Democracy won today. The United States of America has stepped away from the edge of the authoritarian abyss, and countless hearts—and the planet itself—are sighing with relief. Yes, so much damage to repair, and immense challenges ahead, and the work will not be easy. But let us embrace and enjoy this day’s levity of spirit, and breathe in the winds of joy.
In this time of exile from gathered community, the All Saints images of countless saints singing “around the throne in sweet accord” fill me with longing for the day when we will join our hearts and voices in person once again. Meanwhile, memory and hope (and Zoom) will have to do.
The van Eyck image of saints in procession reminds me of a 1965 photograph of 600 activists, led by 25-year-old John Lewis, marching across the Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.
They would be met on the other side by state troopers, whose violence was so shockingly brutal that the day is remembered as “Bloody Sunday.” Those troopers are gone, John Lewis is gone, but God’s friends continue the march toward a better day. And all those saints and martyrs who have gone before—the “great cloud of witnesses—now cheer us on from above.
In this perilous historical moment, may we too keep on keeping on, keep marching in the light of God, encouraged by the many saints who have shown us how.
Further posts for All Saints Day:
This is the third in a series on the canonical hours, the ancient Christian practice for living a mindful day. The first, “Reclaiming My Time,” gives a general introduction, with a list of helpful resources for your own practice of prayer and meditation. This third reflection concerns Lauds and Prime, the hours when day begins.
From dust I rise,
And out of nothing now awake,
These brighter Regions which salute mine Eys,
A Gift from God I take.
The Earth, the Seas, the Light, the Day, the Skies,
The Sun and Stars are mine; if those I prize …
Into this Eden, so divine and fair,
So wide and bright, I come His Son and Heir.
— Thomas Traherne [i]
New every morning is the love
our wakening and uprising prove;
through sleep and darkness safely brought,
restored to life and power and thought.
— John Keble [ii]
Do you believe in miracles? There is at least one every day: God says, “Let there be light!” And behold, night and nothingness flee away; the visible world appears miraculously before our eyes. We may sleep through this miracle, forget to notice, or take it for granted. But every morning is like the first morning of the world—a divine gift to be honored with astonishment, delight, gratitude and praise.
The victory of light over darkness is one of the most ancient and natural religious tropes. For mortal beings, whose temporal span is a long day’s journey into night, the recurring dawn is a sign of unconquerable life. “The people who have walked in darkness have seen a great light,” says the prophet Isaiah, finding the narrative of salvation in dawn’s daily parable. The Song of Zechariah, whose son, John the Baptist, would herald the true Light of the world, elaborates this image at every Morning Prayer:
By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
to shine on those who dwell in darkness
and the shadow of death,
and to guide our feet into the way of peace. (Luke 1: 78-79)
It’s a shame that most of us see many more dusks than dawns in the course of our life. Might we be more joyful people if we devoted greater attention to the daybreak hour? Even early risers may succumb too quickly to their tasks, duties and worries to greet the dawn with attentive stillness.
“The breezes at dawn have secrets to tell you,” says Rumi. “Don’t go back to sleep.”[iii] The medieval Sufi mystic counsels us to cherish the liminal hush between night and day, sleep and waking, when the mind still drifts in tranquility. “Take the first moments when emerging from sleep to be still,” says Elizabeth Yates in her Book of Hours, “to let waking come gently, to cherish the thoughts that are hovering, to let the idea that may soon need to be acted upon gather fullness.”[iv]
Whatever your work may be, whatever your schedule demands, find a way to spend contemplative time with the dawn—if not daily, then weekly. The birth of the day is a great and mighty wonder, not to be missed. As Thomas Merton suggests, “the most wonderful moment of the day is that when creation in its innocence asks permission to ‘be’ once again, as it did on the first morning that ever was.”[v]
In the daybreak liturgy of Lauds—the term means “praises”—the opening sentence breaks the night’s Great Silence with an invocation: “O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth shall proclaim your praise” (Psalm 51:15). Begin your day not with coffee or screens, but with praise, and notice the difference! Some of us may be reluctant risers, but daybreak is no time for slumber. It’s too beautiful and holy to miss. “Rise and shine,” says the prophet, “for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has dawned upon you (Isaiah 60:1). The Psalmist responds with gusto: “Wake up, my soul; awake, O instruments of joy; I myself will waken the dawn (Psalm 57:8). Sing the day into being!—it’s a lovely practice. Try it sometime on a mountain summit, lakeshore, or back porch.
When I was a chaplain for teenage backpacking camps in California’s High Sierra, our venerable leader, Joe Golowka, was always the first one up. The rest of us, still snug in our bags, tried to postpone the shock of cold mountain air, but Joe would wander among us like a biblical watchman. “Don’t miss this beautiful dawn!” he’d say, echoing the Psalmist: This is the day which the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it (Psalm 118:24).
There are many beautiful hymns and prayers for the observance of Lauds, but a measure of wordless attention is also required. If we can simply listen without thought, the silent dawn will speak to us, as it did to Ralph Waldo Emerson:
“I see the spectacle of morning from the hilltop over against my house, from daybreak to sunrise, with emotions which an angel might share. The long slender bars of cloud float like fishes in the sea of crimson light. From the earth, as a shore, I look out into that silent sea. I seem to partake in its rapid transformations: the active enchantment reaches my dust, and I dilate and conspire with the morning wind.”[vi]
In Seven Sacred Pauses: Living Mindfully Through the Hours of the Day, Benedictine Macrina Wiederkehr praises the dawn as an hour of healing and renewal.
Moment before dawn
quietest of all quiet moments,
good medicine for the soul,
make plans to be there.
Set the clock of your heart,
breathe in the rays of dawn,
raise high the chalice of your life,
taste the joy of being awake. [vii]
Wiederkehr’s eucharistic image is apt. Taste and see. Dawn is indeed a sacramental hour. A hymn sung by Camaldolese monks imagines it as a baptism of light:
Dawn’s radiance washes over earth;
refreshed and rested from the night
the world is rinsed baptismally
as all are bathed anew in light. [viii]
Not only is the natural world “rinsed baptismally” each new day; so, to some degree, are we. “I dwell in possibility,” says Emily Dickinson, “spreading wide my narrow / Hands — / to gather Paradise.[ix]
However many past projects, burdens, and sorrows we drag with us into the present moment, the new morning is an invitation to set them down and “dwell in possibility,” receiving the gift of “now” as a fresh opportunity, an empty canvas, like Eden before the Fall. As John Muir learned from spending countless dawns in the roofless wild, we can breathe the air of Paradise in nature’s daily Lauds:
“I used to envy the father of our race, dwelling as he did in contact with the new-made fields and plants of Eden; but I do so no more, because I have discovered that I also live in ‘creation’s dawn.’ The morning stars still sing together, and the world, not yet half made, becomes more beautiful every day.” [x]
The new day not only reenacts the creation of everything. It is also a drama of resurrection: we rise from the “death” of sleep, startled by the return of our conscious self from the night’s oblivion. “Rise, heart; thy Lord is risen,” says the priestly poet George Herbert. For every day, when truly perceived and welcomed, is the day of resurrection:
Can there be any day but this,
Though many sunnes to shine endeavour?
We count three hundred, but we misse:
There is but one, and that one ever. [xi]
However, rolling out of bed can become so habitual that we forget the wonder of it, forget the miraculous givenness of our existence. Sometimes a dramatic reminder may be necessary. Forty-nine years later, I still can feel the utter joy and relief of seeing one particular sunrise in the Smoky Mountains. Having just endured a terrifying night of lightning on an exposed summit, I felt delivered into newness of life. And who has not experienced equivalent inner dawns, when “the night of weeping shall be the morn of song.”[xii] One of Charles Wesley’s morning hymns employs the physical sensations of sunrise to convey the spiritual gifts we are offered with each new day:
Dark and cheerless is the morn unaccompanied by thee;
joyless is the day’s return, till thy mercy’s beams I see,
till they inward light impart, glad my eyes, and warm my heart.
In Thomas Cole’s The Voyage of Life, a quartet of allegorical paintings, “Childhood” is imbued with morning spirituality. The Adamic child, newborn and joyful, emerges from a dark cave into the roseate dawn of a happy world. A protective angel holds the tiller of the child’s golden boat as it drifts down the stream of time. As Cole reminds us in the quartet’s later paintings, troubled waters lie ahead in every voyage, but though Paradise be lost, it may yet be regained every time we greet a new day with thanks and praise. In the words of Kathryn Galloway’s morning hymn:
We receive God’s graceful moment
While the day is fresh and still,
Ours to choose how we will greet it,
Ours to make it what we will.
Here is given perfect freedom,
Every hope in love to fill. [xiii]
Prime (after sunrise)
The trivial round, the common task,
will furnish all we ought to ask;
room to deny ourselves; a road
to bring us daily nearer God.
— John Keble [xiv]
Prime, the “first” portion of daylight following sunrise, is the period of transition from contemplation and praise into the onward flow of the day’s tasks and needs. In the monastic tradition, it is when work assignments are distributed, and the community asks a blessing upon their labors. Sounds begin to punctuate the silence: footsteps, voices, the opening of doors. Before things get too busy or muddled in my own working hours, can I pause for one minute—or twenty—to pray the day’s questions? What is this day for? What is being asked of me? What might I do better? Whom can I serve? How can I love? What can I change? Will I entertain angels unaware? Will I pause to notice a burning bush? Can I spend this day wholeheartedly receptive to the fullness of time?
The daily office for morning in the Book of Common Prayer expresses Prime’s focus on the day before us:
We humbly pray you so to guide and govern us by your Holy Spirit, that in all the cares and occupations of our life we may not forget you, but may remember that we are ever walking in your sight.
So clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you.
