Forty Years of Chewing Sand

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

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

–– Alessandro Pronzato [i]

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do not doubt the feast.

 

 

Related posts:

Via Negativa: A Lenten Worship Installation

Solitude (Part 1)

Solitude (Part 2)

 

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

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

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

[iv] Moses, 31.

[v] Ibid., 26.

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

American Nomads

You can do everything right, just the way society wants you to do it,
and still end up broke, alone, and homeless.

–– Bob Wells

I’ve found all space is hallowed ground,
If we will but look around
In our sacred search for the New Earth.
Queens of the Road!  

–– Sylvianne Delmars

 

At last weekend’s Search for Meaning literary festival at Seattle University, there was a multitude of interesting authors speaking on “topics surrounding the human quest for meaning and the characteristics of an ethical and well-lived life.” The challenge was to select only one out of nineteen offerings per hourly session. That was tough for for an indecisively curious omnivore like me. Among the choices were “Rain: A History for Stormy Times,” “Spotlighting Forgotten Injustices Through Historical Fiction,” “Competing Fundamentalisms: The Violent Face of Christianity, Islam and Hinduism,” “The Tao of Raven,” “Writing on the Canvas of Eternity,” and “The Wisdom of the Zombie Apocalypse.”

I was a little surprised by where I ended up––in Jessica Bruder’s “Nomadland: Surviving in the Shadow of the American Economy.” Instead of sticking to a well-hewn path of accustomed interests, I felt pulled aside by the strange and unfamiliar, like Moses yanked off course by the unlikely voice from a burning bush. The analogy may seem grandiose, but the session, and the book it led me to read, turned out to be a revelation which continues to haunt me.[i]

Jessica Bruder is a journalist who spent three years immersed in the alternative world of “vandwellers”––the “houseless” (not “homeless”) ascetics,[ii] mostly of retirement age, who wander the marginal spaces of America, surviving on ingenuity, grit and arduous seasonal labor. In her beautifully written book, Nomadland, she documents the daunting challenges and indomitable spirits of downwardly mobile elders who find ways to survive the hardships and cruelties of an economic system whose shocking inequality puts America near last place among developed nations.

The foreclosure crisis and the 2008 crash only accelerated the ongoing concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer hands. Three American billionaires––Bezos, Buffet and Gates–– are now worth more than the bottom half of the whole U.S. population. Wages remain stagnant or falling while the system continues to suck money upward, stranding the majority in a barren waste of meager scraps. Nearly half of middle class workers contemplate a food budget of $5 a day in retirement, while one in six American households now spends more than 50% of their income on shelter (the recommended maximum is 30%).

As Bruder writes, the choices are becoming excruciating for many: “Would you rather have food or dental work? Pay your mortgage or your electric bill? Make a car payment or buy medicine? Cover rent or student loans? Purchase warm clothes or gas for your commute?”[iii]

For the elders who have played by society’s rules all their lives, the prospect of perpetual misery in their golden years has prompted them to go off the grid and live in the margins. They dump their biggest expense––housing––and take to the roads in RVs, vans and campers, for “a life just a little freer, a little more autonomous, and less anxiety-ridden, a little closer to their heart’s desires.”[iv] This rapidly expanding nomadic movement has been dubbed “the Old Rush.”

As Sylvianne Delmars, age 60, puts it in her “Vandweller’s Anthem” (to the tune of “King of the Road”):

Old beat-up high-top van,
Like livin’ in a large tin can.
No rent, no rules, no man,
I ain’t tied to no plot of land.[v]

Bruder describes vandwellers as “conscientious objectors from a broken, corrupted social order. Whether or not they choose their lifestyle, they have embraced it.”[vi] It is not an easy life; for many of us, it is almost unimaginable. In my youth I sometimes slept in my car outside of Yosemite’s Ahwahnee Hotel, enjoying pleasant evenings of reading in its luxurious public interiors before retiring to my free lodging in the parking lot. It was hardly comparable to the rigors of nomadic life, but that tiny taste of slipping beneath the system’s radar returned when I read Bruder’s book.

Nomadland left me in awe of the enterprising can-do spirit of the vandwellers, who generously share their hard-earned survival knowledge both online and in tribal gatherings. “Boondocking” is one of the most essential topics: learning to be self-sufficient in the boondocks, without any hookups to electricity or water, using solar panels, gas generators and water tanks. “Stealth parking” is also a vital skill: how and where to park overnight or longer in towns and cities without getting the dreaded “knock” on your vehicle’s window.

