If this were the last night of your life, what would you do? On his last night, Jesus gathered at table with his friends.
Jesus loved tables. He spent a lot of time sitting at tables. At a table, Jesus ate and drank with sinners, so that you and I would know we are always welcome at God’s feast. At a table a woman became a teacher to the apostles when she anointed Jesus with oil. At a table Jesus presented a startling image of God as slave and servant of all, when he washed his disciples’ feet. At a table our Lord gave us, in bread and wine, the means of tasting his sweetness forever.
I think Jesus liked tables because they are places of intimacy. Everyone is close together— it’s a place to let your guard down. Jesus probably did more teaching quietly around a table than he did shouting from boats or mountaintops to vast multitudes.
And I don’t think Jesus just walked into a room and started telling people about God. I think he sat down with them, and learned their names, and listened to their stories. And after a while, they would open up to him, sharing their broken dreams and broken hearts, their longings and their demons. And it was there, responding to their particular stories, that he would bring God to them, casting out their demons, unbinding them with forgiveness, empowering them to stand up and walk through that open door into God’s story, proclaiming them—even the most prodigal sinner—the beloved children of God.
Tables also got Jesus into deep trouble. In the Temple of Jerusalem, he overturned the tables of the old paradigm, the tables of the smug and comfortable religionists who can’t see the fault lines running through their ecclesiastical constructions and their lifeless pieties. He overturned the tables where some are in and some are out, where some are welcome and some are not.
“This isn’t what God wants!” said the carpenter from Nazareth, and he made a new table, a table where all divisions and discriminations are put aside,
where enemies are embraced, where outcasts and fools are honored as our wisest teachers, where the abundant life of God’s future is as close as the food you see before you tonight.
The world was not ready to sit at such a table – the world didn’t even want to know there was such a table. So it stretched its maker upon another piece of wood, hoping to bury the dream before it could infect the general population.
But the table survived, and we sit round it tonight. How costly and precious it is! Gathered around Christ’s table, we will do simple things—wash feet, share a meal, tell stories.
And as we do, we will begin, as St. Augustine says, to say Amen to the mystery we have become.
Dionysius the Areopagite, a sixth-century Syrian mystic, made the classic case for theological modesty. We should not presume to say too much about God. When it comes to what he called the “Unutterable,” he said, words fail. An encounter with divine reality leaves us speechless.
“Reject all that belongs to the perceptible and intelligible … and lift yourself as far as you are able to the point of being united in unknowing with the One who is beyond all being and all knowledge.” [iii]
Dionysius’ insistence on divine ineffability was a subversive counterbalance to the theological project of the ancient ecumenical councils, which devoted intense intellectual energy to the pursuit of dogmatic precision. Words, phrases, even individual letters had been fiercely debated over the course of several centuries. With the stakes so high, no one wanted to get it wrong. But Dionysius’ caution about saying too much would have a lasting influence on both mystics and theologians from the Middle Ages to post-modernity.
Thomas Aquinas, whose exhaustive systematic theology, Summa Theologica, used 1.8 million words to speak of God, issued a striking caution in one of his shorter works: “as to the mode of signification [for God] goes, every name is defective.” [iv] A modern Catholic theologian, Karl Rahner, agreed, since transcendence “presents itself to us in the mode of withdrawal, of silence, of distance, of being always inexpressible, so that speaking of it, if it is to make sense, always requires listening to its silence.” [v] That kind of listening without making words is hard, when our heads are so full of ideas. But if we desire accuracy, we must try, as Jean-Luc Marion has said, “to think God without any conditions, not even that of Being.” [vi]
It’s not just that God is unknowable; language itself is chronically imprecise—“a raid on the inarticulate,” T. S. Eliot called it, “with shabby equipment always deteriorating.” [vii] But of the One who is “the Wholly Other, for whom we have no words, and whom all our poor symbols insult,” can we say anything at all? [viii]
Even Dionysius admitted the necessity of God-talk. We need to understand something about ultimate Reality if we are to be in relation with it. In Divine Names, Dionysius wrote at length about the attributes of God, and so have countless Christian thinkers before or since. While God is always beyond our conceptual reach, we still have religious experiences through which we learn something of who—and how—God is for us. Sometimes we speak in literal terms, as when we say that God loves us. God’s love may be more perfect than human love and mediated in a different way, but it’s love all the same.
Metaphors, on the other hand, use something familiar to tell us about the unfamiliar. God is not literally a shepherd, a shield, or shade from the heat, but God has been known to be like these things in some way. Those three are all biblical images, but every age provides new metaphors. A British youth minister told me that skateboarders use their experience of what they call “flow” as a kind of divine name. But metaphors are only provisional—“scaffoldings around invisible reality,” in Jerzy Peterkiewicz’s aptly metaphorical image, “liable to vanish” when pressed to become literal. [ix]
What can I say, my God, my life, my holy joy? Or what can anyone say who speaks of you?”
St. Augustine’s questions were on my mind when I composed an experimental “creed” for an alternative liturgy at our local Episcopal parish.[xi] The Nicene Creed, crafted by the fourth-century Council of Nicaea to be a concise summary of orthodox belief, is still recited in the Sunday rites of most liturgical churches. Its insertion into the liturgy 150 years after the Council resulted from a now-forgotten doctrinal quarrel, and some of today’s liturgical theologians question its continued use in the rite. [xii]
My own intent, however, was not to critique the Nicene Creed per se, but to explore God-talk in terms of the One and the Many, drawing upon something Thomas Aquinas said about the names of God:
“[We] see the necessity of giving to God many names. For, since we cannot know Him naturally except by arriving at Him from His effects, the names by which we signify His perfection must be diverse, just as the perfections belonging to things are found to be diverse. Were we able to understand the divine essence itself as it is and give to it the name that belongs to it, we would express it by only one name. This is promised to those who will see God through His essence: “In that day there shall be one Lord, and His name shall be one” (Zech. 14:9). [xiii]
I divided the assembly into three parts. Each droned the same Latin text, slowly, in 4 beats: Crèdo in ùnum Dè-ùm (“I believe in one God,” the opening words of the Nicene Creed). They sang on a single tone in unison, but in three harmonizing pitches, with a 2-beat silence between the repetitions. As they continued their droning ground, I both chanted and spoke a descant of divine names.
