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.

O Radix Jesse (Dec. 19)

Gil de Siloé, Tree of Jesse (detail) on the altar retablo in the Chapel of St. Anne, Burgos Cathedral, Spain (c. 1498). The family tree of Jesus grows from the body of King David’s father.

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 Sapientia (Dec. 17)

One of the joys of Advent’s final days is the praying of the O Antiphons, seven eloquent prayers based on biblical images suggesting attributes of the divine. Liturgically, they begin and end the Magnificat at Vespers from December 17th to December 23rd, but they are also a rich resource for personal prayer as Christmas draws near. Each antiphon is both a greeting and a supplication, awakening our attention and shaping our intention.

Over the next seven evenings, I will post a brief reflection on the Antiphon for the coming day.
As you journey to Bethlehem, may you walk in beauty.

Henri Matisse, Dance (1909-1910).

O Sophia,
you are the truth of harmonious form,
the pattern of existence, the shapeliness of love.

Come: illumine us, enable us, empower us
to live in your Wisdom, your Torah, your Way.

The life of faith is not an invention of our own. Rather, we are invented by the Creator, invented by Love. There is a pattern that preexists us, a pattern born of divine love and woven into the structure of the universe. Sophia (wisdom), Torah (teaching), and Tao (principle) are ancient words for this pattern. 

Holy Wisdom is like a dance. If we are attentive to the music, and surrender ourselves to its rhythms, we will be caught up in the divine choreography. It is what we were made for. If we fight the pattern, we get out of step, and our bodies, our souls, and our societies become awkward and clumsy. 

But do not be discouraged. Sophia is a patient and gentle teacher. Call upon her, and she will guide your feet into the way of peace. 

Blessed are those who walk in the Way (Camino de Santiago, May 2014).

“Flie with angels, fall with dust” –– Appreciating George Herbert

 

Angel guiding Joshua (detail, c. 1500), St. Mary’s, Fairford, Gloucestershire, UK (Photo by Jim Friedrich)

The seventeenth was almost the last century to succeed in looking within without falling in head first and being submerged––probably because its thinkers had as a governing conception not reality conceived as within the individual consciousness, but, rather, the possibility of inner harmony with reality.

–– Rosemund Tuve [i]

When we find words of the right sort to ask about the divine––words like ‘delight’, ‘enjoy’, ‘pleasure’, and persevere’––God can do nothing better than answer us in our own vocabulary.

–– Helen Vendler [ii]

In his lifetime, George Herbert was appreciated for his attractive personal qualities, his pastoral sense and sensibility, and his faithful Christian practice. But his extraordinary poetry, a primary domain for his soul work, remained hidden from the world until after his death in 1633. I have written about Herbert previously (Heart Work and Heaven Work), and return to him often for devotional reading as well as literary pleasure. In celebration of his feast day (February 27), let’s take another look.

Many of Herbert’s poems do not feel entirely accessible today. His seventeenth-century language and syntax require some translation, while his inventively constructed metaphors and images assume a biblical and theological literacy no longer widely possessed. “[T]his change in the sensibilities of his audience,” laments Rosemund Tuve, “damages some of Herbert’s poems appreciably. The waste for us is more unhappy by far than the unfairness to him.” [iii] I myself find the extensive footnotes and commentary in Helen Wilcox’s magnificent edition of The English Poems of George Herbert to be immensely helpful in letting the poems speak with proper force and meaning.

But the form of Herbert’s poems is not the only hindrance for the modern reader. In the prevailing atmosphere of our secular era, we don’t even breathe the same air as the metaphysical poet. As a recent biographer explains, “Divinity saturated and enclosed his world: the whole of it, from the slightest movements of his own inmost being to his external circumstances in time and the natural world . . . Divinity was the cause and the sum of how things are, without remainder.” [iv]

In contrast, even believers can find themselves acting and thinking like atheists these days, excepting the moments when they engage in conscious religious practice. We no longer live in a world––or a cultural consciousness––saturated with divinity. It is too easy to act as if God is neither necessary nor present. Herbert’s fervent I-Thou relationship with the transcendent can seem alien to the secular mind. Who’s he talking to anyway?

Compared to the modern flattening of human experience in a depthless and disenchanted world––no longer “charged with the grandeur of God” [v]––Herbert’s spiritual environment seems so alive with correspondences between visible things and deeper, invisible realities. The Mystery of the world is met in the humblest of circumstances. The burning bush flashes through the surface of the ordinary. Everyday phenomena are saturated with significance. The gate of heaven might be anywhere, admitting the attentive soul to a luminous eternity beyond the self.

