What is God? — A Trinity Sermon

Abbey at Conques on Le Chemin de St. Jacques de Compostelle, France (Jim Friedrich)

What is God? When the biblical Jews asked that question, they responded from their experience of salvation history.  God is the one who told me to leave behind everything I knew and set out for God-knows-where, says Abraham. God is the one who asked me to go back to the land of oppression and enslavement so I could speak truth to power, says Moses. God is the one who made a covenant with us on Mount Sinai, in the cloud of unknowing. God is the one who remembered us in the days of exile. God is the one who brought us home from Babylon. 

Then Jesus came along, and even though he lived and died as a human being, there were those who experienced the fullness of God in the unique particularity of his life, death, and resurrection. The risen Lord, who said “I am with you always,” would become an object of worship very early in the life of the Church. 

And after the Ascension of Jesus came the Holy Spirit, not only as an indwelling presence but also as a radically transformative force, in whom divine fullness was equally and uniquely manifest.  

For the early Christians, then, the One they called God had been revealed to have three distinct ways of being: Source, Savior, and Spirit. Love who loves us; Word who saves us; Spirit who renews us. And before long they were offering worship not only to the God of Israel, but to Jesus and the Holy Spirit as well. 

They were not polytheists. They rejected pagan notions of a heaven and earth populated by competing deities. But their experiences of God in Christ and God in the Spirit were unique enough to differentiate them from the Holy One who sent Jesus into the world. 

At the same time, the second and third Persons were not understood to be partial or lesser versions of God. Only the true God can save us, as Christ did. Only the true God can sanctify us, as the Spirit does. 

Those first Christians couldn’t deny their experience, or the witness of Scripture. Christ was God. The Spirit was God. But that posed a conceptual problem. 

How can the Three be One? How can the One be Three? Mathematics or logic can’t solve this puzzle. Several centuries of ecumenical councils struggled with the questions, doing their best to preserve the paradox of Three in One and One in Three from collapsing into the simplicity of God as “One is One and all alone.” 

Although it would have put a lot of theologians out of work, It would have been a lot easier just to stick with the Oneness. But that would not have been true to Christian experience. The Threeness is essential to our informed—and formative—encounters with God. As contemporary Catholic theologian Catherine LaCugna puts it, “The doctrine of the Trinity is ultimately a practical doctrine with radical consequences for Christian life.” [1]

Does that mean that the friends of God have to master the bewildering terminology and complicated nuances of ancient dogma in order to live the Christian life? Will heaven admit only the most sophisticated thinkers? Let’s hope not. 

I’ve read a lot of theology and Church history over the last fifty years, and I still have trouble remembering the differences between Monophysites, Monothelites, Monarchians, Modalists, Ebionites and Sabellians. As Japanese theologian Kosuke Koyama wonders, what if we were to exchange the metaphysical tangles of the West for more down-to-earth analogies. For example, he asks, what might the yin-yang of “pepper” and “salt” tell us about the divine nature? [2] Or St. Patrick’s shamrock, for that matter. 

For the Offertory anthem at the liturgy for Trinity Sunday, Mozart’s Laudate Dominum, I’ve assembled 26 concrete images of persons and objects grouped in threes. As you watch the video, I invite you to contemplate the Christian koan of Three-in-One and One-in-Three. 

Now then, what shall we say about the Trinity? One of the sixteenth-century reformers counseled intellectual modesty. “We adore the mysteries of the Godhead,” he said. “That is better than to investigate them.” [3] In a similar vein, a contemporary theologian reminds us that the “triune God is not simply unknown, but positively known to be unknown and unknowable—which is a dear and profound knowledge.” [4]

But on Trinity Sunday, it is the preacher’s ritual duty to offer a sacrifice of ignorance on the altar of unknowing. So here we go.

Back in the day—the fourth century, that is—when the Council of Nicaea was parsing theories of the divine life, theology was a popular sport, and people kicked around trinitarian doctrines the way some of us recite the arcane numbers of baseball metrics today. But in the late Middle Ages, the doctrine of the Holy Trinity went into cold storage. By the time of the Enlightenment, Immanuel Kant could say that Trinitarian theology had “no practical relevance at all, even if we think we understand it.” [5]

In recent centuries, any sort of God talk has been drained of content for many people. We live in a secular age, where a divine power who is in but not of the world has become increasingly unthinkable. Religion, in the world’s eyes, has become more of a private matter than a public truth. 

