God guides the humble in doing right and teaches the divine way to the lowly
— Psalm 25:8
There was a hermit who was able to banish the demons. And he asked them: “What makes you go away? Is it fasting?” They replied: “We do not eat or drink.” “Is it vigils?” They said: “We do not sleep.” “Then what power sends you away?” They replied: “Nothing can overcome us except humility alone.”
— Sayings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers
When I spent Orthodox Holy Week in Jerusalem years ago, I saw an unusual ritual in the Syrian church on Holy Thursday. The patriarch, imitating the humility of Jesus, girded himself with a towel and knelt at the feet of the clergy to wash their feet. After this, he took his seat. Then the clergy surrounded his chair and lifted it above their heads, for “all who humble themselves shall be exalted” (Luke 14:11). From this elevated position, the patriarch gave us all a blessing.
Humility is perhaps the most misunderstood of Christian virtues. It has been confused with low self-esteem, or suffering devaluation by others without complaint. Religious tropes of unworthiness (“I am a worm, not a person!”) haven’t helped. But humility is foundational to spiritual growth. When the Psalm says that God “teaches the divine way to the lowly,” it means that there is something essential, life-giving and godly which comes only through humility.
In the 4th century, Christian men and women fled the corruptions of a dehumanizing culture in search of a more authentic way of being. In the deserts of Egypt and Palestine, they discovered that humility was not just the first step on the path toward the “divinization” of our humanity; it was the path itself—the self-emptying process which makes room for God to fill us. This is the wisdom the Psalmist promised, and it became foundational for western monasticism, of which every contemporary Christian is a beneficiary. As Thomas Merton put it, humility “empties the soul of all pride and annihilates it in the sight of God, so that nothing may be left of it but the pure capacity for God.” [i]
Humility is countercultural in the age of “selfies.” It is the antidote for narcissism—grandiose self-importance, entitlement, insatiable lust for attention, and self-promotion. It gives glory only to God.
Humility begins with consciousness of sin—our own incompleteness, our distance from what we are made to be. This frees us from having to pretend to be what we are not. We drop the disguises and self-delusion, admit our weaknesses and limitations. We relinquish the need to be in control or make everything about us. We accept our dependence on God—everything is gift, not possession. We acknowledge our need for mercy.
Humility also heals our relationships with others. If we don’t have to be the smartest in the room, or the most important, or always correct, we can shed the arrogance, egotism, fear and competitiveness which disable loving community. We submit ourselves to the presence, influence and “otherness” of others, even when it is difficult to do, because interdependence is the truth of love. We even accept the hard things beyond our control without losing faith. And by not insisting on always having the best for myself, or asserting my rights without reverent regard for humanity or the planet, humility restores the balance of paradise.
Benedictine sister Joan Chittister sums it up this way: “Humility is the total continuing surrender to God’s power in my life and in the lives of those around me.” [ii]
[i] Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (182), cited in William H. Shannon, Christine M. Bochen, & Patrick F. O’Connell, The Thomas Merton Encyclopedia (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2002), 216.
[ii] Joan Chittister, O.S.B., Wisdom Distilled from the Daily: Living the Rule of St. Benedict Today (New York: Harper One, 1991), 65.
I took the photograph at the Venice Biennale in 2019. The sculpture is “The Guardians of Time” (2018) by Austrian artist Manfred Kielnhofer. The faceless anonymity of the monkish figures and the young woman refute the assertion of self. Even the latter’s self-conscious pose is at least practicing the posture of humility and surrender, if only in play (her act was spontaneous, inspired by the figures). But is not all Christian practice a form of play, where we try out a self we have not yet become?
Ash Wednesday is a border crossing. Our foreheads, like passports, are stamped with ashes, and we step bravely into the forbidding wastes of Lent’s strange land. By the time we reach the other side, we will be someone else.
The Lenten journey is commonly viewed as a time of personal growth and transformation, a solitary immersion in the refiner’s fire, a testing and cleansing of our innermost heart. We learn to travel light, shed the inessentials. We face our demons. We renounce regrets and angers, and interrogate our desire. We listen patiently, till the Silence speaks. The desert saints, who fled the corruptions and distractions of the Roman Empire to meet God on open ground, modeled the classic regimen:
“[G]et up early every day and acquire the beginning of every virtue and commandment of God. Use great patience, with fear and long-suffering, in the love of God, with all the fervor of your soul and body. Exercise great humility, bear with interior distress, be vigilant and pray often with reverence and groaning, with purity of speech and control of your eyes… Do your work in peace. Persevere in keeping vigil, in hunger and thirst, cold and nakedness, and in sufferings.”[ii]
This year, however, Lent’s collective dimension comes to the fore. The pandemic has made our social behavior a literal choice between life and death. Thoughtless selfishness about masks and social distancing, however trivial it may seem in the moment, may have murderous results. Necessity has forced us all to live, as Thoreau advised, “deliberately.” At the same time, climate change, racism, economic dysfunction and political crisis continue to issue their own relentless summons to collective conversion.
Return to me with all your heart, says the Lord, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts, not your garments.… Blow the trumpet in Zion, sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people.…Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep. Let them say, “Spare your people, O Lord, and do not make your heritage a mockery, a byword among the nations.” [iii]
These words of the prophet Joel, recited aloud in the Ash Wednesday liturgy, seem so well-aimed this year. Although the United States is not the biblical chosen people, Joel’s words do hit home. Our toxic national quagmire should put us all in sackcloth and ashes, rending our hearts and crying “Mercy!” for 40 days of public atonement.
It’s not enough to blame Trump, Hawley, Cruz, McConnell and rest of that sorry mob of schemers and traitors. However despicable their betrayals of democracy, however pathetic their black hearts and shrunken souls, those individuals are but the rotten fruit of our unaddressed national sins, what Martin Luther King called “the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism and militarism.” [iv] The common response to the violent insurrection unleashed at the U.S. Capitol on January 6 has been a claim of innocence: “This is not who we are.“ And yet, in the words of one candid observer, “It is what we do.” [v]
Writing about coming of age during the Vietnam War, Patricia Hampl describes her attempt to identify with the American ideal rather than its present reality. Walt Whitman was her guide. “Out of the ashes of the Civil War … Whitman fashioned his thrilling American conception, … envisioning a country full of charmed lovers with arms around each others’ waists.” Distressed by napalm abroad and civil strife at home, Hampl wanted to cling to America’s best idea of itself.
“I could escape American history which was a bad dream and enter the dream of America which I wished could be history. A sleight of hand, a last-ditch attempt to return to the purity of abstraction, to the Mayflower moment, the radiant arrival in paradise before anything had happened. Ourselves—but rinsed of history.” [vi]
No such luck. We the people can only be rinsed on the far side of the Lenten desert. For now, nothing but ashes, sand, and dust, as we endure our dryness with broken and contrite hearts, engage our demons without evasion or fear, renounce our innocence, and surrender to grace.
[i] Daily Office Psalm for Ash Wednesday, Episcopal Book of Common Prayer.
[ii]The Apophthegmata (Sayings of the Desert Fathers), in William Harmless, S.J., Desert Christians: An Introduction to the Literature of Early Monasticism (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 199-200.
[iii] Joel 2:12-13, 15-17. This passage is one of two choices of Ash Wednesday texts from the Hebrew prophets. The other, Isaiah 58:1-12, is also a cry for collective repentance, adding a list of corporate sins well-known in our own day: injustice, oppression, neglect of the poor, hungry and homeless.
All of our hearts ask the night this question: Am I safe and am I loved?
— Brother David Steindl-Rast & Sharon Lebell, Music of Silence
Guide us waking, O Lord, and guard us sleeping; that awake we may watch with Christ, and asleep we may rest in peace.
— Compline Antiphon for the Nunc Dimittis
In The Benedictine Gift to Music, Katharine Le Mée links the musical octave to the progressive sequence of canonical hours. Do is the starting point (Lauds). Re and Mi launch us into the energetic activity of the morning (Prime/Terce). Fa, when only a tentative half-step is taken, is a moment of indecision or uncertainty about the meaning and the outcome of our journey (Sext). Sol, “a bright, triumphant note,” signals our recommitment to the day’s work, wherever it may lead (None). La continues onward, but it is more subdued, accepting a sense of loss as we let go of what is behind us (Vespers). Si is charged with an unsustainable tension, resolved only by our surrender to the resting place of Do (Compline).
