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

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

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

–– W. Paul Jones [i]

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

–– Alessandro Pronzato [ii]

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

O that thou shouldst give dust a tongue
To cry to thee,
And then not hear it crying! all day long
My heart was in my knee,
But no hearing.

Therefore my soul lay out of sight,
Untun’d, unstrung:
My feeble spirit, unable to look right,
Like a nipped blossom, hung
Discontented.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

Forty Years of Chewing Sand

St. Anthony the Abbot in the Wilderness (Osservanza Master, Siena, c. 1435)

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

–– Alessandro Pronzato [i]

 

In American Nomads, my recent reviiew of Jessica Bruder’s Nomadland, I applied the term “ascetics” to the motorized wanderers who have left behind the oppressive futility of a dysfunctional society to seek a freedom and authenticity seemingly unattainable within the rigged game of economic inequality. Although most of those contemporary nomads might take issue with the religious connotations of the word, I believe that any intentional exodus “away from here” is inevitably a quest for the redemptive space of a Promised Land. Its refusals and renunciations are the necessary first steps toward new being.

In popular usage, asceticism conjures images of bodily self-mortification, like sleeping on a bed of nails, for the sake of a purely spiritual goal. Such a limiting caricature reflects an unfortunate dualism of body and soul. But the term comes from the Greek word for athletic training, and is best understood as a wholistic practice in which everything which comprises the human person—body and soul, heart and mind, inner psyche and outer world—is fully engaged in a committed discipline of patterned living.

Asceticism is not solely a matter of giving old things up; it also involves taking on things that are new. Lenten discipline, for example, involves the addition of deeper spiritual practices and loving actions, and not merely the common subtractions of culinary pleasures and worldly amusements. More prayer and more justice, not just less chocolate.

But even the embrace of positive actions or behaviors involves the renunciation of obstacles, distractions and hindrances which impede or resist the ascetic’s goal. And since we are social beings, both formed and deformed by the worlds we inhabit, it is not always enough to work on ourselves within the confines of the given world. To borrow a phrase from Wallace Stevens, we sometimes need to “exit the whole Shebang.”

And from the biblical Exodus to the “vandwelling” nomads fleeing the enslaving fleshpots of America, the exit always leads to the desert: the no-where beyond the reach of the social imaginary, the silence beyond the captivity of language, the trackless waste where all our constructions turn to dust. As I wrote in Via Negativa:

The desert is the emptiness where there’s no place to hide. In the desert, you come face to face with yourself, your demons, and your God. Nothing is defined there, nothing known in advance. Your scripts are no good in the desert. Your evasions are futile. Whatever makes you want to turn around and run back to the safety of your old illusions is the very thing that is trying to kill you.

We could all use some time in the desert, whether it’s Jesus’ 40 days or the Israelites’ 40 years. But whenever we step outside the noise of our social and personal fictions, the silence is going to wound us with questions. Who am I really, when my familiar props, costumes and stories are stripped away, leaving me naked and alone on an empty stage? Do I have what Salinger’s Franny Glass called “the courage to be an absolute nobody?”

Even the great desert saints of Late Antiquity trembled on the brink of so much nothingness. As Belden C. Lane writes in his indispensable guide to wilderness spirituality, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes:

“What they fled with greatest fear was not the external world, but the world they carried inside themselves: an ego-centeredness needing constant approval, driven by compulsive behavior, frantic in its effort to attend to a self-image that always required mending.” [ii]

The desert way is threatening and fierce, but it is also a place of transformative clarity, as mystics and artists continue to remind us. Indifferent to the old scripts of alienation and inauthenticity, it can be the birthplace of a new way of being human. Video artist Bill Viola describes the lure of the desert issuing from the spiritual desire for true and undistorted existence:

“I want to go to a place that seems like it’s at the end of the world. A vantage point from which one can stand and peer out into the void – the world beyond… There is nothing to lean on. No references… You finally realize that the void is yourself. It is like some huge mirror for your mind. Clear and uncluttered, it is the opposite of our urban distractive spaces. Out here, the unbound mind can run free. Imagination reigns. Space becomes a projection screen. Inside becomes outside. You can see what you are.” [iii]

Of course, the desert can be anywhere. Alassandro Pronzato, one of my favorite desert teachers, describes it as an essentially inward condition:

“You can find your desert in a corner of your house, on a motorway, in a square, in a crowded street. But you must first renounce the slavery of illusions, refuse the blackmail of pressure, resist the glitter of appearances, repudiate the domination of activity, reject the dictatorship of hypocrisy. Then the desert becomes a place where you do not go out to see the sand blowing in the wind but the Spirit waiting to make his dwelling within you.” [iv]

The desert is no place for the casual tourist. It is a pilgrimage of arduous passage, demanding time, patience, endurance and persistence. “You do not settle there, you pass through. One then ventures on to these tracks because one is driven by the Spirit towards the Promised Land. But it is only promised to those who are able to chew sand for forty years without doubting their invitation to the feast in the end.” [v]

Chewing sand for forty years—not the best sales pitch for the pilgrimage to God. But all the easy roads just lead back to Egypt. Endure the trials, bless the oases. Persist. Never turn back.

