed on the divine light flickering in the darkness, or do we plunge, like the author of King Lear, toward a cathartic immersion in the unmaking of the old “normal,” hoping to emerge on the other side purged and renewed?

Boccaccio, in response to history’s deadliest plague, the Black Death of the fourteenth century, proposed a third way: avoidance. His Decameron is a fictional tale of ten young people who flee plague-ridden Florence for the Tuscan countryside, where they wait out the epidemic with “a certain amount of exercise before the two daily meals, usually in the form of walks; music, songs, and dancing after meals; and of course a great deal of congenial conversation throughout,”[vii] Only good news was allowed to be shared, and competitive games that might provoke anxiety were forbidden (perhaps like giving up March Madness).

According to medieval scholar Glending Olson, Boccaccio’s fictional regimen echoed medical tracts from the plague period urging people to “keep your humors well-disposed by embracing ‘cheerfulness,’ by not occupying ‘your mind with death, passion, or anything likely to sadden or grieve you, but give your mind over to delightful and pleasing things’ and spend ‘your leisure in gardens with fragrant plants, vines, and willows, when they are flowering.’”[viii] Such pleasure, then, was not so much escapist as therapeutic, reducing stress and––hopefully––thereby boosting immunity.

Given the inescapable presence posed by this current pandemic in our mobile and wired world, the dream of a tranquil refuge seems remote and perhaps unjust. Though some may claim exemption by virtue of wealth or privilege, we’re all in this together. The heroic dedication of health care workers, the kindness and generosity of neighbors and loved ones, the creative responses by churches and communities to unprecedented challenges inspire us daily with countless examples of love, courage, resilience and sacrifice.

However, unlike most natural disasters or economic downturns, COVID-19 does not feel like a temporary setback in our accustomed pursuit of happiness. It seems more like the unmaking of a world which may never return. And in a global society of obscene inequality, spiritual poverty, and suicidal pollution, that may not be a bad thing. They say the birds are singing again in Wuhan.

As Christian philosopher Cristóbal Serrán-Pagán y Fuentes wonders, “Is this global virus another wake-up call for humans to work together and collaborate in shared common projects for the survival of our specie as a whole? . . . This is the kairos moment for spiritual rebirth and for choosing a new transformed way of life. Otherwise we make harmful choices, we fall back and continue to do more of the same absurd things that we have been doing. . .”[ix]

The pursuit of a more just and nourishing world would be a blessed and laudable outcome of this strange and apocalyptic journey we are engaged in. But is there an even deeper theological dimension to this crisis as well, returning us to face the “ground zero” where all endings and beginnings converge: the place of unmaking and making anew, the place where Lear and Cordelia die, and hope is impossibly born? The place where “Never. Never. Never. Never” is answered by the divine “Ever”?

We are creatures who die, sometimes in great numbers. The terms and limits of mortal life, where death is always near, are usually suppressed or forgotten in the dailiness of life. Earthly existence always seems so convincing, right up until the moment it vanishes. But now, as the death toll rises and systems careen toward collapse, nearly everything begins to feel fragile and evanescent.

How do we ground our radically unsettling new situation in a deep and fearless spirituality of faith, hope and love? My friend Bill Coats––priest, prophet and theologian––recently wrote, “our implied consent in Baptism was our willingness to live in the midst of the random freedom of Creation. Which is to say that death is everywhere and yet in its midst we live.”

We’ll follow this thread next time. Meanwhile, stay safe, and maybe stick with Boccaccio for now. Walk in a garden. Sing. Dance. Practice congenial conversation.

 

 

 

[i] Quoted in James Shapiro, The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015), 23-24.

[ii] Ibid., 277.

[iii] Ibid., 303.

[iv] Ibid., 52. The statistics are from Shapiro as well.

[v] Lancelot Andrewes, “A Sermon Preached before the King’s Majesty, at Whitehall, on Wednesday, the Twenty-fifth of December, A.D. MDCVI. Being Christmas Day,” in Seventeen Sermons on the Nativity (reprint of original, Collingwood, Victoria, Australia: Triest Publishing, 2017), 20.