And yet, the Spirit continues to work, and in the last few decades we have seen a remarkable resurgence of attention and thought devoted to the meaning and relevance of the Trinity. It’s not just white, western males doing this work. Feminists, Africans, Asians, Middle Easterners and Latin Americans are all bringing fresh and urgent perspectives to Christianity’s core doctrine of God. And their work is of enormous consequence for both our personal faith and our common life.

The Nicene Creed declares that the three Persons are “of one substance.” In other words, whatever God is made of, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have all got it—and in equal measure. 

But what is that “substance?” Is it a divine essence which existed prior to, or in addition to, the Persons themselves? Is there a one God hidden behind or beyond the Trinity? Such a notion would undercut the completeness of the Trinity, making it dependent on something external—in other words, less than fully divine in itself. 

Or is the divine substance like a pie which has been cut into three equal pieces? That would divide God into parts and lose the unity of the whole. It would also make the Persons less than eternal, since the whole pie would have to precede the creation of the separate pieces. 

But what if we were to give up the idea of divine “substance” as some kind of stuff which exists on its own and gets divided into three, or possesses a reality in addition to whatever the three Persons consist of? What if being the divine Trinity does not mean to have a divine substance, a kind of primordial stuff. What if being a Trinity means to be in relation with one another? 

Perhaps the Trinitarian God is best described not as a fixed, objective entity, but as an event or activity, an eternal communion shared between the Persons. The Greek word perichoresisdescribes the divine communion as a dance where the partners are in continuous motion, weaving in and out of one another. 

This conceptual shift from substance to relation is a central theme of contemporary theology. As feminist theologian Elizabeth Johnson writes (using inclusive terms for the Persons):

“The mutual coinherence, the dancing around together of Spirit, Wisdom and Mother; or of mutual Love, Love from Love, and unoriginate Love; or of the three divine persons – this defines who God is as God. There is no divine nature as a fourth thing that grounds divine unity in difference apart from relationality. Rather, being in communion constitutes God’s very essence.” [6]

A couple of British theologians elaborate this point when they say that the divine Persons do not “exist over against the others as self-enclosed centers of consciousness, as with human persons … but rather each dwells in the other through a kind of inter-permeation.” Then they sum it up this way: “The consciousnesses are fused but not confused.” [7]

This is not a new idea. The First Epistle of John assures us that “God is love” (4:8). And love, as we all know, cannot exist alone, without an “other” to share with, give to, receive from. Love exists only by going beyond the self in a process of perpetual self-offering.

Love is not a secondary or optional property of God. Love is who God is, and how God exists. Simply put: “the Trinity is not derived from God’s essence; the Trinity is God’s essence.” The communion and community of the Persons is God’s nature and essence.” [8]

Jürgen Moltmann notes the impossibility of a loving God being otherwise. “God cannot find bliss in eternal self-love,” he writes, “if selflessness is part of love’s very nature. God is in all eternity self-communicating love.” [9] A Kenyan Christian, John Mbiti, who comes from a more communal culture, puts this even more succinctly:

“I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am.”[10]

We may struggle with this interdependent Trinitarian model because our culture has taught us to think of a person as an autonomous individual, whose identity, mind and will are separate and independent from every other person. 

But what the doctrine of the Trinity tells us is that you cannot be a person alone. You can only be a person in relationship with others. Addressing another, listening to another, conversing with another, loving one another, offering ourselves to one another—these are the means of becoming a person and existing as a person, if we are to live in the image of the relational personhood of the divine, in whom the one does not exist without the many. 

When we hear Jesus say, you must lose yourself to find yourself,[11] we may think he’s speaking of death, either metaphorical or physical, some kind of painful stripping away. And sometimes that is the case. 

But I think Jesus is also describing the divinely grounded process of communion and community. “I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am.” St. Athanasius had a wonderful term for this state of being in communion. He called it “reciprocal delight.”[12]  We are all in this together, God says, and so say God’s friends as well.  

It seems especially fitting at this particular moment to contemplate communion as the essential and constitutive fact of divine life, for in one week’s time we will gather together, in person at last, as the Body of Christ at St. Barnabas. It has been fourteen months since we last did this. What joy it will be to share the sacrament of God’s self-diffusive love once again and celebrate the bonds between us.

After so many words about the Holy Trinity, let me conclude with an image. Thirty years ago, Polish film director Krzysztof Kieslowski made a series of 10 one-hour films called Decalogue. Each of the films is based on one of the Ten Commandments, and the series is one of the masterpieces of spiritual cinema. [13]

Pawel (Wojciech Klata), Decalogue 1

In the first film, there’s an exchange between Pawel, an eleven-year-old boy, and his aunt Irena. Pawel has a great curiosity about God, which his single-parent father, an unbeliever, cannot satisfy. So Pawel takes his questions to Irena, his devout Catholic aunt: 

Pawel: Do you believe that God exists?
Irena:  Yes.
Pawel: What is God?