The people’s repeated line was the One; my recitation of diverse names was the Many. The division of parts was a reverse complementarity: many sang the One and one sang the Many. I drew the names from many sources—hymns, prayers, theologians, mystics, poets, and one filmmaker—absorbed into my own prayer and preaching over the years. I can’t remember exactly where all of the names came from. Some you will recognize. A few sprang from my own religious experience.
The torrent of words, coming and going so quickly, evoked multiple associations, perspectives and meanings without letting any single “name” linger long enough to permit an idolatrous fixation, as if it alone were the one most accurate or true. No sooner did a “name” appear than it was replaced by another—affirmation and negation in a perpetual dance, just the way Dionysius liked it. People told me later that they stopped trying to grasp individual words and simply sank into the flow, surrendering to the meditative state generated by their repetitive chanting and silent breathing.
If any liturgists and musicians out there want to try your own variations, please feel free. Trained singers might add more complex harmonies (think Arvo Pärt), and a speech choir could explore creative arrangements of the many names. And of course, you or your community might want to compile a fresh list of names from your own traditions and personal experiences. That this particular list is woefully incomplete is part of the point.
Credo in unum Deum …
Holy and eternal God, Beauty so ancient and so new, Source and sustainer of everything that is.
Author of life, mender of destinies, desire of every heart, the meaning of every story.
Mystery of the world, most deeply hidden and yet most near, fount of our being, inexhaustible and overflowing. Grace abounding.
Constant and just, wiser than despair, joyful Yes against all negation.
The great I am, beyond all knowing, yet called by many names:
Creator, Sustainer, Pardoner, Gift-giver, Goodness, Wisdom, Mercy, Truth, Faithfulness, Blessing, Alpha and Omega, Ruler of time and history, ineffable and untamable Spirit.
Presence. The depth in every moment.
Eloquent silence, dazzling darkness, blinding radiance, so far beyond us—and so deep within us, in whom we live and move and have our being.
Holy One: Thou—Abba!Thou—Amma! Love who loves us.
Our true and lasting home.
Jesus Christ, the Given One, eternally begotten, who by the power of the Holy Spirit became incarnate from the Virgin Mary: fully human and fully divine.
Word made flesh, to live and die as one of us, that we might see and know the self-diffusive love of God, and realize the fullness of our humanity.
As God’s icon, the face of love for us, Jesus renounced privilege and power, living without weapons or self-protection, giving himself away for the sake of others: servant and sufferer, healer and helper, Savior and friend!
Handed over to the enemies of life, Jesus died on the cross. But on the third day he rose again, breaking the power of death, opening the way for us to live in God forever.
Holy Spirit, Love’s consuming flame, the eager, wild wind of divine surprise:
Quickening power, creative energy, inner light, divine imagination, disturber of the peace, dearest freshness deep down things, the strong force of love, drawing the universe into communion.
The breath in every prayer, the longing in every heart.
Holy and undivided Trinity, your catholic and apostolic Church belongs to you alone. We give thanks for the renewing power of our baptism, making us Christ’s own forever—forgiven and free.
Grant us to live always in the light of resurrection, overflowing with love and steadfast in hope.
May the faith we confess in this assembly be visible in the lives we lead and the choices we make.
Let all the people say: Amen!
Photographs by the author. The view of the sky through the arch of the south porch baldaquin of the Cathedral Basilica of St. Cecilia in Albi, France, is an image for the limits of theological speech: the stairs of language take us upward, but only so far. After that: a wordless sky. You can read about the “Via Negativa” installation here. Arne Pihl’s “Gentle” sculpture (2014-15) was part of an installation in a razed lot in Seattle, responding to questions about the future of a changing neighborhood.
[i] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica 1a.13.1. Thomas quotes from Dionysius to support this statement.
[ii] Jacques Derrida cited in The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Religion, ed. William J. Wainwright (Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 489.
[iii] Dionysius the Areopagite, Mystical Theology 1.1, cited in Olivier Clément, The Roots of Christian Mysticism (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 1993), 247. The anonymous mystic’s name is a pseudonym taken from Acts 17:34 to suggest apostolic authority.
[iv] Thomas Aquinas, Summa contra Gentiles 30.3. Italics mine.
[v] Karl Rahner, S. J., Foundations of Christian Faith (1983), p. 64, cited in Thomas M. Kelly, Theology at the Void: The Retrieval of Experience (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 2002), 130.
[vi] Jean-Luc Marion, God Without Being (1991), p. 45, cited in The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Religion, 484.
[vii] T. S. Eliot, “East Coker,” in Four Quartets.
[viii] Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism: The Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness (Oxford: Oneworld Publications 1999/2008, orig. published 1911), 337.
[ix] Jerzy Peterkiewicz, The Other Side of Silence: The Poet at the Limits of Language (London: Oxford University Press, 1970), 45.
