20200523

Pandemics and Mysticism


Introduction
Has the 2020 pandemic placed humankind at the threshold of a new beginning? Covid-19 is revealing the inequality and exclusion that have been present in U.S. society all along. A new beginning must insure the values of inclusion and equality. Whether it is in our families, our businesses, our communities, whether they be big steps or small, whether others tell us our endeavors are misdirected or not, we need to act toward greater inclusion and equality. This blog post attempts to place Covid-19 pandemic in the context of mysticism, now and during another pandemic in the 14th century.

14th Century
On April 19, 2020 The New York Times Opinion Section began a weeks-long series on the novel coronavirus and the inequalities within the United States that it has exposed, and that have been a pre-existing condition that has made the virus so much worse in our country. Unsurprisingly, they took a glance back to the pandemic of the 14th century. What they missed however was the flowering of mysticism that accompanied that plague. This is some of what Walter Scheidel, a professor of classics and history at Stanford University, said.

In the fall of 1347, rat fleas carrying bubonic plague entered Italy on a few ships from the Black Sea. Over the next four years, a pandemic tore through Europe and the Middle East. Panic spread, as the lymph nodes in victims’ armpits and groins swelled into buboes, black blisters covered their bodies, fevered soared and organs failed. Perhaps a third of Europe’s people perished.
Giovanni Boccaccio’s “Decameron” offers an eyewitness account: ‘When all the graves were full, huge trenches were excavated in the churchyards, into which new arrivals were placed in their hundreds, stowed tier upon tier like ships’ cargo.”
According to Agnolo di Tura of Siena, “so many died that all believed it was the end of the world.”….
            In looking for illumination from the past on our current pandemic, we must be wary of superficial analogies. Even in the worst-case scenario, Covid-19 will kill a far smaller share of the world's population than any of these earlier disasters did, and it will touch the active work force and the next generation even more lightly...

21st  Century
Religion and spirituality already suffering today’s disenchantment will also be touched much more lightly than before by this pandemic. But it is worth looking at the role of mysticism today and whether it has the energy to pull those who are open to God-consciousness into a new society of more inclusion and equality.

On May 10, 2020, the New York Times published the article “Christianity Gets Weird,” Tara Isabella Burton wrote: “More and more young Christians, disillusioned by political binaries, economic uncertainties and spiritual emptiness that have come to define modern America, are finding solace in a decidedly anti-modern vision of faith. As the coronavirus and the subsequent lockdowns throw the failures of the current social order into stark relief, old forms of religiosity offer a glimpse of the transcendent beyond the present…. (F)or these weird Christians, this crisis doubles as a call to action.” One commented that Christianity (in light of the pandemic) “compels us not just to take care of people around us but to seek to further integrate our lives and fortunes into those of the people around us, a sort of solidarity that necessarily entails creating these organizations to help each other.”

What is described as weird is merely taking seriously that “mystic sweet communion” where we sing of mysticism in that old hymn “The Church’s One Foundation.” We tend to use very little bandwidth for our God-consciousness, though mysticism is foundational to the church. The first step is to awaken to a grander vision for our life, what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel calls “radical amazement.” To do this we want to open our minds to the forces that impinge upon us – appreciations of beauty, feelings of thankfulness, the love given us by friends. Mindfulness taught by Thich Nhat Hahn among others is a lesson in this openness.

Mysticism
We can encounter God within us, in our human spirit, because God, apparently or not, is already there.
The meaning of mysticism is basically “an experience of the Divine,” or as a friend suggests the “divine" could be rendered "Buddha-nature" ... or Tao, or holographic whole, or Mysterium Tremendum, or the One in the many. It is a sense within the human person that a transcendent and divine presence or power is directly encountering him or her.

The conditions of the 14th century generated and encouraged a blossoming of this mysticism. In Italy there was Catherine of Siena, in England Julian of Norwich among others. German mysticism at the time included Johannes Tauler. There was the Beguine movement in the Netherlands, and mystic Jan van Ruusbroec. “The fourteenth century… was a time not only of great natural disaster as the bubonic plague ravaged Europe, but also a period of conflict.  It was the century of the Hundred Years War ….. the masses… were eager for the personal experience of God.” (God Within, p. 190)

Julian of Norwich (1342-c.1416) lived in this perilous time when all of Europe was wracked with suffering. She answers the question how does one cope?  How could something small endure such great catastrophe?  As an answer, Julian believed that God’s love embraces everything.
He showed me something small, no bigger than a hazelnut lying in the palm of my hand, as it seemed to me, and it was as round as a ball.  I looked at it with the eye of my understanding, and thought, “What can this be?”  I was amazed that it could last, for I thought, because of its littleness, it would suddenly have fallen into nothing.  And I was answered by my understanding, “It lasts, and always will, because God loves it; and thus everything has being through the love of God.”      (Two Worlds, p. 149)
God’s love beholds, holds, upholds, and enfolds each one of us.