Irena doesn’t answer with words. 
Instead, she puts her arms around Pawel and pulls him close.

Irena:  What do you feel now?
Pawel: I love you.
Irena:   Exactly. That’s what God is.



[1] Catherine M. LaCugna, cited in Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, The Trinity: Global Perspectives (Louisville, KY: Westminster ]ohn Knox Press, 2007), 179.. This is the opening sentence of LaCugna’s God for Us: The Trinity and Christian Life (1991). As you will see, I found Kärkkäinen’s study of recent Trinitarian theology to be an invaluable resource. 

[2] Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, 312.

[3] Philip Melanchthon, in Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, xvi.

[4] Elizabeth Johnson, in Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, 212, from Johnson’s She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse(1993).

[5] Immanuel Kant, in Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, 206.

[6] Elizabeth Johnson, in Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, 56.

[7] Ninian Smart & Steven Konstantine, in Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, 249, from their Christian Systematic Theology: Theology in a World Context (1991).

[8] Richard Rice, in Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, 140.

[9] Jurgen Moltmann, in Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen,106;  from Moltmann’s classic Trinity and the Kingdom: The Doctrine of God (1981)

[10] John Mbiti, in Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, 352.

[11] Matthew 10:38.

[12] St. Athanasius (c. 296-373), a bishop in Roman Egypt, was a key defender of Trinitarianism. Cited in in Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, 39.

[13] See my post, Kieslowski’s Decalogue: A Masterpiece of Religious Cinema (Jan. 28, 2017): https://jimfriedrich.com/2017/01/28/kieslowskis-decalogue-a-masterpiece-of-religious-cinema/

The Spirit That Moves Us All: A Pentecost Reflection

Piero di Cosimo, Incarnation (detail), 1500-1505. “Holy Ghost over the bent / World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.” (Gerard Manley Hopkins)

In spite of all the destructive forces [we] let loose against life on this planet, the Spirit of Life is at work in ever new and unforeseeable ways, countering and circumventing the obstacles we put in its path. In spite of my strong tendencies to complacency and despair, I experience the Spirit in myself as calling forth the realistic hope apart from which there is no hope, and I am confident that what I find in myself is occurring in others also … what makes for life and love and hope is not simply the decision of one individual or another but a Spirit that moves us all. 

— John Cobb [1]

Of perfect love thou art the ghostly flame.
Emperor of meekness, peace and tranquility,
My comfort, my counsel, my perfect charity,
O water of life, O well of consolation,
Against all storms of hard adversity …

— 15th century English lyric 

On the fiftieth day of Easter, our liturgical prayer addresses the Holy Spirit more than on any other day. Most of the time our words of supplication and praise address an “other” who is metaphorically outside or beyond: God, Jesus, Father, Mother …. But the dominant prayer of Pentecost calls upon the most obscure and elusive of the divine “Persons”—One who is not “out there” but “in here.”

Veni Sancte Spiritus. Come, Holy Spirit.

The tricky thing about such a prayer is that it is not prayed to the Spirit. It is prayed in the Spirit and by the Spirit. The Spirit is not the object of our prayers, but the subject, dwelling within our inmost parts more surely and substantially than the transitory, constructed “I” produced by the particular confluence of history, biology, and personality which has sculpted our individuality over time. When truth speaks through us, when our energies are directed toward the well-being of all, when our lives are written and rewritten as narratives of divine love, the Spirit isn’t just in us—the Spirit is us. 

This is to claim nothing for ourselves. Only those driven by unholy spirits make that mistake. Participation in the divine reality—life “in the Spirit”—is always a matter of giving yourself away, becoming part of something larger. The Holy Spirit’s proper name is communion. When we’re in the Spirit, that’s our name too.  

Compared to writings about “God” and “Christ,” theological expositions on the Holy Spirit can seem relatively thin. The early creeds didn’t have much to say either, making the Spirit seem like an afterthought—oh yeah, and the Holy Spirit too. But this isn’t due to neglect so much as it is to the Spirit’s way of disappearing into the world as anonymous giftedness. As Orthodox theologian Vladimir Lossky put it: 

“[T]he Holy Spirit effaces himself, as Person, before the created persons to whom he appropriates grace … He mysteriously identifies himself with human persons while remaining incommunicable. He substitutes Himself, so to speak, for ourselves.” [2]

Canadian poet Margaret Avison addresses the Spirit’s indescribability in her poem “… Person or A Hymn on and to the Holy Ghost.” 