“The key to the completion of the octave,” says Le Mée, “is our willingness to give up any personal desire to know exactly what should happen and our claim to and control of the results. The last step, therefore, is one of surrender, the point of second awakening, where synthesis and integration take place.”[i]
Before you go to bed tonight, try singing the octave syllables, ascending slowly and deliberately from Do to Do, visualizing the progress of the day in those seven steps. Notice particularly the relaxing of tension as you make the final half-step. Just so does Compline complete[ii] the circle of the hours, inviting us to cease our strivings and rest in the arms of grace. “Entering the fullness of night, we return from song back into the silence.” [iii]
Designed for tired bodies, the Compline rite is short and to the point. It begins with the most succinct of bedtime prayers: The Lord Almighty grant us a peaceful night and a perfect end. The iambic rhythm of its three last words (two pairs of syllables with the stress on the second of each) replicates in sound the sense of an ending: a-per-fect-end. It’s like a gymnast sticking a landing—emphatic and conclusive. And so it should be, since “a perfect end” expresses multiple levels of cessation: the end of the day, the end of life, and the end of time.
Of course, when Christians say “the end,” we are speaking about more than termination. We are speaking about purpose. What is the purpose of a day, or a life? What is the meaning of time and history? We don’t always know exactly where a path leads until we reach its end; it is only at the end that the journey’s meaning is fully revealed. Still, we get hints and glimpses of our ultimate future—our “perfect end”—along the way, so that we might, with God’s grace, proceed in hope rather than dread.
The connection between sleep and death is an ancient and enduring one. When someone dies, we pray for “the repose of the soul,” that the deceased may “rest in peace.” The two states share an outward resemblance, and a subjective one as well. When we go to sleep, our eyes close, and the conscious mind becomes “dead to the world.” From the twelfth to the seventeenth centuries, a recumbent figure was a common feature on European tombs. When stone sepulchers went out of fashion, the corpse itself was arranged to imitate the sculpted sleepers of the old tombs: lying peacefully on its back, with hands joined or crossed.[iv]
Every sleep is a practice in letting go, a rehearsal for the inevitable dispossession of death. You can’t take it with you. What’s done is done. Surrender control. Plans, projects, worries, hopes—let it all go. Exit the visible world and sink into the abyss of the dark unknown. It’s rather amazing that most of us do this routinely every night. But our mortal bodies don’t really give us a choice. Whether at the end of the day or the end of our life, surrender is how the game is played.
Surrender is best done willingly. If we believe there is something beyond oblivion, we can lie down in peace. Under most circumstances, we all believe in tomorrow morning as a matter of course. We usually do it without thinking. We go to sleep … we wake up … life goes on. But when we meet the hour of our death, can we still trust in the morning after?
In their reflections on the canonical hours, David Steindl-Rast and Sharon Lebell express the existential mixture of anxiety and faith faced by the thoughtful soul in the Compline experience:
Night is at once threat and grace: threat, because when night falls, we stand at the edge of chaos – the neat little world that we have created for ourselves throughout the day now threatens to fall back into chaos; but grace also, because the protection, the divine nearness to which we have become accustomed through the chants and prayers throughout the day, will not abandon us.[v]
We should “keep death daily before our eyes,” says the Rule of St. Benedict.[vi] Only so can we maintain clarity and perspective about our existential situation. If you forget death, you won’t know who you are or where you stand. We are creatures who will die; pretending otherwise will give us less life, not more. As Teresa of Avila reminds us, “Don’t be troubled. Everything passes, but God stays. One who has God lacks nothing.” [vii]
Mark Barrett, O.S.B., tells of a fellow monk serving as headmaster of a posh British school. At a gathering of parents and donors, he told them that the school “prepared its students not for Oxbridge, the City or the Guards, but for death.” Barrett doesn’t report the speech’s effect on enrollment. [viii]
In my essay on Vespers, I wrote about practicing the Examen, a prayerful review at the close of day. “From the perspective of the end, we can look back on the story of the day as a whole: How did it go, for good or ill? … Where did God meet us—and did we notice? … When did we remember—or forget—to be our truest selves? … And, most importantly, did we say yes to Love?” The Examen may also be done at Compline (which includes a brief confession), though on the threshold of sleep any interrogation should be brief. The hour is made for letting go, even of the critical work of mending the soul. As Elizabeth Yates puts it in her Book of Hours:
This is no time to dwell upon the disturbing, the unattained, the imperfect. To do so would be to find sleep elusive … By an act of will, that which may have marred the day must be given over to God to enable thinking to be anchored fast in that which is good. Rest will come then, and with it the restoration that is sleep.[ix]
Lord, it is night. The night is for stillness. Let us be still in the presence of God. It is night after a long day. What has been done has been done; What has not been done has not been done; let it be.
— Night Prayer, A New Zealand Prayer Book
Compline is grounded in deep trust. Entering the darkness, we renounce our fear. The Psalms of Compline tune our awareness to the protective Presence which will carry us through the night:
O God, make speed to save us. O Lord, make haste to help us. (70:1)
Keep me as the apple of your eye; hide me under the shadow of your wings. (17:8)
I lie down in peace; at once I fall asleep; for only you, Lord, make me dwell in safety. (4:8)
Into your hands I commend my spirit, for you have redeemed me, O Lord, O God of truth. (31:5)
These are images of profound sweetness, sinking us into the embrace of the Divine Beloved. Every night, including our last, we “fall asleep in Christ.” But the act of complete surrender to the Divine Other is not lightly done. Jesus spent his last breath commending his spirit to the Father (Luke 23:46), so when we ourselves say the same words we are connecting to something far deeper than a good night’s sleep. The sacred words commit us to the Paschal Mystery of dying and rising. What we have been will be exchanged for what we must be. It is a costly Way, but we never walk alone—or entirely in the dark. Come what may, we remain in the protective shelter of God’s love. This is the central meaning of Compline.
Our ancient night prayers, composed centuries before electricity, strike matches of faith in the endless black: Be our light in the darkness, O Lord, and in your great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night … protect us through the hours of this night … illumine this night with your celestial brightness … preserve us in peace, and let your blessing be upon us always.
These are beautiful and consoling prayers on the verge of sleep. However, at the end of any given day, not everyone is having a peaceful night and a perfect end. There are many “who work, or watch, or weep this night.” Our own day is not truly complete until we gather them also into the blessing way. A movingly earnest prayer, attributed to St. Augustine, does this work by putting emphatic stresses on a series of beseeching verbs:
Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake. Amen.
Compline draws to a close with the Nunc Dimittis, Simeon’s valedictory canticle from Luke’s gospel. The long and varied symphony of the canonical hours resolves into a peaceful diminuendo: with this quiet song of surrender, the day’s music fades away into the Great Silence.
Lord, now let your servant depart in peace as you have promised, for these eyes of mine have seen the Savior …
Old Simeon has waited all his life for the moment when a lifetime of longing would find its perfect end. When he sees the infant Jesus brought to the Temple, he recognizes the child as the salvation of the world, “a Light to enlighten the nations, and the glory of God’s people Israel.” In this revelatory moment, to which all his years have led, he makes his own personal Compline. Now his “day” is over. His story is complete. He does not cling to the moment, for it is gift, not possession. He knows how to walk away and let go.[x]
Since the fourth century, the Song of Simeon has been sung by countless voices at the close of day. Its calm, accepting spirit supplies a perfect end to our daily pilgrimage from Vigils to Compline. The canticle also prepares us for the hour of our death, teaching us to end our days with gratitude and trust, that we may, at the last, depart in peace.
In his deeply informed and formative book on Compline, Prayer as Night Falls,[xi] Kenneth V. Peterson balances the “little death” of Compline and sleep with the divine promise of an ultimate awakening. A longtime member of the celebrated Compline Choir at Seattle’s St. Mark’s Cathedral, Peterson describes a choir pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral in the year 2000. After singing Compline with a congregation in the great medieval church, the choir descended in procession to the crypt. There, in the company of sleeping saints, they sang a text by John Donne, conveying in the gloom a foretaste of resurrection morning:
Bring us, O Lord God, at our last awakening Into the house and gate of heaven, To enter that gate and dwell in that house, Where there shall be no darkness nor dazzling, But one equal light; No noise nor silence, but one equal music; No fears nor hopes, but one equal possession; No ends nor beginnings, but one equal eternity; In the habitation of thy glory and dominion, World without end. Amen.
Donne’s text, from a sermon in 1628, was adapted by Eric Milner-White (1884-1964). The music was composed by Peter Hallock, founder of the Compline Choir, in 1991. You can listen to it here. For more on Compline (including a directory of Compline services in North America, and links to lovely musical examples), visit Kenneth Peterson’s rewarding websites:
[vii] The 16th-century saint, who knew her share of turbulence, said this in a famous poem, “Nada te turbe,” which has been set to a Taize chant in both Spanish and English. Thirty years ago I sang it with 2000 pilgrims in the candlelit Taize church, experiencing deep calm as a lightning storm raged outside. “Nothing can trouble, nothing can frighten …”
[viii] Mark Barrett, O.S.B., Crossing: Reclaiming the Landscape of Our Lives (New York: Morehouse Publishing, 2002), 106.
[ix] Elizabeth Yates, A Book of Hours (Noroton, CT: Vineyard Books, 1976), 49.