Drive far from us all wrong desires, incline our hearts to keep your law, and guide our feet into the way of peace; that, having done your will with cheerfulness during the day, we may, when night comes, rejoice to give you thanks.[xv]
This last prayer is my favorite, and I say it every day. It assumes that we are capable agents, that we can be shaped by divine intention, that this day holds immense potential for us. We may not make it to nightfall without lapses major and minor. The cheerfulness may fail us more than once. We know this. Perfection is a process, not a possession. But to begin each day by offering it to sacred purpose—the Divine acting in us and through us—this is the energizing spirit of Prime.
Lord, I my vows to thee renew;
disperse my sins as morning dew;
guard my first springs of thought and will,
and with thyself my spirit fill. [xvi]
The video of “Bright morning stars are rising,” a traditional Appalachian spiritual first recorded in the field by Alan and Elizabeth Lomax, is sung by the author, accompanied by his photographs: Mt.Rainier seen from an airplane in a late-winter dawn (2015); Holy Saturday dawn on the Camino de Santiago east of Burgos (2014); Summer Solstice sunrise in Puget Sound, Washington (5:26 a.m., June 21, 2015); October sunrise in 2011 from the former site of Mt. Calvary Retreat House in Santa Barbara, an Episcopal monastery tragically destroyed by fire three years earlier; sunrise on the Dordogne River in France, a few days after the Autumn Equinox in 2018.
[i] Graham Dowell, Enjoying the World: The Rediscovery of Thomas Traherne (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 1990), 92. Traherne, a 17th-century Anglican poet, priest and theologian, was truly a morning person, naturally disposed to “enjoy” the world with wonder, love and praise.
[ii] John Keble (1792-1866), “New every morning is the love,” Episcopal Hymnal (1982) #10. Keble, one of the founders of the Oxford Movement, was a poet-priest. Many of the poems in his popular collection, The Christian Year, became widely used hymns.
[iii] Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī (1207-1273), cited in Macrina Wiederkehr, Seven Sacred Pauses: Living Mindfully Through the Hours of the Day (Notre Dame, IN: Sorin Books, 2008), 47.
[iv] Elizabeth Yates, A Book of Hours (Norton, CT: Vineyard Books, 1976), 15.
[v] Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, cited in Kathleen Deignan, Thomas Merton: A Book of Hours (Notre Dame, IN: Sorin Books, 2007), 46. A variation on this lovely image is in Merton’s Turning Toward the World: The Journals of Thomas Merton, vol. 4): “The first chirps of the waking birds—le point vierge of the dawn, a moment of awe and inexpressible innocence, when the Father in silence opens their eyes and they speak to Him, wondering if it is time to ‘be?’ And He tells them ‘Yes.’ Then they one by one wake and begin to sing ….” (The Thomas Merton Encyclopedia, Orbis 2002, p. 363).
[vi] Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Nature” (1836), The Annotated Emerson, ed. David Mikics (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2012), 48.
[vii] Wiederkehr, 57.
[viii] Hymn #199, Monday Lauds in Camaldolese Monks O.S.B., Lauds and Vespers (1994).
[ix] Emily Dickinson, “I dwell in Possibility” (J657, Fr466).
[x] Cited in Linnie Marsh Wolfe, ed., John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1979), 72.
[xi] George Herbert, “Easter,” in Helen Wilcox, ed., The English Poems of George Herbert (Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 139-140.
[xii] Samuel John Stone (1839-1900), “The Church’ one foundation,” Episcopal Hymnal (1982) #525. Stone, a poet-priest in the Church of England, responded to a “night of weeping” in the life of his Church (“by schisms rent asunder”) with 12 hymns inspired by the 12 articles of the Apostles’ Creed. This hymn celebrates article 9: “the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints.”
[xiii] Kathryn Galloway, “God’s Graceful Moment,” Iona Abbey Hymn Book #44.
[xiv] “New every morning is the love,” Episcopal Hymnal (1982) #10.
[xv] Collects for Morning Prayer, The Book of Common Prayer (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), 100-101. For more on the third collect cited, see my post, “Grace me guide”: https://jimfriedrich.com/2015/03/20/grace-me-guide/
[xvi] Thomas Ken (1637-1711), “Awake my soul,” Episcopal Hymnal (1982) #11. Ken, an Anglican bishop, had a great influence on the development of English hymnody.
This is the second in a series on the canonical hours, the ancient Christian practice for living a mindful day. The first, “Reclaiming My Time,” gives a general introduction, with a list of helpful resources for your own practice of prayer and meditation. This second reflection concerns “Vigils,” the liminal space between yesterday and tomorrow.
What if you slept? And what if, in your sleep, you dreamed? And what if, in your dream, you went to heaven and plucked a strange and beautiful flower? And what if, when you awoke, you had the flower in your hand? Ah, what then?
— Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “What if you slept?”
The night, O my Lord, is a time of freedom. You have seen the morning and the night, and the night was better. In the night, all things began, and in the night the end of all things has come before me.
— Thomas Merton, “Fire Watch, July 4, 1952”
Vigils is the most fluid of the canonical hours. It may be kept at midnight, or at 3 a.m., or just before dawn, as a prelude to the sunrise hour of Lauds. While the world sleeps, monastics rise from their beds and make their way in the dark to the choir. The sixth-century Rule of St. Benedict recommends that the first Psalm be read “slowly and deliberately,” to allow the community’s sleepyheads extra time to arrive. “If the resurrection of the dead is anything like getting up in the morning,” complains one monk, “I am not completely convinced that I want to be included.”[i] But prayer never sleeps. “At midnight I will rise to give you thanks,” says the Psalmist. “My eyes are open in the night watches.”[ii]
Vigils is not for all people at all times, but as an occasional practice it has much to offer. Being awake in the night is not like being awake in the day. We are different, our surroundings are different, and time is different. All these differences affect the quality of our consciousness, our physical energies, and our prayer. It’s no accident that the two most mysterious events in the gospels, the Nativity and the Resurrection, took place in deepest night.[iii] “When all things were wrapped in peaceful silence and night was in the midst of its swift course,” said Meister Eckhart, “a secret word leaped down from heaven.…”[iv]
The hours between midnight and dawn should not go unvisited by the waking self. They whisper secrets which sleepers never know. I’ve driven through black nights on lost highways, watched 72-hour film marathons with (mostly) open eyes, arisen at midnight to ascend Mt. Rainier with a headlamp, drifted in and out of sleep lying on the floor of the Fillmore Auditorium in the wee hours of a Grateful Dead concert, and curated all-night multi-sensory worship in a circus tent with 400 Episcopalians.[v] Even though only the last of these was a specifically religious event, I always felt transformed to some degree by my night-journeys. By the time the sun restored the ordinary, I was no longer quite the same person. Something had shifted. Maybe it was the world; maybe it was just my eyes, or my heart. But the next morning I always felt radiant and new, like the first morning of Creation.
What is it about a vigil experience that makes this so? For one thing, my post-midnight self, even when awake, is more prone to a state of reverie, when the daytime’s fully conscious subject gives way to the “night dream” which, as Gaston Bachelard suggests, “does not belong to us. It is not our possession. With regard to us, it is an abductor, the most disconcerting of abductors: it abducts our being from us. Nights, nights have no history.… we are returned to an ante-subjective state. We become elusive to ourselves, for we are giving pieces of ourselves to no matter whom, to no matter what.”[vi]
The world, too, is different in the dark—its solid forms dissolved into shadow, purged of detail and color, cloaked in absence. The noise and strife of daytime forgotten in the hush. Deep, deep silence: like the primordial stillness before the birth of everything. An environment without verbs. “Baptized in the rivers of night,” said Thomas Merton of the Vigils hour, the earth recovers its “innocence.”[vii]
Time slows, pausing deliberately between yesterday and tomorrow. No longer a flowing river, it becomes a pool of infinite depth where we can wash away our hurry-sickness. “A single hour takes a long time to pass,” says a modern Book of Hours, “but living in it is discipleship for eternity.”[viii]
In the Book of Genesis, Jacob has two contrasting experiences at the Vigils hour. In one, he is given a blissful vision of a ladder between heaven and earth, revealing the ultimate Reality so often invisible in the glare of sunlight. In the other, he wrestles desperately with God till dawn.[ix] So it is for us. Sometimes our night vigil is bathed in tranquility and illumined by love. And sometimes we watch anxiously over a sick child or a dying friend, or pray for the ones who are afraid or lost in the dark, or wrestle with our own troubled thoughts, or wait with expectant and vulnerable hearts for the dawn of God.
Benedictine writer Macrina Wiederkeh distills the essence of Vigils prayer, when even the most restlessly wakeful are invited to rest in the sacred pause of what T. S. Eliot called “the uncertain hour before the morning.”[x]
“In the middle of the night, I pray for those who sleep and those who cannot sleep. I pray for those with fearful hearts, for those whose courage is waning. I pray for those who have lost vision of what could be. When I rise in the middle of the night, my prayer is simply one of waiting in silence, waiting in darkness, listening with love. It is a prayer of surrender. In my night watch I do not ordinarily use words. My prayer is a prayer of intent. I make my intention and I wait. I become a deep yearning. The silence and the darkness are healing. My prayer is now a prayer of trust. I keep vigil with the mystery.”[xi]
When I was a teenager, the climactic all-night vigil in Alan Paton’s novel, Cry the Beloved Country, made a deep impression on me. In the days of South African apartheid, on the night before his prodigal son’s execution, the Rev. Stephen Kumalo, an Anglican priest, climbs a high mountain to pray—for his own failings, for the soul of his son, and for the liberation of his people. Hour after hour, through the darkness, he keeps vigil for Absalom (“my son, my son!”) and for all the broken and lost. When the sun finally breaks the horizon—the very moment of his son’s execution—he makes eucharist with a maize cake and tea, remembering with thanksgiving God’s promise of salvation. “But when that dawn will come, of our emancipation, from the fear of bondage and the bondage of fear, why, that is a secret.”[xii]
Over the years, the image of Fr. Kumalo on that nocturnal summit has informed my own affinity for Vigils. There is something profoundly uncanny about every “night watch,” when sleep is forsaken in order to contemplate “the Mystery of the world,”[xiii] whose ineffability is uniquely conveyed in the hours of deepest dark and silence.
At Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky, the monks would take turns making the rounds of the expansive main building on “fire watch,” guarding the multitude of flammable wooden spaces through the night while the community slept. Thomas Merton’s shift on the night of July 4th, 1952, became for him a vivid metaphor for the spiritual journey into God, related in his famous “Fire Watch” essay.
As Merton moves thoughtfully and prayerfully through the monastic spaces, he retraces his personal history as a monk. Every room is inscribed with significant memory. But his fire watch is also the journey of the human soul. By first descending into the monastery’s lower depths and gradually ascending to its highest point in the abbey tower, he replicates the pattern of the Paschal Mystery and the Divine Comedy, where the way down becomes, in the end, the way up.
Merton’s “Fire Watch” reflection is framed by biblical images. It begins with Isaiah’s tower watchman keeping vigil through the long night, alert for a word of revelation. And it concludes with a divine word of comfort to Jonas, better known as Jonah, whose descent into the belly of the fish foreshadowed Christ’s death and resurrection.
“The sign of Jonas”––Merton’s term for the Paschal Mystery of dying and rising––is “burned into the roots of our being,” he said. And he described his own life’s pilgrimage as “traveling toward my destiny in the belly of a paradox.”[xiv]
For the receptive soul, Vigils is the hour when we listen to the voice of silence, and rest in the grace of unknowing. In “Fire Watch,” Merton sums up prayer in the dark in four lines:
While I am asking questions which You do not answer,
You ask me a question which is so simple that I cannot answer.
I do not even understand the question.
This night, and every night, it is the same question.[xv]
[i] Mark Barrett, O.S.B., Crossing: Reclaiming the Landscape of Our Lives (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 2008), 11.
[ii] Psalm 119: 62, 148.
[iii] The Christmas midnight mass and the Easter Vigil both incorporate the Vigils aura of nocturnal mystery when they take the assembly deep into the night. But many churches sacrifice this dimension when they choose the convenience of starting so early that they end well before midnight.
[iv] Meister Eckhart, cited in Elizabeth Yates, A Book of Hours (Noroton, CT: Vineyard Books, 1976), 50. Yates’ book contains prayers and reflections for each of the 24 hours. The Eckhart quote appears at Midnight.
[v] A description of the all-night liturgy may be found here: https://jimfriedrich.com/2014/08/12/experiments-in-worship/
[vi] Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Reverie: Childhood, Language, and the Cosmos (Boston: Beacon Press, 1971), 145.
[vii] Thomas Merton, “Fire Watch, July 4, 1952,” epilogue to The Sign of Jonas (1953), cited in Lawrence S. Cunningham, Thomas Merton: Spiritual Master—The Essential Writings (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1992), 107.
[viii] Yates, A Book of Hours, 55.
[ix] Genesis 28:10-17; 32:23-33.
[x] T. S. Eliot, “Little Gidding” (section II), in Four Quartets. “In the uncertain hour before the morning / Near the ending of interminable night …”
[xi] Macrina Wiederkehr, O.S.B., Seven Sacred Pauses: Living Mindfully Through the Hours of the Day (Notre Dame, IN: Sorin Books, 2008), 31.
[xii] The last line of Paton’s novel, published in 1948.
[xiii] Eberhard Jüngel’s name for the Divine, unencumbered with overuse or limiting connotations, offers an open space for the varieties of religious experience.
[xiv] Merton, The Sign of Jonas (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1953).
[xv] Merton, “Fire Watch,” in Cunningham, 111.
— I wasted time and now time doth waste me.
— William Shakespeare, Richard II
The Abba Moses asked Abba Silvanus, “Can a person every day make a beginning of the good life?” The Abba Silvanus answered him, “If he be diligent, he can every day and every hour begin the good life anew.”
— Sayings of the Desert Fathers
When wrongdoers are questioned by congressional committees, they try to evade self-incrimination through rambling, irrelevant responses to pointed questions. Since each committee member is given very limited time to interrogate a witness, those who have something to hide try to “run out the clock,” hoping that time will expire before the truth can be revealed. A skillful questioner will shut down such verbal evasions with a parliamentary phrase: “Reclaiming my time.” Whenever those words are uttered, the witness must cease to babble, allowing the questioner to attempt a more productive use of the allotted time.
I love that phrase—“Reclaiming my time”—for its spiritual implications. It seems a perfect description of the ancient spiritual practice of “praying the hours”—setting aside certain moments or periods of each day to reclaim our time from whatever is wasting it. I don’t mean wasting in the sense of failing to perform ceaseless labors of “doing” rather than “being.” An hour daydreaming in the hammock, reading poetry or playing the guitar is not misspent, however much the voices within or without may cry, “Get back to work!” No, by wasting time I mean the failure to enjoy its fullness or attend to its depth. I mean forgetting the sheer wonder of being here in this moment, this story, this life. I mean failing to understand that time, as W. H. Auden reminds us, “is our choice of how to love and why.”[i]
Judaism, Christianity and Islam all developed cyclical prayer practices for reclaiming time. Through words, music, attentive silence and bodily postures, the faithful pause periodically during the day to remember, praise and thank the divine Source in whom we live and move and have our being. Prayer times synchronize the believer’s consciousness with the natural sequence of the day: morning, midday, evening and night. For Christian monastics, for whose life of “unceasing prayer” there were no secular hours, only sacred ones, seven divine “offices” became the norm. The pattern was Scriptural—“Seven times a day I praise you” (Psalm 119:164)—but also natural: the sequence of hours reflects the changes in the quality of light and sound as well as the energy levels of our bodies.
There are seven traditional, or “canonical”[ii] hours. Some of the specific times are variable in accord with changing seasons and differences in latitude, but the “seven times” span the length between waking and retiring. An eighth “hour,” Vigils (or Matins), was combined with Lauds to keep the list at seven, but it really stands apart from the chronology of the waking hours, in the timeless interval between the days, when monastics rise from sleep to dwell prayerfully in the deepest dark of ineffable Mystery.
Vigils (Midnight or later) Waiting and reverie
Lauds (4-5 am or daybreak) Waking
Prime (6 am) Beginning
Terce (9 am) Doing
Sext (Noon) Pausing
None (3 pm) Doing
Vespers (Sunset) Ending
Compline (Bedtime) Surrendering
In the late Middle Ages, devout laypersons created a demand for a portable “Book of Hours”—a sequence of devotional texts and images structured on the monastic daily pattern. For two and a half centuries, these prayer books were the most widely read texts in Europe. But once the sacredness of time was eclipsed by modernity, hours became commodities, acquired and spent in labor and leisure, but no longer burning with divine Presence. Most people no longer “had time”—or inclination—to pause and pray seven times a day.
If you are ever able to go on retreat to pray the hours with a monastic community, do it, as often as you can. Your relationship with time will be deepened and renewed. But how might we pray the hours when we are on our own in the secular world, immersed in the ordinary circumstances and flow of our lives? Given all the demands on our time and attention, is it possible to forge a sustainable practice? I believe that it is not only possible, but absolutely necessary, in order to reclaim our time as gift and blessing.
As St. Anselm of Canterbury urged the faithful in the twelfth century:
“Flee for a while from your tasks, hide yourself for a little space from the turmoil of your thoughts. Come, cast aside your burdensome cares, and put aside your laborious pursuits.… Give your time to God, and rest in the Divine for a little while. Enter into the inner chamber of your mind, shut out all things save God …”[iii]
In a 24/7 world, it’s hard to make any space to shut out “all things.” As Kathleen Deignan writes in her contemporary Book of Hours: “There is no room for the mysterious spaciousness of being, no time for presence, no room for nature, no time for quiet, for thought, for presence.”[iv]
During the many months of pandemic shutdowns and lockdowns, our habitual relationship with time has been significantly disrupted . So many routines which shape our customary lives, like going to work or school, have been altered or cancelled. The annual round of seasonal markers—liturgical celebrations, sporting events, holiday weekends, performing arts series, music festivals, vacation travel, graduations, birthday parties—has suffered a similar fate. Sheltering-in-place homogenizes our waking lives with an enervating sameness. Sometimes I forget what day of the week it is.
Time blurs and dis-integrates, loses its shape, becomes increasingly subjective as we disconnect from the larger rhythms and measures of season, cosmos, and tradition. Our temporality seems less firmly structured by the interplay of memory and hope, planning and expectation, coming and going, activity and rest, labor and festivity, variety and difference.
In Martin Amis’ short story, “The Time Disease,” a fear of time itself acts like a virus, attacking the balance that integrates past, present and future in human consciousness. Having lost the capacity to believe themselves part of a meaningful narrative with a redemptive future, people have grown numb to hope, deathly afraid of “coming down with time.” The story, published in 1987, is set in the year 2020!
COVID-19 reminds us daily of our ephemeral and vulnerable condition: finite, mortal, subject to immense forces beyond our control. At the same time, it has weakened our ritual relation to time, by erasing the recurring collective markers, like the first communal shouts of “Alleluia!” at the end of Holy Week, or the joyous tumult of fireworks at a Fourth of July picnic, which affirm a sense of regularity, continuity and renewal. The future has become radically uncertain. We don’t know what tomorrow will bring, much less next year. Fewer of us are making long term plans right now. But it still remains within our power to receive and embrace the gift of this day, this hour, this moment. We can, through conscious practice, sink deeper and deeper into the mystery of being-here-now.
Praying the hours
I am the appointed hour,
The “now” that cuts
Time like a blade.
— Thomas Merton, “Song: If you seek…”
An hour is not an hour, it is a vase full of scents and sounds and projects and climates.
— Marcel Proust, Swann’s Way
Rather than pass the time, we must invite it in.
— Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project
In The Cloud of Unknowing, an anonymous medieval mystic calls us to practice mindfulness: “Be attentive to time and how you spend it. Nothing is more precious. This is evident when you recall that in one tiny moment heaven may be gained or lost. God, the master of time, never gives the future. He gives only the present, moment by moment.”[v] But such mindfulness is not native to moderns, as Hugh Rayment-Pickard laments:
“We ignore the time that is open to us. We diminish ourselves by wishing time to pass. We are, for the most part, incapable of real concentration. Our days are broken by distraction, scrambled into muddles of chores, errands, impulses, evasions, interruptions and delays, besotted with routine. We characteristically fail to see the ways in which a given period can be expanded, deepened and slowed by the exercise of will and awareness.”[vi]
This condition of un-mindful triviality is good for some laughs in Sarah Dunn’s “A Day in the Life of an American Slacker, circa 1994,” a diaristic parody of the Book of Hours. After rising at noon, the Slacker’s day includes naps, television, café idling and aimless wandering, but also the following highlights:
12:45 p.m. Plan the world tour you would take if any of your relatives happened to die and handed you a pile of money.
1:52 p.m. Peruse an op-ed article stating that your generation represents ‘the final exhaustion of civilization.’ Resolve to fire off a scathing yet piquant rebuttal.
2:42 p.m. [During a commercial break in an episode of “Hogan’s Heroes,” think about starting a new project]: a flow chart in which you … categorize and classify every philosopher throughout time …
After more wandering, napping, drinking, and all of 17 minutes dedicated to “hunker down with Schopenhauer,” the Slacker’s day concludes:
11:05 p.m. Return home.
11:30 p.m. Putter around your room.
11:48 p.m. Rake the sand in your Zen rock garden.
12:15 a.m. Alphabetize your cassettes.
12:33 a.m. Practice your dart game.
1:00 a.m. Assume the fetal position for late night infomercial viewing.
1:26 a.m. Stare near-crippling bout of existential angst in the face.
1:57 a.m. Once again, glorious sleep.[vii]
Will time so waste us? Or can we restore our souls—and our daily experience— with an attentive, receptive relation to temporality, and the eternity from which it springs? As the monastic communities discovered while the ancient world was collapsing all around them, praying the hours at the beginning, middle, and end of each day is a deeply transformative practice. It changes the quality of the day, and it changes us.
There are a number of excellent contemporary guides to help us pray the hours in our wordly precincts beyond the cloister. In Music of Silence: A Sacred Journey Through the Hours of the Day, Br. David Steindl-Rast and Sharon Lebell describe the canonical hours as “seasons”: each stage of the day has its own character, its own virtue, its own meaning:
“The hours are the inner structure for living consciously and responsively through the stages of the day.… The message of the hours is to live daily with the real rhythms of the day. to live responsively, consciously … We learn to listen to the music of the moment, to hear its sweet implorings, its sober directives.”[viii]
In Seven Sacred Pauses: Living Mindfully Through the Hours of the Day, Macrina Wiederkehr sees the hours as an antidote for contemporary hurry-sickness:
“We practice pausing to remember the sacredness of our names, who we are, and what we plan on doing with the incredible gift of our lives—and how we can learn to be in the midst of so much doing.”[ix]
In Wisdom Distilled from the Daily: Living the Rule of St. Benedict Today, Sr. Joan Chittister reminds us that prayer is not a mood but a practice:
“To pray only when we feel like it is more to seek consolation than to risk conversion. To pray only when it suits us is to want God on our own terms. To pray only when it is convenient is to make the God-life a very low priority in a list of better opportunities. To pray only when it feels good is to court total emptiness when we most need to be filled. The hard fact is that nobody finds time for prayer. The time must be taken. There will always be something more pressing to do, something more important to be about than the apparently fruitless, empty act of prayer. But … without prayer, the energy for the rest of life runs down.”[x]
Grounding ourselves in a daily prayer practice is vital in the best of times. In 2020’s massive tsunami of pandemic, climate disaster, social unrest and political madness, it is a lifesaver, a shelter from the storm. Tossed between the Scylla and Charybdis of high anxiety and profound melancholy, many of us are exhausted or worse. We need proven tools for survival—and renewal.
This post is the first in a series on praying the hours. Subsequent posts will explore various dimensions and qualities of the hours contained within the day’s three main divisions: Beginning (Vigils, Lauds, Prime); Middle (Terce, Sext, None); and End (Vespers, Compline). The series will conclude with some suggestions for adapting the hours to the diverse and demanding lives we actually live. As Benedictine John Chapman counsels, “Pray as you can, not as you can’t.”[xi]
For further reading
Elizabeth Yates, A Book of Hours (Norton, CT: Vineyard Books, 1976). This classic little volume has 2 pages of prayers and reflections for each of the 24 hours. I have opened this often over the years.
Brother David Steidl-Rast & Sharon Lebell, Music of Silence: A Sacred Journey Through the Hours of the Day(Brooklyn, NY: Ulysses Press, 2001). A wise and indispensable treasury of reflections on each of the hours.
Macrina Wiederkehr, Seven Sacred Pauses: Living Mindfully Through the Hours of the Day (Notre Dame, IN: Sorin Books, 2008). A thoughtful exploration of the 7 hours, with many excellent texts and thoughts to inspire your own construction of a daily practice.
Kathleen Deignan, ed., Thomas Merton: A Book of Hours (Notre Dame, IN: Sorin Books, 2007). Contemplative rites for a 7-day cycle for Dawn, Day, Dusk and Dark, consisting entirely of prose and poetic texts by Thomas Merton, with a helpful introduction by Deignan. Much of the imagery is drawn from the natural world surrounding the famous contemplative’s Kentucky hermitage, tincturing the devotions with a deep awareness of the seasons of the day and of the year.
Joan Chittister OSB, Wisdom Distilled from the Daily: Living the Rule of St. Benedict Today (New York: Harper One, 1991). Chittister’s attractive Benedictine balance of attention and receptivity provides an accessible foundation for a daily prayer practice.
Mark Barrett OSB, Crossing: Reclaiming the Landscape of Our Lives (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 2008). Another Benedictine offers fruitful and imaginative reflections on each of the canonical hours.
Kenneth V. Peterson, Prayer as Night Falls: Experiencing Compline (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2013). This thorough appreciation of the last office of the day blends liturgical history, theology, and personal experience. The perspectives on Compline illumine our approach to all of the hours. Peterson’s website provides glorious examples of Compline choral music discussed in the book: http://prayerasnightfalls.com
World Enough and Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down (Christian McEwen, Peterborough, NH: Bauhan Publishing, 2011). Not a religious text per se, it invites us into a way of being which is essential for mindful living and praying. It’s delightful reading, celebrating what Thoreau called “the bloom of the present moment.”
Robert Grudin, Time and the Art of Living (New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1988). A fertile appreciation of our relationship with time, and how to deepen it.
Hugh Rayment-Pickard, The Myths of Time: From St. Augustine to American Beauty (London: Darton, Longman and Todd Ltd., 2004). An accessible read on the theology of time.
Kevin Jackson, The Book of Hours: An Anthology (London/New York/Woodstock NY: The Overlook Press, 2007). A secular celebration of every hour of the day, with a wide range of literary excerpts. While not about prayer or spirituality, it is great fun, and will sharpen your sense of each hour’s aspects.
There are many books and websites with liturgies for praying the hours. The Episcopal Book of Common Prayer has daily offices for Morning, Noon, Evening and Compline. A number of other Anglican prayer books can be found at http://justus.anglican.org/resources/bcp/
Roman Catholic rites can be accessed at https://divineoffice.org
Phyllis Tickle’s 3-volume seasonal compilations for the Divine Hours are available from Doubleday.
Forward Movement’s Hour by Hour has 4 daily offices for each day of the week.
For a much more extensive list of publications and websites, see Kenneth Peterson’s wonderful array of resources in Prayer as Night Falls (listed above), pp. 205-213.
Finally, my 2015 post about time, Tick Tock: Thoughts for New Year’s Eve, a discussion of Christian Marclay’s 24-hour video, The Clock, has some bearing on the subject of praying the hours.
[i] W. H. Auden, “For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio” (1941-42), in Collected Poems (New York: Random House, 1976), 297.
[ii] “Canon” in Greek meant a straight rod, used for measuring or aligning. In Church usage, the word designated right rule, measure, or proper order, as in the biblical canon, canon law, or the canonical hours.
[iii] Elizabeth Yates, A Book of Hours (Norton, CT: Vineyard Books, 1976), 42.
[iv] Kathleen Deignan, ed., Thomas Merton: A Book of Hours (Notre Dame, IN: Sorin Books, 2007), 32.
[v] The Cloud of Unknowing, an anonymous English work of the late 14th century, cited in Robert Grudin, Time and the Art of Living (New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1988), 92.
[vi] Hugh Rayment-Pickard, The Myths of Time: From St. Augustine to American Beauty (London: Darton, Longman and Todd Ltd., 2004), 20.
[vii] Sarah Dunn, “A Day in the Life of an American Slacker, circa 1994,” in The Official Slacker Handbook, cited in Kevin Jackson, The Book of Hours: An Anthology (London/New York/Woodstock NY: The Overlook Press, 2007), 62-64.
[viii] Brother David Steidl-Rast & Sharon Lebell, Music of Silence: A Sacred Journey Through the Hours of the Day (Brooklyn, NY: Ulysses Press, 2001).
[ix] Macrina Wiederkehr, Seven Sacred Pauses: Living Mindfully Through the Hours of the Day (Notre Dame, IN: Sorin Books, 2008), 13.
[x] Joan Chittister OSB, Wisdom Distilled from the Daily: Living the Rule of St. Benedict Today (New York: Harper One, 1991), 31.
[xi] Mark Barrett OSB, Crossing: Reclaiming the Landscape of Our Lives (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 2008), 26.
But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.
— Matthew 5:44
Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
In my last post, “Subjected thus”—The President Gets COVID,” I touched on the question of how to pray for the President. Of course we pray in general for all who have been infected by the coronavirus, but regarding specific petitions on the President’s behalf, I wrote: “I will pray that Trump’s time of trial may effect the healing of his soul. If he is going to suffer, may his illness be for him a birth of empathy, compassion, humility and goodness.”