[vi] Maynard Mack, King Lear in Our Times (1965), quoted in Marjorie Garber, Shakespeare and Modern Culture (New York: Anchor Books, 2008), 268.

[vii] From Pampinea’s instructions to her friends in the Decameron, quoted in Glending Olson, Literature as Recreation in the Later Middle Ages (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1986), 180.

[viii] Olson, 175.

[ix] Passed along by peacemaking writer Jim Forest and cited in a March 13, 2020 blog post by Ryan Hall: https://paceebene.org/blog/2020/3/13/time-for-a-wake-up-call-in-response-to-the-coronavirus

 

Jesus and the Woman at the Well: A Homily for Lent 3

Churches are shuttered here in Puget Sound, to maintain social distancing in the pandemic. If I were preaching on this Sunday’s gospel, it would go something like this. Meanwhile, dear reader, stay safe, be well, and pray for all who are suffering or fearful in this harrowing time.

Jesus and the Samaritan woman (12c Jruchi Gospels, Georgia)

If I were called in
to construct a religion
I should make use of water.

Going to church
Would entail a fording
to dry, different clothes;

My liturgy would employ
Images of sousing,
A furious devout drench,

And I should raise in the east
A glass of water
Where any-angled light
Would congregate endlessly.

–– Philip Larkin, “Water”

A glass of water might not strike you as sacred, unless you’ve been in the desert about three days without a drink. At that point, which is the longest humans can go without water, you would find that glass to be the most blessed of sacraments: the water of life indeed.

Desert people know the sacredness of water. When the ancient Jews wandered the wilderness of Sinai, thirst was their constant companion. They cried out to God with parched tongues. Not politely, like Episcopalians. They complained bitterly and their faith wavered, until God made water pour out of barren rock. Now maybe the Israelites simply found a seepage of brackish water coming out of a rocky cliff. But it was enough to supply their need. They recognized it as a miracle then, and they remembered it as miracle ever after:

God made streams come out of the rock,
and poured down water like rivers.   (Psalm 78:16)

And once the Jews reached the Promised Land and built the Temple, they would gather every autumn, just before the rains ended the summer drought, to remember how God had preserved them in their wanderings, and to re-imagine their future as a consummation of the Providential love which their ancestors had sipped from a rock in the desert’s deadly furnace.

At this festival, the words of the prophet Zechariah was recited:

And I will pour out a spirit of compassion and supplication
on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem…

When that day comes,
a fountain will be opened for the house of David
and the inhabitants of Jerusalem,
to wash sin and impurity away. (Zech. 12:10, 13:1)

And every morning of the seven-day festival, a procession descended to the Gihon spring at the foot of the Temple hill. The people carried festal plumes made of palm, myrtle and willow branches––trees which signal the presence of water in arid lands. And from the spring a priest would fill a golden pitcher as the choir sang a verse from Isaiah:

With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. (Isaiah 12:3)

Then the procession ascended to the Temple through the Gate of the Waters to circle the altar chanting, “We beg you, Lord, save us! We beg you, Lord, give us good fortune!” Finally, the priest with the golden pitcher poured the water into a silver spout, draining it onto the surface of the altar.

And it was at this solemn moment, the gospel of John tells us, that Jesus suddenly cried out from the congregation, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me! Let anyone who believes in me come and drink.”

It is a startling scene, and you can imagine the offense it caused––this country preacher from Galilee offering himself as the new Temple from which will flow the living waters of salvation. Who was he to claim the divine prerogative? Only God can satisfy the soul’s deepest thirst.

A few chapters earlier in John’s gospel (John 4:5-42), Jesus makes the same invitation in a very different setting––no crowds, no special occasion––just a quiet well in a small town. Jesus is sitting by himself in the noonday sun. A woman comes by to draw water.