[x] St. Augustine, Confessions 1.4. The full passage has a wonderful list of divine names: Summe, optime, potentissime, omnipotentissime, misericordissime et justissime, secretissime et presentissime, pulcherrime et fortissime; stabilis et incomprehensibilis; immutabilis, mutans omnia. Numquam novis, nunquam vetus, … Semper agens, semper quietus; colligens et non egens: portans et implens et protogens; creans et nutrigens et perficiens: quaerens cum nihil desit tibi … Quid dicimus, Deus meus, vita mea, dulcedo mea sacnta? Aut quid dicit aliquis, cum de te dicit? (“Highest, best, most potent, most omnipotent [transcendent], most merciful and most just, most deeply hidden and yet most near, fairest, yet strongest, steadfast, yet ungraspable, unchangeable, yet changing all things; never new, yet never old.… ever busy, yet ever at rest; gathering yet needing not; bearing, filling, guarding; creating, nourishing, and protecting; seeking though you have no wants … What can I say, my God, my life, my holy joy? Or what can any say who speaks of you?”).
[xi] St. Barnabas Episcopal Church, Bainbridge Island, WA.
[xii] In his 1995 commentary on the liturgy at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco, Richard Fabian writes that Peter the Fuller, Patriarch of Antioch, whose Monophysite party was defeated at the Council of Chalcedon (451), inserted the creed into the cathedral liturgy to show his loyalty to the earlier Council of Nicaea (325). Though he was soon deposed, the creed remained, “a massive monument to doctrinal quarrels ever since.” Its inclusion was resisted in the western church, especially in England, but slipped into English worship in the 15th century, and incorporated into the Book of Common Prayer in the 16th. Today, some question its lack of inclusive language as well as the ancient Greek terminology whose original meanings are obscure to many. And some liturgists wonder about its effect on the natural flow of the rite. (Worship at St. Gregory’s, All Saints Company, 25-26).
[xiii]Summa contra Gentiles, 31.4. As to just how many names there are, I’ve always liked the number from Arthur C. Clarke’s short story, “The Nine Billion Names of God.”
My sister Martha Stevens is a marvelous storyteller. It was her profession for a long time, as she traveled far and wide to hold listeners spellbound with tales from many centuries and cultures. In the late 1980s, inspired by her work, I began to foster retellings of biblical narratives at the Easter Vigil—Creation, Flood, the Binding of Isaac, the Red Sea and the Valley of Dry Bones. Over the years, these Vigil retellings expanded to include theater and multimedia as well as individual storytellers.
Although I have curated creative Easter Vigils with story teams in a wide variety of parishes over the years, I began with an 8-year stretch at Christ Church, an Anglo-Catholic parish in Ontario, California. When I introduced the storytelling component in 1988, the church already had a famously distinctive practice for welcoming resurrection.
While a joyful noise is customary in most churches after the first shouts of “Christ is risen,” this usually means the ringing of bells and the organ’s roar. But to these were added not only dozens of wind chimes placed within the reach of every worshipper, but the boom and blaze of fireworks. After his first experience of the Christ Church Vigil in 1989, visitor David Trowbridge wrote down his impressions. His description of the fireworks reflects the assembly’s collective astonishment in that moment:
“Well, at this point, everybody for at least three miles in every direction who wasn’t awake woke up and knew that it was Easter again at Christ Church. There was a shattering explosion from the courtyard [visible through the nave’s glass wall] as the first of at least 10,000 LARGE firecrackers went off. Then the pinwheels, then the Roman candles, and then the 10-foot high cross in red fireworks with blue fireworks (representing the water of baptism) underneath. Everybody started laughing and exclaiming and jumping up and down, but nobody could hear anything.
“The contrast between the mystical beauty of the Kyrie just before and the almost orgiastic release of the fireworks was exactly right—nothing I have ever experienced has so truly expressed the joy and release that Christians should feel in celebrating the mystery of the empty tomb. We tend to take the story for granted, but at Christ Church, the noise and the excitement made it all new again, and we all felt, for a few minutes, a little of the unbelieving excitement that the disciples must have felt that first Easter Day, when they found that He, first of all [human beings], had conquered death.”[i]
The previous year, I had approached the church’s longtime rector, Jon Hart Olson,[ii] about adding storytelling to the Easter Vigil. Jon, a brilliant theologian, exquisite liturgist, and a generous encourager of my own priestly imagination, welcomed the chance to offer fresh versions of the old stories. The people of Christ Church embraced the idea as well, and it became part of their annual tradition. When I had a chance to revisit their Vigil 20 years after leaving the parish, I was delighted to see the creativity continuing, as Dry Bones came to life in the form of two break dancers in skeleton suits. As they gyrated beneath a blacklight, all we could see in the dark was their dancing bones.[iii]
In his account of the 1989 Vigil, Trowbridge found the storytelling as compelling as the fireworks:
“The priest who told the story of Noah and the Ark was especially entertaining. At one point, describing the animals boarding the ark two-by-two, he named about 100 animals in alphabetical order … He described how cranky and bored everyone got on the Ark, and how Noah organized singalongs for the animals. At this point he got everyone making their favorite animal noises all together. Pandemonium! I was screaming like a chimpanzee, which seemed to provoke the rector, who was sitting nearby, into a fit of laughter. At the end of the reading, the [storytelling] priest unfurled a long cloth rainbow across the room …
“After the [fireworks], the Eucharist proceeded as usual, or so we thought, but there was one more surprise in store for us. At festal Eucharists, it is customary to read the Gospel lesson with much ceremony. The Bible is carried from the altar, the deacon who is to read it is blessed by the priest, it’s carried out into the midst of the congregation with candles and incense … and so it was here. Then, as is customary, the deacon lifted up the Bible and intoned, ‘The Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, according to Luke,’ and we all responded, ‘Glory to You, Lord Christ.’