[x] Barrett’s commentary on the Nunc Dimittis cites a poem by Cecil Day Lewis about “his experience as a parent of ‘walking away’ from his son on the boy’s first day of school.” Lewis says, “… selfhood begins with a walking away, / And love is proved in the letting go.” (Crossing, 108)
[xi] Kenneth V. Peterson, Prayer as Night Falls: Experiencing Compline (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2013). Peterson’s thoughtful exploration of the history and meaning of Compline is, as Phyllis Tickle has said, “a totally satisfying experience for mind and soul.” And the book’s website, cited above, provides beautiful musical examples.
But when the fullness of time had come, God sent the Son, born of a woman …
— The Letter of Paul to the Galatians (4:4)
In my six years of blogging, I have always posted a reflection on New Year’s Eve. The symbolic border between old and new prompts the big questions: Where have we been? Where are we going? If “Time is our choice of How to love and Why,”[i] are we using it well? Here are links to all my past posts dated December 31, followed by some thoughts at the end of a year like no other.
The Angel of Possibility(2014) Fresh starts nurture fresh hopes, but the turning of the year is of itself not enough to save us. The only sustainable new birth is rooted in the Nativity’s marriage of earth and heaven, finite and infinite, temporal and eternal, human and divine, and I am grateful that our passage into the New Year falls in the middle of the Christmas feast, enriched by faith’s larger hopes. We are not alone. As the Psalmist cries to the Holy One, “My times are in your hand; deliver me.” (Psalm 31:15)
Tick, Tock: Thoughts for New Year’s Eve(2015) On the one night of the year when countless human beings devote collective awareness to the vanishing Now (at least for the last 10 seconds of the 12th month), time is on everyone’s mind. And though there may be little consensus on the theoretical nature of time, we are all immersed in its flow, or what Susan Sontag called “time’s relentless melt.” We feel keenly the effects of beginnings, transitions, losses and endings. At year’s end, we pause on the razor’s edge between old and new, memory and expectation, regret and hope. When we dance our welcome to the New, may that narrow boundary prove wide enough for our joyful steps.
Foolishness and Hope on the Eve of 2017(2016) At the outset of our 4-year political and social nightmare, I beheld my country teetering on the brink of insanity and ruin. The New Year brought more dread than hope. It demanded a sturdier and steadier kind of moral resolve than the customary pledges of self-improvement. It required that we renounce despair. “We would do well,” I wrote, “not to be mesmerized by the abyss, but to focus on the greater power already and always at work amid the blind sufferings of history. God neither causes nor prevents those sufferings, but divine ingenuity always outwits them in the end.”
At the Mercy of the Future(2017) My title came from Didier Maleuvre: So long as one hopes, one puts oneself at the mercy of the future. 2017 was a painful year to be a person of hope, but I found consolation in Maleuvre’s study of ancient sculpture, contrasting the “readiness” of Greek statuary with the blank visages of Egyptian figures, who appear to expect nothing from the world, their minds closed to wonder, risk, or surprise. I myself am partial to the Greeks. “We are creatures of longing and hope,” I wrote, “and it is our fate to wade into the stream of time, come what may. But as the biblical God tells us at the beginning of every journey, Do not be afraid. I will go with you.”
On New Year’s Eve, My Inner Clown is Full of Hope(2018) Midway through the Trumpian hell, I hear the voices of three poets tending the flame of hope. In “O Esperanza,” Catherine Barnett cites one of her teachers, the philosopher Richard Rorty: “Just before he died, Rory said his sense of the holy was bound up with the hope / that someday our remote descendants will live in a global civilization / in which love is pretty much the only law.”
Farewell to a Decade. And then?(2019) The strain of these evil times was taking its toll on everyone as the decade ended. I recalled how Thoreau ignored the outbreak of the Civil War in his voluminous journal while continuing to register the doings of nature in extensive detail. When asked how he could remain silent on such a momentous national subject, Thoreau said that refusing to let our attention be consumed by the hypnotic gaze of chaos “is just the most fatal, and indeed the only fatal weapon you can direct against evil.” In that same spirit, I wrote: “2020 promises an immense struggle requiring the best of us, and I am grateful for those who plan to welcome the New Year with their most prayerful attention, keeping their eye on the Light rather than being transfixed by the dark abyss of malevolence.”
As for 2020, does anyone expect it to go quietly, to cease at midnight from doing further harm? Though we may find catharsis in shouting our “good riddances!” tonight, this year’s manifold ills will linger a while longer, and fresh starts will take time. Tomorrow morning the world will look much the same. “A change is gonna come,”[ii] but not in an instant.
Yet with the woes of sin and strife the world has suffered long; Beneath the heavenly hymn have rolled two thousand years of wrong. [iii]
Lancelot Andrewes, a 17th-century English bishop, preached seventeen Christmas Day sermons before King James in the Chapel Royal. Preachers who struggle to come up with fresh Nativity sermons year after year must stand in awe of Andrewes’ inexhaustible richness of expression and range of thought. “He cuts and polishes a text, like a jeweler a diamond,” wrote a later editor of those sermons, “and the rays of truth from its heart of light flash from every facet.” [iv]
The bishop’s Christmas sermon of 1609 explored St. Paul’s verse (Galatians 4:4) about the “fullness of time.” For Andrewes, St. Paul’s phrase itself is full, generating a surplus of meanings and implications. It suggests a condition of completeness, where nothing essential is lacking. More specifically, it designates the pivotal moment of history’s ripening, producing the Incarnate Word, the crown of creation. But the fullness is not just a property of time. It is an attribute of God: the overflowing fullness of Divine Love pouring itself endlessly into the world. The birth of Christ, said Andrewes, entails “the full measure of [God’s] sending.”
At the same time, there is a receptive dimension to the term, which Andrewes called “the fullness of the benefit we receive” from the Incarnation—not just redemption from sin but the means of union with God—and the joy which fills us in consequence. Fullness is not just divine gift; it is something that happens within us, a grace in which we participate.
“And after our joyfulness or fullness of joy, our fullness of thanks or thankfulness is to ensue; for with that fullness we are to celebrate it likewise. Our minds first, and then our mouths, to be filled with blessing, and praise, and thanks to Him, that hath made our times not to fall into those empty ages of the world, but to fall within this “fullness of time,” which “so many Kings and Prophets desired to have lived in …”
But the fullness comes and goes, ebbs and flows. What do we do in its absence? At the end of W. H. Auden’s Christmas Oratorio, For the Time Being, the poet laments the relative emptiness of time once the Vision fades:
To those who have seen The Child, however dimly, however incredulously, The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all.
Once we have experienced “the stable where for once in our lives / Everything was a You and nothing was an It,” how can we go back to the way we were? How can we settle for anything less than “the fullness of time?”[v] We don’t. Instead, we make our longing an instrument of change, energizing us—by the grace of the Spirit—to manifest and embody the fullness in our own stories, whenever and however we can.
Ring out the want, the care, the sin, The faithless coldness of the times; Ring out, ring out my mournful rimes, But ring the fuller minstrel in.[vi]
When we beat our gongs, bang our drums, and blow our whistles on the porch at midnight, I will recite these lines of Tennyson. But when we go back inside, I’ll put on Rachel Platten’s “Soldiers”—a rousing response to 2020’s time of trial—and we will dance to the fullness of time.
We’re at the end of the road We’re all soldiers on our own Trying to find our way back home And at the end of the day Nothing matters anyway Just the love that we have made
So let’s let go of our mistakes We’ve all got hearts that easily break
No matter how the light may fade We’ll carry on, it’s how we’re raised We might fall But we won’t break Yeah, we won’t break …
And now our hearts will beat, now they’ll beat as one We made it through, and after all, came the sun And now our hearts will beat, now our hearts will beat as one
Happy New Year, dear Reader! Thank you for reading and sharing through this challenging year. “We made it through!” I am grateful for your thoughtful attention to things that matter. I wish you much joy, health, love and peace in the days to come. Great joy to the New!
[i] W. H. Auden, For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio, ed. Alan Jacobs (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013), 46.
[ii] Sam Cooke wrote his great song, “A Change is Gonna Come” (1964), in support of the Civil Rights movement.
[iii] Edmund H. Sears (1810-1876), “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.”
[iv] The Editor is uncredited and the date, probably early 20th century, is not given in my reprinted volume of Lancelot Andrewes Seventeen Sermons on the Nativity (Collingwood, Victoria, Australia: Trieste Publishing, 2017). All the Andrewes citations are from Sermon IV (Dec. 25, 1609), pp. 44-62.
[vi] Alfred, Lord Tennyson, “In Memoriam.” Emphasis mine. The “fuller minstrel” is the Christ, embodying the fullness of our humanity united with divinity, singing Possibility into being.
[vii] Rachel Platten, “Soldiers” (2020). Platten recently explained her commitment to speaking out through her songs: “We need to use our art right now, because I truly believe beauty can save the world.”