Even such a radically frugal and improvisational lifestyle requires infusions of cash, which “workampers” earn through seasonal labor. They may flip your burger at a Cactus league game, take your ticket at NASCAR races, staff tourist traps like Wall Drug, run the rides at amusement parks, lift your Christmas tree onto your car roof, or guard the gate at a Texas oil field.

The three jobs which Bruder treats in detail are campground host, beet picker and “CamperForce,” Amazon’s motivational euphemism for shopping season warehouse temps. All three are physically hard and verge on exploitation. But since the work is temporary, the justice questions are not pursued. As long as the seasonal end remains in sight, there seems to be tacit agreement by both employers and workers to live with necessary evils.

“Get paid to go camping!” is a typical recruiting slogan for campground hosting, where you are paid for 30 hours a week even if the job really requires 45 long hours of cleaning, maintenance and managing. That leaves hosts little time––or energy––to enjoy the natural beauty. You work for a private concessionaire hired by government agencies who look the other way if you lodge a complaint, and you can be terminated at any time without cause. But the literature still insists that “retirement has never been this fun!”

Signing up for an autumn beet harvest in North Dakota, Bruder spent a short time working twelve-hour shifts, dodging beet bits and dirt clods flying off a conveyer belt while holding vinyl sacks to collect beets pouring down a vertical chute. “It felt like catching bowling balls in a pillowcase,” she says. Although she was 30 years younger than many of her co-workers, her whole body hurt at the end of every day.[vii]

Fritz Lang, Metropolis (1927)

Her experience at Amazon, though, provides the most harrowing reading in the book. It reminded me of the factory scene in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, where workers are mere cogs in a rigidly determined mechanism. In an Amazon warehouse, you are constantly under the eye of your masters. Your scanner sets off a timer monitored by computers. Take too long walking to your next scan, and a supervisor will suddenly appear to deliver a reprimand. At the end of the day, you endure a 30-minute (unpaid) wait in a security line to be screened as a potential thief.

Amazon loves the elderly plug-and-play labor force. They are conscientious workers, and few complain about the lack of benefits. But it’s grueling work for aging bodies: walking 15 miles a day on concrete in a warehouse the size of 13 football fields, going up and down stairs, lifting 50 pound loads in 90 degree heat, injuring arms, back and shoulders, or getting “trigger-finger,” a repetitive strain from operating barcode scanners.

The motivational newsletters are cheerful about “getting paid to exercise,” power walking the vast spaces to lose weight and get those “buns of steel.” But the ubiquitous wall dispensers full of free painkillers tell a different story. The 68-year-old former university academic advisor who begins and ends every Amazon workday with 4 ibuprofen is not untypical.

Although CamperForce recruiters advertise the fun of camaraderie and friendship with fellow workers (“worth more than money!”), Bruder’s own conversations during an “undercover” stint in an Amazon warehouse sometimes felt “like talking to prison inmates. It was tempting to cut through the pleasantries and ask, ‘What are you in for?’” [viii]

Some workampers take pride in surviving the ordeal of a demanding seasonal job, like the marathoner or Camino pilgrim who embraces physical hardship as a spiritual trial. Disparagement of “whiners” and slackers is not uncommon. But Bruder also records instances of joy and pleasure even in the rough stretches. “The truth as I see it,” she writes, “is that people can both struggle and remain upbeat simultaneously, through even the most soul-testing of challenges. This doesn’t mean they’re in denial. Rather, it testifies to the remarkable ability of humankind to adapt, to seek meaning and kinship when confronted with adversity.”[ix]

Nomads live for the day when the work ends and they can return to the road, where open space and distant horizons provide the allure of reinvention, or at least escape. Many of them are loners, thriving on solitude and detachment and treasuring their self-sufficiency. But like the Christian desert hermits of the ancient world, they also take genuine joy in the community of tribal gatherings, such as the annual Rubber Tramp Rendezvous.

For two weeks every winter, thousands of vandwellers gather in Quartzsite, Arizona, to trade nomadic wisdom, share stories of work and travel, renew friendships, and bask in the love of a community that loves and accepts them. As veteran nomad Bob Wells has suggested on his popular website, CheapRVLiving, “In many ways we vandwellers are just like the Mountain Men of old: We need to be alone and on the move, but we equally need to occasionally gather together and make connections with like-minded people who understand us.”[x] Or as another nomad describes the experience of community where no one feels a stranger, “This is what family looks like.”