Do not doubt the feast.

 

 

Related posts:

Via Negativa: A Lenten Worship Installation

Solitude (Part 1)

Solitude (Part 2)

 

[i] Alessandro Pronzato, Meditations on the Sand (1982), q. in John Moses, The Desert: An Anthology for Lent (Norwich, UK: The Canterbury Press, 1997, 30-31.

[ii] Belden C. Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 166.

[iii] Bill Viola, Reasons for Knocking at an Empty House: Writings 1973-1994 (London: Thames & Hudson, 1995) 54.

[iv] Moses, 31.

[v] Ibid., 26.

I took the photograph in California’s Alabama Hills, where I have run among wildflowers and slept beneath the stars. The mountain peak on the right is Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the lower 48 states. I climbed it in 1998.

Ash Wednesday Isn’t for Heroes

Giovanni Bellini, Dead Christ Supported by Two Angels (1460)

Yesterday’s come-from-behind Olympic victory by Shaun White in the snowboarding halfpipe was both thrilling drama and breathtaking athleticism. Following a failure to medal in the last Olympics and a serious injury in competition just four months ago, his triumph fit the classic pattern of the hero’s journey: an arduous path “through many dangers, toils and snares” until the prize is won. But the hero’s journey, however inspiring, is not our Lenten theme. We walk a different way, practicing self-compassion in the dust and ashes of our own defeats.

Every Ash Wednesday, my favorite Winter Olympics story comes to mind. Readers may recall it from a 2016 post, but I offer it again here, prefaced by Mary Oliver’s Lenten antiphon:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.[i]

In the 1988 Winter Olympics, American speed skater Dan Jansen, the best in the world, was the consensus pick to win the 500 and 1000 meter events. On the morning of the 500 final, he learned his sister had just died from leukemia. His focus clearly elsewhere, he fell on the first turn of his race and never finished. He would also fall and fail in the 1000 meters. At the 1992 Olympics, he again failed to win the medals expected of him. The 1994 Olympics offered him one last chance, and he came to the line of the 500 meter race as the clear favorite, the only skater ever to break 36 seconds, which he had done four times. But after one slight slip on the ice, he finished out of the medals yet again.

Ash Wednesday came just after that race, and during the liturgy I reflected on Jansen’s story in my homily. Although Jansen would finally win a gold medal a few days later (in the one race where he was an underdog), it was his “failures” that resonated with people. After the liturgy, a therapist in the congregation told me that many of her clients that week had talked with her about Jansen’s story, and how much it moved them. If the world’s greatest skater could fall, then maybe it was all right for them to fall as well. You don’t have to be a hero, only your own flawed and unfinished self, letting the soft animal of your body love what it loves.

In his youth, the poet David Whyte was hiking in the Himalayas when he came to a deep chasm. The only way across was a rickety old rope bridge with many missing slats. Although he was a confident, experienced mountaineer, he suddenly froze at the prospect of traversing the abyss on so treacherous a path. He sat down on the ground and stared at the bridge for hours, unable to proceed. “There are times when the hero has to sit down,” he said later. “At some bridges in life the part of you that always gets it done has to sit down.” Then an old Tibetan woman came along, gathering yak dung for fuel. She walked with a limp. “Namaste,” she said with a smile. Then she turned and limped across the bridge. Immediately, without thinking, he rose up and followed. Sometimes, he realized, it is “the old interior angel,” the unheroic, limping, unequipped part of ourselves, that gets us to the other side.[ii]

Remember that you are dust, and no hero. Whether your Lent will be a time of giving up, going deep, or reaching out, may it always be done with a generous measure of self-compassion.

 

 

[i] Mary Oliver, “Wild Geese,” in Devotions (New York: Penguin Press, 2017), 347.

[ii] Remembered from a David Whyte talk in the 1990s.

The Temptation: A Gospel Play for Lent’s First Sunday

Duccio di Buoninsegna, The Temptation of Christ on the Mountain, Maesta Altarpiece (c. 1307)

Duccio di Buoninsegna, The Temptation of Christ on the Mountain, Maesta Altarpiece (c. 1307)

There are many ways to tell and experience our sacred stories. Sometimes those ancient texts cry out for the theatrical midrash of dramatized performance. This liturgical play was first performed as the gospel “reading” on the First Sunday of Lent, 1997, in front of the altar at St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church on Whidbey Island, Washington.