Similarly the 21st century has seen pandemics such as Ebola, H1N1 and the global covid-19 pandemic. It also has been a time of terrible conflict in the Middle East. And we too have seen a rise in mysticism. There are, Franciscan Richard Rohr, Episcopal priests Cynthia Bourgeault and Matthew Fox, Dr. Barbara Holmes, the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hahn, among others. The Center for Contemporary Mysticism (contemporarymysticism.org) has introduced mystics such as Patricia Pearce, Mary Reed, Cyndi Smith, Joan Diver. But I wonder if there are also smaller mystics, “little ones” as Therese of Lisieux might say. Is it possible that there could be a groundswell of grassroots mystics, which I think is the genius of the Center for Contemporary Mysticism.

Threshold
The pandemic brings a sense of ending. Nothing will ever be the same. The future is unclear. Esther de Waal points out that a threshold is sacred. It opens onto “the other, the new, the strange, and (shows) the image of difference, mystery, otherness at work in God’s world.” (Living on the Border, p. 5) The most profound threshold we can cross is that between the inner and the exterior, “between going deeper into the interior self and emerging to meet the world beyond the self without protective defenses, as friend not as foe.” (Living on the Border, p. 3) Then in openness and receptivity we can come to know the universe as basically a hopeful and benevolent place. Mysticism makes no sense without hope. The threshold is where we pause to honor the significance of crossing over. de Waal asks, “Am I willing to cross the threshold of new understanding by being open and receptive, not closed in and defensive?” (Living on the Border, p. 3)

The Flemish mystic Jan van Ruusbroec believed that contemplation of the transcendent unity of the divine Trinity brings us, through the touch of divine love, to the threshold of the divine mystery.  

On April 26 Richard Rohr began a series of meditations on Liminal Space, which to my mind is another image of threshold. He writes, liminal space “is where we are betwixt and between, having left one room or stage of life but not yet entered the next…. It is a graced time, but often does not feel ‘graced’ in any way…. In liminal space we sometimes need to not-do and not-perform according to our usual successful patterns. We actually need to fail abruptly and deliberately falter to understand other dimensions of life…. It takes time but this experience can help us reenter the world with freedom and new, creative approaches to life.”

Angels meet us at these thresholds, those messengers of the divine. Angels can be disturbing because they urge us to go beyond where we are. Angels carry news of journeys to be taken, changes to be made, demands to be met, tasks to be carried out, growing to be done.

Enchantment
Angels bring the message of the beyond. Angels are all about transcendence. To believe in them, says David Bentley Hart, is to live an enchanted life. What threatens civilization he argues is simple disenchantment. The age of technology makes it difficult to live in the world as an enchanted place. And my, are we disenchanted today! We are disenchanted with our government. They have left us unprepared and some of our leaders mislead. We are disenchanted with church. Has religion served to exclude and widen divisions among us? We are disenchanted with our work. Unemployment soars and job-based health insurance disappears when needed most. David Bentley Hart calls upon us to raise our sights to the angels who “continue to move in their inaccessible heavens, apparently still calling out to mortals, still able to provoke  our sons and daughters to prophesy, our old men to dream dreams, our young men to see visions” (A Splendid Wickedness, p. 219). The angels want us to live enchanted lives! Look for the divine that envisions a recreated world unblemished by exclusion and inequality.

Mystics
Catherine of Sienna (1347-1380)
Catherine praying alone in her garden would often sing. Singing is one of the ways we reach for God. She drew energy in those alone times from her practice of prayer. She wrote of her soul in dialogue with God where she found an inclusive love that enfolded the ancestors and all creatures.

“O mad lover!  It was not enough for you to take on our humanity.  You had to die as well.  Nor was death enough.  You descended to the depths to summon our holy ancestors and fulfill your truth and mercy… You deep well of charity! It seems you are so madly in love with your creatures that you could not live without us.  What could move you to such mercy?  Not duty or any need, but only love. (Two Worlds, p. 155)

Catherine also understood that for mysticism to be obedient to the transcendent message it hears, it must be active. A consistent message is a world more inclusive of its creatures, more equal in its opportunity. Catherine calls this walking with two feet: love of God and love of neighbor.

When Catherine of Sienna had to leave her cherished solitude to go and talk with someone in need, she felt a sharp pain in her heart.  This is what she understood God was saying to her: “Be quiet, sweetest daughter; it is necessary for you to fulfill your every duty.  I have no intention of cutting you off from me; on the contrary, I wish to bind you more closely to myself, by means of love of the neighbor.  You know that the precepts of love are two: love of me, and love of neighbor; in these, as I have testified, consist the Law and the Prophets.  I want you to fulfill these two commandments.  You must walk, in fact with both feet, not one, and with two wings fly to heaven.” (Great Mystics, p. 33)

One finds a similar message in this Prayer Book collect:
Collect for Proper 9 – “O God, you have taught us to keep all your commandments by loving you and our neighbor: Grant us the grace of your Holy Spirit, that we may be devoted to you with our whole heart, and united to one another with pure affection, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.”