Another blogger, LaVonne Ellis, conveys the sense of melancholy when the Rendezvous ends:  “One by one, they are leaving for other places. I will see some of them again, I’m sure, but this sadness is an inevitable consequence of nomadic living. People come and go in your life. You don’t get to hang on to them forever.”[xi]

Nomadlands chief protagonist, 64-year-old Linda May, dreams of settling into a permanent home of her own, beyond the reach of consumer society, “something she owned free and clear, something that could outlast her.”[xii] Others resign themselves to endless wandering until they become “bleached bones in the desert.” And some hold dear the final image of Thelma and Louise––as if they too will one day vanish into an unimaginable beyond. But few seem to look backward, or dream about the day when they can return to their former life.

Perhaps, Bruder suggests, the vandwellers “are analogous to what biologists call an ‘indicator species’––sensitive organisms with the capacity to signal much larger shifts in an ecosystem.” Some even hope that this nomadic phenomenon foreshadows the emergence of “a wandering tribe whose members could operate outside of––or even transcend––the fraying social order: a parallel world on wheels.”[xiii]

Nomadland left me with so many questions about our unjust and damaging system, and my own participation in it. Can I ever buy another book from Amazon without thinking of the exhausted person who has to walk miles to retrieve it? Will I start to see the nomadic elders beneath the cloak of social invisibility? How will my own comforts and privileged insularity be challenged by these stories of struggle and pain? And are there any alternative to our nation’s passive acquiescence to the insatiable predations of the one-percent?

Bruder’s remarkable book is unsettling, but it is by no means a downer. She has given us a life-affirming, inspiring and often funny read, filled with engaging and memorable characters––not just survivors, but pioneers, pointing the way toward a world more free, more just, and more loving. Whether any vandwellers finally reach that future of human flourishing, or provoke the rest of us to try the same, their single-minded pursuit of something radically better cracks open the cave of our collective complacencies to admit the light of New Possibility.

It wouldn’t be the first time a desert drop-out performed such a divine labor.

Photo by Jim Friedrich

 

 

Related Posts

You Can Never Go Fast Enough

The Questions That Matter

 

[i] Jessica Bruder’s book is Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century (New York: W. W. Norton, 2017).

[ii] I employ this largely religious term because the nomads’ rejection of the dominant system, their practices of radical simplification, and their love of the desert seems akin to the monastic flight to the wilderness in the third and fourth centuries. I will say more about this in another post.

[iii] Nomadland, xii.

[iv] David A. Thornburg, Galloping Bungalows: The Rise and Demise of the American House Trailer (Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1991), q. in Nomadland, 76.

[v] Sylvianne K. Delmars, “Queen of the Road,” q. in Nomadland, 17. Her song is also quoted in the epigraph. Her blog is Silvianne Wanders: The Adventures of a Cosmic Change Agent.

[vi] Nomadland, 204. Bruder is paraphrasing Bob Wells, drawing on his book, How to Live in a Car, Van, or RV: And Get Out of Debt, Travel, & Find True Freedom (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2014).

[vii] Ibid., 187.

[viii] Ibid., 57.

[ix] Ibid., 164-5.

[x] RTR invitation posted in January, 2014, on Bob Wells’ website, cheaprvliving.com, q. in Nomadland, 136. I also quote Mr. Wells in the epigraph.

[xi] Posted on LaVonne Ellis’ blog, completeflake.com, q. in Nomadland, 157.

[xii] Nomadland, 235.

[xiii] Ibid., 247, 79.

Ash Wednesday Isn’t for Heroes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

What Will You Wish You Had Said?

Listening to voices from the end of life at Spoken/Unspoken.(Photo by Jim Friedrich)

At the end of your life, what will you wish you had said?

 This question is the premise for “Spoken / Unspoken: Stories of Living and Dying,” a moving audio installation at California’s Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History. In a room of warm and cheerful colors, the visitor hears a succession of voices responding to the question. Each speaker is a person near the end of his or her life, recorded at Hospice of Santa Cruz County. Their words are also supplied in written form.

“I wanna say it’s not the destination, it’s the journey. . . I want to say everything. Everything I feel. Everything I experienced. . . I’m finding answers all the time and I’m finding more questions too. . . I’m letting it happen, I’m not running after it. If it comes I’ll latch onto it.”

 “I wish I could say I’m sorry to the people who I have offended in my life in different ways.”

 “I don’t understand myself. One of these days I’ll find out what’s going on.”

 “I cannot believe the speed of light that takes place toward your end days. What happened from 50 on was unbelievable. Time goes by so quickly. It’s just unimaginable. You can’t do anything about it.”