The allusions to other biblical stories (Exodus, Peter’s rebuke, Gethsemane) in this account reflects the gospel’s own intertextuality: framing Jesus’ wilderness story as a redo of his ancestors’ flawed pilgrimage. This time around, Jesus would get it right, trusting God where his desert predecessors had doubted and rebelled.

Everyone in the congregation was given two stones to strike together as “Satan’s Theme” before each temptation. The choir functioned as the offstage chorus.

 

Fade in environmental AUDIO of desert sounds. JESUS enters, attentive to what is around him in this desert place. At center stage, facing out, he takes a deep breath and assumes a posture of prayer. .

CHORUS (offstage)

You are my beloved child. This day have I begotten you.

The people click stones together as SATAN enters to stand near Jesus.
Satan signals for silence.

SATAN (pointing to a cairn of stones):

If you really are God’s beloved child, command these stones to turn into bread.

Jesus contemplates the stones as a CRUCIFER enters, bearing a cross made out of two crossed sticks. An apple is suspended from each end of the crossarm. ADAM and EVE enter. They approach the fruit curiously but hesitate to pluck it.

SATAN

Go ahead. Eat. It won’t kill you. Just one bite, and you’ll be like God.
You’ll know everything.

They each take an apple and bite into it. The taste is bitter. They look at their apples in disgust, then drop them and look around anxiously, as if suddenly aware of being in a more dangerous world. They back away from the “tree,” then turn and run away. The crucifer exits and THREE ISRAELITES enter.

FIRST ISRAELITE

After God rescued us from slavery in Egypt, we wandered for so many years in the wilderness. The desert was hard and bitter, and despite everything God had done for us, we began to complain.

SECOND ISRAELITE

It was crazy to come out here. No food, no water, nothing but stones and thorns.
What were we thinking?

THIRD ISRAELITE

Milk and honey, man. Freedom. The Promised Land . . .  What a joke.
We should have stayed in Egypt. I can’t stop thinking about those fleshpots.

CHORUS (as Israelites exit)

They tested God in their hearts, demanding food for their craving.
They railed against God and said,
“Can God make a feast even in this wilderness?
“Yes, God struck rock and water gushed out,
but can God provide bread and meat to feed us?”
Hearing this, God’s anger was kindled,
for the people had no faith;
they did not trust God’s power to save.  [Psalm 78:18-22]

SATAN

If you are the Christ, no use pretending to be like everybody else.
Don’t be too proud to use your power. People expect it. They need it.
They don’t want a savior who’s weak like them, believe me.
Come on! Let’s see what you’re made of. Turn these stones into bread.

JESUS

Bread is a gift from God — and the work of many hands.
A person who needs nothing from anyone––ends up all alone.
I accept the lesson that hunger teaches.

SATAN

Well, if you’re going to save the world, you’ve got to keep your strength up.

JESUS

As long as anyone is hungry, I will be hungry.

SATAN (offering Jesus a stone)

Take. Eat.

JESUS (taking the stone)

 Human beings do not live by bread alone…
 (He puts the stone on the altar)
.… but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.

The people click stones together. Satan produces a ladder, and gets Jesus to climb it.
Satan then signals for silence.

SATAN

If you are the Christ, throw yourself down from this pinnacle of the Temple.
For it is written, “God will command the angels to protect you;
they will bear you up in their arms, lest you dash your foot against a stone.”

JESUS

I will live without protection.
Where I’m going, angels can’t help.

PETER enters from the back of the congregation, making his way quickly to the ladder.

PETER

Let me through! Let me through!…
(reaching the foot of the ladder)
Rabbi! No! God forbid anything should happen to you.
You’ve got to get out of here. Go somewhere safe.

JESUS (looking down at Peter)

Get behind me, Satan! You’re blocking my way!
You don’t see the way God sees.

Peter continues to look up at Jesus for a few moments, then he drops his head and exits slowly, disconsolate, as Satan addresses Jesus.

SATAN

You know you’re headed for a fall, Jesus.
Aren’t you curious whether God’s going to catch you?
Come on! A little test flight — just to make sure. Jump…

Jesus lets go of the ladder, spreading arms wide as if about to fly — or be crucified.

CONGREGATION (led by Satan)

Jump!…Jump!…Jump!…. (continuing ad lib)

Jesus, as if awakened from a trance, drops his arms suddenly to clutch the ladder before he falls into space. The people stop shouting. Jesus descends carefully to the ground, and stands face to face with Satan.

JESUS

The Scriptures say, “Do not test God. Trust God.”

Jesus turns away from Satan to pray. The people click stones until Satan signals for silence. The ISRAELITES enter, all looking at their smartphones.

 FIRST ISRAELITE

Now when Moses did not come down from the mountain of God, the Israelites began to feel abandoned. So they melted down all their gold, and made themselves a new god, a god who would never leave them, a god who would always take care of them.