Julian of Norwich (1342 – c. 1416)
Julian of Norwich’s experience of God as protector/protectress who envelops us in a sustaining and all-embracing love finds its fullest expression in her remarks on the motherhood of Christ.  “So we see that Jesus is the true mother of our nature, for he made us.  He is our Mother, too, by grace, because he took our created nature upon himself.  All the lovely deeds and tender services that beloved motherhood implies are appropriate to the Second Person.  In him the godly will is always safe and sound, both in nature and grace, because of his own fundamental goodness.” (God Within, p. 187) So too in this experience of God we discover we have the same “Mother.” All are equal in this mother’s love.

We are enfolded and equally loved in God. This experience can come to us in many ways. It is not necessary to be especially gifted. The secret touches of the Spirit are adapted to whatever abilities we have to receive them. Julian writes: “Then we can do no more than gaze in delight with a tremendous desire to be united wholly to him, to live where he lives, to enjoy his love, and to delight in his goodness.  It is then that we, through our humble, persevering prayer, and the help of his grace, come to him now, in this present life.  There will be many secret touches that we will feel and see, sweet and spiritual, and adapted to our ability to receive them.  This is achieved by the grace of the Holy Spirit, both now and until the time that, still longing and living, we die.  On that day we shall come to our Lord, knowing ourself clearly, possessing God completely.  Eternally ‘hid in God’ we shall see him truly and feel him fully, hear him spiritually, smell him delightfully, and taste him sweetly!” (God Within, p. 188)

Johannes Tauler (c.1300-1361)
It frequently seems to me that the more I try to manage things the more unmanageable they become. The more I try to pull on a tangle the more knotted it becomes. The more I try to exercise perfect control the more out of control my life seems to get. Johannes Tauler suggests that this might actually be a grace of God. He writes:

“Those however who are God’s true witnesses rely upon God in the good and the bad and they rely stoutly upon his will, whether he gives to them or takes from them. They do not hold to their own intentions.  And so if they think that they can perform great things and begin to count upon that, then God will frequently shatter whatever it is that they do because he means well with them, and thus things frequently happen which were not desired…. Thus every form of fixity is broken, and we are turned back upon our own nothingness, and are dependent upon God, acknowledging him in simple, humble faith and renouncing all fixity.”  (God Within, p. 90)

As with Julian of Norwich, the experience of divine presence can come in many ways matching each person’s capacity. According to Johannes Tauler: “… the expectation of the Holy Spirit differs from person to person.  Some receive the Holy Spirit with their senses in a way that is conceivable to the senses, while others receive him in a much nobler way with their higher powers, with their rational powers and in a rational way which is much above that of the senses.  But a third group receive him not only in this way but they also receive him in their hidden abyss, in the secret domain, the ground where the precious image of the Holy Trinity is concealed, the highest part of the soul.” (God Within, p. 83-84) Mysticism is not limited to those who can access the sacred in the highest part of the soul. The divine can be present to the senses and intellect as well. This is the basis for a grassroots mysticism that can attain a critical mass for the transformation of the world.

Jan van Ruusbroec (1293 – 1381) 
Ruusbroec urges mystics to be active. Only in activism can mystics partner with God to recreate what has been revealed to them, a world unblemished by exclusion and inequity. “Now understand how we can meet God in each of our works, increasing in our likeness to him and more nobly possessing our blissful unity with him.  Every good work, however small it may be, which is performed in God with love and a righteous, pure intention, earns for us a greater likeness to God and eternal life in him.  A pure intention unites the scattered powers of the soul in the unity of the spirit and orientates the spirit towards God.  A pure intention is the end and beginning and adornment of all virtue.  A pure intention offers praise and honor and all virtue to God.  It passes through itself, the heavens and all things and finds God in the purity of its own ground.  That intention is pure which holds only to God and sees all things in relation to God.” (God Within, p. 136) As I said in my introductory paragraph whatever the setting, domestic, commercial, or social, and whether we feel our contribution is great or miniscule, God is there, and we draw closer to God’s likeness.

Though angels may call us from without, grace drives us from within. Ruusbroec explains: “Now the grace of God, which flows forth from God, is an interior impulse or urging of the Holy Spirit which drives our spirit from within and urges it outwards towards all the virtues.  This grace flows from within us and not from outside us, for God is more interior to us than we are to ourselves and his interior urging and working within us, whether natural or supernatural, is closer and more intimate to us than our own activity.  For this reason God works from within us outwards, whereas all creatures act upon us from without.” (God Within, p. 139-140)

Conclusion
At this time of pandemic there is a lot of talk about when society can return to normal? This is the wrong question. If we are open to a direct experience of God in small ways or large we see before us an opportunity to live into a society that is more inclusive and equal. God, Catherine of Siena understood, is madly in love with every created person and thing. All are included in this extravagant love. Julian of Norwich encountered Jesus as humankind’s “true Mother,” and just as a true mother cannot decide among her children, we are all equally loved. The message today is not so different from that of centuries past, though race and the legacy of slavery mar our current time. The pandemic drives us to a threshold. “Every form of fixity is broken,” says Johannes Tauler. The right question is what can we create in its place? God’s grace drives us and angels pull us to a less blemished place. One can begin to imagine a world that is anti-racist. This will not happen on its own. We must be driven. Every good work no matter how small is essential. It adds its own momentum or intention toward every other in creating a place of inclusion and equality. Catherine of Siena says that we get there on the two feet or two wings of love of God and love of neighbor.