With every passing day, that prayer becomes harder to offer with any conviction. As we witness Trump’s continuing disregard for the safety of others—both those around him and the country at large—we wonder whether he may be past saving. Instead of being humbled by his illness, he has only grown more malicious. The people around him are dropping like flies, and countless Americans will continue to die from his mismanagement. And now we fear that his relentless disparagement of life-saving protocols will kill even more. “Far less lethal!!!” than the flu, he tweets against all evidence. It’s as if he’s shouting to the world, “Hurry up and die!”
What, then, is our prayer to be for such a man in such a time?
In the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, prayers for the sick don’t ask that the ill simply be restored to their former state so they can resume their story exactly where they left off. While those prayers ask for relief from pain, protection from danger, freedom from fear, the banishment of weakness and the gift of healing, they also propose a life transformed by suffering:
“… enable him to lead the residue of his life in thy fear, and to thy glory.”
“… that, his health being renewed, he may bless your holy Name.”
“… restore to him your gifts of gladness and strength, and raise him up to a life of service to you.”
“… restored to usefulness in your world with a thankful heart.”
“… that he, daily increasing in bodily strength, and rejoicing in your goodness, may order his life and conduct that hemay always think and do those things that please you.” [i]
As for a President and all those in authority, the Prayer Book asks that they be guided by “the spirit of wisdom,” beseeching the “Lord our Governor” to “fill them with the love of truth and righteousness, and make them ever mindful of their calling to serve this people in your fear.”[ii] Would that it were so! But the way things are going, the prayer “For our Enemies” seems more to the point:
O God, the Father of all, whose Son commanded us to love our enemies: Lead them and us from prejudice to truth; deliver them and us from hatred, cruelty, and revenge; and in your good time enable us all to stand reconciled before you; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.[iii]
The “and us” is a critical part of this prayer, because we have all, symptomatic or not, been infected by the Trumpist pandemic of hate and cruelty. If we say we have not had a few hateful thoughts in the past four years, the truth is not in us. Resistance to evil and purity of heart are not soul mates or easygoing partners. They must work hard to stay coupled.
Another timely prayer is the Collect for the Feast of Holy Innocents, when we remember the children of Bethlehem murdered by King Herod (Matthew 2:13-18). The prayer is not concerned with the state of Herod’s soul, but with the damage inflicted by his successors:
We remember today, O God, the slaughter of the holy innocents of Bethlehem by King Herod. Receive, we pray, into the arms of your mercy all innocent victims; and by your
great might frustrate the designs of evil tyrants and establish your rule of justice, love, and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the
Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.[iv]
We are all standing in the need of prayer these days. And even though we can never fully understand what prayer is and what prayer does, prayer “without ceasing” is an essential part of the healing of the world and the perfection of our souls.
Prayer isn’t like online shopping—placing our order and expecting 2nd-day delivery. It’s not a mechanism for producing outcomes. It’s a relationship, a state of being-with and being-for. It is offering and entrusting ourselves to the One who is “always more ready to hear than we to pray,” who knows “our necessities before we ask and our ignorance in asking.”[v]
Knowing exactly what to pray for is impossible. We cannot see into the hearts of others, nor can we foresee the future. God only knows what is best. As for our own judgments, perspectives and desires, they can taint the purest prayer. In our essential state of imperfection and unknowing, perhaps the safest petitions are these: “Hold us in your mercy” and “Thy will be done.”
But with regard to more specific petitions for this President, I will be guided by the examples cited from the Book of Common Prayer. I will pray for his suffering to be brief but transformative. I will pray for his power to be guided by wisdom and truth. I will pray that his evil designs be frustrated, and that he (and we) be freed from the grip of hatred, cruelty and revenge. But I must confess that Donald Trump is not easy to pray for.
When I think of the monster who has tortured children in cages and caused countless COVID deaths, I struggle with my anger, my horror, and my disgust. But as I sat in the silence of a moonlit garden before this morning’s dawn, I was given the image of a little boy so damaged, so broken, so unloved, locked deep inside the dungeon of Trump’s psyche seventy years ago—guarded by dragons, hidden from the light, lost to the world. That tragic, wounded, forgotten child is someone I can pray for with my whole heart.
[i] The Book of Common Prayer, according to the use of The Episcopal Church USA (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), 458-459.
[ii] BCP, 820.
[iii] BCP, 816.
[iv] BCP, 238.
[v] BCP, Proper 21 (p. 234) and Proper 11 (p. 231).
For God’s sake let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings:
How some have been depos’d, some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed,
Some poisoned by their wives, some sleeping kill’d,
All murdered – for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court, and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,
Allowing him a breath, a little scene,
To monarchize, be fear’d, and kill with looks;
Infusing him with self and vain conceit,
As if this flesh which walls about our life
Were brass impregnable; and, humour’d thus,
Comes at the last, and with a little pin
Bores through his castle wall, and farewell king!
Cover your heads, and mock not flesh and blood
With solemn reverence; throw away respect,
Tradition, form, and ceremonious duty;
For you have but mistook me all this while.
I live with bread like you, feel want,
Taste grief, need friends – subjected thus,
How can you say to me, I am a king?
— Richard II [i]
Shakespeare’s tragedy of Richard II dramatizes the gradual stripping away of royal power, until the mighty king is but a naked subject—“subjected thus” to mortality and the threat of nonbeing like everyone else. The moment comes when the impregnable aura gives way, “and farewell king!” Almost 40 years ago, I saw Ariane Mnouchkine’s Téâtre du Soleil perform the play as Kabuki theater, and the wrenching transformation of the richly vested monarch, who could “kill with looks,” into a caged prisoner, naked and helpless, remains vivid in my mind to this day. It was an important part of my political education, and it came to mind when I heard that the President has COVID.
Dante also came to mind. In Canto XX of the Inferno, the pilgrim Dante is rebuked by Virgil for weeping over the fate of the damned. While Dante certainly condemned their fraudulent deeds on earth, their disfiguring pain in hell moved him to tears. “Reader,” he says, “imagine if you can how I could have kept from weeping when I saw, up close, our human likeness so contorted…”
“Stop acting like an idiot,” Virgil tells him. “There’s no place for pity here. You will never learn piety if you sorrow over the shape of justice.” [ii]
This is not the only time that Dante the pilgrim experiences feelings of sympathy in hell. Modern readers always side with him, sharing the natural human response to the suffering of others. But Dante the writer and theologian remains committed to the poem’s implacable design. For the damned, there will be no exit. But then, none of them shows any desire for escape. Hell is populated by souls who refuse to change. As Helen Luke puts it in her Jungian reflection on the Divine Comedy, “the damned are those who have not only fallen into the unconscious but have chosen to remain there and so have lost their will to choose.” [iii]
Souls in Dante’s hell are no longer really persons in the sense of autonomous individuals engaged in a process of development and growth. Instead, they are indistinguishable from the sin which possessed them in their mortal life. Although they may appear vividly lifelike, with memorable personalities, they are ghostly simulacra, like cinematic images of long-dead actors, repeating the same self-absorbed words and actions, without change, for all eternity.
So our horror at the Inferno’s ingenious punishments is meant to be directed at the sins rather than the punishments. As Dante scholar John Freccero points out, “The punishments fit the crimes, provided we understand ‘fittingness’ as an aesthetic category.… If the bodies in hell are really souls, then it follows that their physical attitudes, contortions and punishments are really spiritual attitudes and states of mind, sins made manifest in the form of physical punishment. It is therefore correct to say that the punishments are the sins.” [iv]
Dante’s ambivalent interplay of sympathy and judgment resonates with my own response to the news that Donald Trump has tested positive for COVID-19. I do not wish suffering on anyone, nor do I even find much satisfaction in the blatant ironies of his case. It is a terrible disease and he is in an especially vulnerable category, and when I pray daily for the 7.5 million Americans who have the coronavirus, he and his wife will now be in that number.
At the same time, there is a degree of Dantean “fittingness” to his case. The pandemic, which Trump has made worse by things done and things left undone, has come home to roost. The sin has become the punishment. Trump is responsible for 38% of dangerous misinformation about the virus; he has encouraged millions of Americans to engage in reckless behavior; and even after learning of his own exposure, he continued to endanger others with physical proximity.
But as much as I desire an end to the abuse he has inflicted on our country, our world and our planet, I want that to come from a vote, not a virus. However, there are some who are openly enjoying the poetic justice. “I wish Trump, his wife, and cabal,” writes one blogger, “the same care and consideration they have given to those struggling to survive COVID19.… I wish Trump, his wife, and cabal the same care and consideration they have given to those grieving lost loved ones – the children, parents, and grandparents, friends and family who mourn.… I wish Trump, his wife, and cabal – Justice.”[v]
Eric Stetson, a Unitarian minister, blogged an admonition in “Don’t be a jerk about Trump getting COVID.”[vi] Not only would too much shadenfreude risk political blowback, he cautioned, but indulging our hates is “spiritually dangerous” for ourselves and our country. As Bobby Kennedy urged us after Martin Luther King’s assassination, “We must admit in ourselves that our own children’s future cannot be built on the misfortunes of others. We must recognize that this short life can neither be ennobled or enriched by hatred or revenge.” [vii]
Another blogger, a therapist, disagreed, arguing that it was fine, even healthy, to gloat. “I am not religious or spiritual,” he wrote. “I do not think there is any danger to me if I take pleasure in the suffering of evil people.”[viii] Really? God forbid! There’s more than enough such “pleasure” going around. A better world will not be built out of our darkest shadows. Resistance without love is the road to nowhere.
In addition to pleading mercy and care for all who suffer from COVID, I will pray that Trump’s time of trial may effect the healing of his soul. If he is going to suffer, may his illness be for him a birth of empathy, compassion, humility and goodness. Impossible, you say? The business of prayer is precisely the impossible. The possible can take care of itself.