 SATAN

Come on, Jesus. I’m not your enemy. I know what people want. I know what you want.
I can give you anything you desire. Look.

Satan directs Jesus’ attention to a large screen displaying a montage of television commercials promising endless happiness and pleasure. The Israelites kneel before the images. Jesus glances at the screen, then turns his back to it. When the montage concludes, the Israelites stand up, pull out smartphones and exit, transfixed by their devices.  

SATAN

Jesus, how long are you going to stick with that two-bit operation of your father’s? Long hours, low pay, miserable working conditions, declining market share, insufficient capital. Am I right or am I right? It’s a dead end, pal. That’s not for you. You’re good, and you know it. You come and work for me, and I’ll guarantee you maximum exposure – worldwide markets, talk show, website, golden parachute… You can write your own ticket. Think of the good you could do with that kind of power. It’ll be fantastic, believe me.

Satan opens a bottle of champagne, fills a flute and offers it to Jesus.

Just say yes, and we’ll drink to your success.

An ANGEL enters holding a communion chalice. Jesus looks at the two different drinks before him, then turns to Satan and pushes aside his extended arm holding the flute.

JESUS

No. I serve God––and no one else!”

SATAN

Satan looks at Jesus a moment, then shrugs and drinks the champagne himself.

 We’ll meet again.

He exits. Jesus approaches the angel.

JESUS

Abba, if it is possible, let this cup pass me by.
Yet not my will, but yours be done.

The angel offers the chalice. Jesus accepts it, drinks deeply, then places it on the altar, kneeling before it. Then the angel gently brings Jesus to his feet and, with a comforting arm around his shoulders, leads him out. Desert sounds slowly fade out.

 

 

Related Posts

Via Negativa: A Lenten Worship Installation

The Desert and the Flood

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Is holiness a Lenten obligation?

Bench carving, Cathedral of Seville, Spain

Bench carving, Cathedral of Seville, Spain

In the liturgical rite for Ash Wednesday, the priest stands up before the people and invites them “to the observance of a holy Lent.” It is a solemn and noble custom. But is it a serious proposal? And if so, what is actually being asked of the faithful?

When people hear the word “holy,” they often think “devout” or “virtuous,” but qodesh, the word for holiness in the Hebrew Bible, is not a moral or behavioral term. It means “apartness,” conveying an inherent, critical difference between what is holy and what is not.

The word itself is set apart. Unlike other divine attributes like power, justice and love, holiness has no analogue in the everyday life of Israel. It doesn’t refer to a common experience and then say God is like that. Instead, it evokes the one quality of God which is unlike anything we know.

In ancient Judaism, holiness meant the radical otherness of God, the Holy One. The divine presence is not to be approached easily or casually, either by our bodies or by our language. God dwells in a sacred zone which is highly charged, difficult and risky to enter.

Israel’s worship practices grew up around this strict sense of separation. At the center of cultic life was a holy of holies, a space set apart from contamination by the world. And only priests, who were themselves set apart and highly trained in the intricacies of access, were allowed to have contact with this sacred center. There was a sense that if the sphere of holiness were to be contaminated or carelessly regarded, the presence of the Holy One might withdraw from Israel, and that would be disastrous.

Leviticus, not a book I spend a lot of time with, contains a long section known as the Holiness Code because of its repeated use of holy and holiness, as well as related terms like sanctify, hallow, consecrate, dedicate, and sacred. It is filled with detailed prescriptions ranging from ritual practice to sexual behavior. Many of these seem archaic and largely inapplicable today. But may we still find something valid in the impulse to preserve the “holy” from profanation or inattention?

The sacred is made present by the attention we give to it. For example, if you come to a labyrinth occupying an open space, do you just walk straight across it, or do you go around it, acknowledging it as a space set apart for prayerful activity? Or does it only become holy space when it is put to its intended use, rather than just lying there as a decorative floor pattern?

I once led a weeklong family retreat for a Nevada parish on the eastern shore of Lake Tahoe. There was a beautiful stone church, with a large window looking across the water to the high peaks of the Sierra mountains. The space around the altar was large enough to hold all of us, so we did most of our worship there, in the intimacy of a circle.

I asked everyone to do two things each time they came inside the altar rails. One was to remove their shoes, like Moses at the Burning Bush. The other was to perform an action of their choice to mark their entrance into holy space: they could lift their hands in prayer, bow, genuflect, cross themselves, kiss the altar, or prostrate themselves on the floor. Most of the children, being the enthusiastically embodied creatures they are, opted for prostration! The effect of these physical observances was tangible. The attention we gave changed the quality of being there. It became for us holy ground.

But what Leviticus is after, and what a holy Lent is about, is more than the quality of a space or the attention we pay to it. Holiness is meant to be something contagious, something which gets inside us and changes us forever.