There are great mystics who encounter God with a supernatural directness. But perhaps most of us are “little ones” as Thérèse of Lisieux would say. For those, there are many “secret touches” from God adapted to our ability to receive them. Johannes Tauler adds that there is not just one way to be a mystic. The Holy Spirit’s expectation differs from person to person. What is to be looked for is a grassroots mysticism where each one directly encounters God’s word for an unblemished world and are driven to love all that God has created and accept that all belong.

Bibliography and References
1.     Davies, Oliver; God Within:The Mystical Tradition of Northern Europe; Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2006.
2.     De Waal, Esther, Living on the Border: Connecting Inner and Outer Worlds; Norwich: The Canterbury Press, 2001. 
3.     Hart, David Bentley; A Splendid Wickedness and Other Essays; Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2016 (Nook Reader)
4.     Macquarrie, John; Two Worlds Are Ours: An Introduction to Christian Mysticism; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005.
5.     Rakoczy, Susan, IHM; Great Mystics and Social Justice: Walking on the Two Feet of Love; New York: Paulist Press, 2006.

20200522

Pandemic: Handshake to Namasté

Namasté is a gesture of greeting undertaken by many at this time of physical distancing. It replaces the handshake that has been with us in the western world since ancient times. My friend and classicist Dr. Brian Burke notes that the marriage contract in ancient Rome first ritualized the clasped hands of bride and groom. Eventually the act moved into society itself signifying honesty and truth. Some ancient Roman coins showed the goddess Concordia (hearts together) shaking hands with a Roman citizen. (Winning the Heart of America)

The origin of Namasté is Hindu and its spirit is quintessentially Buddhist. Hands are pressed together, thumbs close to the chest and fingers pointing upwards, the head bows slightly. I have mostly seen the gesture translated "I bow to the divine in you." But a Buddhist friend Stefan Schindler, who once lived in a Zen monastery for a year, translates the gesture as meaning, "The divine in me bows to the divine in you." The one hand signifying the divine in oneself greets the other hand the divine in the other with head bowed. The divine in me bows to the divine in you. Namasté. (donstefanschindler.com)

It strikes me that as a physical gesture namasté also evokes the Christian greeting, "The Lord be with you... And also with you." I bow to the Lord with you; you bow to the Lord with me. Similarly, "The peace of the Lord be always with you... And also with you." It recalls Mary’s greeting of Elizabeth in the Gospel of Luke. “When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit” (1:41). Mary responds with her song of praise, the Magnificat. Namasté. In each case Hindu, Buddhist or Christian, the gesture is praise language.

Spiritual awakening happens through the ascent from pride to praise. Hugh of St. Victor (c.1096-1141) observed that “if you truly love the virtuous, whatever blessing comes to them makes the charity which is in you rejoice as though the benefit were yours and not another’s.” (Soliloquy, p. 21) Namasté. The divine in me bows to the divine in you.

Pride covets what another has; or perhaps more dangerously pride covets what one possesses that another does not. This was the conundrum in which the Apostle Paul found himself and that he describes in his Letter to the Romans, chapter 7. Paul lived the life of Torah judging those who did not. It was an example of this second kind of pride. Mark Nanos describes “the human impulse to covet into discriminating by the Law against the one who does not also embrace the Law” as a trap. (The Mystery of Romans, p.362) The more Paul tries to keep the Law the more he breaks it by coveting his privileged position. Paul cries, “Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (7:24-25) Pride judges one person in and the other out. This can be overcome by living according to the Spirit of Christ. The spiritual life produces inclusion (all in Christ) and equality, the impulse to judge another inferior is overcome. As Christians we have not all learned Paul’s lesson. We too can fall prey to partisanship and judge others to be outsiders with fewer privileges. This has hurt the church immensely. Praise recalls us to the awareness that the divine is present to all and no one is loved less than another. Namasté.

One needs to ascend from pride to praise. This is awakening, or what one might say today, being “woke.” The Quaker and Welsh Poet Waldo Williams said that the purpose of praise is “to recreate an unblemished world,” a world that shines with inclusion and equality. Praise language undercuts pride and exclusion. It builds unity where each is equally loved.  The divine in me bows to the divine in you. Namasté.

Burke, Brian Charles; Winning the Heart of America: Abraham Lincoln Takes a Hand in the American War of Civility; Philadelphia, 2012.

Hugh of St. Victor; Soliloquy on the Earnest Money of the Soul; translated by Kevin Herbert; Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 1956.

Nanos, Mark D.; The Mystery of Romans: The Jewish Context of Paul’s Letter; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996.