Our parish service of Advent Lessons and Carols is virtual this year, using music recorded in 2019, and readers recorded in 2020. I added visuals inspired by the texts. The choir of St. Barnabas Episcopal Church on Bainbridge Island, Washington, is under the direction of Paul Roy, who also plays the organ. Priscilla Jones plays cello, and Rick Baty is on trumpet. The Rev. Karen Haig, rector of St. Barnabas, is the Officiant.
I share it here with my wish that your own Advent, dear reader, may be a season of hope and peace as the friends of God watch for the dawn.
The service music and notes on the images:
Veni Emmanuel (arr. Raymond H. Haan): The empty church at nightfall, like all of us scattered in our pandemic isolation, longs for the dawning of the day when God’s friends will once more fill this sacred space with thanks and praise.
Savior of the nations, come (Martin Luther’s variation on Ambrose of Milan, translated by William M. Reynolds and James Waring McCrady, with a powerful 16th century tune): Text and images celebrate the “wondrous birth.”
Adam lay ybounden (15th century text, setting by Boris Ord, 1897-1961): Had there been no apple and no Fall, the carol says, there would be no Queen of heaven and no Incarnate Word (some theologians dispute this—God wants to be with us under any circumstances—but the “felix culpa” is here charmingly argued). The last image here contrasts Eve picking an apple with Mary picking the sacramental Host to feed the people.
There is no rose of such virtue (15th century text, setting by Stephen Carraciolo): This lovely text compares Mary to a rose, and so do the images.
When the King shall come again (text by Christopher Idle, b. 1938): The images illustrate the hymn’s vision of a redeemed Creation: earth’s loveliness restored …rivers spring up … ransomed people march on God’s highway toward “the Lord with glory crowned.”
See, amid the winter’s snow (text by Edward Caswall, 1858; tune by John Goss, 1800-1880)): The text hails “redemption’s happy dawn” and gives us the key Nativity images, but the first line dictated the imagery, which I shot at home in winters past. The relaxing footage induces a contemplative mind receptive to the Mystery.
People, look east (words & music by Eleanor Farjeon, 1881-1965; arr. James E. Clemens): This lively carol prompts a variety of images— looking east at dawn (Mt. Rainier, Seattle from a ferry), home and hospitality (St. Barnabas in the snow), birds (pine siskins, goldfinches), stars, and angels (from Annunciation paintings). The final line, “Love, the Lord, is on the way,” inspired the linking of Mary’s pregnancy to the eucharist Host being adored by the angelic host.
Magnificat (setting by Thomas Attwood Walmisley): Mary’s great hymn of reversal is accompanied by diverse images of the Mother of God.
Lo, he comes with clouds descending: Charles Wesley’s great hymn of the Second Coming, with its stirring tune by Augustine Arne (1710-1788), calls for clouds and—unusual for the season—Passion imagery.
Sleepers, wake! A voice astounds us (arr. J.S. Bach): The words for this great Advent hymn call us to watch for the imminent dawn of salvation. Thus the images of the nocturnal moon (light in the darkness) conclude with sunrise light. The long night is over at last.
This is the sixth in a series on the canonical hours, the ancient Christian practice for living a mindful day. The first, “Reclaiming My Time,” gives a general introduction, with a list of helpful resources for your own practice of prayer and meditation. This reflection considers Vespers, the transition between day and night.
Now the day is over, Night is drawing nigh, Shadows of the evening Steal across the sky.
This familiar 19th-century Vespers[ii] hymn was dropped from the Episcopal hymnal in the proposed revision of 1982. A selection committee had deemed the text too sentimental and the tune too simple (5 of its 8 bars are on the same note, a kind of Anglican “om!”). But when the new hymnal came to a vote at the church’s General Convention 38 years ago, a motion was made from the floor to restore this old favorite. I was present for that debate, when one delegate after another stepped to a microphone to declare how much that hymn had meant to them, how formative the singing of it had been for their sense of belonging to a spiritual community with a fondness for dusk. The motion passed easily, and the hymn was rescued from the ecclesiastical dumpster.
Unlike its Vespers companions in the hymnal, its opening verse makes no mention of Christ or the Creator. It offers no theology of the day as divine gift, sings no praise to the Source of eternal brightness. It simply devotes quiet attention to the sensory data of the twilight hour: shadows lengthen, light fades. As temporal creatures, we have an inborn sensitivity to the vanishing of time. The Vesper drama, the most poignant of all the hours, is performed daily: sun goes … light fades … night falls. Failing to attend would impoverish both consciousness and spirit.
“Absolutely unmixed attention” (Simone Weil’s definition of prayer) is how to keep Vespers as a sacred hour, a time to engage with the sense of an ending and acknowledge our own temporality. Days must end, lives must end, and both passages deserve our profoundest attention.
Fairer through Fading—as the Day Into the Darkness dips away— Half Her Complexion of the Sun— Hindering—Haunting—Perishing—
How many Vespers have we missed, shut inside with the lights on or distracted by our screens? And when we do honor the hour with our attention, it is rarely in community. I suspect we could trace the affection for “Now the day is over” to the effect of ritualizing the inevitability of ending in the company of others. Such shared, collective awareness is a powerful thing. When I try now to recall memories of singing that hymn, I don’t see individual faces, but only a group, deeply united in song. It is always dusk, whether at a campfire or in a candlelit church as the windows grow dark. The strength of our voices feels surprising, surpassing their usual reticence, as if a greater power has possessed us in the form of sound.
For those of us not adept at goodbyes, bidding farewell to the day can produce a certain melancholy, but this is more than compensated by the beauty of the vesper light—the saturated sunset tints, the subtle tonalities of twilight.
Vespers also prompts what Jesuits call the Examen: a prayerful review of the day. “In the evening we shall be examined on love,” warned St. John of the Cross, comparing day’s end to the Last Judgment. And, adds poet Thomas Centolella, “it won’t be multiple choice … No cheating, / we’ll be told … no more / daily evasions.” [iv]
From the perspective of the end, we can look back on the story of the day as a whole: How did it go, for good or ill? … Where did God meet us—and did we notice? … When did we remember—or forget—to be our truest selves? … And, most importantly, did we say yes to Love?
Few days go perfectly, and neither do we. But the spirit of evening’s Examen is not self-criticism but self-compassion. Whatever the day has brought, let it end not with regret but with gratitude. Vespers calls us home, after all, to the place where we are always welcome just as we are.
Lord of all kindliness, Lord of all grace, Your hands swift to welcome, your arms to embrace, Be there at our homing, and give us, we pray, Your love in our hearts, Lord, at the end of the day.[v]
Kathleen Norris learned “the true purpose of vespers” from her sojourns in monastic community. It is, she writes, “to let my body tell me, at the end of a workday, just how tired I am.” Vespers invites us to “let the day suffice, with all its joys and failings, its little triumphs and defeats.” [vi]
While I love daybreak, so full of possibility and potential energy, I think Vespers is my favorite hour—“sweeter than Matins,” said Emily Dickinson, who herself preferred the mature and mellow ripeness of the completed day to the freshly planted seeds of morning. It is an haven of peace. We put down our work and retire from the fray. We go homeward—and inward—to restore our bodies and nourish our souls.
St. Anselm’s pastoral counsel from the Middle Ages seems even more necessary today:
“Flee for a while from your tasks, hide yourself for a little space from the turmoil of your thoughts. Come, cast aside your burdensome cares, and put aside your laborious pursuits.… Give your time to God, and rest in him for a little while. Enter into the inner chamber of your mind, shut out all things save God … and having barred the door of your chamber, seek him.” [vii]
Watch the sunset. Savor the fading light. Look for the evening star. Light a candle. Love the silence. Let your heart speak. Give thanks.
“Let evening come,” says Jane Kenyon in her lovely Vesper poem. “Let it come, as it will, and don’t / be afraid. God does not leave us / comfortless …” [viii] Yes, let it all come: darkness, ending, even death itself. Don’t be afraid.
In the meantime, hallow the loveliness of Vespers’ daily gift, so perfectly described by Breton poet Anjela Duval:[ix]
The day is now over, The hour’s come I was waiting for. After labor so material, How sweet a spiritual hour.
I’m bathed here in tranquility. I hear no sound around me. But the sound of the pendulum, Counting out drops of time.
The hour of prayer, hour of study, Hour of dreaming, of fantasy, Hour divine, full of ecstasy.
In this hour there’s so much happiness! Only one thing’s missing to perfect it: — In the hearth the singing of a cricket!
[i] Sabine Baring-Gould (1834-1924) published “Now the day is over” in 1865. It is in the Episcopal church’s The Hymnal 1982, #42. Baring-Gould was an Anglican priest, writer, and folk-song collector. His other best-known hymn, “Onward Christian Soldiers,” did not survive its deletion from the 1982 hymnal.
[ii] “Vespers” derives its name from Hesperus, the Evening Star (usually the planet Venus, sometimes Mercury) which appears in the West after sunset. Where I live, sunset is at 4:20 p.m. on the Winter Solstice and at 9:11 p.m. on the Summer Solstice, so Vespers can be a very moveable feast.