You shall be holy, for I your God am holy (Leviticus 19:2). God is not content to limit holiness to Godself. God’s people are invited to be holy as well. Not just our sanctuaries, but ourselves, are made to be set apart, consecrated, sanctified, hallowed. Biblical theologian Walter Brueggemann has called this the “obligation tradition,” where “the purpose of Israel’s life is to host the holiness of Yahweh.”[i]

As biblical people gradually figured out, hosting divine holiness means more than maintaining ritual purity or devotional piety. It means embodying justice and peace as well, uncontaminated by the dehumanizing, violent and oppressive practices of the dominant culture. Such holiness requires the consecration and dedication of every aspect of life to the will and purpose of God.

Leviticus 19:9-18 provides some excellent guidelines for our own time:

  • Don’t keep all your food for yourselves
  • Remember the poor and the immigrant
  • Don’t steal, lie, or defraud one another
  • Don’t exploit your workers
  • Be mindful of those with special needs
  • Be fair and just in your dealings with others
  • Don’t slander, seek revenge, or carry grudges
  • Love your neighbor as yourself

The nice thing about such a list is that these are all things we can do. They are not perfections only achievable in a messianic future. We can perform them right now. Jesus offered a similar list. Is somebody hungry? Feed them. Is anybody thirsty? Get them some water. And if curing the sick or setting the prisoner free seems beyond you, surely you can at least visit them. This is not impossible stuff.

Holiness, an attribute of God, becomes for us a practice.
Not something we are, but something we do.

Of course the specific obligations of holiness are not always clear. It is one thing to separate yourself by going to the desert, the monastery, or a countercultural refuge. It is quite another to live in contemporary society with its inevitable complicity in the evils by which the system maintains itself: militarism, consumerism, economic injustice and violence against the planet. How do we say no to the evil and yes to the good in a world of such complex interdependence?

And yet, Scripture remains insistent that we continue to strive for sanctification, dedicating our lives to God and separating ourselves from whatever is not of God.

  • God chose us in Christ to be holy and blameless, full of love (Ephesians 1:4)
  • Clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness (Ephesians 4:24)
  • Surrender your bodies to righteousness in order to create a holy life (Romans 6:19)

Surrender. Is this too much to ask? Is a holy life too much to ask? Does it set the bar so high that we just abandon the field to an elite corps of ethical heroes: the few, the proud, the saints?

Even worse, does a religion of obligation veer us toward “works righteousness,” overestimating our powers and denying the need for grace? Well, even Calvin admitted the possibility of making progress in personal goodness. He echoed the purity language of Leviticus when he wrote:

Ever since the Holy Spirit dedicated us as temples to the Lord, we should make it our endeavor to show forth the glory of God, and guard against being profaned by the defilement of sin. Ever since our soul and body were destined to heavenly incorruptibility and an unfading crown, we should earnestly strive to keep them pure and uncorrupted against the day of the Lord.[ii]

But where do we begin? Thomas Aquinas outlined three stages of holiness: First, distance yourself from sin and wrong inclinations (holiness as an act of separation, turning your back on sin and turning toward God). Second, work on cultivating the virtues in your life (holiness as a daily practice). Finally, rest in loving union with God (holiness as communion with the Holy One).

This triptych of holiness is echoed in my favorite collect in the service of Morning Prayer:

  • drive far from us all wrong desires (separation)
  • incline our hearts to keep your law, and guide our feet into the way of peace (practice)
  • that, having done your will with cheerfulness during the day, we may, when night comes, rejoice to give you thanks (communion)

Or to put this in the simplest terms:

  • What do I need to let go of?
  • What do I need to acquire and cultivate?
  • In whose reality do I want to dwell?

It’s not about effort, of course. Sola fide, sola gratia, soli Deo. Only faith, only grace, only God. As Augustine knew, “When God crowns our merits, God crowns nothing but God’s own gifts.”[iii]

And it’s never done, this holiness business. It’s an open-ended process of continual striving. Gregory of Nyssa said, “The perfection of human nature consists perhaps in its very growth in goodness.”[iv] In other words, holiness isn’t something we achieve, it’s a commitment to growth.

And as an old eucharistic prayer suggests, the time to start is now:

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.[v]

What if, every day during Lent, each of us were to make such a prayer?
Here I offer and present to you, O God, my ________.

Just fill in the blank with whatever the time and place requires.

 

Related posts

Grace me guide

Heart work and heaven work

 

 

 

[i] Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), 428

[ii] John Calvin, Institutes 3.6.3

[iii] Augustine, Epistle 154, 5.16

[iv] Gregory of Nyssa, Life of Moses 10

[v] Thomas Cranmer, Book of Common Prayer (1549), based on Romans 12:1, in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer (1979), 336.