A man that looks on glass,
On it may stay his eye;
Or if he pleaseth, through it pass,
And then the heav’n espy. [vi]

Herbert’s passionate engagement with transcendence––among us, within us, over-against us––was not theoretical or abstract, but intimate and experiential, employing the first-person form of lyric poetry to open a clearing where his inmost feelings could show themselves to both the speaker and his readers. In his striking play of words, images and sounds, a consort of meanings both public and private, we overhear Herbert’s prayers, and witness the argument of his soul. The brilliance of his poetic invention is never for its own sake. He seeks not to show off his skill, but to surrender his will.

Onely thy grace, which with these elements comes,
Knoweth the ready way,
And hath the privie key,
Op’ning the soul’s most subtle rooms. [vii]

Herbert’s humility was one of his most distinctive traits. He was hardly immune to ambition and acclaim, but renounced them for greater treasure. He would die, before his fortieth birthday, as a country priest far removed from the glitter of worldly success.

He seemed perpetually amazed that grace would take up residence in his “poore cabinet of bone.” [viii]

My God, what is a heart?
That thou shouldst it so eye, and wooe,
Powring upon it all thy art,
As if thou hadst nothing els to do? [ix]

He prayed to be worthy of the gift:

Furnish & deck my soul, that thou mayst have
A better lodging than a rack or grave. [x]

And he never forgot to praise the Giver:

Blest be the Architect, whose art
Could build so strong in a weak heart. [xi]

Herbert’s life was not all sunshine and flowers. Five of his poems are called “Affliction.” The first of these begins happily enough:

At first thou gav’st me milk and sweetnesses;
I had my wish and way:
My days were straw’d with flow’rs and happinesse;
There was no month but May.

But then come sorrow and woe, dissatisfaction and disappointment, illness and loss. After a long litany of troubles, the poem ends with a deceptively simple vow crammed with multiple meanings: surrender, self-doubt, anxiety, acceptance, and perhaps a hint of resistance to the demanding terms of the divine-human relationship.

Ah my deare God! though I am clean forgot,
Let me not love thee, if I love thee not. [xii]

Even worse than personal suffering was the experience of divine absence. For a faithful person in a religious world, such absence was nothing like the “out of sight, out of mind” of our secular age. If God does not “exist” in cultural or personal awareness, then the lack of divine presence goes unnoticed and unfelt. But for anyone whose heart belongs to God, the times of divine absence are excruciating.

When my devotions could not pierce
Thy silent ears;
Then was my heart broken, as was my verse . . .
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. [xiii]

As the Psalms so often remind us, God is not an easy partner. Luther supposed that God often “hides his grace” to teach us not to grasp the divine “according to our own feelings and reactions.”[xiv] If faith always needs evidence, how can it be faith? Or as Emily Dickinson described her own wrestling with “that diviner thing,” it does not always respond to our advances, but rather “Flits––glimmers––proves––dissolves––/ Returns––suggests––“ [xv]

If it were otherwise, and Presence were always immediate, filling every place and every moment with plenitude, our journey would be over, and we would no longer be the “heart in pilgrimage.”[xvi] Herbert, like every saint, accepted God’s terms with faithful ambivalence. “I will complain, yet praise,” he said. “I will bewail, approve: / And all my sowre-sweet days / I will lament, and love.” [xvii]

And in the end, all shall be well, and all manner of thing be well: [xviii]

Whether I flie with angels, fall with dust,
Thy hands made both, and I am there:
Thy power and love, my love and trust
Make one place ev’ry where. [xix]

 

 

 

Related post: Heart Work and Heaven Work

 

[i] Rosemund Tuve, A Reading of George Herbert(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952), 194.

[ii] Helen Vendler, Invisible Listeners: Lyric Intimacy in Herbert, Whitman, and Ashbery(Princeton, 2005), q. in John Drury, Music at Midnight: The Life and Poetry of George Herbert(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 336.

[iii] Tuve, 103.

[iv] Drury, 11.

[v] Gerard Manley Hopkns, “God’s Grandeur.”

[vi] “The Elixir.”

[vii] “The Holy Communion.”

[viii] “Ungratefulnesse.”

[ix] “Mattens.”

[x] “Christmas.”

[xi] “The Church-floore.”

[xii] “Affliction (I).”

[xiii] “Deniall.”

[xiv] Martin Luther, Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent, q. in Richard Strier, Love Known: Theology and Experience in George Herbert’s Poetry (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), 219.