[iii] Emily Dickinson’s “Fairer through Fading — as the Day” (938) compares the doomed beauty of twilight with the phenomenon of a dying friend seeming to look better just before dying.
[iv] Thomas Centolella, “In the Evening We Shall Be Examined on Love,” in Lights and Mysteries (Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 1995).
[v] Jan Struther (1901-1953), “Lord of all hopefulness,” The Hymnal 1982, #482. This “hours” hymn, with verses for waking, midday, evening and sleeping, is set to Slane, a lovely Irish tune. As a boy, I used to sing it walking home at dusk, after basketball or track practice. I‘ve always loved the way, in just 4 verses, it embeds us prayerfully in the daily round.
[vi] Kathleen Norris, The Cloister Walk (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996), 237-238.
[vii] St. Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury (1093-1109), was the most brilliant Western theologian between Augustine and Aquinas. Cited in Elizabeth Yates, A Book of Hours (Norton, CT: Vineyard Books, 1976), 42.
I’ve blogged about Advent—my favorite season—many times on “The Religious Imagineer” website. Click here for the updated list and links for all 15 Advent posts (2014-2020), covering theology, prayer practices, and innovative worship. I hope these words may be useful for your own Advent journey.
Coming next week: Praying the Hours (6): Vespers and Compline
This is a sermon I preached for the First Sunday of Advent, 2020, in the streamed liturgy at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church on Bainbridge Island, Washington. Below the video recording you will find the text with footnotes. Two corrections to the recording: Wordsworth’s account of crossing the Alps is in Book VI of The Prelude, and his celebrated line is: “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive.” That’s exactly how I felt when I took the top photograph on my pilgrimage walk to Santiago, so I doubly regret the error in the recording!
The liturgical year is like a great story with many chapters, and every Advent we go back to the beginning and tell it all over again. But it’s an unusual story. It doesn’t begin with “Once upon a time …” No, it begins with “The End.” Whether the gospel for the First Sunday in Advent is from Matthew, Mark, or Luke, we always get the apocalyptic Jesus announcing the end of the world. The sun and moon will go dark, the stars will fall from the sky, reality itself will tremble and shake.
It’s the ultimate disaster movie, and we usually absorb it as such. The apocalyptic images of destruction and chaos engage our fears while they’re up on the screen (or on the lips of the gospel reader), but when the lights come up and we head for the exit, we expect to find the same old safe and reliable world waiting for us outside the theater or the church. But in 2020, not so much!
The ending of worlds is far too real this year. COVID-19 has made us acutely conscious of our own impermanence, not only as individuals but as a species. Millions have seen their jobs disappear, education is in crisis, social gatherings are nearly extinct, and so many ordinary things, from restaurants to haircuts, not to mention liturgical assemblies, have vanished from daily experience. We’ve been shocked this year to discover how easily the stability of our democratic institutions can be assaulted and eroded, and we’ve been disheartened and unsettled by the fragility of our social bonds in the face of so much hatred, bigotry, demagoguery and violence. Truth itself has become an endangered species. And if all that isn’t enough, the climate apocalypse is well underway.
“Signs of ending all around us,” says one of our Advent hymns. Then it wonders:
Can it be that from our endings, new beginnings you create? Life from death, and from our rendings, realms of wholeness generate?[i]
How will the world end? Let me count the ways, says the apocalyptic Jesus. But Jesus isn’t trying to depress us. Jesus doesn’t want to paralyze us with despair. But he does want us to be clear about where our treasure is, where our hope lies. Put your faith in the things that endure, he says. “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”[ii]
I think what he’s getting at here is that our idolatries, our invented securities, will come to nothing in the long run. Only God endures. Only God’s Kingdom—the world of God—is built to last. So learn how to discern what lasts and what doesn’t, and how to remain faithful to the vision without getting discouraged by the obstacles and failures along the way.
A common misconception about the apocalypse is that it only comes once, at the end of history, when the broken will be made whole, all discords harmonized, all divisions reconciled. Christian faith indeed affirms that great vision of a perfected humanity and a restored creation. But our faith also calls us to make that future present wherever and whenever we can, and to notice how it’s already happening around us. At the same time, we need to recognize the ambiguities of historical existence. God and not-God are like the wheat and the weeds—hard to tell apart until the final harvest. Stay awake, Jesus says. Pay attention. Sometimes the Kingdom is where you least expect it. Sometimes it doesn’t look like anything you expected. And often it will come and go in the blink of an eye. Keep your eyes open!
Why must there be apocalypse? Why must so many things come to an end? In order for God’s future to take place now, some of what is present needs to get out of the way to make room for the new thing God wants to happen. That’s why we should speak about the end of the world not as a single, far-off event, but as the ending of worlds plural: the ending of all those things which need to pass away so we can get right with God.
An economy where millions lose their jobs and millions go hungry while the assets of 600 billionaires increase by 1 trillion dollars during the pandemic—that’s got to go. The killing of people because they’re black—that’s got to go. The destruction of nature by greed and stupidity—that’s got to go. You get the idea. God wants a better world, and God asks us not only to pray for that world but to work for it, and, by God’s grace, to embody it and manifest it whenever and however we can.
But for reasons we are not given to understand as finite beings, the inbreaking of the Kingdom isn’t a story of steady and relentless progress. We are indeed visionary creatures, full of desire for better selves and better worlds, but we are also finite and fallible, complicated mixtures of mud and spirit. We have our limits. We don’t always know the right thing, or when we think we know, we don’t do it, or can’t do it. Or by the time we do, maybe it’s no longer the right thing.
Good motives tend to produce mixed outcomes. And as for bad things, Scripture tells us that a creative God can make a silk purse from a sow’s ear. Historical existence is complicated. It’s messy. A lot of the time we’re just guessing. We have to learn not to fall in love with outcomes, or get too attached to our ideas of the best future. Our God is a God of surprises, and most of our maps to the Promised Land turn out to be illusions, or at least out of date.
In the late 18th century, the French Revolution stirred the imagination of Europe with a sense of immense possibility. Looking back on 1789 twenty-five years later, French observer Thomas Noon Talfourd described the incredible excitement in the air:
“Every faculty of the mind was awakened,” he said, “every feeling raised to an intenseness of interest, every principle and passion called into superhuman exertions. At one moment, all was hope and joy and rapture; the corruption and iniquity of ages seemed to vanish like a dream; the unclouded heavens seemed once more to ring with the exulting chorus of peace on earth and good-will to men … The most brilliant hopes were cherished … and fresh prospects were daily opening which … filled us with painful delight and with giddy rapture.”[iii]
G.W.F. Hegel, the great German idealist, was 19 years old when that revolution happened. “It was a glorious dawn,” he recalled later. “All thinking beings shared in the jubilation of the epoch. A sublime emotion ruled that age, and enthusiasm of the spirit thrilled through the world, as though the time were now come of the actual reconciliation of God with the world.”[iv]
When the English poet William Wordsworth was a young man, he went to France to begin a walking tour in the summer of 1790, when revolutionary spirits were still high. “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,” he wrote, “France standing on the top of golden hours, / And human nature seeming born again.”[v]
Those among us who came of age in the 1960s may remember the same exhilaration of being young and idealistic in a time of great upheaval and daring dreams. We had our “brilliant hopes” and “sublime emotion,” our visions of a new world emerging from the ruins of the old.
But we would soon discover that a reborn humanity, reconciled to the purposes of God, was not so easily achieved. So too did the young Wordsworth grow disenchanted with the French Revolution’s dark side. The Kingdom of God may work through the movements of history, but it is not identical with them. To confuse God and history is idolatry. Misplaced hope is worship of the wrong thing.
Fifteen years after his tour of revolutionary France, Wordsworth wrote his epic poem, The Prelude, a spiritual biography of his generation of Romantics and idealists. In Book VI of The Prelude, he explored his personal struggle with hope and disillusionment through the narrative of his excursion through France to the Alps. Making his way south, he feasted and danced with happy revolutionaries, tasting the bliss of their new world. As he put it, he “found benevolence and blessedness / Spread like a fragrance everywhere, like Spring.”[vi]
But when he reached the Alps, he saw a troop of French soldiers plunder a peaceful mountain convent in the name of revolution and freedom from the oppression of religion. Actually, this desecration occurred two years later. But Wordsworth inserts it into his poem to dramatize with this single illustration his more gradual internal process of disappointment with the Revolution’s betrayal of his generation’s hopes.
In the poem, Wordsworth is shocked to witness the soldiers’ destruction of the convent and the expulsion of its “blameless inmates.” The revolutionary sword wields no justice in this act, only negation. The convent, a precious habitation of calm and spirit, set apart to remember eternity, perishes in a world gone mad.