Ash Wednesday: A time for self-compassion

 

Alleluia ashes 2sm

There is a really deep well inside me. And in it dwells God. Sometimes I am there too. But more often stones and grit block the well, and God is buried beneath. Then he must be dug out again.

– Etty Hillesum[i]

 

Hillesum’s evocative image expresses the duality of the Lenten season. On the one hand, God is not the end product of spiritual attainment, something brought closer through our own efforts. The deep well of divinity is already present within us, “more intimate to me than I am to myself.”[ii] We don’t have to go somewhere else to find it. Lent is a time to tune in, go deep, and pay heightened attention to the Presence we often miss.

At the same time, our awareness of – and relationship with – this Presence may be hindered or obstructed by any number of things, requiring some real digging on our part. The trouble is, that digging can quickly become a self-improvement project, with Lent’s success judged by the quality and success of our efforts. We imagine a more spiritually heroic self, and strive to make it come true.

The ancient Desert Fathers and Mothers, who fled the corruption and distractions of their culture to seek a holier life in the wastelands beyond Empire, might seem at first glance to be overflowing with heroic aspiration. A typical regimen would be to “get 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.”[iii]

Such rigorous spiritual practice wasn’t for the halfhearted. But it risked the competitive sin of pride. Paul of Pherme, for instance, undertook the project of “continual prayer” – 300 prayers per day, keeping count with a pile of 300 pebbles in his lap. After each prayer, he tossed away one pebble. But he was crestfallen to learn of a certain woman who had been saying 700 prayers per day for thirty years! He would never catch up. Another desert father, Macarius the Alexandrian, warned Paul that his spiritual life lacked both balance and humility. But Macarius was no moderate. He once did penance for swatting a mosquito by moving to a swamp to endure six months of insect bites, without ever raising a hand in defense.[iv]

Thankfully, the extremists were not the norm. More prevalent was a spirit of deep humility about one’s capacities. John Climacus was a seventh-century monk at Mt. Sinai. His image of the spiritual life as a “Ladder of Divine Ascent” was later pictured in a famous twelfth-century icon.

Ladder of Divine Ascent, St. Catherine's Monastery, Mt. Sinai (12th century)

Ladder of Divine Ascent, St. Catherine’s Monastery, Mt. Sinai (12th century)

If you have ever climbed a very tall ladder, or done any rock-climbing, you know the degree of both effort and risk involved. John’s image makes it very clear that the spiritual life is strenuous and challenging. “We need to exercise ourselves greatly,” he wrote, “to lay upon ourselves many hidden labors after a life of negligence.” But then he said,

Be of good heart. If the passions lord it over us and we are weak, let us with great confidence offer to Christ our spiritual weakness and our impotence . . . He will help us irrespective of what we deserve, on the sole condition that we descend continually to the bottom, into the abyss of humility.[v]

So we don’t have to be heroes after all. What a relief! Humility, not heroism, is the way up the ladder. As the Rule of Saint Benedict teaches us, “by trying to climb we descend, and by humility we ascend.”[vi] That’s why Ash Wednesday strikes just the right note for the beginning of Lent. It brings us down to earth as creatures of ashes, dust and mud, undermining any pretensions of Promethean heroism. The Lenten journey is come-as-you-are.

Mary Oliver puts this perfectly: “You do not have to be good. / You do not have to walk on your knees / for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting. / You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”[vii] Or as Simone Weil suggested, self-compassion means to “accept what one is, at a given moment, as a fact – even one’s shame.”

In the 1988 Winter Olympics, American speed skater Dan Jansen was favored in the 500 and 1000 meter events. On the morning of the 500 final, he learned his sister had just died from leukemia. His focus clearly elsewhere, he fell on the first turn of his race and never finished. He would also fall and fail in the 1000 meters. At the 1992 Olympics, he again failed to win the medals expected of him. The 1994 Oympics offered him one last chance, and he came to the line of the 500 meter race as the clear favorite, the only skater ever to break 36 seconds, which he had done four times. But after one slight slip on the ice, he finished out of the medals yet again.

Ash Wednesday came just after that race, and I reflected on Jansen’s story in my homily. Although Jansen would finally win a gold medal a few days later (in the one race where he was an underdog), it was his “failures” that resonated with people. After the liturgy, a therapist in the congregation told me that many of her clients that week had talked with her about Jansen’s story, and how much it moved them. If the world’s greatest skater could fall, then maybe it was all right for them to fall as well. You don’t have to be a hero, only yourself, letting the soft animal of your body love what it loves.