 “I’ve often been afraid [to get closer to people]. I don’t know why I’m afraid. There’s times that I think I’ve had answers to a problem a person has told me about and I haven’t shared what I thought the answer was, and I feel like I missed the point. I missed the time of being God’s handyman. They are not so much words of wisdom, but they are feelings that I have. I didn’t tell them that I loved them enough. I didn’t show that love enough.”

“I want to say, may this be a good day for you and that you’re enjoying . . . thinking of the creative things in you that God has given you to do––and go do one of them someday.”

Every voice is accompanied by its own unique musical score, created by composer and sound artist Lanier Sammons. The peaceful ambient music reflects not only the emotional content of the various interviews but also the particular tone, tempo and manner of each individual speaker. The result is a quality of presence which is more than whatever is being said.

I was especially taken by the man who broke into a rendition of “Some Enchanted Evening.” His singing was melodious and full of warmth. You may see a stranger across a crowded room. And somehow you know. It’s all about desire. As the theologians and novelists tell us, every story begins with a lack, and longing is at the heart of who we are.

We all know that words can suggest but never exhaust the complexity of our stories or the mystery of our being. But what is unique about the voices in this installation is their location––at life’s most critical boundary. Whether we think of it as “the end” or understand it to be the door between worlds, death invites retrospective reckonings. What has been the meaning of my story? Did I make a difference? Is there something I wish I had done, or said?

Spoken / Unspoken works at many levels. The attentive acts of listening by the hospice staff, the sound artist, and the museum curators have honored the beauty and value of dying elders, who are too often marginalized by a society uncomfortable with aging and death. The various voices convey both the uniqueness of every individual and the universality of our shared human condition. And it creates a sacred space where we can experience community not only with the specific people who share something of themselves in the recordings, but with every soul on pilgrimage into life’s unknown futures.

The installation also prompts visitors to perform a couple of actions.  Stationery and pencils are provided so we can communicate by letter something that needs to be said to a friend or loved one. A text encourages us: “Don’t wait, say it now.” There is also an adjacent recording booth, where you can make your own response to the question, “What do you wish you had said?” Sammons will then take your story, weave it together with other voices, and set it all to music. A week later you can hear the result on headphones as part of the installation.

What have I myself left unsaid after so many years on this earth? I’ve been wondering about that ever since experiencing the Santa Cruz installation a couple of weeks ago. I’m also dreaming about the adaptation of this sound installation concept for religious communities. I have led church retreats where we practice storytelling and storylistening––beginning with our communal sacred stories and moving into the treasuries of our personal stories. And people are usually surprised to discover how much there is to know about the life stories and spiritual experiences of their companions in faith. Even in communities where we profess the sacredness of every person as God’s beloved, so much is left unsaid between us.

So here’s an idea. What if communities of faith spent some time recording members’ responses to the big questions––about God, humanity, faith, hope, love, transformation, etc.––or provided a sound booth (a technological confessional?), where people can walk in and record what matters most to them? Then let some music and sound artists create an audio mix from the gathered material, and play it back in a church space where drop-ins can linger and listen to a living “cloud of witnesses.”

If any of this sparks your own creativity or exploration, I’d love to hear about it.

“Be known to us in the music we make”

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

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

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

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

Saturday (Jan. 20)

Opening prayer

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

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

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

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

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

We ask this in your holy Name. Amen.

 

Grace for the mid-day meal

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

 

Closing prayer (by Brian Wren*)

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

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

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

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

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

 

Sunday (Jan. 21)

Opening prayer

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

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

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

 

Grace at the mid-day meal*

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

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

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

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

 

Closing prayer

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

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

Glory to you for ever and ever. Amen.

Related post: A Musical Tsunami

Epiphanies in the Temples of Wonder

Grand Teton National Park, Winter 1979 (Photo by Jim Friedrich)

We have seen the Creator as Light and the Spirit as Light,
guiding with light the whole creation.

–– Byzantine matins, Feast of the Transfiguration

One senses something more than the natural…What these paintings seem to depict is not so much discrete things – trees, fields, figures, buildings – shown in particular configurations – but something that subsumes or, in potentiality, contains them.

 ––Museum label for a George Inness survey at the San Diego Museum of Art (2004)

 

I took my photograph of wintry pines forty years ago while cross-country skiing in Grand Teton National Park. I had stopped to contemplate the grove with its sense of mysterious depth, all those vertical lines receding into an infinity my eye could not penetrate. I felt the pull of whatever lies behind the components of the visible: the “something that subsumes or contains them.” It seemed an intimation of whatever lies beyond the self and its constructions.