The story of the woman at the well has sometimes been interpreted as an expose of the woman’s past: “WOMAN HAS 5 HUSBANDS––FILM AT 11.” But subtler readings have seen the husbands as metaphors for Samaritan apostasy. The Samaritans were the ones who abandoned the god of their ancestors and began to worship five different deities imported from other middle eastern cultures. They had been looking for love in all the wrong places, and until they renewed their covenant relationship with the God of the Exodus, they had, in the language of this metaphor, “no husband.”

But Jesus is not there to condemn the woman––or her people. He is there to give her something. He doesn’t demean her as a woman, a Samaritan, or a serial divorcee. He treats her with respect, as does the gospel writer. It’s the longest conversation Jesus has with anyone in the gospels. The woman is bright and assertive, fully capable of following Jesus as he leads her from what she knows to what she doesn’t know, drawing her closer and closer to the wellspring of salvation.

The meeting place is significant. As John’s original audience would know, the well is a place where future spouses meet. Abraham’s servant found Isaac’s bride at a well. And it was at a well that Jacob met Rachel and Moses met Zipporah. So the setting, as well as the dialogue, is charged with marital imagery. There is a candor and intimacy to their playful banter, and you could say that Jesus is wooing the woman––wooing her into a covenant relationship with God, a relationship that is intimate and life-giving, a relationship that involves a full partnership in the divine task of transforming and redeeming the world.

 It was one of those moments when deep calls to deep.

It joined us together, the well,
the well led me into you…   (Karol Wojtyla)

There was a dawn I remember
when my soul heard something
from your soul. I drank water
from your spring and felt
the current take me.    (Rumi)

Deep calls to deep. Something in the woman responds to something in Jesus. Her own longing, her own thirst, leads her toward the source of life. The fountain of grace constantly draws to itself all those who thirst, said Gregory of Nyssa. He was a fourth century theologian who saw thirst as a gift from God, because it was a built-in mechanism to prevent us from walling ourselves up within the prison of self-sufficiency.

God has created our tendency to thirst and to move toward the divine by a command that is constant and perpetual. . . The one who is rising towards God constantly experiences this continual incitement toward further progress.

In other words, thirst reminds us that we need something beyond ourselves.
Thirst draws us toward God.

As a deer longs for flowing streams,
so my soul longs for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God,
for the living God. (Psalm 42:1-2)

And if we aren’t in touch with our thirst, we are in serious trouble. Thirty years ago I was in the Sinai desert with a group of pilgrims. Each of us had a partner, and each pair was responsible for reminding each other to drink some water every fifteen or twenty minutes. In the desert, the air is so dry that you can become unaware that you are sweating, and it is possible to become seriously dehydrated before you feel thirsty. So we all had to remind each other not to forget to drink. We helped each other stay in touch with our thirst.

Water isn’t just a metaphor for an ethereal idea. Water is a very practical, everyday miracle and divine gift, as many still know in parts of our world where you can’t just turn on the tap.

Gail Ramshaw writes about such places: “Twice a day, women walk the distance to the local well, to carry back on heads or shoulders the pots of water needed to live. To drink, cook, wash vessels, wash clothes, wash themselves, bathe wounds, clean the house, water the animals…Whether washing off the newborn, washing off the corpse, washing out her monthly rags, or wiping up the family vomit, it is the woman in many societies who aches for a source of endlessly flowing water, a fountain of pure water filling every need.”

What is your thirst?
What is your need?
Where do you go to find living water?
Is the water a gift we receive from outside ourselves,
or is the well to be found in our innermost heart?

As the Church began to explore this question over the centuries, both answers were given. The Latin west emphasized the water’s origins outside ourselves. Jesus is the Source, bestowing God’s Spirit upon us. Blood and water flowed from his side at the cross, and all the baptized have bathed in that precious stream.

But the Byzantine east looked to the Source within us. As Jesus says, Whoever believes in me, from within them shall flow rivers of living water. Once we have found Jesus and received the Spirit, we have within us a fountain that never fails, a well that never runs dry.