20200519

Pandemic: Presence in Absence

I have been interested in presence in absence which is paradoxical but I think that is the way a lot of theology is done. In liturgical churches worshipers lament the absence of real presence, that reality of Christ's presence shared in the Eucharist. It has led me to think of God’s presence in absence. Once, a dear one was seriously ill, so much so that it felt to me as though God was not there. My prayer was paradoxical. It went: “God, I’m not sure that you are there, but I am going to move forward in my life and trust you to catch me if I fall.” I suspect the “absent God” gave me the energy to go on.

Artists capture this awareness of presence in absence. I think of Rothko, his black canvasses and the Rothko Chapel in Houston. The canvas of dark paint absent of color takes us within and allows us to go beyond, inviting us to look at the infinite that has become present to us.                    

The Welsh poet R. S. Thomas also evokes presence in absence in a poem entitled, “Sea-Watching.” To spot an uncommon bird, binoculars resting on a tripod, one waits. The bird's absence was its presence:
Ah, but a rare bird is
rare. It is when one is not looking,
at times one is not there
                                                that it comes.
You must wear your eyes out,
as others their knees.
          I became the hermit
of the rocks, habited with the wind
and the mist. There were days,
so beautiful the emptiness
it might have filled,
                                      its absence
was its presence; not to be told
any more, so single my mind
after its long fast,
                             my watching from praying.

20130223

Fill My Mouth with Your Praise


“Fill my Mouth with Your Praise” 1.


The utterance of praise is an essential quality of being human. Yet the energy of praise cannot be limited to or contained within our human condition.  Jeremiah describes this energy as “a burning fire shut up in my bones;  I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot” (Jeremiah 20: 9).  As we will see, praise “deconstructs” which is why the prophet bitterly complains about derision by others in the chapter.  St. Ephrem uses the miracle of turning water into wine at the wedding feast at Cana as an image for praise.  Jesus’ mother informs her son: “They have no wine.”   They need to be filled with the transcendent joy of Jesus’ presence so that their own joy may be complete (John 15: 11).  Ephrem prays, “fill my mouth with (the wine of) your praise.”  Nowhere is the fire or new wine of praise more evident than in Mark’s resurrection narrative.  Further, I will suggest that praise is universal by surveying traditions of praise poetry in Celtic Wales and Africa, Jewish praise psalms, Arabic praise poetry and the ancient hymning of Saint Ephrem the Syrian.  Indeed, it seems that humankind is hardwired to praise.  Saint Augustine begins his Confessions by asserting that all people have a need or even an instinct to praise God.  “You (God) stir (each one) to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” 2.


The attempt to cope with the overflow or superabundance of God’s love is what Christians mean by praise.3.  Naturally, then, the resurrection sparks and energizes praise.  Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh describes resurrection as “… a laugh freed/ for ever and ever.” 4.  Alan Jones tells of the end of Malory’s Morte D’Arthur.  “Sir Lancelot and his companions have all retired from the world in order to live as hermits.  Among their company is a retired Archbishop of Canterbury.  One night every one in the little monastic community is disturbed by the sound of the archbishop’s loud laughter.  The companions gather round his bed and wake him up, and the archbishop cries, ‘Ah, Jesu mercy, why did you wake me?  I was never so merry, and so well at ease in my life.’  They asked him why.  He had seen Sir Lancelot’s soul being received into heaven by myriads of angels, and he laughed and laughed and laughed.” 5. 

Praise and the Resurrection Narrative of the Gospel of Mark

 

If the superabundance of divine love is what gives rise to resurrection in Mark’s narrative, and laughter and praise are what accompany being brought into God’s presence, then why in the gospel narrative is the dominant note one of fear?  And I don’t mean reverence or awe but flat-out, unsettling fear.  Is it possible that fear is the emotion that accompanies the beginning of praise?

 

At sunrise the women went to the tomb where Jesus’ body had been laid.  They are in for a huge disruption in how they make sense of things.  From a human perspective death brings everything to a full stop.  Now all of a sudden this worldview is cracked open, disrupted.  Deconstructed we would say today.  The women are afraid.  It is how we feel when our expectations are turned on their head.  What is it that cracks open the way of things?  The message of the early church was one of “preaching peace by Jesus Christ – he is Lord of all” (Acts 10: 36).  Praise creates a worldview that places the overflow of compassion, incarnate in Jesus Christ (and not ourselves), in the center.  