“And the back door of the church swung open with a loud crash, and a disheveled woman in a purple sweater and black pants rushed in! She shouted, ‘Sit down, all of you,’ and pushed her way to the front, rudely shouldering aside the deacon with the Bible. ‘Sit down! I’ve got something important to say.’
“At this point, I’m sure many people (I know I was) were thinking that one of Ontario’s street people had crashed the service. After a long moment of embarrassment and that ‘what should I do? … should I do anything?’ feeling, the woman identified herself. It was Mary Magdalene, who told us, in the vernacular, instead of in the elevated style of the Bible, what happened when she went to the tomb that morning to prepare Jesus’ body for burial. What a way to hear the Gospel! It was like hearing it for the first time.”
I do wish there were more storytelling in church. There’s nothing wrong with a well-read passage of canonical text—I’m quite fond of a good reading by a practiced and thoughtful voice—but sometimes a telling can reach places which a reading cannot. Instead of a reader as a passive, transparent window for a sacred text to pass through without inflection or distortion, a teller embodies the text in breath, intonation, gesture and movement, making it alive and present and urgent in the moment of its speaking. A story told rather than read has a unique kind of authority, coming from the heart instead of a book. God is not ink. God is breath.
Not everyone is prepared for the energy—and occasional lack of decorum—of good storytelling in church. But many find it engaging, even revelatory. Dennis Dewey,[iv] a brilliant storyteller, is careful to deflect the inevitable praise evoked by his creative delivery of Bible stories: “You make the Bible come alive!” people tell him. “No,” he says. “The Bible already is alive. I just try not to kill it.”
At this year’s Easter Vigil, pandemic protocols were still in place, so we were streaming the liturgy. For the Flood story, I solicited participation by asking parishioners to send me videos of themselves entering the ark (their front door) and staring out the ark’s portholes (their front window). Since we have all been on our separate arks for the past year, I wanted to acknowledge the challenge of our collective pandemic experience, while affirming our enduring faith in the rainbow promise. We’re in the story, and the story is in us.
I added voice-over to the submitted clips, and inserted a segment from a video of my Vigil stories, The Electronic Campfire: New Storytelling from Scripture (1991), made in collaboration with the amazing storyteller Angela Lloyd.[v] I hope you enjoy this short video, “The Flood and the Ark.” Even more, I hope you will be inspired to explore storytelling—and storylistening—within your own faith community.
[i] David Trowbridge, unpublished manuscript (April 1989). David’s wife Nancy sent me this writeup at the time, encouraging me to share it “here and there if you wish.” It only took me 32 years to do so. My memories from several decades of creative Easter Vigils tend to conflate and become less true as memory simplifies and smooths out the details, so I am happy to possess this vivid firsthand impression from an attentive observer having the Christ Church Vigil experience for the first time.
[ii] The Rev. Jon Olson preached at my ordinations to the Diaconate and the Priesthood, and taught me so much about liturgy and spirituality. He was the kind of friend who kept you up well past midnight with luminous (and hilarious) conversations. I cast him as Lazarus in my 1970s film The Investigation, which explores the Jesus story in a modern setting. I will always be grateful that Jon gave this itinerant priest an abiding place of welcome in the unique community he served at Christ Church.
[iii] The break dancers were young men, part of the parish family, who danced professionally at Disneyland. They raced to the church after work to perform Dry Bones (those Vigils started at 9 p.m. and went past midnight). The teller of the story spoke, unseen, from the balcony at the back of the church, while the skeletons danced before the altar.
[v]The Electronic Campfire, not currently available on disc, may be seen here: https://youtu.be/sDDdSKFSWoE Angela Lloyd is not in the Flood story, but is featured in most of the others. Angela took part in most of my Christ Church Vigils. She is not to be missed (“a combination of Maria von Trapp, Mary Poppins, and Tinkerbell”—Donald Davis). For her website: https://www.angelalloyd.com
All of our hearts ask the night this question: Am I safe and am I loved?
— Brother David Steindl-Rast & Sharon Lebell, Music of Silence
Guide us waking, O Lord, and guard us sleeping; that awake we may watch with Christ, and asleep we may rest in peace.
— Compline Antiphon for the Nunc Dimittis
In The Benedictine Gift to Music, Katharine Le Mée links the musical octave to the progressive sequence of canonical hours. Do is the starting point (Lauds). Re and Mi launch us into the energetic activity of the morning (Prime/Terce). Fa, when only a tentative half-step is taken, is a moment of indecision or uncertainty about the meaning and the outcome of our journey (Sext). Sol, “a bright, triumphant note,” signals our recommitment to the day’s work, wherever it may lead (None). La continues onward, but it is more subdued, accepting a sense of loss as we let go of what is behind us (Vespers). Si is charged with an unsustainable tension, resolved only by our surrender to the resting place of Do (Compline).
“The key to the completion of the octave,” says Le Mée, “is our willingness to give up any personal desire to know exactly what should happen and our claim to and control of the results. The last step, therefore, is one of surrender, the point of second awakening, where synthesis and integration take place.”[i]
Before you go to bed tonight, try singing the octave syllables, ascending slowly and deliberately from Do to Do, visualizing the progress of the day in those seven steps. Notice particularly the relaxing of tension as you make the final half-step. Just so does Compline complete[ii] the circle of the hours, inviting us to cease our strivings and rest in the arms of grace. “Entering the fullness of night, we return from song back into the silence.” [iii]
Designed for tired bodies, the Compline rite is short and to the point. It begins with the most succinct of bedtime prayers: The Lord Almighty grant us a peaceful night and a perfect end. The iambic rhythm of its three last words (two pairs of syllables with the stress on the second of each) replicates in sound the sense of an ending: a-per-fect-end. It’s like a gymnast sticking a landing—emphatic and conclusive. And so it should be, since “a perfect end” expresses multiple levels of cessation: the end of the day, the end of life, and the end of time.