In his poems on “affliction,” 17th-century poet/priest George Herbert, who died at 39 from consumption, discerned a transformative dimension in suffering. In “Affliction (III),” he prays:
My heart did heave, and there came forth, O God!
By that I knew that thou wast in the grief,
To guide and govern it to my relief …
In “Affliction (IV),” Herbert confesses to be “broken in pieces all asunder, / … tortur’d in the space / Betwixt this world and that of grace. / My thoughts are all a case of knives, / Wounding my heart …” But, he finds, all “those powers which work for grief” are actually in God’s employ. “And day by day” they work for “my relief,”
With care and courage building me,
Till I reach heav’n, and much more thee.
[i] Scene III, Act 2 (151-173. As Marjorie Garber notes in Shakespeare After All (2004), the more the king’s power wanes, the more poetic and reflective he becomes. “The failed ruler becomes a poet, writing the tragedy of Richard II.” As in Herbert’s poems cited at the end, suffering can be a teacher, guiding us toward our best self.
[ii] Inferno xx.19-21, 27-30.
[iii] Helen Luke, Dark Wood to White Rose: Journey and Transformation in Dante’s Divine Comedy (New York: Parabola Books, 1989), 13.
[iv] John Freccero, Dante: The Poetics of Conversion (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986), k105-106.
[v] Onamastic, “I wish them justice,” Daily Kos (Oct. 2, 2020): https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2020/10/2/1982751/-I-wish-them-Justice
[vi] Eric Stetson, “Don’t Be a Jerk About Trump Getting Covid,” Daily Kos (Oct. 2, 2020): https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2020/10/1/1982696/-Don-t-Be-a-Jerk-about-Trump-Getting-Covid#comment_78754030
[vii] Robert F. Kennedy, “Remarks to the Cleveland City Club” (April 5, 1968): https://www.jfklibrary.org/learn/about-jfk/the-kennedy-family/robert-f-kennedy/robert-f-kennedy-speeches/remarks-to-the-cleveland-city-club-april-5-1968
[viii] Hal Brown, “As a therapist I want to remind you not to feel guilty if you have dark thoughts about Trump,” Daily Kos (Oct. 2, 2020): https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2020/10/2/1982773/-As-a-therapist-I-want-to-remind-you-not-to-feel-guilty-if-you-have-dark-thoughts-about-Trump
Alexander: “Where are we?”
Katherine: “Oh, I don’t know exactly.”
— Opening lines of Journey to Italy
The first shot of Roberto Rossellini’s 1954 film, Journey to Italy, is through the windshield of a speeding Bentley on an open stretch of country road. It is an image of pure velocity, revealing neither origin nor goal, but only the fact of motion. Inhabiting the subjective eye of the camera, we know only that we are rushing forward, out of the past, into the unknown.
Then we see who is inside the car. Alex and Katherine Joyce are Londoners, on their way to Naples to sell a villa inherited from their Uncle Homer. We deduce from their clothes—his tweed jacket and her leopard-skin coat—that they are a couple of means, accustomed to shaping their own story. But the names “Joyce” and “Homer,” invoking the great voyager Ulysses, suggests that their journey will take them beyond the familiar into the land of unknowing. “Where are we?” “Oh, I don’t know exactly.”
For the Joyces, Naples, along with nearby Vesuvius and Pompeii, is radically elsewhere—neither Rome nor Milan, and certainly not London. In the Italian south, modernity has not erased the archaic remnants of mythic memory or silenced the primal voices of earth, sea, and sky. The ancient past is not dead and gone. It speaks through rituals and ruins. It erupts from the depths of history, utters forgotten tongues.
Time slows in the south. The north’s purposeful hurry dissipates beneath the Neapolitan sun. The forward rush of the opening scene is replaced by aimless drift. A firm sense of story—beginning, middle, and end—dissipates into Mediterranean languor. The eventful developments we expect from movie narrative are absent. Like Dante in the dark wood, Alex and Katherine have strayed from the straight road of storytelling. They have lost their way.
The Italian south doesn’t create their malaise; it reveals it. “I’m getting sick of this crazy country,” Alex complains. “It poisons you with laziness. I want to get back home, back to work.” Without the familiar fictions of their London life, the habitual doings and distractions which postpone the honest reckonings of a hungry heart, they find themselves face to face with the alienation, egoism and fatigue of a failing marriage. They hardly know what to say to each other. When they do, the words are often abrasive or wounding.
Rossellini’s leads were actors whose own lives were in emotional disarray. Both Ingrid Bergman (Katherine) and George Sanders (Alex) had recent divorces, and Bergman’s current affair with Rossellini—a scandal at the time—was coming apart. She was tearful on the set. Sanders, recruited precisely for his sour and cynical manner, was also unhappy. With his biggest roles behind him, what was he doing with a largely nonprofessional cast in a low-budget art film?
Rossellini’s practice of handing out dialogue at the last minute kept his actors off balance, so they couldn’t overthink their performance in advance . Trained in the conventions of Hollywood’s highly scripted and plot-driven narratives, Bergman and Sanders often seem at a loss in a film where so little happens. His confusion and her uncertainty infused their roles with authenticity, blurring the line between fiction and documentary.
“The film opens a breach and all cinema on pain of death must pass through it.”
— Jacques Rivette on Journey to Italy [i]
Journey is more than the story of a marriage. Its wider theme is the malady of the secular age. Both Alex and Katherine are imprisoned within themselves, unable to connect with each other or the world. To borrow a phrase from Jean-Luc Godard, they are “castaways of the western world, survivors of the shipwreck of modernity.” [ii] Journey would pave the way for a cinema of alienation, haunted with the ghostly nonbeing of lives “lacking in purpose, in passion, in zest, in a sense of community, in ordinary human responsiveness, in the ability to communicate.…” [iii]
This was a new kind of cinema, born of twentieth-century trauma. After the Holocaust and Hiroshima, it became impossible to limit the art of film to self-contained stories, within which the actors can take action to resolve problems and produce definitive and satisfying conclusions. The damage and disfigurement of humanity, its existential crisis and utter lostness, had to find authentic representation in movies about “nothing.” That is to say, their true subject would not be a narrative but a condition.
French film scholar Antoine de Baecque writes about the impact on filmmakers of the shocking footage shot during the liberation of the Nazi death camps. The idea of “aestheticizing horror” through fictional recreations of the camps seemed obscene at the time. “I could never do that,” said American director Samuel Fuller. “How can you do it better than the Germans?”[iv] But those terrible images lodged themselves permanently in the psyches of directors like Rossellini, Antonioni, Resnais and Godard. As de Baecque writes:
“These images born of the war, which deeply marked cinema and filmmakers at the time, did a kind of subterranean work, a ‘reworking’ so to speak, subconsciously—since they never actually appear in postwar films—and then resurfaced in films (often ten years later) in definite forms, like traumatic memory that, little by little, had bored its way into the history of cinema. An art form had lost its innocence, and the great auteurs would no longer be making the same kinds of films.” They could only “return to the real by getting out of the studio to film the world.” [v]
In Journey, the memory of death resurfaces again and again. We see the charnel house skulls in a Naples cemetery, a funeral cortège rounding a corner to block our progress, and the ruins of Pompeii, where a thousand Romans were buried alive by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. Even when Alex and Katherine bask in the pleasant Mediterranean sun, the volcano looms behind them as a reminder of mortality.
Two people have lost their way in a world of death. Is there no exit? The spirituality of Naples wants to speak, but Alex has no ears to hear, no curiosity beyond his enclosure of self-absorption. Katherine, however, proves more adventurous. When she drives into Naples from the villa, the film cuts between her “entombment” inside the car and the fecundity of street life all around her—strolling lovers, pregnant women, sidewalk vendors. The contrast between the carefully composed studio shot of Katherine behind the wheel and the cinéma vérité footage of the street creates an unstable mix of fiction and documentary. The wall between herself and a wider reality is starting to crumble.
“That’s what God is for, to make our lies truth.”
— Iris Murdoch, The Good Apprentice
In writing about the novels of Iris Murdoch, theologian Paul S. Fiddes describes the ‘unselving’ of self-enclosed characters. He could be writing about the Joyces as well. Like Murdoch’s protagonists, they “learn, or fail to learn, to be truthful, which means giving attention to what is real around them. At one level … this means noticing people as they actually are, rather than as we want them to be for our convenience. It means delighting in all the contingent details of the world, recognizing the ‘otherness’ of people and things, and living with all the hazards of accident. At the very least the disciples of goodness accept the ‘muddle’ of the world, and at the best they experience its amazing variety as being the Sublime.” [vi]
Katherine’s tourist itinerary of Naples thus becomes something more: a journey into the depths of the past—the cave of an ancient Sibyl, an ossuary of anonymous skulls, galleries of Roman sculpture, the ruins of Pompeii. Here she begins to face what Rose Macaulay called “the ruins of the soul; the shadowy dreams that lurked tenebrously in the cellars of consciousness; in the mysterious corridors and arcades of dreams, the wilderness that stretches not without but within.” [vii] Remnants of a vanished past, signifying the paradoxical dance of time and eternity, interrogate the meaning of her present existence. As we are now, so you shall soon be. What are you doing with the tiny slice of time you’ve been given? When you’re gone, what remains?
When Katherine looks at statues, they stare back. Who are you? The “I” of the camera, a third subjectivity, looks at both—at the statue, then at Katherine. In the museum and the other visited sites, the film becomes a documentary of Ingrid Bergman’s face, “a sensory surface on which the sounds and images are imprinted. The film appears to rest entirely on her reactions.” [viii]
When Katherine gazes into the sulphur pits of Vesuvius, where subterranean energies surface into visibility, we are reminded of Dante’s Inferno, the classic template for every descent into the soul’s hidden depths.