 

The “not ourselves” is the deconstruction of all other worldviews where the superabundant God is not central.  Theologian John Franke following the thought of William Stacy Johnson writes: “It is an infinity that claims us and will not let go in its call to move us beyond the constraints of our selfhood, beyond the limitations of our versions of reality and truth and toward the Other, the God in whom we live and move and have our being.” 6.  Praise places us in the presence of this God and continually deconstructs whatever encrusts this dynamic, divine overflow of love.  It is this deconstruction that yanks us out of the center of how we look at things and pulls the rug out from under imperial control that is so unsettling, particularly dangerous to those on the margins of worldly power.  It is the marginalized that are most prone to praise and also are most vulnerable when the powers fall under praise’s deconstruction.  Mark describes this in his little apocalypse: “Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing infants in those days!” (Mark 13:17).  In the same way the women “fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them;  and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”
 

Praise not only deconstructs but it redirects and reorients.  The heavenly messenger at the empty tomb redirects the women and disciples to Galilee where, they are told, they will encounter the risen Christ.  Praise redirects all people and things to their new life in God. In Galilee Jesus undertook his healing ministry that gave an intimation of what resurrection would look like.  The women and disciples are redirected to this place of healing.  The Quaker and Welsh Poet Waldo Williams remarked that the purpose of praise is “to recreate an unblemished world,” 7. a mended creation where the broken are healed.  The phrases “lifted up” and “arise” are used deliberately in the gospel prefiguring the resurrection.  In the first chapter of Mark Jesus takes Peter’s mother-in-law by the hand and lifts her up (1:31).  Later, to a girl nearly dead Jesus takes her by the hand again and says “Little girl, I say to you, arise” 8. (RSV, 5:41).  A boy with convulsions and unable to speak is brought to Jesus.  As by now is his custom he takes the boy by the hand and lifted him up (9: 27).  Praise redirects us to where the feverish find freedom, those as good as dead are given life, the voiceless find their voice, and those convulsed with oppression are enabled to stand.  Praise redirects the women and disciples to where they learn again the meaning of healing and re-creation as though for the first time when they meet the risen Christ in Galilee.


So praise is the way one copes with the overflow of God’s love.  Praise is an orientation whereby at the heart of how one looks at the world there is God.  What can one do but laugh with joy. There are worldviews that are convulsive and oppressive where God, the infinity that claims us, is not at the center.  Praise deconstructs these orientations.  Fear is the feeling that accompanies this deconstruction.  Finally praise redirects one to where healing and new life are found and God who is uncontainable is again at the center of how one understands life unblemished by violence, coercion and the power of death.


There is a cross-cultural quality of praise.  This says to me that we have a human need or propensity for praise.  Praise is deeply part of who we are as human beings.  We see it expressed across cultures in what is known as praise poetry.  I hope the following brief survey will demonstrate this human need to praise and draw us more deeply into its meaning for our own Christian tradition.


Welsh Praise Poetry


In Wales during a sabbatical in 1997 I learned of the ancient tradition of praise poetry.  Esther de Waal who lives in the Marches or border area between Wales and England, acknowledges the origin of the praise poem in “the cultic celebration of the pagan king by professional poets.” 9.  In the following 13th century poem the author, most likely a cleric, wrote a praise poem to Christ the first five lines of which would have served well in a poem of praise to a king.

 
In the name of the Lord, mine to praise, of great praise,
I shall praise God, great the triumph of his love,
God who defended us, God who made us, God who saved us,
God our hope, perfect and honorable, beautiful his blessing.
We are in God’s power, God above, Trinity’s king.


Like a king whose triumph is great, the poet praises God.  We find in praise an asymmetry between the king and bard, or in this case, God and the poet.  The human person is in God’s power. The poet participates in God’s beautiful blessing bringing salvation and joy.  God is the defender of the poet, as once the king protected the bard.  There is an overflow of largesse in the perfect and honorable stature of the king/God warranting the trinity of praise in the first two lines.


The poem then goes on to pick up themes from the resurrection narrative of fear (terrible grief), deconstruction, redirection and reorientation.

 
God proved himself our liberation by his suffering,
God came to be imprisoned in humility.
Wise Lord, who will free us by Judgment Day,
Who will lead us to the feast through his mercy and sanctity
In paradise, in pure release from the burden of sin,
Who will bring us salvation through penance and the five wounds.
Terrible grief, God defended us when he took on flesh.
Man would be lost if the perfect rite had not redeemed him.
Through the cross, blood-stained, came salvation to the world.
Christ, strong shepherd, his honor shall not fail.10.


There is a deconstruction of triumph and power.  It is not by domination that the victory is won but by suffering and love.  An all-powerful, distant God is deconstructed to an event of love imprisoned in humility, waiting to be cracked open, just as the cross and resurrection tore in two the curtain of the temple.  Does the terrible grief refer to the cross or to the marginalized in their oppression, or perhaps to the lost condition of all apart from Christ.  This is an incarnational story.  God is present in having taken on flesh, and in the real presence of communion.  The “perfect rite” of the Eucharist redirects Jesus’ followers and the poet.  The poem begins: “In the name of the Lord” that would have for the poet Eucharistic connotations.  The Eucharist reorients its participants to a worldview of cosmic mending with Christ at the center.  This is an orientation that gives meaning to all else which is what we will see next in African praise poetry.