In his youth, the poet David Whyte was hiking in the Himalayas when he came to a deep chasm. The only way across was a rickety old rope bridge with many missing slats. Although he was a confident, experienced mountaineer, he suddenly froze at the prospect of traversing the abyss on so treacherous a path. He sat down on the ground and stared at the bridge for hours, unable to proceed. “There are times when the hero has to sit down,” he said later. “At some bridges in life the part of you that always gets it done has to sit down.” Then an old Tibetan woman came along, gathering yak dung for fuel. She walked with a limp. “Namaste,” she said with a smile. Then she turned and limped across the bridge. Immediately, without thinking, he rose up and followed. Sometimes, he realized, it is “the old interior angel,” the unheroic, limping, unequipped part of ourselves, that gets us to the other side.[viii]

Remember that you are dust, and no hero. Whether your Lent will be a time of giving up, going deep, or reaching out, may it always be done with a generous measure of self-compassion.

As Mary Gauthier sings so beautifully, we could all use a little mercy now.

 

 

Related posts

George Herbert: Heart work and heaven work

Solitude (Part 1)

Solitude (Part 2)

 

[i] Etty Hillesum, An Interrupted Life (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1996), August 25, 1941 (two years before she died in Auschwitz)

[ii] St. Augustine, Confessions III.

[iii] 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

[iv] ibid., 288

[v] John Climacus, Ladder of Divine Ascent, 1st Step, 17, in Olivier Clement, The Roots of Christian Mysticism (New York: New City Press, 1993), 152

[vi] ibid., 156 (Rule of St. Benedict VII)

[vii] Mary Oliver, “Wild Geese,” New and Selected Poems (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992), 110

[viii] From a talk given by David Whyte in the 1990’s

 

Via Negativa: A Lenten worship installation

"Desert Words" from "Via Negativa" worship installation by Jim Friedrich

“Desert Words” from “Via Negativa” worship installation by Jim Friedrich

“The trouble with going to the desert is that you risk meeting God there.” These words of a French monk, which I heard decades ago in a documentary on the Little Brothers of Jesus, have haunted me ever since. Anyone who has spent serious time in the desert knows that the monk was right. Flee the culture’s house of mirrors for the counter-world of rocks and sand, silence and emptiness, and like Elijah you too may hear the “voice of thin silence.” You may meet the necessary Other.

I wrote these words in an introduction to my Lenten worship installation Via Negativa, an experiential journey through a symbolic desert. A worship installation is more like an art gallery than the theater model of traditional Western liturgy. Instead of finding a seat and remaining there (except for the Peace and Communion), you move around, follow your own path, pay attention at your own pace, linger where something in particular calls to you. An installation also resembles the labyrinth in being a mixture of both solitude and community. You do it in your own way, yet always aware that you make the journey in the company of fellow pilgrims.

The installation introduction goes on to say:

In this installation, you are invited to make your own exodus out of the ordinary into a desert made of signs, symbols and experiences. There is no path. You wander as you will, or as the Spirit wills, though the Burning Bush is best deferred until you have spent some time here.

There is a multitude of texts: like grains of sand they are too vast to consume in their entirety. But somewhere amid those endless texts are words that may whisper a message just for you. Open a book at random. Consider the many juxtapositions of word and image scattered around the space. Read the “the shifting language of sand, traces, and mirage.”[i] Inhabit “a fragile tent of words erected in the desert” where we are “struck with infinity and the letter.”[ii]

There are also images, sounds, places to linger, practices to enact. It is better not to hurry. There is no time in the desert, only space. Wander. Explore. Abide. Pay attention. Take off your shoes. You stand on holy ground.      

The installation occupies three rooms. In the first room, there are images and texts representing the “Egypt” which need to be left behind – the personal and cultural distractions, distortions, oppressions and addictions which mar or obscure the goodness of creation and the Imago Dei within us all. A monitor shows a video loop of the Exodus story from The Electronic Campfire, a video I produced of creatively told biblical stories from the Easter Vigil.

The second room contains a small tent where you can listen to a recording of sayings and stories of the early Christian Desert Fathers and Mothers, playing softly from a small portable speaker. There are printed collections of these texts available as well. Sitting on a Persian carpet inside the tent, you may linger to hear and read the wisdom of those ancient spiritual explorers. A sign outside the entrance displays a key text from that tradition: Go sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.

The third room represents the desert itself, that indeterminate space free of human constructs, which for millennia has drawn the hungry of spirit. As God tells Hosea, “I will lure her into the wilderness; there I will speak tenderly to her heart.”[iii] The video artist Bill Viola describes the value of this alternate reality as well as any:

“I want to go to a place that seems like it’s at the end of the world. A vantage point from which one can stand and peer out into the void – the world beyond… There is nothing to lean on. No references… You finally realize that the void is yourself. It is like some huge mirror for your mind. Clear and uncluttered, it is the opposite of our urban distractive spaces. Out here, the unbound mind can run free. Imagination reigns. Space becomes a projection screen. Inside becomes outside. You can see what you are.”[iv]