How should I find speech 
to you, the self-effacing
whose other self was seen
alone by the only one,

to you whose self-knowing
is perfect, known to him,
seeing him only, loving
with him, yourself unseen?

Let the one you show me
ask you, for me,
you, all but lost in
the one in three,

to lead my self, effaced
in the known Light,
to be in him released 
from facelessness,

so that where you 
(unseen, unguessed, liable
to grievous hurt) would go
I may show him visible.

The poem’s profusion of pronouns makes it hard, at first, to tell which divine Person is doing what. “You” is clearly the Holy Spirit, but who is “him?” Is it Christ, or the Father, or God in general who releases us from “facelessness,” or whom we ourselves make visible in the practice of holy living? The “unseen, unguessed” Spirit may be “all but lost in / the one in three,” but without it (or him, or her, or they), Love Divine could not do its proper work in the world and in the heart.

O fiery Spirit, come burn in us.
O sacred breath, come breathe in us.
O blazing love, come flame in us.…
O delight of life, come live in us. [3]

This past year has generated its share of anxiety, fear, madness and grief, but as John Cobb reminds us, “the Spirit of Life is at work in ever new and unforeseeable ways, countering and circumventing the obstacles we put in its path.” It is in this Spirit that I have shaped my retelling of Ezekiel’s vision in the Valley of Dry Bones (see video below). When the divine breath comes into the lifeless bodies, I layer multiple inhalations and exhalations to make a chorus of breaths. For me that collective sound symbolizes the Spirit’s fierce resistance to every power that would silence and choke us. As the Psalmist says, You send forth your Spirit, and the people are created; and so you renew the face of the earth (Psalm 104:31).


[1] Cited in Marjorie Suchocki, “Spirit in and through the World,” in Suchocki and Joseph A. Bracken, S.J., Trinity in Process: A Relational Theology of God (New York: Continuum, 1997), 180. And yes, masculine pronouns are problematic. Depending on the language, Spirit has been feminine and neuter as well. Do you think She minds?

[2] Vladimir Lossky cited in Paul S. Fiddes, Participating in God: A Pastoral Doctrine of the Trinity (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 200), 261.

[3] Jody L. Caldwell, after Hildegard of Bingen, in Voices Found (New York: Church Publishing, 2003), #62.

“The deepest kind of life”—Is Religion Dying?

St. Mary’s, Fairford, Gloucestershire, England (Jim Friedrich)

For most of my life, a majority of Americans—around 70%—identified with a religion. In the twenty-first century, that stability in religious affiliation has collapsed, falling by 20 points in just two decades. The United States, long one of the world’s most religious countries, has become, rather suddenly, one of the least.

Rapid changes in society, technology, mobility and time management, along with the reluctance of younger generations to make institutional commitments of any kind, have contributed to this erosion. So have the manifold sins of believers and religious institutions, which publicly discredit the transformational claims of faith communities. If religious people behave badly, what’s the point?

The major religions have survived comparable challenges in the past. What may be different in these latter days is the degree to which the secular age has flattened reality into a strictly horizontal dimension, excluding the verticals of transcendence and depth. For growing numbers of Americans, God is neither felt nor thought. Religion’s windows into the divine invisible have been replaced by mirrors.

At least since the Enlightenment, critics and skeptics have been writing obituaries for religion. By the nineteenth century, doubt was in full flood. An appraisal in 1878 was typical: “one can hear faith decaying … This decay has been maturing for three hundred years, and their effects prophesied for fifty; indeed, not prophesied only but in some degree accomplished.” [i]  

Thirty years later, Thomas Hardy would write “God’s Funeral,” a somber poem about the death of belief. As the “strange and mystic form” of the expired deity passes by, borne by a great procession of mourners, the poet confesses the object of faith to be a delusion:

… tricked by our own early dream
And need of solace, we grew self-deceived,
Our making soon our maker did we deem,
And what we had imagined we believed.

Till, in Time’s stayless stealthy swing,
Uncompromising rude reality
Mangled the Monarch of our fashioning,
Who quivered, sank; and now has ceased to be.[ii]

At least Hardy felt sad about the demise of divinity (“Sadlier than those who wept in Babylon, / Whose Zion was a still abiding hope.”). These days, unbelief is more a matter of indifference than sorrow. How many people still take God into account, or think theologically, and shape their lives accordingly? Once God is gone, what’s the use of religion? 