The photograph became my Christmas card that year, with these words written on the back:

Shhh!
it comes
it goes
put yourself in its path
and wait

In this season of Epiphany (“manifestation”), we are invited to consider the possibility that the Transcendent desires to be seen. And when we are receptively attentive––and unhurriedly patient––we may discover the world to be a theater of divine showings and human awakenings.

Even in a world of “dull” and “prosaic” facts, said Emerson in an 1838 lecture, “the aroused intellect finds gold and gems in one of these scorned facts, then finds that the day of facts is a rock of diamonds, that a fact is an epiphany of God, that on every fact of his life he should rear a temple of wonder and joy.”[i]

Every year, every day, every hour of our lives offers its epiphanies. Leafing through old journals for some memorable examples of my own, I came across some passages from a European grand tour in the 1970s, a few years before I photographed the snowy Teton pines. My older self might want to tame some of the exuberant excess in the writing, but I still recognize, and do not regret, the intensity of that young man’s wonder.

An epiphany has been called “a moment when . .. consciousness finds itself flooded, or breathed into, or simply filled by a force . . . that comes from outside the self and is incorporated into the soul of the recipient.”[ii] My first direct encounter with the collection of J. M. W. Turner paintings in London’s Tate Gallery felt like that. This is how I wrote it down at the time:

Having seen most Turners only in reproduction, or in the vivid descriptions of [19th century critic] John Ruskin, I was not fully prepared for the ecstasy, the overwhelming somatic experience, of viewing the actual paintings. The three large Turner galleries were a temple of light, each framed canvas a window into a universe of radiant splendor. The early paintings showed his classical lineage, the formal narratives, but it was not long before his clear shapes began to waver and blur in the universal solvent of a liquid light. It was not a failure of drawing but the birth of new vision.

 Some of his sunsets and storms engulf recognizable forms, almost to the point of abstraction, yet they remain anchored in real perception, aspects of the created world which registered in the artist’s here and now. In “Interior at Petworth,” golden light, turbulent and thick, pours through the windows like water from a burst dam, tearing through the staid Victorian inner space to submerge everything in its radiance. How did Turner come to see a world so alive with animating energies? Was this light within his mind, leaving the room essentially untouched, or did he see something inherent in the physical world, a subversive brilliance operating outside the range of mortal sight?[iii]

J.M.W. Turner, “Interior at Petworth” (1837)

A week later, I walked through the doors of la belle cathédrale de Chartres into another epiphany:

The moment of entrance flooded me with intense emotion. I knew it would be beautiful, but I was unprepared for the way the soaring interior would catch me up in a such a physical way, and ravish my virgin eyes with the vivid, fantastic hues of medieval glass, floating islands of magic color in a sea of smoky shadows.

My eyes filled with tears. Never before had a building made me weep. It was that sense of perfection I have found more often in nature, the homecoming when one arrives at the perfect moment, the perfect place, where the lack that drives our stories is satisfied, every desire met.

I drifted around the cathedral as in a dream. There were no lights on at first, and the upward-thrusting shafts and vaults disappeared, like prayer, into a realm beyond our sight. The eloquent profusion of Gothic lines, the underlying mind that held vast forces in balance, subduing the play of gravity and architecture into a state of arrested serenity, was everywhere implied, but the complexity outran the mind’s descriptive grasp. Chartres invites not analysis, but worship. In every direction, the space receded into vague twilights. The effect was neither disorienting nor alarming, but enfolding, a mothering womb rather than annihilating tomb. Theotokos, the Divine Mother, was not only at the heart of the north rose window. She was the very space in which we moved.

The kaleidescopic windows seemed suspended, weightless, free floating in the darkness, jeweled messengers uttering angelic phrases directly to the soul, unclothed by human words. The north rose window, like Dante’s vision of the heavenly dance, held me rapt for the longest time. What kind of imagination had spread such rich fare before us? And if we feasted on such visions, how would we be changed?[iv]

North rose window, Chartres cathedral

 

 

[i] From “School,” a lecture given by Ralph Waldo Emerson in Boston on Dec. 19, 1838.

[ii] Ashton Nichols, The Poetics of Epiphany: Nineteenth Century Origins of the Modern Literary Movement (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 1987), 14.

[iii] Personal journal (April 29, 1976).

[iv] Ibid. (May 4, 1976)