Of course, when Christians say “the end,” we are speaking about more than termination. We are speaking about purpose. What is the purpose of a day, or a life? What is the meaning of time and history? We don’t always know exactly where a path leads until we reach its end; it is only at the end that the journey’s meaning is fully revealed. Still, we get hints and glimpses of our ultimate future—our “perfect end”—along the way, so that we might, with God’s grace, proceed in hope rather than dread.
The connection between sleep and death is an ancient and enduring one. When someone dies, we pray for “the repose of the soul,” that the deceased may “rest in peace.” The two states share an outward resemblance, and a subjective one as well. When we go to sleep, our eyes close, and the conscious mind becomes “dead to the world.” From the twelfth to the seventeenth centuries, a recumbent figure was a common feature on European tombs. When stone sepulchers went out of fashion, the corpse itself was arranged to imitate the sculpted sleepers of the old tombs: lying peacefully on its back, with hands joined or crossed.[iv]
Every sleep is a practice in letting go, a rehearsal for the inevitable dispossession of death. You can’t take it with you. What’s done is done. Surrender control. Plans, projects, worries, hopes—let it all go. Exit the visible world and sink into the abyss of the dark unknown. It’s rather amazing that most of us do this routinely every night. But our mortal bodies don’t really give us a choice. Whether at the end of the day or the end of our life, surrender is how the game is played.
Surrender is best done willingly. If we believe there is something beyond oblivion, we can lie down in peace. Under most circumstances, we all believe in tomorrow morning as a matter of course. We usually do it without thinking. We go to sleep … we wake up … life goes on. But when we meet the hour of our death, can we still trust in the morning after?
In their reflections on the canonical hours, David Steindl-Rast and Sharon Lebell express the existential mixture of anxiety and faith faced by the thoughtful soul in the Compline experience:
Night is at once threat and grace: threat, because when night falls, we stand at the edge of chaos – the neat little world that we have created for ourselves throughout the day now threatens to fall back into chaos; but grace also, because the protection, the divine nearness to which we have become accustomed through the chants and prayers throughout the day, will not abandon us.[v]
We should “keep death daily before our eyes,” says the Rule of St. Benedict.[vi] Only so can we maintain clarity and perspective about our existential situation. If you forget death, you won’t know who you are or where you stand. We are creatures who will die; pretending otherwise will give us less life, not more. As Teresa of Avila reminds us, “Don’t be troubled. Everything passes, but God stays. One who has God lacks nothing.” [vii]
Mark Barrett, O.S.B., tells of a fellow monk serving as headmaster of a posh British school. At a gathering of parents and donors, he told them that the school “prepared its students not for Oxbridge, the City or the Guards, but for death.” Barrett doesn’t report the speech’s effect on enrollment. [viii]
In my essay on Vespers, I wrote about practicing the Examen, a prayerful review at the close of day. “From the perspective of the end, we can look back on the story of the day as a whole: How did it go, for good or ill? … Where did God meet us—and did we notice? … When did we remember—or forget—to be our truest selves? … And, most importantly, did we say yes to Love?” The Examen may also be done at Compline (which includes a brief confession), though on the threshold of sleep any interrogation should be brief. The hour is made for letting go, even of the critical work of mending the soul. As Elizabeth Yates puts it in her Book of Hours:
This is no time to dwell upon the disturbing, the unattained, the imperfect. To do so would be to find sleep elusive … By an act of will, that which may have marred the day must be given over to God to enable thinking to be anchored fast in that which is good. Rest will come then, and with it the restoration that is sleep.[ix]
Lord, it is night. The night is for stillness. Let us be still in the presence of God. It is night after a long day. What has been done has been done; What has not been done has not been done; let it be.
— Night Prayer, A New Zealand Prayer Book
Compline is grounded in deep trust. Entering the darkness, we renounce our fear. The Psalms of Compline tune our awareness to the protective Presence which will carry us through the night:
O God, make speed to save us. O Lord, make haste to help us. (70:1)
Keep me as the apple of your eye; hide me under the shadow of your wings. (17:8)
I lie down in peace; at once I fall asleep; for only you, Lord, make me dwell in safety. (4:8)
Into your hands I commend my spirit, for you have redeemed me, O Lord, O God of truth. (31:5)
These are images of profound sweetness, sinking us into the embrace of the Divine Beloved. Every night, including our last, we “fall asleep in Christ.” But the act of complete surrender to the Divine Other is not lightly done. Jesus spent his last breath commending his spirit to the Father (Luke 23:46), so when we ourselves say the same words we are connecting to something far deeper than a good night’s sleep. The sacred words commit us to the Paschal Mystery of dying and rising. What we have been will be exchanged for what we must be. It is a costly Way, but we never walk alone—or entirely in the dark. Come what may, we remain in the protective shelter of God’s love. This is the central meaning of Compline.
Our ancient night prayers, composed centuries before electricity, strike matches of faith in the endless black: Be our light in the darkness, O Lord, and in your great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night … protect us through the hours of this night … illumine this night with your celestial brightness … preserve us in peace, and let your blessing be upon us always.