The precipitous decline of religious affiliation in America has prompted anxious speculations about what’s next. In “America Without God,” Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, sees religious fervor being sublimated into political conviction.[iii] As we have seen in the case of the recent Trump cult, with its sociopathic savior, this can go very wrong. At least religion attempts to temper the zeal of believers with mandates of repentance and forgiveness, as well as the humility of unknowing in the presence of mystery. Politics, not so much.

In an article on the “Death of Faith,” journalist Murtaza Hussain deems the extinction of traditional religion in America to be only a matter of time. “Older expressions of religion are not completely absent in public, to be sure. But compared with the past, their influence over events feels akin to the light of a dead star.… The slow-rolling death of religion in American life begs the question, then, what type of new world will emerge from the wreckage of the old?” 

Hussain hopes that any emergent communal expressions will not repeat what he calls “the worst aspects of the old religions, including the moral censoriousness, judgmentalism, heresy-hunting and the persecution of those who think differently.” We should construct a new social imaginary, he suggests optimistically, “with the self-conscious idea of improving on the mistakes of organized religion.”[iv]   

Personally, I am not prepared to exchange Jesus, the sacraments, saints, centuries of wisdom, sacred conversation, communal prayer, or the Paschal Mystery for a mistake-free startup. While I may lament the Church’s manifold sins and grumble over its frustrations, I will continue to feast on its visions and receive its graces. Even the soul’s darkest nights are preferable to a world without divine depth or holy wonder. As Meister Eckhart said, “I would rather be in hell and have God, than in heaven and not have God.”[v]

Baron von Hügel (1852-1925)

In concluding his illuminating study of religious defections by the Victorians and their successors, A. N. Wilson quotes one of the era’s greatest religious thinkers, Baron von Hügel (1852-1925), who insisted that “religion was the deepest kind of life.” And to that, Wilson adds his own Amen: “And I am bound to say that compiling this study of those who tried to live without religion, or who chose to live within the limitations of a purely materialistic explanation for the problems of metaphysics, has not made me wish to revise the baron’s viewpoint.”[vi]

How, then, should the Church respond to declining numbers, or address widespread indifference to its priorities and practices? Shall we attempt to shape a social imaginary more congenial to “the deepest kind of life?” Do we welcome the death of antiquated forms in order to practice resurrection? Or should we wait and listen in faithful silence for a word not yet spoken? 

George Tyrrell (1861-1909)

George Tyrrell was an Irish Jesuit who urged the Church at the dawn of the 20th century to adapt and evolve in response to the challenges of modernity. His progressive views were out of step with his contemporaries, and when the anti-modernist Pius X became pope in 1903, Tyrrell’s fate was sealed. He was expelled from the Jesuits in 1906, denied the sacraments in 1907, excommunicated in 1908, and forbidden a Catholic burial in 1909. Half a century later, his views would be mostly vindicated at the Second Vatican Council. 

The fact that Tyrrell was wrong in 1906 and right in the 1960s demonstrates the tension between stability and innovation which is unavoidable—even necessary—within a living tradition. A great religious institution may not be able to turn on a dime, but it still contains within itself an ultimate loyalty to its transcendent and ineffable core, enabling it to adapt and survive. The secret of Christianity’s longevity is its rootedness in a reality which exceeds any particular institutional or theological expression. Transition, revolution, or even apparent catastrophe do not signify ultimate defeat if you are in covenant with the God of infinite surprise.  

As Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart puts it, “the proof that any tradition is a living one is precisely that it does not fiercely cling to every aspect of what it has inherited but instead exhibits an often astonishing ruthlessness in shedding the past, out of obedience to some still more original spiritual imperative.”[vii]

Grave at Wesley’s Chapel, London (Jim Friedrich)

Dying to the old and rising into the new is a costly and painful process, but it is the ultimate vocation of every believer and every church. In a letter to a friend in April 1906, Tyrrell movingly expressed both the anguish and the hope of trusting in the unknown futurity of God: 

“I quite understand your desire for a life of prayer—the nostalgia for the old days ‘when His lamp shone about my head.’ God knows I feel it. But I think they will return for us all in some better form. I find the Breviary lives for me again after a long transition period of death. One has to pass through atheism to faith; the old God must be pulverized and forgotten before the new can reveal himself to us.” [viii]

Tyrrell’s “pulverized and forgotten” God sounds little different from Hardy’s “mangled Monarch,” except for one thing: resurrection. Hardy thought death was the end of the story. Tyrrell knew it was only the beginning. 