The crisis point in Journey follows a bitter argument between Katherine and Alex. At the very moment Alex says the fatal word—“divorce”—they are interrupted by Burton, the villa’s property manager, who insists they come immediately to the excavation at Pompeii, where a pair of “bodies” is about to be uncovered.
When Pompeii was buried under six meters of volcanic ash two thousand years ago, its inhabitants died instantly. Their bodies dissolved over time, leaving hollow forms in the hardened ash. During the shooting of Journey to Italy, archaeologists were in the process of injecting plaster into those forms to recreate the ancient “bodies,” and Rossellini was allowed to film the fictional Joyces watching the real uncovering of a buried past.
“You must come!” Burton had told them. “Imagine—to actually see the shape of a man just as he was then, the moment when he was surprised by death.” In fact, what they do see is two people, a couple who took their last breath lying side by side as lovers.
The forms are real plaster, but at the same time they are fictional figures, reimagined into the visible from the empty shapes left behind by the dead. They are, in effect, tangible expressions of nothingness, which might also be said about the hollow and aimless lives of the Joyces. For any viewer, those plaster forms of vanished Pompeiians prompt unsettling meditations on life and death, presence and absence, and our own essential nothingness. I myself contemplated Pompeii’s plaster ghosts almost fifty years ago, and I can still recall the melancholy—and the fascination—those forms evoked in me. As Julian of Norwich put it in the 14th century, without divine love sustaining us in every moment, we would all sink into nonbeing.
What the Joyces behold, as they watch the archaeologists brush away the ash from the plaster forms, is history made visible. Staring into the abyss of time, they are confronted by the smallness and brevity of their own lives. Their own nothingness surfaces into awareness. The falsity of their solipsistic lives, independent of a larger world and ignorant of death, begins to give way.
The image of the ancient lovers is itself a shock, history’s rebuke to their own loveless marriage. Perhaps most terrible of all is the photographic nature of the forms, capturing a single instant of the past and removing it from the flow of time. The Roman lovers are a still image, frozen in a moment with no future. For Katherine and Alex, stuck in a hell of their own making, it displays the horror of an existence which cannot change, a deadness with no exit. They recognize themselves—sans embrace—in the plaster forms.
Katherine recoils and bursts into tears, demanding that they leave the site. As the couple descends a flight of ancient stairs to find their car, Katherine asks her husband, “Is this the way out?” It is another Dantean moment: the way down is the only way up.
Once back in their car, they try to put some distance between themselves and the place which has tried their souls. But the south will not let them go. Passing through the town of Maiori on the Amalfi Coast, they are blocked by a great crowd jamming the central square. It is a procession for San Gennaro, the only Christian festival to claim an annual miracle: the liquefication of the martyred bishop’s dried blood. The persistence of this claim in a skeptical age highlights the archaic strangeness of a region where the past seems so unperturbed by modernity. And in this land of miracles, Journey to Italy reaches its miraculous conclusion.
Unable to drive any further, Katherine and Alex get out their car, the symbol of their isolation from and control over exterior circumstance. Immersed in the teeming crowd, they seem nakedly exposed to the energies all around them. When Katherine is suddenly swept away by a surge of bodies, Alex runs to rescue her. They embrace. Suddenly—miraculously—awakening to a forgotten but genuine bond between them, they confess their folly and profess their love.
It’s a Hollywood ending, but one in quotes, because this is a modernist work, where the real and ambiguous world insists on breaking into the neatly scripted story. If the revelations and crisis that preceded this moment only result in a happy ending for the couple, who might then resume their distance from the world if not each other, it is not a true unselving. It would allow the lie of autonomous lives to carry on.
The film’s true miracle is not the “happy ending” of the Joyces’ embrace and the lovely closeup of famous movie stars. Rather, it is their disappearance into the larger world of humanity and history, and through that, into the ultimate mystery of the world, whom we call divine. And this miracle happens when the camera, on a crane, pulls away from the couple to sweep over the crowd. The Joyces are not forgotten, but they are now understood as part of a much larger world. But this world is not anonymous and impersonal. The uniquely personal remains undiminished in this great communion of mortal beings, as the final shot, now at eye level, watches face after face after face pass by, into a collective future that never stops unfolding.
Every age will see a film differently. I’ve watched Journey to Italy many times over the years, but viewing it during the pandemic has touched an existential nerve. Larger realities are breaking into our settled world, and we will never be the same. Our own Vesuvius looms on the horizon.
Film critic Laura Mulvey, in her commentary on the excavation scene, points out that cinema itself, not just particular films, confronts us with our mortality:
“The figures of the excavation are formed by an imprint left by the original. Film too is an imprint.…The presence of the human figure on celluloid is one more layer, one more trace of the past brought to life and preserved.… With the coming of death and the passing of time, Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders, as well as the passersby in Naples, are now themselves dead, their images fossilized on celluloid, just as the figures of Pompeii were cast in plaster.” [ix]
“Life is so short,” says Katherine among the ruins. And as today’s pandemic spreads its shadow over the earth, and climate change undermines the stability of the physical world, we too have become more conscious of our vulnerability and our brevity, and less able to maintain the illusion of untouched autonomous lives. We can no longer keep death at a safe distance; we dance every day on the razor’s edge between being and nonbeing. Who knows when we, too, will be “surprised by death?”
But in the long run of time, the question of my fate or your fate must give way to a larger perspective. We are all in this together, and—come what may—I believe we will, in the end, be gathered into the great procession of a redeemed humanity, shouting “Glory!” for all eternity. It will no longer be death that takes us by surprise, but grace.
Journey to Italy (1954) is the third feature in a trilogy of “voyage” films which Rossellini made with Ingrid Bergman, who left a successful Hollywood career to make these art films—some of her best work—with the Italian director, with whom she would fall in love. All 3 films involve a transformative journey into an unfamiliar and challenging place—a barren island in Stromboli (1950), the world of the poor in Europe ’51 (1952), and the mysterious south of Italy in Journey. In the U.S., The Criterion Collection has produced a beautifully mastered box set of the Trilogy, with excellent commentaries, to which I am indebted, on the discs and in the booklet. Journey to Italy can be streamed, but (in the U.S. at least), it is available on disc only in the box set, which is definitely worth having if you love film.
[i] Cited in James Quandt’s commentary, “Surprised by Death: Roberto Rossellini’s Voyage Trilogy,” on the Criterion disc, 3 Films by Roberto Rossellini with Ingrid Bergman (2013). Rivette, along with Godard, Resnais, and Truffaut, would be greatly influenced by this film, and often praised it in their writings.
[ii] Godard is describing his own film, Contempt (1963), which was itself an hommage to Journey to Italy. Cited in Quandt’s commentary.
[iii] This quote from Richard Gilman’s “About Nothing—with Precision,” Theater Arts 46, no. 7 (July 1962), p. 11. Gilman is writing about another Italian director, Michelangelo Antonioni, who would take the theme of alienation to the limit in films like La Notte (1961), where the alienated couple remains stuck in their private hell, unlike the couple in Journey to Italy. Rossellini regarded Antonioni’s films as too pessimistic, but both filmmakers were dealing with the same modern malady: alienation, drift, and emptiness. Gilman is cited in Seymour Chatman, Antonioni, or, the Surface of the World (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1985),
[iv] Cited in Antoine de Baecque, Camera Historica: The Century in Cinema, trans. Ninon Vinsonneau & Jonathan Magidoff (New York: Columbia University, 2008), 68. Fuller shot footage for the U.S. Army during the liberation of the camp at Falkenau (you can find it on YouTube), but he never tried to recreate the horror in a fictional way. He did show his actors watching documentary footage in Verboten!(1959). The fictional shots pale when intercut with real images of mass death.
[v] Antoine de Baecque, 45.
[vi] Paul S. Fiddes, Freedom and Limit: A Dialogue between Literature and Christian Doctrine (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1999), 173.
[vii] Rose Macaulay, The World My Wilderness (1950), cited in Christopher Woodward, In Ruins (New York: Pantheon Books, 2001), 231. Macaulay’s character is contemplating the bomb craters and ruined buildings in 1946 London. The remnants of past destruction bear thematic resemblance to Pompeii and evoke similar responses.
[viii] Antoine de Baecque, 65.
[ix] Laura Mulvey is a noted British film theorist. Her richly informative commentary is on the Criterion disc.
I always cringe when political figures conclude their speeches with “God bless the United States of America.” In that context it is not a prayer; it is an assertion of privilege and dominance, invoking divine consent and protection for a sinful status quo. At best it is a formulaic trivialization of divine-human communication, lacking the humility, attentiveness and depth proper for addressing the Holy. At worst, in the mouths of scheming hypocrites and cruel tyrants, it’s blasphemy.
How many times, at this week’s Republican National Convention, did we hear the word ‘God’ on the lips of angry, hateful, lying partisans? I don’t know which is worse—the cynicism of unbelievers who speak the word only to dupe the gullible, or the bizarre piety of those who seem to believe that God blesses corruption, deception and violence.
One might debate degrees of difference between Democrats and Republicans regarding the promiscuous appropriation of “God” in their rhetoric. No one is without sin in the world of politics, and the abuse of rhetorical piety is a bipartisan failing. It’s hard to remain spotless when it comes to power struggles. But can we at least agree that anyone who has committed, condoned or enabled the torture of caged children should never dare to cry “God!” unless they are lying prostrate on the ground, weeping bitter tears, begging forgiveness in fear and trembling?
When I was a young man studying theology with Robert McAfee Brown, he read us a passage from Martin Buber’s Eclipse of God. Fifty years later, I still remember the passionate wisdom of the Jewish theologian’s words. He was responding to a friend who thought “God” to be a word so defiled by centuries of misuse that its utterance should be suspended indefinitely, giving it time to recover its proper purity and depth. Buber replied:
“Yes,” I said, “it is the most heavy-laden of all human words. None has become so soiled, so mutilated. Just for this reason I may not abandon it. The generations have laid the burden of their anxious lives upon this word and weighed it to the ground; it lies in the dust and bears their whole burden. Human beings with their religious factions have torn the word to pieces; they have killed for it and died for it, and it bears their finger marks and their blood.