These are beautiful and consoling prayers on the verge of sleep. However, at the end of any given day, not everyone is having a peaceful night and a perfect end. There are many “who work, or watch, or weep this night.” Our own day is not truly complete until we gather them also into the blessing way. A movingly earnest prayer, attributed to St. Augustine, does this work by putting emphatic stresses on a series of beseeching verbs:
Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake. Amen.
Compline draws to a close with the Nunc Dimittis, Simeon’s valedictory canticle from Luke’s gospel. The long and varied symphony of the canonical hours resolves into a peaceful diminuendo: with this quiet song of surrender, the day’s music fades away into the Great Silence.
Lord, now let your servant depart in peace as you have promised, for these eyes of mine have seen the Savior …
Old Simeon has waited all his life for the moment when a lifetime of longing would find its perfect end. When he sees the infant Jesus brought to the Temple, he recognizes the child as the salvation of the world, “a Light to enlighten the nations, and the glory of God’s people Israel.” In this revelatory moment, to which all his years have led, he makes his own personal Compline. Now his “day” is over. His story is complete. He does not cling to the moment, for it is gift, not possession. He knows how to walk away and let go.[x]
Since the fourth century, the Song of Simeon has been sung by countless voices at the close of day. Its calm, accepting spirit supplies a perfect end to our daily pilgrimage from Vigils to Compline. The canticle also prepares us for the hour of our death, teaching us to end our days with gratitude and trust, that we may, at the last, depart in peace.
In his deeply informed and formative book on Compline, Prayer as Night Falls,[xi] Kenneth V. Peterson balances the “little death” of Compline and sleep with the divine promise of an ultimate awakening. A longtime member of the celebrated Compline Choir at Seattle’s St. Mark’s Cathedral, Peterson describes a choir pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral in the year 2000. After singing Compline with a congregation in the great medieval church, the choir descended in procession to the crypt. There, in the company of sleeping saints, they sang a text by John Donne, conveying in the gloom a foretaste of resurrection morning:
Bring us, O Lord God, at our last awakening Into the house and gate of heaven, To enter that gate and dwell in that house, Where there shall be no darkness nor dazzling, But one equal light; No noise nor silence, but one equal music; No fears nor hopes, but one equal possession; No ends nor beginnings, but one equal eternity; In the habitation of thy glory and dominion, World without end. Amen.
Donne’s text, from a sermon in 1628, was adapted by Eric Milner-White (1884-1964). The music was composed by Peter Hallock, founder of the Compline Choir, in 1991. You can listen to it here. For more on Compline (including a directory of Compline services in North America, and links to lovely musical examples), visit Kenneth Peterson’s rewarding websites:
[vii] The 16th-century saint, who knew her share of turbulence, said this in a famous poem, “Nada te turbe,” which has been set to a Taize chant in both Spanish and English. Thirty years ago I sang it with 2000 pilgrims in the candlelit Taize church, experiencing deep calm as a lightning storm raged outside. “Nothing can trouble, nothing can frighten …”
[viii] Mark Barrett, O.S.B., Crossing: Reclaiming the Landscape of Our Lives (New York: Morehouse Publishing, 2002), 106.
[ix] Elizabeth Yates, A Book of Hours (Noroton, CT: Vineyard Books, 1976), 49.
[x] Barrett’s commentary on the Nunc Dimittis cites a poem by Cecil Day Lewis about “his experience as a parent of ‘walking away’ from his son on the boy’s first day of school.” Lewis says, “… selfhood begins with a walking away, / And love is proved in the letting go.” (Crossing, 108)
[xi] Kenneth V. Peterson, Prayer as Night Falls: Experiencing Compline (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2013). Peterson’s thoughtful exploration of the history and meaning of Compline is, as Phyllis Tickle has said, “a totally satisfying experience for mind and soul.” And the book’s website, cited above, provides beautiful musical examples.
Row on, row on, another day May shine with brighter light. Ply, ply the oars, and pull away, There’s dawn beyond the night.
–– Traditional sea shanty
At the Easter Vigil, we light a fire in the dark and tell our sacred stories. One of them is the saga of the Flood from the Book of Genesis. Tonight, as we stream the Vigil liturgy from our living room for our local parish, this is how it wants to be told.
When we wonder about things, we tell stories. One of our oldest stories describes a great flood that sweeps away everything in the world until there is nothing left but an endless sea. Some people say it’s a story about God getting fed up with the world’s violence and greed and wanting to start over. Others say the story is about everything being thrown out of balance by human sin––the harmonies break down, and God’s beautiful creation is swallowed up by chaos.
But tonight, when a new kind of flood is sweeping across the earth, washing away the world we know, maybe the story needs to be about the ark. We’re all in this boat together, hoping and praying we can survive the raging sea until the storms are over and we can anchor in some safe and peaceful harbor.
That’s where we are now, in the middle of the story––cooped up in this ark with a bad case of cabin fever, wondering if the flood is ever going to subside so things can get back to normal. It’s not easy, being stuck in this boat. It’s strange and stressful for us. Meanwhile, the sea gets rougher, the storms wilder.
It’s like that Psalm we say in Holy Week:
Save me, O God! The waters have risen up to my neck.
I am sinking in a deep mire. The waves wash over me.
Do not let the flood swallow me up! (Psalm 69)
That’s how it feels, here in the middle of the story, in the middle of the flood. We have our fears. We have our doubts. We have our losses. And frankly, some of us are getting sick and tired of this stupid ark. Been in the storm so long, Lord! How long? Too long.
But this isn’t where the story ends, with us lost at sea, sinking into oblivion. The One who made us will not forget us. The One who loves us will not forsake us. Already, God is imagining a future for us. Maybe it will be something better.