[i] W. H. Mallock, The Nineteenth Century, cited in A. N. Wilson, God’s Funeral (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1999), 164.

[ii] Full text and notes for Hardy’s poem: http://greatpoetryexplained.blogspot.com/2019/01/gods-funeral-by-thomas-hardy.html

[iii] Shadi Hamid, “America Without God,” The Atlantic (April 2021): https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2021/04/america-politics-religion/618072/

[iv] Murtaza Hussain, “How the Death of Faith Will Hurt the Left,” Wisdom of Crowds (Sept. 15, 2020): https://wisdomofcrowds.live/death-of-faith-hurt-the-left/

[v]Meister Eckhart (c. 1260 – c. 1328), cited in Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism: The Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness, originally published 1911 (Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 1993), 209.

[vi] A. N. Wilson, 336.

[vii] David Bentley Hart, Theological Territories: A David Bentley Hart Digest (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 2020), 106.

[viii] George Tyrrell, cited in A. N. Wilson, 351.

“When I begin the long work of rising”—A Tribute to David Fetcho

David Fetcho.

“So my expectations are modest: that for some folks unknown to me, my music and poetry might open a window–maybe just a little bit–and allow them to get a glimpse of the secrets of their own heart as it tries to make sense of this world.”

— David Fetcho

I last saw David Fetcho at a funeral one year ago. I had flown to California to preach at the requiem for Stephen O’Leary, a fellow shape note singer. At the reception afterward, David and his wife Susan joined me in singing “Farthest Field,” a parable of resurrection and reunion beyond this mortal life.

I know one day I’ll leave my home
Here in the valley and climb up to that field so fair
And when I’m called and counted in
That final tally, I know that I will see you there.
Oh, walk with me and we will see the mystery revealed
When one day we wend our way up to the farthest field. 

The three of us had worked out the harmonies years before, and we loved to sing that song whenever we met up. When David and Susan dropped me at the Oakland airport that evening, we had no idea we had sung together for the last time. A few days later, the pandemic began to enclose us in our respective bubbles, two states apart. Then, a week ago, David had a massive stroke. He died yesterday afternoon. 

I first met David and Susan at the California Shape Note Convention in January 2000. They introduced themselves at the lunch break. After hearing my opening prayer that morning, they suspected we were kindred spirits. We quickly discovered a multitude of common bonds, including creative liturgy, filmmaking, music, theater and dance, theology, and radical Christianity. We met for a long conversation the next day, sharing our dreams of provoking a renaissance of wonder among God’s friends. Most of our grand collaborative hopes never materialized, but our periodic exchanges of ideas and passions always nourished our own ongoing projects. We were like an ancient trading culture. I’d show a film they hadn’t seen. They’d read me a poet I didn’t know. Whenever we met, we’d find ourselves taking notes, exchanging the names of works or artists to explore. And when we did manage a collaboration—a creative liturgy, a workshop, a video production—it was always a joy, with a surplus of invention and a minimum of ego. 

David Fetcho, late 1973.

Music was at the heart of David’s many creative gifts. He sang Gregorian chant as a Catholic choir boy, and mastered the accordion in the polka culture of his native Pittsburgh. Coming of age in the 1960s, he breathed the experimental air of the psychedelic San Francisco sound and the “new music” avant garde. His influences ranged from Meredith Monk and David Byrne to late medieval Ars Nova, contemporary world music, and American Sacred Harp singing. In 1970 he got access to a sophisticated Moog synthesizer left over from a Jefferson Airplane project, and began a lifelong exploration of electronic music. But his embrace of complex synthesized music never eclipsed his love of acoustic simplicity. He recently called the alto recorder his primary instrument.

For many years, David collaborated with Susan, an accomplished dancer and choreographer, to create 14 dance productions, touring in Australia, New Zealand, Bali, the U.S. and Canada. He also composed scores for various dance and theater companies, as well as film and television productions. But after decades as a collaborator, David made the courageous decision, at age 67, to produce his first solo work, using the name of his Slovak grandparents before it was Americanized: Fečo. The resulting song cycle, Watch It Sparkle, is a deep river of sounds and rhythms carrying his distinctive vocals and haunting lyrics through an immense cognitive terrain. 