Gregory of Nyssa, taking his imagery from the Song of Songs, says that “the bride embraces and holds what flows into the well of her soul, and thus she becomes a storehouse of that living water that flows, or rather rushes down, from Lebanon.” The Source of living water may be far off, way up in those snowy mountains of Lebanon or in the eternal being of God, but it is making its way down through the divine watershed until it bubbles up within the well of our own heart, our own soul.

Has this been true for you? Sometimes you are a well which contains only the water which has come in from outside, and you are very conscious of your own emptiness, your own dryness, and you know that you are receiving a gift not of your own making. You are dry as dust and ashes, waiting to be drenched with Easter water.

And sometimes you are a spring whose water gushes up from your deepest places, and you are aware that a gift is being given through you that will quench the thirst of others, and you are surprised and grateful to be part of love’s graceful dance.

What’s it going to be for you today? Are you here to drink from the well of life? Or is this your day to become, like Jesus, the water-giver for some stranger who just happens to be sitting next to you? Sometimes one, sometimes the other, sometimes both.

Now the gospel isn’t just about satisfying our own thirst.
Living water is meant to be passed around.
Water that stops moving becomes stagnant.

After the Samaritan woman reaches the point in the conversation when she begins to grasp what Jesus is offering, what does she do? She runs off to tell her neighbors about this amazing water she has found. She doesn’t hoard that water for herself, after her own needs have been met. She keeps the gift moving. And soon her neighbors find the water of life welling up in them.

Did you notice in the story what happens to her jar? Like the fisherman leaving their nets, she leaves her jar behind, so joyous the message, so urgent the task, to help her friends taste living water for themselves.

She won’t need that jar, by the way.
Living water will flow wherever she goes,
as long as she remains in God.
Just strike the rock, and streams will gush.

I find it encouraging, to see the woman run off like that, so eager to share the gospel before she herself fully grasps it. That means that you and I don’t have to wait until we get it all figured out. We can start right now to share the living water. Even beginners can do Love’s work and manifest Love’s joy.

One final point. I love the line, “He told me everything I have ever done!” He knows everything about me, and he’s still interested.  There is nothing we can do to make God love us any more than God already does. We know this, don’t we? God is infinite love. We can’t earn God’s love, because it is freely given. There is nothing we can do to make God love us more.

But––equally important––we can do to make God love us less. Sometimes we forget this important truth. God knows my whole story––even the messy parts––and I am still God’s beloved.

“He told me everything I have ever done!” And the way that Christ tells the story of the woman––as well as the story you and the story of me––is that every step of the way, however halting or circuitous, turns out in the end to be a journey to the well.

I heard the voice of Jesus say,
“Behold, I freely give
The living water; thirsty one,
Stoop down, and drink, and live!”
I came to Jesus, and I drank
Of that lifegiving stream;
My thirst was quenched,
My soul revived,
and now I live in him.   (Horatius Bonar)

Lorraine Coleman, an African-American writer, tells of the first time her mother took her to town in the South. She ran toward the drinking fountains, hurrying right past the one labeled “white” to turn on the one marked “colored”. She was so disappointed. The water was clear. She had expected a rainbow of colors.

Let us run to the waters with that kind of eagerness, that kind of expectation. We will not be disappointed. The fountain of God will not let us down. In it we will find the rainbow; we will find the light that darkness cannot overcome; we will find the streams of mercy.

Then the angel showed me the river of life, clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb…The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come! . . . Let everyone who is thirsty, come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.” (Rev 22:1, 17)

If we really want it, it’s there for the taking. In her poem, “Like the Samaritan Woman by the Well,” Benedictine nun Hae-in Lee describes the beatitude of such a gift to such a seeker:

My long stagnant sorrow and thirst
like drops of water in my jar
have risen up to dance, all smiling now.

Let all who are thirsty, come.

 

O Sing to Me of Heaven: Requiem for a Friend

Stephen D. O’Leary at Point Reyes National Seashore, June 13, 2011 (Photo by Jim Friedrich)

My friend Stephen D. O’Leary departed this life on January 24, 2020, just days after we sang together at the California Shape Note Singing Convention. Although he had recently been diagnosed with cancer and had just begun chemo, he was feeling pretty good that weekend. He said afterward, “I plan to keep singing until I die (which I hope will not be anytime soon), and even after.” Two days later, way too soon, he was gone. Today I preached this homily at his requiem, where many of his shape note friends gathered to sing his spirit home. 