African Praise Poetry



          In 2002 I attended a workshop on Creativity Through Writing and Storytelling with storyteller Jay O’Callahan who tells his tales all over the world.  He first came on the idea of praise poems when he was telling stories in Africa.  Jay says that “if you give people a gift of praising themselves, it is a sacred act.”  In Lesotho boys were expected to compose their own lithoko (the word for praise poem that comes from the verb ho roka -  “to praise”).  “At one time almost every adult male Sotho was able to compose and chant his own lithoko…” 11.    The poem is not self-congratulatory as though the poem was oriented about one’s self.  Instead, the orientation in which the poem was composed would be one of proud traditional values, a love of the land, and an historically continuous community.  Here is part of an initiate’s lithoko.  Each initiate is given a new name that begins with the letter “L.”  In this case the boy’s new name was Lefata.  He makes me smile.  I can just imagine a thirteen-year-old coming up with something like this!

 

                   Lefata, wander on and go down
                   To go and see how huts stand
                   To go and see dark-complexioned girls.
                   A dark-complexioned young man, I, Lefata
                   A young man with a beautiful voice
                   A young man to be called a chief
                   A young man to be given a shield.
                   Girls love him without knowing him
                   They go about breaking themselves into small pieces.12.

 

In the Creativity workshop, Jay O’Callahan asked each of us to write our own praise poem. The language of praise is very different from the language of congratulations.  In congratulations the autonomous self replaces God or community at the center of the world.  Psychiatrist Robert Coles in a book entitled The Secular Mind, writes: “With God gone for so many intellectual pioneers of the last two centuries, the rest of us, as students and readers… have only ourselves left as ‘objects’ of attention.” 13.  A different world (than an unblemished one) is evoked when we are the object of attention than when we praise God.  Then we “understand each human being as his or her own lord.” 14.  The self is sovereign.  When we praise a person or ourselves in the context of the divine, each one is part of God’s good creation.  The boy Lafata rises on the tide of his community and tradition none of which is removed from the divine.  We praise the activity that leads to fulfillment of each person in all that they were created to be.  We praise the co-creative actions that serve the eschatological goal of an unblemished world.  In the Episcopal Church at confirmation instead of composing a lithoko, the bishop prays that each confirmand may continue God’s forever, and daily increase in Holy Spirit until arrival in that everlasting kingdom.15.  That prayer is very much in the tradition of praise.  There is orientation (God’s forever), an implied deconstruction (otherwise why would daily increase be necessary), redirection and fulfillment (everlasting kingdom).  In O’Callahan’s words, at confirmation, we are beginning to teach another the meaning of praise for themselves and that is a sacred act. 


So we are sitting in a cottage on Humarock Beach on the South Shore of Massachusetts.  It is a sunny day and Minot’s Light is off in the distance.  Jay introduces the exercise with some words from Walt Whitman: “I too am not a bit tamed, I am untranslatable,/ I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world…16.  Then he adds some verses from Psalm 139, “Lord… I will thank you because I am marvelously made;  your works are wonderful, and I know it well.”  He reads his own praise poem and invites us to write ours.  With apologies to any true poet this is my own lithoko:

 

          Praise is my aspiration,
          A high tide unebbing,
          A salt sea lapping.
          I laugh at my openness
          Born of an openness
          That has no shore –
          Being –
          Stable, steady, oceanic.


          A hopeful wind stirs the whitecaps
          Of my moments
          That turn sunlight to joyful flashes like some lighthouse
          That saves a vessel passing by –
          Praising,
          Laughing,
          Eye-opening,
  Stable-being,
          Hoping,
          Saving,
          A morning’s ocean view.

 

Africa is a big continent, and there are many other aspects to praise poetry there.  The experience on Humarock Beach put me in mind of psalms of praise.  The psalm that Jay quoted is actually an individual lament or perhaps a wisdom psalm.  But there is a genre of praise psalms.

 

Israel’s Praise Psalms


          Israel’s praises arise out of an orientation of God’s saving purpose at the heart of a people’s life.  This is God who in the African-American tradition can make a way out of no way.  Or as Paul said to the Romans God “gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Rom. 4:: 17).  Praise is a faith orientation.  Psalm 136 is a storytelling psalm of hymnic praise.  It begins with an invocation that calls upon the community to praise.  The divine Name is spoken.  The God of Israel has an identity and may be addressed personally even though God is beyond our grasp and control.  Walter Brueggemann reflects that: “Praise articulates and embodies our capacity to yield, submit, and abandon ourselves in trust and gratitude to the One whose we are.” 17.


Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,
                             for his mercy endures forever.
                   Give thanks to the God of gods,
                             for his mercy endures forever.
                   Give thanks to the Lord of lords,
                             for his mercy endures forever.


This invocation includes the imperative to praise and the reason for it.  Praise evokes a world in which God is active.  So in historic situations where there was distress and God’s help was needed, God acted mercifully.  This is the main portion of the psalm.  It is the motive for the people’s praise.  God’s sovereignty and majesty are seen in the story of God’s people. 


God the Creator:

                   Who spread out the earth upon the waters,
                             for his mercy endures forever.

God the Deliverer:

                   Who struck down the first-born of Egypt,
                             for his mercy endures forever.

God the Homemaker:

                   And gave away their lands for an inheritance,
                             for his mercy endures forever.