David resisted terms like “experimental” or “avant-garde” for his new venture. He preferred to call it “medieval folk music for the 21st century.” It’s not easy or casual listening, but the listener who consents to the journey will be richly rewarded, perhaps even transformed. Critic Brian Leak encourages us to take the plunge: “As thematically dark as some of the songs are, there’s still a joyful complexity holding it all together.” And Layla Marino writes, “dsfečo’s first solo album has it all: complex song composition, beautiful, emotive melodies, just the right amount of dissonance and well-placed syncopation and vocals which drive home the point of all this strange music.” 

The final song of the cycle, “Just Another Good Day,” celebrates the eternal Now where we can, even in this life, rest in the stillness of Being, where transcendence and immanence meet in the arrested moment. It was the first thing I put on when I heard the news of David’s death. 

I want to go with you
to the other side of the light
where we’ll see
what the shadow reveals
will be such a relief …

time in its disguises 
won’t fool us anymore …

Days tumble on with minds of their own
they breathe in our lives, and make them their own
and time, time disappears
like the wind from a sail …
and every good day will be 
just another good day
of eternal life. 

Susan and David Fetcho, May 2006 (Jim Friedrich)

“Time of Quarantine,” recorded in his basement in June 2020, knows no such lightness of being. The present moment is heavy with longing for the return of a lost world: “dearest friends may fall / and sorrow’s tide wash over all.” The unwavering close-up of David singing is powerfully intimate (especially so now that he’s gone), yet we see a certain inexpressiveness in his face (but not his voice!), as though another power is speaking through him. This is not a performance, but a message. And the message is hope: 

If there’s a meaning to be found, 
it’s that love can still abound 
in this time of quarantine … 

What is the meaning of this plague we see? 
Even in our shelters we are not alone: 
our hearts can bridge the distance 
although we stay at home. 

Oh where is the time and place 
when I can finally touch your face 
and hold you like I did before 
this time of quarantine? 

And when we look back upon these days, 
we’ll remember how it felt to say, 
“We’re all in this together. 
We’ll make it through together.”

All of David’s work was grounded in a deep faith, a questioning mind, and a compassionate heart. In the 1970s, he and Susan belonged to the Bartimaeus Community in Berkeley, a communal experiment of the Evangelical left which included influential theologian/activist Ched Myers. Over the years, the Fetchos have worked creatively with many different church bodies, but in the years I have known them they have never had a lasting church home. I suspect that their belief in the deep connection between art, faith and imagination has never quite found a satisfactory institutional shelter. As David wrote to me in 2015:

“I want to look for a future shape of the Church unbound from the arbitrary conventions and protocols of manufactured traditions, and converted back to the one deep and abiding tradition of God’s self-expression in the multi-sensual forms of the world, and through the expression of human creative imagination lifted into the prophetic dimension.”

But to some extent, David and Susan found their true “church” in the community of singers who gather regularly to make a joyful noise with the expressive choral tradition of American shape note music. As a faithful supporter of singings in the San Francisco Bay Area, David was known not only for his strong voice, but also for his warm and welcoming encouragement to novice singers.  

Shape noters from all over have been posting fond remembrances. A Bay Area singer wrote: “David’s resounding voice was one of the first that truly stirred me at a local singing. I matched his tone next to me, in the lower tenor octave, and discovered the full sound in my own chest that you all have heard roaring from the alto bench in years since. He has driven me to countless Healdsburg singings, when I haven’t taken the weekend to cycle to them, and soothed me with such a gentle presence, calm with grounded wisdom.” 

In the following video, David and Susan lead a 2013 Palo Alto gathering in singing Rainbow: “Thy ways abound with blessings still, / Thy goodness crowns the years.” David’s radiant joy was a familiar sight at so many singings. He will be dearly missed.  

At last Sunday’s annual Seattle Sacred Harp Convention (on Zoom), 75 singers sang “Christian’s Farewell” for David. The final verse ends, “When I am done, I will go home / Where Jesus is smiling and bids me to come.” Dante’s Commedia reaches a similar conclusion, envisioning “the whole universe alight with a single smile” (Par. xxvii.4-5). To connect two such diverse sources to find a shared meaning is the kind of intertextual play that David’s brilliant mind was always quick to produce. But now he no longer needs to conceive the smile. He can enjoy it face to face. 

The ladder between earth and heaven (Daniel Cooney)

The shocking suddenness of David’s physical absence is hard to accept. I will be a long time sounding his name into the silence. But a Mary Oliver poem he sent me years ago brings comfort: 

When death
carts me off to the bottomlands,
when I begin
the long work of rising—

Death, whoever and whatever you are, tallest king of
tall kings, grant me these wishes: unstring my bones;
let me be not one thing but all things, and wondrously
scattered; shake me free from my name. Let the wind, and
the wildflowers, and the catbird never know it. Let
time loosen me like the bead of a flower from its wrappings
of leaves. Let me begin the changes

Slowly
up the hill,
like a thicket of white flowers
forever
is coming.

