Friday, January 11, 2019

prayer, bread and music - pathways into the sacred part five

NOTE: This is the fifth and final reflection on prayer, spirituality, transformation and going deeper by faith. In previous postings, I have spoken of my way of prayer as needing both descriptive words for the holy (kataphatic prayers) as well as silence and emptiness, too (apophatic spirituality.) It is a marriage of West and East. My consideration of bread as my current spiritual director is an earthy description about watching, waiting, patience, failure, humility and joy. And today's words re: music suggest that it is my way into the ecstatic presence of the holy.

Yesterday I did something I haven't considered once in the year since I entered retirement: I lay down in the late afternoon to  watch TV. I saw that Netflix was running "Springsteen on Broadway" and that's all she wrote. I was down! Ok, I had just been knocked out with that wicked cold sweeping the Northeast right now and felt wrung out wet and hung up to dry. Sick or not, watching TV in the day light still struck me as indulgent and a bit selfish. But, oh well, there I was wrapped in a blanket with a box of tissues checking out the Boss. 

His opening song, as cognoscenti know, had to be "Growin' Up" and he did it right with stories in the middle just like the old days. He even closed it out on his acoustic guitar with the historic chord changes that signaled a transition into another rocker. For those who have followed since the 70s, you could almost hear in your head: "Bye, bye New Jersey, I became ai---r borne..." before "Rosalita" turned everything up to 11. But in 2019 there's no mistaking Bruce for "a cosmic kid in full costume dress." He's 69 year old. Still trim and agile, mind you, but with wrinkles and a touch of gray in that hipster's elder haircut. As I settled in and the opening monologue became a song, my tears started to flow at the chorus: "When they said, sit down, I stood up... oh growin' up!"

These tears surprised me. They always do, but shouldn't, because they've been flowing since I first saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan back in February 1964. Yet even after all these years, these tears still take me by surprise - and awaken me again to the transcendent. Music that evokes tears connects me to a love and beauty - a sorrow and awe, too -  that's been woven into the fabric of every day life by God. For a moment I feel things simple and sublime. Agonizing and 
ecstatic. Ordinary and extraordinary, both promise and reward for an electric moment in time - and then its gone again. Not lost forever, but beyond my control and ownership. Frederick Buechner helped me honor the wisdom within the tears that music unlocks for me when he wrote:

YOU NEVER KNOW what may cause them. The sight of the Atlantic Ocean can do it, or a piece of music, or a face you've never seen before. A pair of somebody's old shoes can do it. Almost any movie made before the great sadness that came over the world after the Second World War, a horse cantering across a meadow, the high school basketball team running out onto the gym floor at the start of a game. You can never be sure. But of this you can be sure. Whenever you find tears in your eyes, especially unexpected tears, it is well to pay the closest attention. They are not only telling you something about the secret of who you are, but more often than not God is speaking to you through them of the mystery of where you have come from and is summoning you to where, if your soul is to be saved, you should go to next.

Fr. Ed Hays gave me other words in "The Prayer of Tears," in his small book Pray All Ways. "Crying, while embarrassing, is also an honest and incarnational or bodily prayer," he notes, "that reaches the ear and the heart of God."

Tears are powerful prayers for they possess the power to move heaven. Tears perform numerous functions besides being the most powerful of all languages. Tears are able to express that which is beyond the power of words... Tears are the prayer-beads of all of us, men and women, because they arise from a fullness of the heart.  Such an overflowing of the heart can be the result of great sorrow, but also great joy... What happens naturally is usually good and also right. When this experience comes, we should not listen to the inner voice that condemns crying or attempts to make us feel shame for tears. We do not ask to be excused when we laugh, why should we when we cry? We don't attempt to suppress laughter, why should we attempt to shut off our tears? Perhaps we should explore more ways to laugh and cry as we worship God. (pp. 34-36)

Music is my pathway into the ecstatic love God holds for each and all of us. It is how I taste holiness within my humanity. It is my encounter with Pentecost. Oh sometimes the Spirit has embraced me in worship. And sometimes in nature or at the births of my children and grandchildren. I weep for joy, happiness and sorrow in the movies, too. But music is where I have been opened over and again to awe and lament; solidarity beyond time, race and gender; hope greater than my fear or shame. Music is a sacred gift leading me into the mystery of God's love beyond words, limits, comprehension, or religion. I trust that St. John's prologue points to what I have experienced when he writes a midrash on Genesis 1 in the first chapter of his gospel: 

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

In "Logos, A Jewish Word in John's Prologue as Midrash"(see Amy-Jill Levine The Jewish Annotated New Testament, pp. 546-549) Daniel Boyarin notes that "in the first centuries of the Christian era, the idea of the Word (Gk Logos) was known in some Greek philosophical circles as a link connecting the Transcendent /Divine with humanity and the terrestrial. For Jews, the idea of this link between heaven and earth, whether called by the Greek Logos or
Sophia (wisdom) or by the Aramaic Memra (word) permeated first and second century thought... (the opening words of John are therefore) not a hymn but a midrash, that is, not a poem, but a homily on Genesis 1:3-5." In other words, spirit, flesh, and imagination are united just as heaven and earth embrace in God's shalom or as justice and peace kiss. (Psalm 85) 

Fr. Richard Rohr and the Rev. Dr. Cynthia Bourgault both insist upon this unitive reading of scripture and spirituality, too. Biblicists, literalists, and those who separate the holy from our humanity have long misread the mystical wisdom of Jesus in John 14:6. When Jesus says “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (we must be clear that) Jesus is not talking about joining or privileging any group; he is describing the way by which all religions must allow matter and spirit to operate as one, which indeed is the universal way for all people." (Center for Action and Contemplation, Daily Reflections, December 30, 2018)

To be open to the transcendent love of God in times of violence and brokenness is complicated. "We live in a world of madness" wrote Elie Wiesel. "We are witnesses to this madness, too." In Ariel Burger's review of Witness: Lessons from Elie Wiesel's Classroom she states that the late professor recognized that when we report on the madness we have encounter,ed "(we, too) appear to others to be mad." If we normalize the madness, we are accomplices with evil. If we rail against it, we are marginalized.

If you look away from suffering, you become complicit, a bystander. Silence never helps the victims, only the victimizers. If you do look, you risk madness. Faced with such a choice, madness is the better option. It is a better option because at least you will not be on the side of the killers...  The ones who recognize the coming of evil, of oppression, are often seen as madmen. They are attuned to a reality that most people do not see, to a vision of a world without hatred, a messianic vision. They live for this vision, and they are so sensitive to whatever threatens it that, unlike others, they react immediately. They are usually the first to raise the alarm. (pp. 111, 113-115).
For me, music is an alternative to marginalization, silence or collaboration with the madness. At its best music creates, protects, deepens and shares beauty in the manner of Dostoevsky who madly proclaimed: "Beauty can save the world." Music opens my soul to the presence of holy and human suffering, joy, hope, love, loss, anguish and communion in an embodied way. Playing music for others puts me in relationship with God and creation as I trust a love that is greater than the madness.


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