At the entrance to the third room, a sign invites you to take off your shoes before entering the “desert.” Once inside, you begin to read, see, hear, touch, smell, taste and do:

  • Torn fragments of a large desert map scattered across the entry floor, with a sign: “Throw away your maps.”
  • Dozens of magazine photographs and postcard images of the desert, each accompanied by a text related to desert spirituality. These numerous pairings of image and text are designed to provoke endless reflection.
  • Various books and guides on desert natural history, geology and spirituality.
  • Large signs hanging from the ceiling proclaiming key themes of desert spirituality, such as T. S. Eliot’s “Teach us to sit still, even among these rocks.”[v]
"Via Negativa" installation by Jim Friedrich

“Via Negativa” installation by Jim Friedrich

  • At different locations, three video monitors:
    • A slide show of desert wildflowers
    • A montage of desert film footage (time lapse of cloud shadows moving across dry landscapes, dreamlike images of humans and animals on sand dunes, the Temptation scene from Pasolini’s Gospel According to St. Matthew, and a desert father atop his 40-foot pillar in Luis Buñuel’sSimon of the Desert).
    • A live image of whoever is standing in front of the monitor, to which this text is attached: You do not go into the desert to find identity, but to lose it, to lose your personality, to become anonymous.[vi]
  • A large rectangle of sand containing over 70 words naming dimensions of the desert quest (deprivation, emptiness, hunger, listening, negation, repentance, solitude, tears, trial, unknowing, waiting, etc.) Each word seems on the verge of erasure by the enveloping sand.
"Desert Words" from "Via Negativa" worship installation by Jim Friedrich

“Desert Words” from “Via Negativa” worship installation by Jim Friedrich

  • A pile of rocks contains a couple of iPods. You can sit among the rocks, put on headphones, and listen to a trilogy of desert songs by the great Bob Franke: “Walking in the Wilderness,” “Israelite” (“nobody suffers here another night”), and “Holy Ground” (“on holy ground you better not play no tourist”)[vii]. Or you may be swept into trance by Steve Reich’s “Desert Music.”
  • A woven basket with “manna” (fry bread), water trickling from a pile of rocks with cups for drinking, and a pillar of fire (Paschal Candle), each with accompanying biblical texts.
  • The fragrance of sage incense and the recorded sounds of desert birds and insects.
  • Large medieval images of Jesus confronting Satan, hanging above a small table where a small New Testament is opened to the Temptation story. Also on the table: a plate with a bread-shaped stone, and a chalice filled with sand. Another text asks, “Can God make a banquet in the wilderness?”[viii]
  • Nearby, a ladder holds referents to Mt. Sinai on every rung: a book of Sinai photographs, incense grains from St. Catherine’s monastery at the foot of Sinai, a collection of sayings by St. Nilus of Sinai, a reproduction of the Sinai monastery’s famous icon, “The Ladder of Divine Ascent,” and – at the top of the ladder – the Ten Commandments in Hebrew and English.
  • Finally, the Burning Bush, reached by following a winding path of stones past a “veil” with the single word, Absence, on the front. When you reach the other side of the veil, the single word is Presence. set above an altar with a large photograph of a burning bush (Richard Misrach’s “Desert Fire #81”), illumined by many candles.
"Burning Bush" - Richard Misrach's "Desert Fire #81" in "Via Negativa" worship installation

“Burning Bush” – Richard Misrach’s “Desert Fire #81” in “Via Negativa” worship installation

Of course, there is no substitute for doing the real desert in real time. I have never forgotten a solitary Lenten retreat years ago in California’s eastern Mojave – sleeping on sand dunes beneath the moon, listening to silence, trying (unsuccessfully) to pray the entire Psalter in one sitting in the cool of a remote cave. But you can’t become a desert father in a few days. My mind wandered. I failed to find the burning bush.

And yet my brief immersion in desert’s “no-where” lodged itself deep within me. The Via Negativa installation is an attempt to give it symbolic form. Like any liturgy, it compresses a universe of meaning into the space of an hour or two, providing mere glimpses and fragments. But perhaps – like any liturgy – it can plant a few seeds for God to cultivate in the fullness of time.

                                                                           

[i] David Jasper, The Sacred Desert: Religion, Literature, Art, and Culture (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2004) 181

[ii] Jacques Derrida, q. in Jasper, p. 161

[iii] Hosea 2:14

[iv] Bill Viola, Reasons for Knocking at an Empty House: Writings 1973-1994 (London: Thames & Hudson, 1995) 54

[v] “Ash Wednesday,” T.S. Eliot: Collected Poems 1909-1962 (London: Faber & Faber, 2002) 95

[vi] Edmond Jabés, q. in Jasper, p. 2

[vii] The first two songs are on Franke’s powerful Desert Questions album. “Holy Ground” is on In This Night.

[viii] Psalm 78:19