In early January, on Twelfth Night, Stephen shared on Facebook an article which had caught his attention, about the possibility of robot priests––speaking machines which could offer blessings, prayers and comfortable words on demand. And of course Stephen had questions: Would a robot priest, he asked, require that God be “unable to distinguish between the bot’s prayer and the prayer of an actual human person, or . . . only that the person being prayed for by the bot must believe that the bot is an actual conscious being…?” Thankfully, no such questions are at issue in this liturgy!  Fr. Gagan and I are not battery-operated.

But such questions were so Stephen. His passionate and curious mind was always wondering about things in the most interesting and unique way. How we will miss his questions––and so much besides.

The Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote a line expressing in nine words the uniqueness we all possess: What I do is me: for that I came. Stephen did Stephen as well as he could, and each of us has our own stories about why he came, and what difference he made in our lives.

A few hours before he died, he posted a poem by George Eliot about the “choir invisible / whose music is the gladness of the world.” The “choir invisible” is the poet’s name for those departed souls whose lingering influence has made us better, and even now may still “Enkindle generous ardor, feed pure love, / Beget the smiles that have no cruelty, / Be the sweet presence of a good diffus’d, / And in diffusion ever more intense!”

“To make [such] undying music in the world” was the holy work to which Stephen aspired, even when his road was rough and steep.  We mourn his absence, lament the sudden withdrawal from the visible world of such a remarkable and dear companion. As we sing at the end of every shape note convention, just before we go our separate ways:

Your comp’ny’s sweet, your union dear
Your words delightful to my ear
Yet when I see that we must part
You draw like cords around my heart

But the absence of a loved one in bodily and temporal form is succeeded by new forms of presence. Although death changes the relationship, it does not end it. The dead continue to occupy our thoughts. They remain present to us in stories, memories, emotions, DNA (in some cases), and whatever else they left us with.

Stephen is no longer in one particular place. He is now in every place or occasion where we remember him. He is present whenever we think of him, or speak of him, or tell the stories that bring him back. I’m pretty sure I’m always going to hear his unmistakable voice whenever we hit those high notes in shape note hymns like Stratfield or Villulia.

At the tomb of Jesus, the angel of resurrection told the sorrowing women, “The one you seek is not where you laid him. From now on, you need to be looking elsewhere.” Wendell Berry has said something similar about all the departed, who now are “hidden among all that is, / And cannot be lost.”

Resurrection faith tells us that a person’s continuing presence is not purely the product of our own subjectivity. Though we see Stephen no longer, he continues to exist as more than just memory or feeling or imagination. As he was when he was created, so he remains: a beloved child of God, but now embraced and glorified within a larger wholeness from which none of us will ever be separated. This wholeness, which has many names, is the Love Supreme which binds us all together. This interconnection, this communion, cannot be broken, even by death.

The Lakota people have the expression “all my relatives” to describe the continuing bond between the living and the dead. Martin Brokenleg, a Lakota Episcopal priest, puts it this way: “Our experience shows us that death does not break our kinship bond. We turn to one another for help and support regardless of which side of death our relatives are on.”

But knowing that death is not the end does not make the burden of loss any lighter. Even Jesus wept when his friend Lazarus died.

“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died!” This is the only time Jesus is criticized by his friends, so bitter is their grief. Lord, if you had only come sooner, you could have delayed his fate, his mortality, for a little while longer. You could have cured him. Why did he have to die now?

Well, Jesus doesn’t like death any more than Mary and Martha do. When he approaches the tomb of his friend, he is, the gospel tells us, “greatly disturbed.” In Greek these words carry a connotation of anger, so we might say that Jesus was just as mad at death as everyone else was that day.

