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.

 

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.

“Thus times do shift”: A Poem for Candlemas

Augustina Woodgate, National Times (2016/2019) at the Whitney Biennial 2019.

February already! How the year hurries on. I tear January from my calendar with a sigh. The new year’s fresh supply of months is being consumed at an alarming rate. A few weeks ago there seemed time enough for everything, but now . . .

Candlemas (February 2) is the last of the Nativity celebrations. You can read more about its meaning and customs in last year’s post, Consumed by Love. For me it is a day to remember the preciousness of the time we are given. Like the people’s candles traditionally blessed in the Candlemas rite, the days to come are made to be used up. As I wrote last year, “a candle is a temporal thing, fulfilling its function of radiance and warmth at the cost of its own vanishing.”

For Robert Herrick, 17th-century poet and priest, our temporal condition was a recurring theme. “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may” is his best-known line, but his poem for Candlemas Eve is my favorite. The changing of seasonal decorations in houses and churches is an emblem of the human condition: Thus times do shift . . . new things succeed, as former things grow old.

       DOWN with the rosemary and bays,
           Down with the misletoe ;
       Instead of holly, now up-raise
           The greener box (for show).

       The holly hitherto did sway ;
           Let box now domineer
       Until the dancing Easter day,
           Or Easter’s eve appear.

       Then youthful box which now hath grace
           Your houses to renew ;
       Grown old, surrender must his place
           Unto the crisped yew.

       When yew is out, then birch comes in,
           And many flowers beside ;
       Both of a fresh and fragrant kin
           To honour Whitsuntide.

       Green rushes, then, and sweetest bents,
           With cooler oaken boughs,
       Come in for comely ornaments
           To re-adorn the house.
Thus times do shift ; each thing his turn does hold ;
New things succeed, as former things grow old.

Herrick’s poem was set to a Basque melody by Edgar Pittman (1865-1943). Here is a lovely version of it by English folksinger Kate Rusby.

On the Brink of War: “Choose life.”

Matteo di Giovanni, The Slaughter of the Innocents (detail, floor panel, Siena cathedral, 1481)

A madman has brought us to the brink of war. No one can predict where we go from here. If we’re lucky, the U.S. and Iran will both back off and stand down. If we’re not, hello Armageddon. But the fact that a psychologically unstable and dangerously impulsive ignoramus is steering us toward disaster, while Congress and public seem powerless or unwilling to relieve him of his command, should both terrify and sicken us. The “shining city on a hill” has become a rogue state: cruel, murderous, and––if we allow ourselves to be drawn into a war with Iran––clearly insane. 

Politicians and pundits are debating the reasons and guessing the consequences, but who is talking about the madness of a president who commits murder during his golf vacation? Who is calling out the evil of a president who would invite apocalypse to evade impeachment? Pretending not to notice these things is a form of enabling, if not its own kind of madness. 

People say Soleimani deserved death for taking so many lives. Do we really want to go down that road? If the death toll from the administration’s dismantling of health care and environmental protections should produce more fatalities than those caused by the Iranian general, what then would Trump deserve? 

We must say no to murder, and no to war. State-sponsored assassination is both repugnant and counterproductive. And military violence has become virtually obsolete as an instrument of national policy, as we have seen over the last three decades of endless and fruitless conflict. Will we never learn?

Twenty-nine years ago this month, I preached against Desert Storm, four days after we began to assault Iraq with the terrifying technology of “shock and awe.” It was not a popular sermon––over 80% of Americans took the opposite view.

I cited a declaration of the Anglican conference of bishops in 1978: “War as a matter of settling disputes is incompatible with the teaching and example of our Lord Jesus Christ. The use of modern technology of war is the most striking example of corporate sin and the prostitution of God’s gifts.” But in 1991 our country was in love with our sophisticated weapons, and people were intoxicated by the smell of victory. 

For those who watched Desert Storm on television, it seemed like a video game. The “enemy” were just blips on the screen, bloodless and abstract, vaporized by noisy explosions. In my sermon, I tried to humanize the conflict: 

In Baghdad’s art center, there is a painting of Jesus, gazing at the world around him with an expression of profound sadness and pain. He wears a Palestinian scarf around his neck and he is handcuffed.

If a Christian bomber pilot knew Christ was in Baghdad, would he deliver his payload? Of course, war is not run by the personally motivated decisions of soldiers. War is organized from above. Soldiers just play their assigned part. But they can only function as long as the enemy remains a mere target, rather than a brother or a sister. They must practice indifference to the stories of their victims. Don’t see. Don’t feel.

But you and I cannot let this war be a video game. Instead, let us see and know that it is Christ being crucified in every victim. Let us watch Christ’s hands being pierced; let us hear his cry of anguish. Let us witness the Madonna and Child blown to bits in the air raid. 

As I said, it was not my most popular sermon. 

We pray every day to be delivered from evil. May that be so in our present danger. But if war comes, may we have the courage and the faith to choose Christ over the “powers” of this world, and say no to the violence. As Martin Luther King reminded us, “Our ultimate end must be the creation of the beloved community.” Ironically, Desert Storm began on Martin Luther King Day, seeming to mock the way of nonviolence. But faith takes the long view. Violence has no future. 

Today I give you the choice of life or death, blessing or curse. Choose life.

                         –– Deuteronomy 30:19 

Festo Kivengere, the Ugandan bishop whose people suffered greatly under the unspeakably barbaric rule of Idi Amin, was once asked: “If you were sitting in Idi Amin’s office with a gun in your hand, what would you do?”

“I would give him the gun, “Kivengere replied. “I would tell him, ‘This is your weapon. My weapon is love.’”