This video, perhaps the last recording David made, was shot at sunset on January 18, 2021.

The Most Misunderstood Christian Virtue

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?

Praying the Hours (7): Compline

St. Barnabas Episcopal Church, Bainbridge Island, Washington (Jim Friedrich)

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]

Jacopo Della Quercia, Tomb of Ilaria del Caretto (1406-1408), San Martino cathedral, Lucca, Italy. (Jim Friedrich)

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.

Perseid meteor shower, August 11, 2013 (Jim Friedrich)

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:

Prayer as Night Falls: Experiencing Compline
Compline Underground

This concludes my series on the Canonical Hours. I hope you have enjoyed the journey, and been encouraged to deepen your own practice of holy attention to the living of your days.

Here are the links to the rest of the series:

  1. “Reclaiming my time”
  2. Vigils
  3. Lauds & Prime
  4. Terce
  5. Sext & None
  6. Vespers

[i] Katharine Le Mée, The Benedictine Gift to Music (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2003), 61-68.

[ii] Compline comes from the Latin for “complete.” The rite completes the day, while at the same time modeling the faithful completion of mortal life. 

[iii] Brother David Steindl-Rast & Sharon Lebell, Music of Silence: A Sacred Journey Through the Hours of the Day (Brooklyn, NY: Ulysses Press, 2001).

[iv] Philippe Ariès, The Hour of Our Death, trans. Helen Weaver (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), 22-24, 243-247.

[v] Steindl-Rast & Lebell.

[vi] Rule of St. Benedict, 4.47.

[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. 

A Little Child Shall Lead Them

The Nativity (Romanesque capital at Saint-Tropheme, Arles).

No time for words this week, only images. I’ve been editing the parish Christmas pageant as well as our Christmas Eve liturgy stream. With COVID cautions in place, I sent a shot list to the parents, who sent me back wonderful clips of their little angels, shepherds and Holy Family, all shot in their bubbles as if interacting with characters who weren’t there. The joy and beauty they brought to the Nativity story has been a great Christmas gift to me in this strangest of Christmastides, and I pass it on to you. Merry Christmas, dear reader! May this holy season take you ever deeper into the Mystery of God-with-us.


Praying the Hours (6): Vespers

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.

Vesper Light, Island of Paros, Greece (Jim Friedrich, 2015).

Now the day is over, 
Night is drawing nigh, 
Shadows of the evening
Steal across the sky. 

— Sabine Baring-Gould [i]

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.

Winter sunset, Washington coast (Jim Friedrich, 2016).

Fairer through Fading—as the Day
Into the Darkness dips away—
Half Her Complexion of the Sun—
Hindering—Haunting—Perishing—

— Emily Dickinson [iii]

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. 

Vesper moon and evening star at my grandfather’s summer place, Wacouta, MN (Jim Friedrich, 2018).

“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.

[viii] Jane Kenyon, “Let Evening Come,” Collected Poems (St. Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 2005), 213.

[ix] Anjela Duval (1905-1981) was a peasant farmer in Brittany. She wrote her poems in the evening, after a hard day’s work in the fields. 

The Advent Collection (updated)

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

“Hopes that pointed to the clouds” — A Sermon for Advent 1

Dawn at the church in Rabanal on the Camino de Santiago (May 2, 2014).

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.”

“This story ends with me still rowing.”




[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.

[iv] In Abrams, 352.

[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.

[vi] The Prelude, VI, 368-369 (1805).

[vii] The Prelude, XI, 506 (1805).

[viii] The Prelude, VI, 587 (1850).

[ix] The Prelude, VI, 531-532, 538-542 (1805).

[x] W. H. Auden, “New Year Letter (January 1, 1940),” Collected Poems, ed. Edward Mendelson (New York: Random House, 1976). We hoped (175); what is possible (190); the purgatorial hill (178-179).

[xi] Anne Sexton, “Rowing,” in The Awful Rowing Toward God (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1975). This is the first poem in the book. In the last, “The Rowing Endeth,” she finally reaches the island. God invites her to play poker. They both win, because that’s how it goes with God. The text of “Rowing is here: https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/rowing/ … “The Rowing Endeth” is here: https://opreach.org/2013/02/26/the-rowing-endeth/