[xv] Emily Dickinson, “The Love a Life can show Below” (F285, 1862).

[xvi] “Prayer (I).”

[xvii] “Bitter-sweet.”

[xviii] I hope Herbert would appreciate the poetic conceit of combining fellow English artists the Beatles and Julian of Norwich in the same line!

[xix] “The Temper (I).”

Prayers for the Advent Season

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.

 

“Be known to us in the music we make”

Ted Mercer leads a song at the California Sacred Harp Convention.

I am the chaplain this weekend for the 30th Annual All-California Sacred Harp Convention, where over a hundred singers have gathered from a dozen states (along with a few enthusiasts from Europe) to sing about 190 shape note songs over the course of two days. It’s an intense immersion in a uniquely American repertoire––loud, raw, and deeply expressive. You can read about it in my post, A Musical Tsunami.

While the song texts mostly reflect images and themes from 18th and 19th century Christianity, a shape note gathering is not a community of religious consensus. Non-Christian people of faith and no faith are in the mix, and there is no discussion of verbal meanings. It’s all about the singing. And yet, there is a sense of “church” about these gatherings. We tap into a power beyond the self, form bonds of communion with one another, and are transported by a shared experience that can verge on the ecstatic.

By long tradition, each day of a singing convention opens and closes with prayer, composed or selected at the discretion of the chaplain. The following prayers are mostly my own. While seeking to honor and express the sacred dimension of a shape note singing, I tried to be inclusive, avoiding explicit sectarian language. But you may notice some Anglican phrasing––and theology––seeping through.

Saturday (Jan. 20)

Opening prayer

O divine Beloved, Maker of all things and Lover of souls, we are gathered here by your grace to sing the life that conquers death, the joy that dries all tears, the peace that passes understanding, the love that resists every evil.

Be known to us in the music we make and the songs we share.
To spend one day with Thee on earth exceeds a thousand days of mirth.

We are truly thankful for the generations of composers and singers who have entrusted us with the Sacred Harp, and we pray that our singing in this place will gladden the whole company of heaven with an awesome and holy sound.

Draw us together with the cords of friendship.
Let no one be a stranger here.
Lift up our hearts and make us one.

Now sanctify this hollow and hallowed square, that it may be for us not just a refuge from the storms of the world, but a tangible experience of our truest humanity, reflecting your glory in the harmonious beauty of our shared communion.

We ask this in your holy Name. Amen.

 

Grace for the mid-day meal

Blessed are you, O God, giver of breath and bread,
from whom all blessings flow.
We give you thanks for the abundance of this hour,
for the food and drink prepared from your bounty by human labor
and spread before us by generous hands.
Give us such an awareness of the sacredness of every feast,
that the sharing of this meal may manifest the connections between us,
and deepen our gratitude for life.
Blessed be your Name forever. Amen.

 

Closing prayer (by Brian Wren*)

May the Sending One sing in us,
may the Seeking One walk with us,
may the Greeting One stand by us,
in our gladness and in our grieving.

May the Gifted One relieve us,
may the Given One retrieve us,
may the Giving One receive us,
in our falling and our restoring.

May the Binding One unite us,
may the One Beloved invite us,
may the Loving One delight us,
in bliss both human and divine.

Now let us go forth in peace,
rejoicing in the power of the Spirit. Amen.

* Brian Wren is an Anglican hymn writer in the UK.
The “in bliss” line is my own, while the final lines are
a eucharistic dismissal from the Book of Common Prayer.

 

Sunday (Jan. 21)

Opening prayer

Grace of melody be upon us
Grace of harmony be upon us
Grace of shapes be upon us
This day and evermore.

Grace of lyric be upon us
Grace of meter be upon us
Grace of fugues be upon us
This day and evermore.

Grace of praise be upon us
Grace of union be upon us
Grace of joy be upon us
This day and evermore. Amen.

 

Grace at the mid-day meal*

Holy God, giver of breath and bread,
it is with gratitude and joy that we receive the gift of this meal.
Into ourselves we take these changing forms of matter and light
through which we shall be changed:
other bodies becoming our bodies,
other lives becoming our life.

That there is but one body,
one life shared by all,
we vow to remember.

Now bless this food to our use, and us to your service,
and make us ever mindful of the needs and rights of others.
Let all the people say: Amen.

* Adapted from various sources. The first line is from Gerard Manley Hopkins, the last lines are at traditional grace, and the middle part I learned from a priest at a campfire on a kayaking retreat for clergy. I don’t know the source.