And so, we are told, the One who would be revealed as the Lord of life rebukes death in the most dramatic way. He peers into the darkness of the cave tomb and cries, “Lazarus! Come forth!” And Lazarus does come forth, into the light, a living man, inhaling the freshness of a spring morning.

But his resuscitation is only a temporary stay. Lazarus will die again, sooner or later. And shortly after this miracle, Jesus himself will die, sharing the fate of every mortal so that God might transform that fate into something glorious. As we sing in The Sacred Harp (#163 on the bottom): Thence he arose, ascended high, to show our feet the way.

The raising of Lazarus may not have been a true resurrection into life eternal, but it was a vivid foretaste of the human future, when everyone who has fallen asleep in death will hear the voice of the divine Friend who knows us by heart, calling us each by name on that “great rising day.”

Some of us were at Angels Gate in San Pedro for the California Shape Note Convention, when Stephen, only a few days before his death, led us in singing “Farewell Anthem.”

My friends, I am going on a long and tedious journey,
Never to return, never to return. . .
Fare you well,
Fare you well, my friends,
And God grant we may meet together in that world above. . .

Stephen was not being literal––he did not expect to leave us so soon––but I imagine him smiling now to know he was bound for  glory with a song on his lips, and that so many who love him have gathered here today to join in that song with sweet accord.

I once heard a shape note singer tell about her mother’s death out in Sand Mountain, Alabama. A lot of singers were standing round her bed, keeping vigil with the old songs. But there came a moment when her mother began to sing a tune that none of them recognized. They couldn’t quite place it. And then they realized she wasn’t singing the melody. She was singing the treble part. She was singing harmony with voices from the other side, which only she could hear. The choir invisible.

Oh, sing to me of heav’n,
When I am called to die,
Sing songs of holy ecstasy
To waft my soul on high. . .

 

Then to my ravished ear
Let one sweet song begin,
Let music charm me last on earth,
And greet me first in heav’n.

 

Stephen O’Leary (right) and David Olson lead “Farewell Anthem” at the 2020 California Shape Note Convention.

Tune My Heart to Sing Thy Grace: George Herbert’s “Denial”

Gianlorenzo Bernini, St. Jerome (Siena Cathedral, 1661-1663). The saint holds the crucifix like a violin.

“Negative grace” . . . is experienced as a game of “take-away,” in which God strips us, removing things that are barriers to a naked confrontation. God takes away distraction after distraction, until our time and space take on the harsh contours of the desert.”

–– W. Paul Jones [i]

Thus in the desert you will find that God is simultaneously present and absent, proximate and remote, visible and invisible, manifest and hidden. God can receive you with great tenderness and then abandon you on the cross of loneliness. God consoles you and torments you at the same time. God heals you only to wound you again. God may speak to you today and ignore you tomorrow.

–– Alessandro Pronzato [ii]

 

Although “Lent” comes from a word for springtime, the season of fresh and abundant growth, its dominant metaphor is the desert, with its connotations of aridity and spareness. The spiritual journey back to the garden must go by way of the desert. Distractions, distortions and comfortable illusions must be stripped away to make room for a grace beyond our own cramped imaginings. As W. Paul Jones puts it, the desert is “a game of take-away.”

As every saint will tell you, the spiritual life is not always satisfaction. Sometimes it is deprivation, a “negative grace” that draws us (or forces us) out of our settled and static states into the disorienting vastness of divine imagination. No longer sheltered by the old complacencies, we experience a lack, an absence, a desolation, which nothing familiar can fill or assuage. In retrospect, we understand this as a necessary passage into a reality richer and deeper than our old “self,” but whenever we are in the midst of the Cloud of Unknowing or lost in the Land of Unlikeness, we are subject to the anguish of abandonment. My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?

George Herbert, whose feast day (February 27) follows Ash Wednesday this year, was a seventeenth-century poet-priest who wrote elegant and moving verse about the motions of the soul and the life of faith. Although honest about his own shortcomings and inner struggles, he was consistently conversant with the God of grace, and his poems were usually grounded in a sense of reliable­­––if sometimes challenging––reciprocity with his Maker and Redeemer.