God never said we won’t be afflicted.
God never said we won’t be disquieted.
God did say we shall not be overcome.
When through the deep waters I call thee to go,
The rivers of sorrow shall not thee overflow,
For I will be with thee, thy troubles to bless,
And sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.
O Key of David, you open, and none can shut; you shut, and none can open.
Come, lead us out of the prisons that oppress body, mind and soul; welcome us into the open space of possibility; let us breathe again.
This antiphon begins, O Clavis David (“O key of David). The Latin word for “key” was a favorite pun among medieval preachers. Clavis means “key,” but clavus means “nail.” The key that opens the door for us is the nail of Calvary, where Christ died to conquer death and sin.
Jesus, and the divine way of self-diffusive love which he embodied, is the key that unlocks every human prison, from the metal cages on our southern border to the oppressive interior confines of fear, guilt, sin, despair.
Has you ever been in some kind of prison? Do you remember what you felt when you found the key? What was it like when the door swung open and you walked through it? Perhaps some who read this are still waiting for this key.
O Clavis, come and lead those who sit in darkness, who live in the shadow of death––or grief, or fear, or addiction. Deliver us all into the place of light and joy and freedom.
Be the key that sets us free. Open the door and welcome us home.
O Root of Jesse, coming to flower in Jesus, who in turn bears fruit in all who are grafted into the royal line of God’s family.
Come: let us never be severed from the roots and branches that nourish us in every moment.
The “Tree of Jesse,” a frequent motif in Christian art since the 11th century, is Jesus’ family tree, linking him to the Davidic line (Jesse of Bethlehem was David’s father). The genealogies of Jesus in Matthew and Luke span 28 and 43 generations respectively, but the number of figures shown on the tree is usually far less due to spatial constraints.
The prophet Isaiah wrote, “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots” (Isaiah 11:1), and most artists have provided a literal version of that image. The Tree of Jesse thus affirms Jesus’ pedigree as the heir of divine promises given to David, as well as Abraham and others before him.
But the larger meaning of the root and branch image is that Jesus did not come out of nowhere, disconnected from the long course of human history. He was rooted in an ongoing spiritual evolution of humanity since the dawn of consciousness. His appearance, the product of nature and culture as instruments of the Holy Spirit, was the first flowering of creation’s immense journey toward union with its Creator.
The New Testament says that Jesus is “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2). In the 20th century, the Jesuit Teilhard de Chardin expressed this developmental image in terms of a cosmic evolution: “the presence of something greater than ourselves moving forward within us and in our midst.” We are all destined to be blossoms and fruit on the Jesse Tree.
If we are all truly grafted into the royal line of God’s family, how shall we then live––and grow––accordingly? Let us never be severed from the roots and branches that nourish us in every moment.
This is the third of seven in a daily series on the O Antiphons for the last week of Advent.
O Adonai, ruler of time and history, manifestation of divine dominion to your chosen people, may your presence be our burning bush.
Come: bring justice to the poor, food to the hungry, shelter to the homeless protection to the vulnerable, freedom to the prisoner.
For the ancient Jews, the divine name revealed to Moses at the burning bush was too holy to be spoken, so they substituted the word Adonai (“my Lord”) when addressing God in their worship. This became Kyrios in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures. We still pray Kyrie eleison (“Lord have mercy”) in Christian ritual.
Will Campbell, the Baptist preacher who wrote The Cotton Patch Gospels, once asked, “What’s the biggest lie told in America?” The answer he gave was: “Jesus is Lord.” What would our lives––and our neighborhoods, our nation, our economy, our politics––look like if we really believed that the Lord of love and justice, the divine defender of the poor and vulnerable, is in fact the ultimate ruler of time and history?
Giovanni Bellini, The Presentation in the Temple (1459)
Today is Candlemas, the 40thday after the Nativity. Its liturgical origins are obscure, but its blazing processions of candles in the winter dark not only made a glorious end to the extended Christmas celebrations of less hurried times, it also provided a brilliant preview of the resurrection fires of the Easter Vigil. Although it still may allow, for a few liturgically-minded procrastinators, a generous extension of the deadline for boxing up our holiday decorations, Candlemas is rarely observed in American homes and churches. Our minds are fixed on groundhogs and football, not the Presentation of our Lord in the Temple.
Still, I would gladly join a candlelight procession to a holy place on this night, to beseech the Light of the World “to pour into the hearts of your faithful people the brilliance of your eternal splendor, that we, who by these kindling flames light up this temple to your glory, may have the darkness of our souls dispelled.”
In the Eastern churches, Candlemas is called “The Meeting,” highlighting the moment when two old souls, Simeon and Anna, met the One for whom they had waited all their lives. Simeon had been told “by the Holy Spirit” that he would not see death before the coming of the Messiah. Every time he went to the Temple, he wondered, “Could this be the Promised Day?” Whatever he may have imagined––the House of God filled with smoke and shining angels, a mighty king arriving in noisy triumph––the long-expected day arrived like any other, without the slightest fanfare.
Simeon liked to go to the Temple early, when it was still blissfully quiet and uncrowded. He began his prayers as usual, but his attention wandered when the entrance of a young couple and their baby caught his eye. He could tell they were country people, the way they looked with such amazement at the vast interior. As they passed by him, he smiled kindly, then closed his eyes to resume his prayers.
But everything within him shouted, “Look! This is the time. Don’t miss it.” As soon as he opened his eyes again, he knew. He didn’t know how, but he knew. That child, cradled in the arms of a peasant girl, was the One!