 

Closing prayer

Holy and gracious God, you are a mystery beyond all telling,
yet have we not heard your voice sounding in our midst this day?
You are beyond all seeing,
yet did we not glimpse your glory in the faces of one another?
You are beyond all knowing,
yet has not each of us heard a word spoken today––
a word of love or consolation,
a word of encouragement or mercy?

It has been such a blessing to join our voices with one another,
in union with the countless singers who have gone before us.
Our hearts are full, and we are deeply grateful.
Now send us forth in peace, guide us safely home,
and help us to carry the grace of these precious hours
into the rest of our lives,
that the world may resound
with the melody of compassion
and the harmony of justice,
and your blessing be known
through every land by every tongue.

Glory to you for ever and ever. Amen.

Related post: A Musical Tsunami

The Spirituality of Running: A Meditation for the Olympiad

Jim Friedrich and Mike Riebs, Santa Monica Mountains, 1961

Jim Friedrich and Mike Riebs, Santa Monica Mountains, 1961

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith… who endured…so that you may not grow weary or lose heart. (Hebrews 12:1-3)

Even the youthful may faint and grow weary, 
even the fittest may stumble and fall,
but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and never faint. (Isaiah 40:30-31)

The perpetual contest between weariness and perseverance is familiar to every athlete, and every saint. You’re going to get tired. You’re going to get discouraged. You may faint and fall. But keep your eyes on the prize, hold on. On both good days and bad, you’ve got to put in the work, “lay aside every weight,” surrender to a power beyond your solitary will, and stay in the flow.

Over the coming weeks, we will see Olympic athletes do extraordinary things with their bodies, minds and hearts. Some of us will be inspired by their example to get in shape and pursue a goal, to test the limits of our own embodied existence. Others will remain passive spectators, admiring the exceptional gifts of the Olympians with no illusions of doing likewise.

Is it not the same with the saints? Their exceptional feats of faith, hope and love seem so far beyond us that we dismiss our own capacities for discipleship and transformation. But the saints want to inspire, not intimidate us. They are a cloud of witnesses cheering us on to become our truest selves. When poet William Stafford says, “Ask me if what I have done is my life,”[i] we hope the answer will be yes.

In the Divine Comedy, Virgil invites Dante to make the immense and arduous journey into God. The younger poet demurs. “I am not Aeneas,” he says. “I am not Paul.” But he sets out anyway, and in the end discovers he needs to be no one but himself. “Per ch’io te sovra te corono e mitrio,” Virgil says when they part. I crown and mitre you lord over yourself.[ii]

When I was a teenager, I wanted to be a great pole vaulter. I loved the sudden ascent from the runway, feet swinging into the sky, the joyful clearance over the bar, the happy fall back to earth. I aspired to emulate world record holder Bob Gutowski, and for two years in college competed under his coach, Payton Jordan. But I lacked the necessary speed and strength to master the event, and gave it up before my 20th birthday.

I had thought I was a pole vaulter, but would come to discover that I was actually a distance runner. I had run cross-country and the mile in high school, thinking it would be good conditioning for my “real” event. But it wasn’t until my thirties that I finally embraced running as my athletic vocation.

I love the details of training, measuring daily progress as I increase the load and intensity of my runs. I love the mental challenge of racing, the ceaseless negotiation between desire and pain. I love the sense of aliveness that can follow the most exhausting workouts. But most of all I love the poetry of bodily motion, the primal elation of loping unhindered through space, dancing with earth and sky.

Sometimes you get into “the zone” and feel you could run forever. But that feeling is the fruit of weeks and months of training. As the Bible says,

Endure trials for the sake of discipline. Sure, discipline always seems painful rather than pleasant at the time, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet. (Heb. 12:7, 11-12)

St. Paul, clearly a track and field fan, knew the amount of work required to get into shape and win the race. “Every athlete concentrates completely on training,” he wrote. “I punish my body and bring it under control.” (I Cor. 9:25, 27). In other words, no pain, no gain.

That doesn’t mean not to back off and be gentle when your body needs to rest and recover. My first two marathon attempts ended with training injuries from increasing my mileage too quickly, before my body was ready. Don’t forget to keep your Sabbath days!

With a more gradual buildup (and better shoes) I stayed healthy for my next two attempts. Here are a couple of excerpts from my Los Angeles training log in 1985, when I was doing 50-60 mile weeks:

9 miles fartlek [alternating fast/slow in a continuous run] in Griffith Park. Tired, no strength, but hung in there with endurance. Instead of power on speed bursts, went for quick rhythm. On hard reps up “Merry-Go-Round hill,” faced oxygen debt pain and tried to “love” it, absorb it as my own. Is it better to go hard only when fresh and sharp, or to push through the flat periods without a full recovery? (3/22/85)

That was a tough day.