As a disillusioned Wordsworth climbed higher in the Alps, he struggled with despair. He felt “inwardly oppress’d” by an “utter loss of hope itself, / And things to hope for.”[vii] (A loss of “things to hope for.” That is so 2020!) With the Revolution descending into the maelstrom of violence and naked power, where could he look for the true apocalypse that would break the power of the fallen world, renovate humanity, and restore the earthly paradise?
The climb itself began to form an answer in his heart and mind. “For still,” he tells us, “[he] had hopes that pointed to the clouds.”[viii] He was a Romantic, after all, fluent in the language of Nature. The soaring peak of Mont Blanc, rising into the sky above, was an icon of Transcendent power far greater than revolutions or armies—or the countless dejections of history.
We can imagine the music swelling here, as the poet approaches the summit to receive the grace of divine vision, reconciling in a flash all the contradictions of human existence. What actually happened was, Wordsworth got lost in the mist. Eventually, he ran into a peasant who told him that he’d already crested the pass and was in fact now going down other side. Though the poet’s hopes may have still pointed to the clouds, his body was on its way back to the complications of the world below.
Wordsworth would find in this experience a metaphor for the life of faith. We don’t get the decisive apocalypse, the ultimate finale, in this life. God is too inventive to settle for our flawed approximations of a better world. There’s always going to be a mixture of good and ill, darkness and light, in our historical projects, as well as in the circuitous journey of every soul. Still, God has planted hope and desire deep in our hearts, and amid all the complications and setbacks of the human journey, we keep reaching for the clouds, and that in itself is something glorious. As Wordsworth put it:
And now, recovering, to my soul I say ‘I recognize thy glory.’ … Our destiny, our nature, and our home Is with infinitude, and only there; With hope it is, hope that can never die, Effort, and expectation, and desire, And something evermore about to be.[ix]
150 years after Wordsworth crossed the Alps, another poet, W. H. Auden, articulated his own understanding of the dance between disappointment and hope. As a political idealist in the 1930s, he would face his own disillusionment at the end of that decade. Revolutionary hopes for a better world had withered, and humanity, as far from the earthly paradise as it had ever been, was plunging into the inferno of the Second World War.
We hoped, we waited for the day The State would wither clean away, Expecting the Millennium That theory promised us would come, It didn’t.
Like Wordsworth—and all of us at the end of 2020—Auden was forced to accept the limits of historical existence, and to discern, as he put it, “what / Is possible and what is not, / To what conditions we must bow / In building the Just City now.”
And like Wordsworth, Auden finds himself on a mountain: Dante’s Mount Purgatory, where the Earthly Paradise at the top is a distant goal, for which there are no shortcuts.
The purgatorial hill we climb, Where any skyline we attain Reveals a higher ridge again. Yet since, however much we grumble, However painfully we stumble, Such mountaineering all the same Is, it would seem, the only game …
We have no cause to look dejected When, wakened from a dream of glory, We find ourselves in Purgatory, Back on the same old mountain side With only guessing for a guide …
O once again let us set out, Our faith well balanced by our doubt, Admitting that every step we take Will certainly be a mistake, But still believing we can climb A little higher every time …[x]
We’re all on that mountain with the poet, still climbing, sheltering our hope like a candle in the winds of doubt, stumbling our way onward. Sometimes we lose the path, and go astray. And if we do attain a summit, a higher one still looms before us.
And all those apocalypses along the way, all those endings great and small, the vanishings of good things and bad things alike, turn out not to be last judgments or final judgments, bringing our story to a close. They are more like doors, where we pass from a tired world into a new reality.
As long as we are creatures of time and history, that reality will never be fixed or final. And with a God who is utterly free and endlessly inventive, who can describe what is to come? But if I may switch metaphors and poets, let me give you one of my favorite Advent images.
In her poem, “Rowing,” Anne Sexton imagines herself rowing toward an island called God.
I am rowing, I am rowing, though the wind pushes me back and I know that that island will not be perfect, it will have the flaws of life, the absurdities of the dinner table, but there will be a door and I will open it and I will get rid of the rat inside me, the gnawing pestilential rat. God will take it with his two hands and embrace it.
Sexton knows she’s not there yet, she is still in the Advent space of waiting and hoping. And, like Auden, she is aware of what is possible and what is not, and to what conditions she must bow as a flawed and finite being in search of Grace.
“This story,” she says, “ends with me still rowing.”[xi]
This, dear people of God, is where we begin the Advent journey. On the sea of faith, still rowing. Or maybe back on the same old mountain side, with only guessing for a guide. But always holding fast to hope that can never die, as we wait and watch for “something evermore about to be.”
[i] Dean W. Nelson,“Signs of endings all around us,” # 721 in Wonder, Love, and Praise: A Supplement to The Hymnal 1982 (New York: The Church Pension Fund).
[ii] The Gospel for Advent 1 (Year B) is Mark 13:24-37.
[iii] Thomas Noon Talfourd, The Poetical Talent of the Present Age, 1815), cited in M. H. Abrams, Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1971), 329-330.
[v] William Wordsworth, The Prelude: 1799, 1805, 1850, eds. Jonathsn Wordsworth, M. H. Abrams, Stephen Gill (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1979), X, 692 (1805), VI, 353-4 (1805). All citations from The Prelude are from this Norton Critical Edition.
This is the fifth in a series on the canonical hours, the ancient Christian practice for living a mindful day. The first, “Reclaiming My Time,” gives a general introduction, with a list of helpful resources for your own practice of prayer and meditation. This reflection considers Sext and None, the hours of midday and mid-afternoon.
Bumper to bumper, the days stream past the day-old baked goods store though sometimes a Sunday morning pulls in, driven by some old man who stops in the present for a moment to buy a little bag of yesterdays. But mostly the days, by the dozens, dry out and get thrown to the birds, sparrows and starlings to whom each hour is as tasty as the last.
— Ted Kooser, The Wheeling Year
What are days for? Days are where we live. They come, they wake us Time and time over. They are to be happy in: Where can we live but days?
— Philip Larkin, “The Whitsun Weddings”
The “sixth hour” after Prime is the midpoint of the solar day. At the highest point of its arc, the sun concludes its ascent by crossing the meridian, passing over from the sky’s eastern half (ante meridian) into its western half (post meridian). From there until sunset, it’s all downhill.
As the summit of the solar journey, when all shadows shrink toward nothingness, noon shares the refulgence of the summer solstice: the sky’s luminosity is at the full, and time pauses to linger. “Here the sun, / Sleepless, inhales his proper air, and rests,” said Wallace Stevens, celebrating the annual moment of “arrested peace, / Joy of such permanence, right ignorance / Of change still possible.”[i] An earlier American poet, Emily Dickinson, celebrated noon as a daily symbol of fullness and ripeness. It was a momentary taste of eternity, a glorious timeout from the temporal flow.
The soul has moments of Escape— When bursting all the doors— She dances like a Bomb, abroad, And swings upon the Hours,
As do the Bee—delirious borne— Long Dungeoned from his Rose— Touch Liberty—then know no more, But Noon, and Paradise— [ii]
The whimsical Douglas Adams (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) recommends proper enjoyment of the midday pause. “Just as lunch was at the center of man’s temporal day, and man’s temporal day could be seen as an analogy for his spiritual life, so lunch should (a) be seen as the center of man’s spiritual life, and (b) be held in jolly nice restaurants.”[iii]
But midday can be more than a pleasant break in the action. However busy the day, monastic communities take time out to give thanks for the morning, reflect on its challenges and its gifts, and invite grace and wisdom for the afternoon. And so too may we uncloistered believers, immersed in the secular world, profitably recollect, reorient, and recommit in the middle of the day’s story. What is time for? What is this day for? What is it trying to tell me? What is it asking of me? “We harvest what the morning sowed,” says a noonday hymn. “Now grant us undiminished strength / to stand and do what still remains.”[iv]
For the mystic, the noonday surplus of earthly light both images and ignites an inner fire. “Be ablaze with enthusiasm,” said Hildegard of Bingen. “Let us be an alive burning offering before the altar of God.”[v] And it was beneath the midday sun that St. Paul was brought to his knees by “a bright light from heaven” (Acts 22:6). To borrow another line from Emily Dickinson, I imagine Paul’s transformative glimpse of divinity to have been “As much of Noon as I could take / Between my finite eyes.”[vi]
But even in the brightest noon, there lurks the shadow of crisis, “the barrenness / Of the fertile thing that can attain no more.”[vii] Just as the sun’s zenith is the beginning of its descent into night, the soul at noon must reckon with its own temporality. Our escape into the “arrested peace” of Paradise is but a moment. Like the sun, we too must decline toward the Night. And the sense of an ending, the pressure of time running out, afflicts the present moment with doubt. Have I done my best with this day so far? Will I have time to complete the work I have been given to do? Does it matter?