Come, my Joy, my Love, my Heart:
Such a Joy, as none can move:
Such a Love, as none can part:
Such a Heart as joys in love. (“The Call”)

But even “the holy Mr. Herbert,” as his parishioners called him, spent time in the desert of divine absence and spiritual desolation.  “Denial” is one of his unhappiest poems, lamenting a God who is not only hidden, but unresponsive, seemingly deaf to Herbert’s prayers: “O that thou shouldst give dust a tongue / To cry to thee, / And then not hear it crying!”

The brokenness of the meter matches the poet’s broken heart. As Herbert biographer John Drury notes, “iambs (short-longs) jostle discordantly with trochees (long-shorts). The lines of each verse are, apart from the two minimally two-feet lines, unequal in length (four, two, five, three, two feet). There is near-chaos.” [iii]

In all but the last stanza, the concluding line is dispiriting: “disorder. . . alarms . . . no hearing . . . no hearing . . . discontented.” And each stanza’s ending fails to rhyme with any other line, intensifying the sense of disconnection and alienation from a larger whole. Only the poem’s final line is granted the mending grace of rhyme.

When my devotions could not pierce
Thy silent ears;
Then was my heart broken, as was my verse:
My breast was full of fears
And disorder:

My bent thoughts, like a brittle bow,
Did fly asunder:
Each took his way; some would to pleasures go,
Some to the wars and thunder
Of alarms.

As good go anywhere, they say,
As to benumb
Both knees and heart, in crying night and day,
Come, come, my God, O come,
But no hearing.

O 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 nipped blossom, hung
Discontented.

O cheer and tune my heartless breast,
Defer no time;
That so thy favors granting my request,
They and my mind may chime,
And mend my rhyme.

“But no hearing,” occurring twice at the poem’s center, poses deep crisis for a person of prayer. Yet faith teaches us to bear divine silence patiently. Silence does not always mean absence or indifference. It can, sometimes, be a profounder form of speech. But the fifth stanza adds the image of being unseen to the one of being unheard: “my soul lay out of sight, / Untun’d, unstrung.”

Herbert loved music. It is said that when he was near death, he suddenly rose from his bed and called for one of his instruments, so that he might play and sing for his God. According to Izaak Walton’s account, as he tuned the instrument he prayed, “My God, my God! My music shall find thee. And ev’ry string shall have his attribute to sing.”

So Herbert’s image of the soul as an instrument untuned and forgotten, like the abandoned harps hung on willow trees by the rivers of Babylon (Psalm 137:2), conveys a sense of utter forlornness. “What wonders shall we feel, when we shall see / Thy full-ey’d love!” wrote Herbert in “The Glance.” Such a gaze shall “look us out of pain.” But in “Denial,” God’s “sweet and gracious eye” no longer rests upon him. It no longer sees him at all, as if he doesn’t exist.

Or so it seems to the disconsolate soul. And yet Herbert continues to speak as if God is still there, as if his prayer might still be heard. “O cheer and tune my heartless breast,” he cries, using his favorite musical image for the restoration of the soul’s lost consonance, when “thy favors . . . and my mind may chime” (like bells in harmony) and so “mend my [broken] rhyme.”

That final word puts an end to the discordant lack of rhymed endings in the previous stanzas. Just as the poem’s broken meter signifies the disorder in Herbert’s soul, so this restoration of missing rhyme anticipates the grace of a mended life. Furthermore, the double meaning of the last word (“rhyme” was sometimes spelled “rime,” which also means frost) suggests an additional connotation of renewal:  the heart’s long winter will soon be mended by the coming of spring.

 

 

 

[i] W. Paul Jones, A Season in the Desert: Making Time Holy (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2000), 96.

[ii] Alessandro Pronzato, Meditations on the Sand (1982, p. 45), cited in John Moses, The Desert: An Anthology for Lent (Norwich, UK: Canterbury Press, 1997), 31.

[iii] John Drury, Music at Midnight: The Life and Poetry of George Herbert (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960), 331.