I find inspiration in many unlikely places. This morning on Facebook there was a quote by the playwright John Patrick Shanley. It was posted by an actress who is deeply committed to teaching theater in New York. I met her this year at a reading: she brought a wonderful short, short story and I read some passages from my new book, Elijah & the SAT. I smiled when I saw that the quote was from Shanley because my daughter has been assigned one of his scenes for her acting class. I’ve been trying to track down an old copy of Moonstruck all week so she can see how his gift of language plays out in a larger work.
I don’t know if it was his intention but Shanley has, in this short verse, captured the essence of Advent. In theological lingo, we would say it is a conversational way of delineating the blessing of repentance. Repentance or, turning your back on old ways, is part of the gift of Advent. We will ourselves to let go of the dark things that cling to prepare out hearts for a new joy to come, the joy of Emmanuel, which means “God with us.” This is an idea that has deep roots in the Judeo-Christian tradition. For many, the beauty of repentance has been ruined by too many extremists using all the wrong words, in the wrong tone and spirit, to communicate about the love of God that comes to us in Jesus. But just as the wrong words can close the door, the right ones, fresh ones, inspired ones, can open it again.
Thank you, JP Shanley, for these wise words:
“Run the old stuff down, run it out, toss the weight of trash in your heart into the fire. December is the ruthless month. Pick up all your heartbreak and fling it out the window. Call everybody. Make peace and move on. Let those who wish to linger, let them linger and grieve. They will run and catch up to you if you move on. You are the leader when it comes to joy. Move forward towards joy.”
Preparing for joy,
We are not so distant from the Christmas story, you and I. Today I offer up this work as an icon, a meditation on love, peace, and the power of God newly born in our lives. May it bring you joy this day.
“The Adoration of the Shepherds” by Georges de La Tour, c. 1640
This time of year so many long to find a way to enter the Christmas story but cannot. This poem by Mary Oliver, from her book Dream Work, may open a door. I hope so….
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.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
Blessings on this December day
Today, as we near the end of the third week in Advent, we pair the art of Donald Grant, in his 1992 work, “Vessel,” with the poetry of Madeleine L’Engle. May it help us remember that, although the words——Bethlehem, manger, cattle lowing——may seem outdated, the Word of God is timeless. Radical. And personal.
An angel came to me
and I was unprepared
to be what God was using.
Mother I was to be.
A moment I despaired,
thought briefly of refusing.
The angel knew I heard.
According to God’s Word
I bowed to this strange choosing.
A palace should have been
the birthplace of a king
(I had know way of knowing)
We went to Bethlehem;
it was so strange a thing.
The wind was cold, and blowing,
my cloak was old, and thin.
They turned us from the inn;
the town was overflowing.
God’s Word, a child so small
who still must learn to speak
lay in humiliation.
Joseph stood, strong and tall.
The beast were warm and meek
and moved with hesitation.
The Child born in a stall?
I understood it: all.
Kings came in adoration.
Perhaps it was absurd;
a stable set apart,
the sleepy cattle lowing;
and the incarnate Word
resting against my heart.
My joy was overflowing.
The shepherds came, adored
the folly of the Lord,
wiser than all men’s knowing.
Advent is a time of truth-telling and so I will tell you this: I have a horrible singing voice. But I love to sing—Christmas carols in their season— and throughout the year, the chants of Taize. I know that I feel more human, and more free of the burden of being human, after belting out in the safe space of my own car “Fall on your knees, oh hear the angel voices.” For some, that specific narrative— and the way it has been played out in contemporary American culture— gets in the way of the hunger for God that is universal. This has led many to the divine practice of Gregorian chant, of which Taize is a form. Kathleen Norris speaks to this beautifully in a short chapter from The Cloister Walk called “The Gregorian Brain.” I’ve included it here, along with one of the most compelling and accessible Taize chants Veni Sancte Spiritus.
The Gregorian Brain
Recent neurological research has shown that in religious rituals from around the world, poetry is generally chanted with a pulse of between two and four seconds, a pulse that the researchers now believe to correspond to an internal system in the human brain. This system, epitomized by the traditions of Gregorian chant and plainsong in the Christian West, seems to help integrate the workings of the right and left hemispheres of the brain in processing information. As a contemporary monk has written, this may explain why “the ritual chanting of sacred texts contributes in a unique way to a profound, largely subliminal, absorption and engagement having many more dimensions than mere rational understanding.” It also might help explain the current popularity of Gregorian chant albums among people who have very little ritual life, or who have grown weary of what the monk terms “poor talkative Christianity.”
Monastic people have long known — and I’ve experienced it in a small way myself— that the communal reciting, chanting, and singing of the psalms brings a unique sense of wholeness and order to their day, and even establishes the rhythm of their lives. This is why they keep going back to choir, even though it may see monotonous. This is why Benedict termed the Liturgy of the Hours the “Work of God,’why Benedictines today still speak of it as the foundation stone on which they build all the other work that they do. Now it seems that their conviction has a neurological basis in the brain itself.
The scientists have also confirmed what Thomas Merton knew from experience, that “Gregorian is good, and it heals.” I know from my limited experience of singing chant that it fosters faith: I believe better and more thoroughly when I’m singing it. Like so many elements of monastic life, Gregorian is a matter of focus. It teaches us what we gain when we become simple, dependent upon the beauty of the unadorned human voice. It teaches us what we lose, in music, when we add a melody and a beat. It also fosters an appreciation for community. Gregorian can’t be sung alone: you need people who are willing to blend their voices in such a way as to sound like one voice. In practical terms, Gregorian makes you extremely grateful for the other people who are singing with you. When you hit a note feebly, making more a groan than music, someone else will cover for you. When the time comes, you’ll do the same for them. when you need to take a breath, someone else will keep going, making a continuous flow. The flow of Gregorian music reminds me of the pulse of ocean waves, steady and incessant, but never superfluous, a satisfying sound that may swell unpredictably before ebbing back in silence. It is a music in harmony with the body, and with the universe itself. It is also, always, praise of God.
Music is serious theology. Hildegard of Bingen took it so seriously as a gift God made to humanity that in one of her plays, while the soul and all the Virtues sing, the devil alone has a speaking part. The gift of song has been denied him.
TAIZE: Veni Sancte Spiritus (Come Holy Spirit)