In their meditations on the Canonical Hours, David Steindl-Rast and Sharon Lebell point out the spiritual duality of the noonday hour:
“Sext comes right in the middle of the day, in the middle of everything. It is the middle of our life each day, the time of opportunity and the time of crisis … At this turning point in time we decide the fate of our day, and cumulatively the fate of our lives. Do we renew our fervor and commitment, or do we let the forces of entropy drain our resolve?”[viii]
The Latin word for noon (meridiem) and its European derivatives (mezzogiorno, mediodia, le midi) are simply descriptive: “the middle of the day.” But the English term, confusingly derived from None, the canonical hour for mid-afternoon (3 p.m.), holds negativity in its heart. As a palindrome, it reads “no” from either direction. This double no evokes refusal, but is it the refusal of time—noon as a taste of timeless eternity—or something more dire: refusal of the temporal flow of life itself?
In her poem, “A Clock stopped,” Dickinson sees a death image in the cessation of a ticking clock at exactly 12 p.m.—called “Degreeless noon” by the poet because the overlapping of hour and second hands, both pointing to XII, leaves no intervening angle between them. Their stilled hands no longer circle the hours. Their “dial life” is at an end. Does that signify eternity or oblivion? This question haunts many of Dickinson’s writings. The word “no” permeates this poem, not only in “noon” but also in “not,” “snow,” “nods,” and, most chillingly, “concernless No”—conveying the indifference of death and nothingness to human fate.[ix]
A Clock stopped – Not the Mantel’s – Geneva’s farthest skill Can’t put the puppet bowing – That just now dangled still –
An awe came on the Trinket! The Figures hunched, with pain – Then quivered out of Decimals – Into Degreeless Noon –
It will not stir for Doctors – This Pendulum of snow – This Shopman importunes it – While cool – concernless No –
Nods from the Gilded pointers – Nods from the Seconds slim – Decades of Arrogance between The Dial life – And Him –
The word for midday occupies the exact middle of the poem: noon is the 38th word out of 75. And the poet makes it rhyme with pain. That’s a slant rhyme: the vowels disagree but the hard sound of the final consonants match. The pairing of noon and pain is unsettling, expressing the ambivalent nature of the hour—the solar zenith where the day begins its decline. Significantly, it was at this very moment that the Lord of life was nailed to the cross, as every noonday liturgy recalls.
Blessed Savior, at this hour you hung upon the cross, stretching out your loving arms: Grant that all the peoples of the earth may look to you and be saved; for your tender mercies’ sake. Amen. (Book of Common Prayer: Service for Noonday).[x]
Mortality is not noon’s only shadow. The Psalmist warns of “the sickness that lays waste at noonday” (Psalm 91:6). The Greek term for this malady is acēdia, variously translated as listlessness, restless boredom, discouragement, despondency. At its extreme is the suicidal ennui of Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener,” who descends into total inaction with his perpetual refrain of refusal: “I prefer not to.” John Cassian (c. 350-435), whose 5th-century writings on desert spirituality would be a wellspring for later monastics, rendered acēdia in Latin as taedium cordis (“tedium of the heart”). The desert saints, who struggled with acēdia beneath the enervating Egyptian sun, gave it a more personal title: “the noonday demon.”
Cassian’s desert mentor, Evagrius Ponticus (c. 360-399), described acēdia as a chronic inability to be present:
“The eyes of the listless monk gaze out the window again and again, and his mind imagines visitors. A sound at the door, and he jumps up .… When he reads, the listless monk yawns plenty and easily falls asleep. He rubs his eyes and stretches his arms. His eyes wander from the book. He stares at the wall and then goes back to his reading for a little. He then wastes his time hanging on to the end of words, counts the pages, ascertains how the book is made, finds fault with the writing and the design. Finally he just shuts it and uses it as a pillow. Then he falls into a sleep not too deep, because hunger wakes his soul up and he begins to concern himself with that.”[xi]
I’ve met that noonday demon, and I suspect you have too. All the more needful, then, to transit the daily meridian with a prayer on our lips, and trust in our heart. “Today I place before you death and life,” says the Holy One. “Choose life!”[xii]
You sweep us away like a dream; we fade away suddenly like the grass. (Psalm 90:5)
By mid-afternoon, lengthening shadows measure the lateness. With each day’s passing, we think about endings and rehearse our own finality. The daily theater of impermanence may provoke in us wistfulness or melancholy. But it can also teach the art of letting go. This day has bestowed its gifts and it blessings. We have received them as best we could. We are grateful. But we don’t hold on. We don’t worry about the morrow. We entrust ourselves to the Giver, without clinging to the gift.
At None, the day’s labors are winding down. We might wish for more time, or more energy, to complete them gracefully, and we may not have the option to set them down unfinished. But if one has any choice in the matter, would it be better to honor the hour rather than the task? Late afternoon, the hour of None, calls us to work of a more inward kind. How can we make space for the questions, and the prayers which they prompt in us?
What has this day taught me? What could I do differently tomorrow? What requires mending before the sun sets? What burdens can I lay down? Who needs my forgiveness? What must I forgive in myself? What am I grateful for? What precious moments did I forget to sanctify with my deepest attention? Where did I remember God?
The light of a waning afternoon is the sweetest kind. It is warmer and softer, purged of glare and harshness, suffused with fondness. It invites stillness, contemplation, tranquility, rest. It makes the world glow for weary eyes. It is honey for the soul. In these latter days, most of us lack tower bells to announce a pause for mindfulness, or muezzins in minarets calling us to prayer. But afternoon light remains omnipresent, inviting us all to sink into the mystery of the moment, wherever we may be.
W. H. Auden wrote a cycle of poems on the canonical hours: Horae Canonicae. As the poems take us through the diurnal passage from Prime to Compline, we soon realize the poet is talking about Good Friday. The poem for None—the hour when Christ died—imagines the waning of that most singular day.
It is barely three, Mid-afternoon, yet the blood Of our sacrifice is already Dry on the grass; we are not prepared For silence so sudden and so soon; The day is too hot, too bright, too still, Too ever, the dead remains too nothing. What shall we do until nightfall?
These lines register something of my own feelings over a lifetime of Good Fridays, when I exit the church at None into “silence so sudden and so soon.” How does one move on from the death of God? What shall we do until nightfall?
Soon cool tramontana will stir the leaves, The shops will re-open at four, The empty blue bus in the empty pink square Fill up and depart: we have time To misrepresent, excuse, deny, Mythify, use this event, While, under a hotel bed, in prison, Down wrong turnings, its meaning Waits for our lives …[xiii]
I think every disappearing afternoon shares something of this mood. Most days, the doings will be far less dramatic or significant, but there still remains a sense of aftermath, of carrying on under the influence of events now past, trying to make sense of them—or not—while somewhere up ahead, a fuller accounting “waits for our lives.” In any case, every day changes us, and discerning how is part of our prayer life.
But if the weight of Auden’s subject seems too much to carry with you into the average evening, let me leave you with a poem by William Stafford, a gem of self-compassion for the late afternoon:
Nobody cares if you stop here. You can look for hours, gaze out over the forest. And the sounds are yours too—take away how the wind either whispers or begins to get ambitious. If you let the silence of afternoon pool around you, that serenity may last a long time, and you can take it along. A slant sun, mornings or evenings, will deepen the canyons, and you can carry away that purple, how it gathers and fades for hours. This whole world is yours, you know. You can breathe it and think about it and dream it after this wherever you go. It’s all right. Nobody cares.[xiv]
[i] Wallace Stevens, “Credences of Summer,” Collected Poetry and Prose (New York: The Library of America, 1997), 323.
[ii] Emily Dickinson, “The Soul has Bandaged moments”— F360 (1862) 512.
[iii] Douglas Adams, Life, the Universe, and Everything (1980), cited in Mark Barrett, OSB, Crossing: Reclaiming the Landscape of Our Lives (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 2008), 9.
[iv] Charles P. Price, “The fleeting day is nearly gone,” Episcopal Hymnal 1982, # 23.
[v] Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), cited in Macrina Wiederkehr, Seven Sacred Pauses: Living Mindfully Through the Hours of the Day (Notre Dame, IN: Sorin Books, 2008), 111.
[vi] Emily Dickinson, “Before I got my eye put out”— F 336 (1862) 327.
[x] Episcopal Book of Common Prayer (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), 107.
[xi] Evagrius Ponticus, On the Eight Spirits of Evil, cited in William Harmless, S.J., Desert Christians: An Introduction to the Literature of Early Monasticism (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 204), 326.
This is the fourth in a series on the canonical hours, the ancient Christian practice for living a mindful day. The first, “Reclaiming My Time,” gives a general introduction, with a list of helpful resources for your own practice of prayer and meditation. This fourth reflection concerns Terce, the first of the “Little Hours.”
The design of Prayer . . . is not merely to make us devout while we are engaged in it, but that its odor may be diffused through all the intermediate spaces of the day, enter into all its occupations, duties, and tempers.
— Hannah More, Practical Piety (1812)
Grant to us, Lord, we pray, the spirit to think and do always those things that are right, that we, who cannot exist without you, may by you be enabled to live according to your will.