“Where might I find a word like it to describe the highest! If I took the purest, most sparkling concept from the inner treasure-chamber of the philosophers, I could only capture thereby an unbinding product of thought. I could not capture the presence of the One whom the generations have honoured and degraded with their awesome living and dying. I do indeed mean God whom the hell-tormented and heaven-storming generations mean. Certainly, they draw caricatures and write ‘God’ underneath; they murder one another and say ‘in God’s name.’ But when all madness and delusion fall to dust, when they stand over against Him in the loneliest darkness and no longer say, ‘He, He,’ but rather sigh ‘Thou,’ shout ‘Thou,’ all of them the one word, and when they then add ‘God,’ is it not the real God whom they all implore, the One Living God, the God of the human race? Is it not He who hears them?
“And just for this reason, is not the word ‘God’, the word of appeal, the word which has become a name, consecrated in all human tongues for all times? We must esteem those who interdict it because they rebel against the injustice and wrong which is so readily referred to ‘God’ for authorisation. But we may not give up. How understandable it is that some suggest we should remain silent about ‘the last things’ for a time in order that the misused words may be redeemed! But they are not to be redeemed thus. We cannot cleanse the word ‘God’ and we cannot make it whole; but, defiled and mutilated as it is, we can raise it from the ground and set it over an hour of great care.”
Fifty years ago tonight, I was lucky enough to hear a legendary concert by two extraordinary songwriters and performers, David Ackles and Elton John. A fanciful depiction of that night in the 2019 biopic Rocket Man shows the audience rising ecstatically to float above the floor. Actually, we were all sitting around big tables, but that is pretty much how it felt to be there. For the fiftieth anniversary of that unforgettable evening, I reprise my tribute written in 2016.
I have no explanation as to why the David Ackles albums spoke to me so intensely, but it was with those records that I probably spent the most time when I was about sixteen, listening in a darkened room, trying to imagine how everything had come to exist.”
— Elvis Costello, Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink
They suffer least who suffer what they choose.
— David Ackles, “American Gothic”
The Troubadour, an intimate club in West Hollywood, has seen some pretty special nights over the years. Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Randy Newman, Prince, Tom Petty, Pearl Jam and so many others have performed on its stage. Neil Young and James Taylor each made their solo debut there. The Byrds sang “Mr. Tambourine Man” for the first time in public. Tom Waits was discovered during amateur night. Springsteen, Dylan and Led Zeppelin dropped by after hours for legendary jams. Miles Davis and Van Morrison recorded there.[i]
When Elton John made his smashing American debut at the Troubadour on August 25, 1970, he was not yet widely known. He was originally booked as the opening act for David Ackles, a Los Angeles musical artist greatly admired by Elton John and his lyricist Bernie Taupin. But John’s record company pulled some strings to get the bill reversed. In conjunction with the release of his first album, John would become the headline act.
He would admit later to some embarrassment at being promoted above Ackles on the billing, since Ackles was one of his heroes, “one of the best that America has to offer.” Elvis Costello was also a fan, “It’s a mystery to me why his wonderful songs are not better known,” he has said.[ii] When Costello interviewed John on his Sundance cable series, Spectacle, they both voiced generous tributes to Ackles’ genius and influence, and closed the show with a duet of his great song of loss and longing, “Down River.” [iii]
Ackles put out four memorable albums between 1968 and 1973. His masterpiece, American Gothic (1972), generated critical raves. “The Sergeant Pepper of Folk,” gushed a noted British critic, astonished at its thematic brilliance, structural complexity and musical originality. Rolling Stone called it “moving” and “eloquent.” A retrospective appraisal in 2005 acclaimed it “a largely unrecognized work of genius, one of the most unfashionable and uncompromising American albums ever. . . Crafted layer upon layer, it reveals itself more as a dramatic work than a conventional rock or pop release, drawing on modern American classical composers such as Charles Ives and Aaron Copland as well as gospel, rock, blues, and soul. Imagine an art-folk album that bridges Woody Guthrie’s passionate storytelling and Kurt Weill’s orchestrations.” [iv]
Rolling Stone said at the time that American Gothic “deserves a wide audience,” but when sales proved weak, his recording company, Elektra, lost interest. Ackles made one more album on the Columbia label, but his music seemed too hard to categorize in an industry driven by identifiable genres. Was it folk, pop, classical, musical theater, or what? His originality didn’t fit the system. A ten-minute elegy to a lost past (“Montana Song”) was not going to get much radio time. And you couldn’t dance to it. But however neglected, the heartbreaking beauty of Ackles’ imagery still blooms like wildflowers on a deserted prairie:
The fallen barn, the broken plow,
the hoofprint-hardened clay;
where is the farmer, now,
who built his dream this way ?
Who felled the tree and cut the bough
and made the land obey,
who taught his sons as he knew how,
but could not make them stay. [v]
Disappointed by the lack of tangible support for his work, Ackles abandoned his recording career, but not his joie de vivre. “I’m not bitter about a thing that’s happened to me,” he told an interviewer in 1998. “I would hate for people to think I’m over here getting all twisted up about what happened 20 years ago. All that feels like another life, lived by someone else.” [vi]
Although he could write an achingly beautiful love song like “Love’s Enough,” he was at heart a storyteller, weaving poetic and sometimes tragic narratives of American dreamers and strivers, who “joined the circus, worked the fields,” but “never saved a dime.” And even when they had to “learn to dance to someone else’s song,” they managed to endure:
But I hold on to my dreams, anyway.
I never let them die.
They keep me going through the bad times,
while I dream
of the good times coming by. [vii]
Bernie Taupin, who produced American Gothic, summed up Ackles’ intensity and conviction in a 2008 remembrance: “Man! If you didn’t believe every word this guy was singing, you were dead inside.” [viii]
I first met David Ackles in early 1970, when I was working at Canterbury House in Ann Arbor, Michigan, an Episcopal campus ministry and coffeehouse known as one of the premiere folk music venues in the country. I was just out of seminary, working with two priests as an intern during the year of my “transitional diaconate,” the prelude to priestly ordination. While I was in residence, Canterbury House featured Neil Young, Doc Watson, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, and David Ackles.
David was one of Canterbury’s most popular performers, loved not only for his music but also for his manifest warmth and wry humor. He was a lifelong Christian, deeply spiritual and theologically astute, an authentic and generous man. And though some of his songs revealed a profound empathy with the suffering of displaced souls, there was an essential core in him—a comedic faith in resurrection—which survived the harrowing descent of the artist into the nether regions of the human condition.
By summer of 1970, I was back home in Los Angeles, awaiting my ordination to the priesthood in September. When I saw that David was playing at the Troubadour, I knew I had to be there. Meanwhile, the radio was starting to preview a few unreleased songs by the other guy on the bill, and he sounded quite good as well. Word got around, excitement grew, and on August 25 the house was packed. We shared a table with Odetta, the “queen of American folk music.” [ix]
Before the show, I went backstage to ask David if he would consider singing at my ordination, and he graciously consented. While we were talking, Elton John entered the dressing room, wearing denim overalls with a cartoon duck patch on the front, to tell David how much he admired his work and how honored he was to share the stage with him.
And the concert? It’s been nearly fifty years now. Details grow hazy; I can’t recite the set lists anymore. But I can still feel the electricity of that Hollywood night, the passion of the performers, the visceral connection they made with their audience.
Stacy Sullivan, a jazz singer who once worked with David, is currently performing, in small New York clubs, “A Night at the Troubadour: Presenting Elton John and David Ackles.” While showing the brilliance of two stars aligning, her re-imagining of that night suggests the strangeness of fate: one singer became an international superstar, the other remained largely undiscovered.
The New York Times has called Sullivan’s tribute a “tour de force” which “interweaves more than a dozen Ackles songs with several of Mr. John’s hits, radically deconstructed, into a dual portrait in which their opposite sensibilities (Mr. John’s gregarious showmanship, and Mr. Ackles’ dignified introspection) eventually merge.” [x] Lucky Easterners can still see her at Manhattan’s Metropolitan Room on September 10 and October 8 [Note: this was in 2016]. I can only pray that she will do a West Coast reprise. I promise to come.
A few weeks after the Troubadour show, David sang two songs for my ordination at All Saints, Beverly Hills, where the opening hymn was “Let It Be” and large projected images filled the wall behind the altar. Those were the days! During communion, David sang “Be My Friend.” At the Dismissal, he led the congregation in “Family Band,” which he said was autobiographical, since he grew up in a musical family of church-going Presbyterians. I still play that song on my guitar every ordination anniversary:
I remember the songs we sang Sunday evening . . .
when my dad played the bass, mom played the drums,
I played the piano,
and Jesus sang the song.
David got lung cancer in the late nineties. When he went into remission, he and his wonderful wife Janice rented a Pasadena mansion, filled it with musicians, and threw a grand party for their friends, to celebrate the gifts of life and love. Then, in 1999, David departed this world, far too soon. He is dearly missed. But that gathering in Pasadena remains a joyous foretaste of the blessedness which awaits us all.
And I will cherish the faith in the songs we knew then,
till we all sing together, till we all sing together,
till we sing them together again.
[ii] Reuters obituary in March, 1999, cited in Kenny MacDonald interview: http://www.terrascope.co.uk/MyBackPages/David%20Ackles.htm
[v] David Ackles, “Montana Song,” on American Gothic. Some of David’s songs can be heard on YouTube, and his albums can be found online as well.
[vi] Kenny MacDonald interview
[vii] “Another Friday Night,” American Gothic
[viii] Bernie Taupin’s blog, Dec. 3, 2008
[ix] Attributed to Martin Luther King, Jr.: http://entertainment.time.com/2011/10/24/the-all-time-100-songs/slide/take-this-hammer-odetta/
[x] New York Times, July 16, 2016: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/16/arts/music/stacy-sullivan-david-ackles-review.html?_r=1