 Intense speed work on the track. Fast times. Finally have reached new strength and speed level. Recovery jogs were at higher speed. I kept wanting more work! (4/02/85)

 That was an exhilarating day.

On the tough days, the questions multiply. Why am I putting myself through this? Am I delusional about my potential for improvement? Can my body take it? What’s the point?

When the questions pounce, you need the will to embrace and accept the pain. Hello, brother pain, how nice to see you again. Shall we take a run together? You also need a capacity for self-denial. Lay aside every weight. Great runners learn to let go, to trust that the pain is bearable, to hold nothing back, to surrender to that elusive, transcendent thing that takes over when we reach our limit.

Roger Bannister, who collapsed after he broke the 4-minute mile barrier in 1954, said that “the man who can drive himself further once the effort gets painful is the man who will win.”

Another great miler, 1960 Olympic 1500 meter champion Herb Elliott, received the same lesson from his coach, Percy Cerutty, who thought that running uphill on sand dunes until you couldn’t take another step was an ideal form of training. Cerutty told Elliott, who never lost a race, that “great runners must learn to die.”

Seen in this way, athletics is not just a metaphor for spirituality, but a plunge into the deepest sources of the self. “Learning to die” is the operation of a mysticism where subjectivity is transcended and absorbed into a greater whole. This kind of ecstasy has always been hard to describe since, as Maurice Blanchot suggests, “its decisive trait is that the one who experiences is no longer there when he experiences it.”[iii] The athletes who “disappear” into the Zone or the Flow for a few fleeting moments may struggle to put language to it, but they know something extraordinary has happened that was not of their own making.

What we do with our bodies manifests and expresses inner states, the sacred ground of our being. But bodily practices can also induce inner states. How we move, how we sit, how we breathe, can all make a difference in our spiritual life. Inner and outer are intertwined and interactive. We pray in, with, through our bodies.

“Each bodily act, when purposefully carried out under the control of the Spirit, is prayer. Such bodily acts include eating, sleeping, working, recreating, and posture.”[iv]

Running is a purposive prayer practice for me. I was never an elite runner (nor will I ever be a saint!). But the body I run with is my body, inscribed with the history of my own heart, and “when I run, I can feel God’s pleasure.”[v]

While training for the Boston Marathon at age forty, I took a run down the grassy median of San Vicente Boulevard in Santa Monica, a popular running spot. I saw Johnny Gray, American record holder for 800 meters and four-time-Olympian, stepping onto the path just ahead of me, and for the next two miles I tried to keep pace with him, just to see what it felt like. He appeared to be jogging, with an effortless, graceful stride. I, on the other hand, was working hard to keep up. But for that little while, following in Gray’s footsteps, I felt my own best runner wanting to emerge.

Finishing the California Marathon, December 1984

Finishing the California Marathon, December 1984

An old Anglican prayer asks God to “give us grace…to follow daily in the blessed steps of [Jesus’] most holy life.” What more can we ask of our stories, but to follow daily the blessed steps as best we can, bringing the flawed and glorious dispositions of our embodied selves into the living of our days?

Rainer Maria Rilke puts this perfectly in his poem, “I believe in all that has never yet been spoken.”[vi] It could be the runner’s prayer.

I want to free what waits within me
so that what no one has dared to wish for
may for once spring clear
without my contriving.
If this is arrogant, God, forgive me,
but this is what I need to say.
May what I do flow from me like a river,
no forcing and no holding back …

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[i] William Stafford, “Ask Me,” The Way It Is: New and Selected Poems (St. Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 1998), 56

[ii] Inferno ii, 32; Purgatorio xxvii, 142

[iii] q. in Kevin Hart, “The Experience of Nonexperience,” in Mystics: Presence and Aporia, ed. Michael Kessler & Christian Sheppard (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 197

[iv] Herbert Slade, Exploration into Contemplative Prayer (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1975), 21. Slade’s groundbreaking book had a great influence on both my praying and my running.

[v] 1924 Olympic 400 meter champion Eric Liddell narrates this line during his race in the film Chariots of Fire (1981)

[vi] trans. Anita Barrows & Joanna Macy: http://www.poetry-chaikhana.com/blog/2011/01/14/rainer-maria-rilke-i-believe-in-all-that-has-never-yet-been-spoken/