— The Book of Common Prayer
The “Little Hours”—Terce, Sext and None—are the most challenging for a personal prayer practice, because they span the middle portion of the day, the “9 to 5” when we are most occupied with our business in the world. Unless we are professional contemplatives, our days involve more doing than being. We are busy with whatever it is we do, with little chance for prayerful pauses. Even the monks who created the canonical hours kept their daytime devotions short, or “little,” to allow sufficient time for work and study.
During his two-year sojourn at Walden Pond, Henry David Thoreau managed to renounce working and doing for long stretches:
Sometimes, in a summer morning, having taken my accustomed bath, I sat in my sunny doorway from sunrise till noon, rapt in a revery, amidst the pines and hickories and sumacs, in undisturbed solitude and stillness, while the birds sang around. I grew in those seasons like corn in the night, and they were far better than any work of the hands would have been. They were not time subtracted from my life, but so much over and above my usual allowance.[i]
An entire morning given to reverie is an enviable use of time, but for most of us, including Thoreau, it is hardly sustainable as a daily practice. A viable spirituality for the Little Hours must come to terms with the demands and obligations of the day. As Benedictine abbot Cuthbert Butler (1858-1934) put it, “a contemplative life does not lie in the absence of activity, but in the presence of contemplation.”[ii]
How then do we nurture a contemplative awareness as we perform our daily work? How may we “remember God and eternity in the midst of [our] business” so that the fragrance of prayer “may be diffused through all the intermediate spaces of the day?”[iii] Let’s examine each of the Little Hours in turn, beginning with Terce.
Terce (“third”) is the 9 o’clock hour, when the working world is getting underway. Whether resuming ongoing projects or conceiving new ones, we launch into the morning with fresh energy and commitment. In the Book of Acts, Terce is the hour of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit filled the disciples with the power of enthusiasm and possibility. This “third hour” invites us to engage each new day’s work—our own Book of Acts—in that same spirit.
Come, labor on! Who dares stand idle on the harvest plain, while all around us waves the golden grain? [iv]
Wendell Berry sets a high bar for our labor when he says it “defines us as we are; not too good to work with our bodies, but too good to work poorly or joylessly or selfishly or alone.” Even when our work is less than ideal, or only a means to an end, it may still be possible to honor our tasks with the mindfulness and care of a Brother Lawrence, who found joy in the humblest employment: “It is not necessary to have great things to do,” he said. “I turn my little omelet in the pan for the love of God.”[v]
Of course, not everyone’s day may feel like participation in the divine task of repairing the world, or the cultivation of human flourishing, or the fulfillment of personal vocation. There are some jobs which should not even exist, because they bring harm to the planet, society, or the worker. There are many people whose sense of purposeful time has been diminished by unemployment, retirement, or illness. And there are those who suffer days of perpetual affliction and sorrow. At such negative extremities of human experience, can prayerful awareness still flourish? Can we still cry to God “out of the depths?” Or is consciousness of transcendent presence and divine impulse only for the fortunate or the serene?
In 1849, Dostoevsky was arrested for political activities. After seven dismal months in prison, he was taken out to be executed by a firing squad, or so it seemed. It turned out to be a cruel charade—there was a last-minute reprieve. The rifles were lowered and the condemned prisoners were returned to their cells. But having looked death in the face, Dostoevsky realized the utter preciousness of life under any conditions. Back in his cell, he dashed off a letter to his brother.
“When I look back on my past,” he wrote, “and think how much time I wasted on nothing, how much time has been lost in futilities, errors, laziness, incapacity to live; how little I appreciated it, how many times I sinned against my heart and soul—then my heart bleeds. Life is a gift, life is happiness, every minute can be an eternity of happiness!”[vi]
Dostoevsky’s revelation from the depths of human suffering would sustain him through four years in a Siberian labor camp, and bear fruit in his visionary writings about the power of divine compassion to humanize a heartless world. Even in the abyss, we can be surprised by joy. Even at the grave, we make our song.[vii]Praise to the Giver! Praise to the gift!
Thankfully, most of our lives are less dramatic than Dostoevsky’s, but whether our story be sweet or not sweet, may we perform each day’s work mindful of time’s gift—the opportunity to make a difference, to add more goodness, truth and beauty to the world. Where there is hatred, let us sow love. Where there is injury, pardon. Where there is doubt, faith. Where there is despair, hope. Where there is injustice, action. Where there is darkness, light. Where there is sadness, joy.[viii]
The spirit of Terce is oblation: as our day begins to unfold, we offer it up as expression and embodiment of the divine impulse. An old eucharistic prayer puts it this way: “And here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, our selves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto thee.” Elizabeth Rooney’s devotional poem, “Oblation,”[ix] posits self-offering as a daily practice:
I hope each day To offer less to you, Each day By your great love to be Diminished Until at last I am So decreased by your hand And you so grown in me That my whole offering Is just an emptiness For you to fill Or not According to your will.
As we dive into the flow of the day, Terce reminds us to keep God in mind and heart and body. Our hours belong to God. Receive every moment, every labor, every encounter, every delight, every challenge as divine gift.
Prayer isn’t just a momentary act. It is a stance toward reality, a state of awareness. It may involve words, chant, ritual, or pure silence—an attentive pause to listen for whatever needs to be heard. And it always involves breathing. “By following your breath,” says Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, “and combining the Full Awareness of Breathing with your daily activities, you can cut across the stream of disturbing thoughts and light the lamp of awakening.”[x]
Pray at the door of morning … pray as you go … pray as you labor. Want what God wants. Be thankful. Do love’s work. Refuse despair.
In 1960 New Orleans, a six-year-old African-American named Ruby Bridges became the first black person to attend an all-white elementary school in the segregated South. On her first morning, she was met by a shouting mob of white people. At first she thought it must be some kind of celebration, like a Mardi Gras parade. But she soon realized the screams were directed at her. Federal marshals protected her from physical assault, but the hateful words and jeering faces were terrible enough. A few years later, Norman Rockwell painted that little girl’s courageous walk to school for a story in Look magazine.
Ruby Bridges was met at the school door by Barbara Henry, the one teacher who was willing to teach a Black child. Years later, Bridges would write about that moment, “You cannot look at a person and tell whether they’re good or bad. Evil comes in all shades and colors. That is the lesson that I learned from the teacher that looked exactly like the people outside that threw things, spit, and yelled—she looked exactly like them, but she was different, and I knew that at six years old, because she showed me her heart.”
For a while, Ruby’s first-grade mornings—her Terce—always began with the taunting mob. One day, she paused before going inside. Her lips were moving, but the shouting drowned her out. Her teacher later asked her why she had stopped to talk to the crowd. “I wasn’t talking,” she said. “I was praying. I was praying for them.”[xi]
[i] Henry David Thoreau, Walden (1854), from the 2nd paragraph of “Sounds.”
[ii] Dom Cuthbert Butler, cited in Rowan Williams, The Way of St. Benedict (London: Bloomsbury Continuum, 2020), 112. Butler was a Benedictine abbot and patristic scholar.
[iii] “remember God”—John Gother (1654-1704), cited in Gordon Mursell, English Spirituality: From 1700 to the Present Day (London: SPCK 2008), 34; “may be diffused”—Hannah More (1745-1833), in Practical Piety; or, the influence of the religion of the heart on the conduct of life (1811), cited in Mursell, 118. Gother was a Catholic priest who catechised the London poor; More was an Anglican writer who stressed the inseparability of prayer and social action.
[iv] From “Come, labor on,” a hymn text by Jane Laurie Borthwick (1813-1897), #541 in The Episcopal Hymnal1982. This was often sung at chapel during my 6 years at an Episcopal school in Los Angeles, where self-motivation was strongly encouraged!
[v] Citations from Karen Speerstra, ed., Divine Sparks: Collected Wisdom of the Heart (Sandpoint, ID: Morning Light Press, 2005). Wendell Berry, p. 520; Brother Lawrence (from his 17th-century text, The Practice of the Presence of God), p. 521.
[vi] Cited in Joseph Frank, Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010), 181-182.
[vii] This beautiful statement of resurrection faith is from the Eastern Orthodox Memorial Service, sung as part of the Burial Kontakion in The Episcopal Hymnal1982, #355.
[viii] From the famous prayer attributed to St. Francis, although the earliest traceable source is from 1912. I added the injustice/action line.
[ix] Elizabeth Rooney (1924-1999) was an Episcopal poet and a member of the Society of the Companions of the Holy Cross.
[x] Thich Nhat Hanh, The Miracle of Mindfulness: A Manual on Meditation (1987), cited in Dennis Patrick Slattery, Grace in the Desert: Awakening to the Gifts of Monastic Life (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004), 40.
[xi] Ruby Bridges, cited in Marion Wright Edelman, “Lessons from Ruby Bridges” (Oct. 26, 1918).