June 8th, 2017
We begin with a follow-up from a recent Backstory.
Do you remember the poignant poem we posted recently by Poet Laureate of California, Dana Gioia–the ode to his young son who died and which Gioia entitled “Prayer”?
It so happens the poem has been set to music, and by none other than Martin Lauridsen, the composer of another piece we have a tradition of posting each Advent, (O Magnum Mysterium). The audio isn’t optimized for a choral rendition, but it is still a lovely listen. (Words are below)
Echo of the clocktower, footstep
in the alleyway, sweep
of the wind sifting the leaves.
Jeweller of the spiderweb, connoisseur
of autumn’s opulence, blade of lightning
harvesting the sky.
Keeper of the small gate, choreographer
of entrances and exits, midnight
whisper traveling the wires.
Seducer, healer, deity or thief,
I will see you soon enough—
in the shadow of the rainfall,
in the brief violet darkening a sunset—
but until then I pray watch over him
as a mountain guards its covert ore
and the harsh falcon its flightless young.
Why in our seasons of darkness do we turn to, or create our own, expressions of beauty? Why would Gioia find a foothold in his grief by using a pen to probe his own wound?
It’s in part, I believe, that the strength to walk by faith in the valley of the shadow of death is found by taking refuge in the beautiful.
In the days before my father died, I sat at his bedside desperately wanting to ennoble the moment with more than waiting. Intermittent expressions of thanksgiving punctuated the lingering silence. But at some point I felt compelled to acknowledge the sacredness of his life coming to a close by picking up my anthology of George Herbert poetry and reading aloud poem after poem. The cadence and the content, the love for language and the language of love, was all resplendently manifest there in a quiet room with the only other sound my father’s labored breaths.
My father was no poetry aficionado. He was reared on the likes of Benny Goodman and Bob Hope. The closest thing to verse he knew was the crooning of one like Dean or Nat. But while he probably never heard of that 17th century churchman and poet, the whole experience, on reflection, was I think the same as what led Gioia to pen his work of love to his dead son.
In those moments we’re looking for a kind of answer that comes not in arguments, but in aesthetics. (We’ve said something like this before.) Paul sought to wield arguments and make every thought captive (1 Cor 10:5) and fitting was his task (and still is). But there are also times in which we want to be captivated by what can’t be broken down into propositions. Beauty becomes our refuge, but a taking refuge that is itself an act of faith. We relinquish in that moment our need to grasp any purpose beneath our sorrow–only the presence of something and Someone greater than it. Beholding what is beautiful allows us to relinquish that need for relief. Are we not called and compelled to behold the Cross which, while not pretty, is nevertheless furnished with beauty for the love it confirms?
Brothers and sisters of CtK (and others who may be looking in), I didn’t post the prayer that prefaced last week’s Backstory merely for its obvious poignancy or wisdom:
MY LORD GOD, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
So much of what the late Thomas Merton said or wrote is eminently quotable. But the spirit and substance of his prayer captured much of what I as your pastor have felt regarding the announcement Christy and I made last Sunday, the account of which you can listen to here. (We will keep this audio up until other developments warrant dissemination of new information.) His was a prayer–one with which many of us can identify at multiple points along our way. But there’s as much art to his language as there is faith in its substance. Into the beauty of that which his faith speaks I have sought to take refuge.
For faith takes refuge in beauty.
You are no fool for turning to what captivates you in ways you cannot explain. It may be what lines your path to prayer.
And reorients you to faith.