“Please,” he said. “Please wait!” The couple stopped and turned to face him. Simeon held out his arms, and the girl, as though they had both rehearsed it a hundred times, handed him the baby without the least hesitation. And gazing into those infant eyes, seeing there the future of God’s hopes for all the world, Simeon began to murmur the prayer which the faithful have sung ever since at close of day:
Lord, now at last you release your servant
to depart in peace,
for my eyes have seen the Savior,
just as you have promised.
Then Anna, the old prophetess who had camped out in the Temple for many years, stepped out of the shadows to add her own confirming praises. Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
The Nunc Dimittis of these two old saints, near the end of their lives, being granted the grace of completion on that Temple morning, is beautifully echoed in a passage from Wendell Berry’s novel, Jayber Crow:
I am an old man now and oftentimes I whisper to myself. I have heard myself whispering things that I didn’t know I had ever thought. “Forty years” or “Fifty years” or “Sixty years,” I hear myself whispering. My life lengthens. History grows shorter…
I whisper over to myself the way of loss, the names of the dead. One by one, we lose our loved ones, our friends, our powers of work and pleasure, our landmarks, the days of our allotted time. One by one, the way we lose them, they return to us and are treasured up in our hearts. Grief affirms them, preserves them, sets the cost. Finally a man stands up alone, scoured and charred like a burnt tree, having lost everything and (at the cost only of its loss) found everything, and is ready to go. Now I am ready.
It is a custom at Candlemas to bless the candles for the rest of the year. In 2003, I happened to be in London’s Cathedral of St. Paul for a similar rite, when members of the Wax Chandlers Livery Company, in a practice dating back to the fifteenth century, brought long candles to be blessed for their service on the high altar.
The preacher on that occasion, Canon Martin Warner, took comfort in the fact that when his own brief candle should come to an end, another candle, the Paschal Candle of Easter, would burn over his coffin, declaring by its resurrection light that each of us is but wax “being consumed by the incredible flame of love that is God’s own self, melted not into oblivion but into the freedom of attaining our perfection and deepest longings.”
A candle is a temporal thing, fulfilling its function of radiance and warmth at the cost of its own vanishing. Even so, the fire that consumes it bears Love’s name, and does Love’s work. Whatever is offered up shall receive its true being. Whatever is lost shall be found anew.
Annunciation (detail), Workshop of Rogier van der Weyden, c. 1440.
I’ve written more about Advent than any other season of the Christian year. It’s like a Mahler symphony, densely packed with vivid contrasts, complex themes, cosmic grandeur, dark abysses and sublime radiance. It begins with the cymbal crash of an exploding world, and concludes with the tender adagio of a baby’s first breaths. Advent haunts our complacency, stirs our longing, and lights a brave candle in the dark.
My ten previous Advent posts, divided into the categories of theology, worship and practice, can be linked directly from last year’s summary compilation, “How long? Not long!––The Advent Collection.” Whether you love the season as I do, or are wondering what it’s all about, I hope you will find in those ten posts some words to connect with your own journey toward the dawn.
Meanwhile, here is something new: a set of intercessions I composed for this year’s Advent liturgies at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church on Bainbridge Island, the local parish where my wife Karen Haig is the rector. You may recognize specific borrowings from tradition, such as the ancient O Antiphons or the Book of Common Prayer, but it all comes from a lifetime of Advents, soaking up the language and embracing the themes of this transformative season.
I offer these prayers for both liturgical and private use. And if they prompt you to explore your own devotional language of longing and hope, so much the better.
Intercessory Prayers for Advent:
God of many names, God beyond all names; the beginning and the end of every story, the meaning of every life; infinite Mystery both hidden and revealed:
Hear us when we pray to You.
Blessed are You who join us together in the communion of Christ’s Body. Renew and energize your holy Church, in this parish and throughout the world, that we may be a resurrection people, manifesting your steadfast love in our common life of praise and service.
Hear us when we pray to You.
O perfect Wisdom, direct and rule the hearts of the leaders and shapers of society, raise up prophets of justice and peace, and empower your people for the holy vocation of repairing the world. May we entrust all our labors to the work of Providence.
Hear us when we pray to You.
O Deliverer, You unlock every door and make a way where there is no way. Set free all who are afflicted or distressed in body, mind or spirit. Resurrect their hope, grant them peace and refreshment, and restore their joy.
Hear us when we pray to You.
O compassionate One, hold us in your mercy: heal the sick, mend the broken, protect the vulnerable, shelter the refugee, strengthen the weary, rescue the lost, and give courage to all who struggle.
Hear us when we pray to You.
O Morning Star, bright splendor of the light eternal, illumining all things with your radiance: Come, enlighten all who sit in darkness, and those who dwell in the shadow of violence and death. Grant us your peace, and teach us to live in the dawn of your unfailing promise.
Hear us when we pray to you.
O Lover of souls, when we wander far away, lead us back to You; when we refuse your embrace, do not give up on us; when we forget You, do not forget us.
Hear us when we pray to You.
O Desire of every heart, the answer to every longing: You are the strong force that draws us into the mystery of love divine. Forgive us those things which distract and delay us, and lead us ever deeper into the Way, the Truth and the Life.
Hear us when we pray to You.
God who has come, God who does come, God who is yet to come: Make us an Advent people, ready and alert to welcome and receive You in the stranger’s face, the loving act, the moment of grace, the presence of healing, the birth of possibility, the gift of wonder. Let every heart prepare You room.
Hear us when we pray to You.
O Emmanuel, God-with-us, You show us the face of divinity and reveal the fullness of our humanity. Come: renew your creation, restore us all in Christ, and enable us to become who we are, your faithful and loving people. We pray in the name of Jesus. Amen.