The psalm concludes with a refrain in which the people are not self-congratulatory but remember their low estate, and God’s deliverance.  God is to be praised for the sustenance given to all creatures: human and animal, plant and mineral.  Creation is a continuing activity of sustaining God’s creatures.  The  psalm’s refrain seems to strike a universal note at the end.


                   Give thanks to the God of heaven,
                             for his mercy endures forever.

 

It would seem there is an openness to God that embraces the whole cosmos and what can one do but praise. 


Esther de Waal quotes Thomas Merton who observed that, “In the Psalms we drink divine praise at its pure and stainless source, in all its primitive sincerity and perfection.  We return to the youthful strength and directness with which the ancient psalmists voiced their adoration of the God of Israel.” 18.  One reason to refer to the primitive sincerity of the psalm’s praise is an aggression and occupation of another’s land that would be deemed unjust by today’s standards.19.  Primitive sincerity also however brings us close in time to a people who saw God active and at the center of their understanding of life.  That is a sincerity and directness that is deeply needed today.  Unlike the Celts whom Esther de Waal writes about, God in the modern, secular world has come to be seen as distant from daily life.  Where once the simplest and most ordinary tasks were imbued with the divine presence, today even many church members might be hard pressed to identify God’s presence or action in their daily lives.  We need the praise of the psalms.  We have lost and need to recover our “religious imagination” for God’s presence in the little things of daily life, natural beauty and ordinary relationships. 20.  We need to recover the meaning of praise and find fulfillment for ourselves and our world as a result.

 

Arabic Praise Poetry


          Given the conflict in the Middle East I could not help but wonder if Israel has psalms of praise how about the Arabs?  And after some searching sure enough there is also Arab praise poetry.  Pre-Islamic praise poetry like that of ancient Wales was offered to kings and tribal lords.  The poem that I will look at is “Ka’b ibn Zuhayr and the Mantle of the Prophet.”  It is based on the pre-Islamic praise tradition and tells of Ka’b’s conversion to Islam in he 7th century.  Praise in the Arab tradition is a process.  There is a prelude that describes some loss or separation.  It seems to me rather like a deconstruction of what was.  Then there is the journey that is dangerous and ambiguous.  It is a kind of in-between state, perhaps the crossing of some threshold.  Finally, there is the praise of having arrived, a state of fulfillment.


          Ka’b’s poem begins with a traditional motif of a departed, lost lover.

                   Su’ad has departed and today
                             my heart is sick,…
                   Alas! What a mistress, had she been true
                             to what she promised…
                   But she is a mistress
                             in whose blood are mixed
                   Calamity, mendacity,
                             inconstancy, and perfidy. 21.


The name Su’ad is related to the word for prosperity, good fortune and happiness.  Allegorically, this is the loss of a tribal society that had stability though was false and unreliable.


Next comes the journey.  The poet describes his camel, “the best of she-camels of noble breed and easy pace.”  The poet is traveling to a land “Never to be reached but by a she-camel/ huge and robust/That despite fatigue sustains/ her amble and her trot.”  The camel is understood allegorically to be the poet’s own resolve in the face of almost unbearable loss.  The final verse of this section reads: “Tearing her clothes from her breast/ with her bare hands,/ Her woolen shift ripped from her collarbone/ in shreds.”  The relentless motion of the she-camel on this perilous journey is like a grieving mother fiercely tearing at her clothing over the loss of her first born.


The final and third section of the poem is the arrival/conversion of the poet in a praise of rebirth.  To his former associates who were of no help, the poet cries: “Out of my way,/ you bastards!…”  Tribal bonds are emphatically cut off. Then comes the possibility of a new, salvific relationship.


But from God’s Messenger
pardon is hoped.
                   Go easy, and let Him be your guide
                             who gave to you
                   The gift of the Qur’an in which
                             are warnings and discernment!

In this praise poem we have the movement from false hope to hope fulfilled, from misguidance to true discernment.  Suzanne Stetkevych writes that here we have “the Islamic message of right guidance and divine might.” 22.  Praise is a process of getting on the right path.  The poem is an affirmation of Islamic faith and the fulfillment of one’s self in Allah/God through praise.


Hymnic Praise of St. Ephrem the Syrian


          Sufism in Islam may have been influenced in some part by east Syriac mystics. 23.  I mentioned to Esther de Waal that I was reading about Arab praise poetry and interested in praise generally and in its cross cultural expression.  She pointed me in the direction of Saint Ephrem the Syrian, the finest poet of the patristic age not just in Syriac but in any language.  Syriac is a dialect of Aramaic, the language that Jesus spoke.  Ephrem who lived in the fourth century wrote many of hymns for women’s choirs and had an appreciation for the equality of the sexes.  He wrote:

                 The object of your teaching is the wholly new world, where,
                    in the kingdom, men and women are equal.
            Your work put the two sexes together as two lyres,
                    And you made men and women at once equal to
                              sing (God’s) praises.
 

Ephrem has been called a second Moses for women. 24.


          For Ephrem praise is the nourishment required for faith to grow.  In a hymn on faith he wrote:


                   The seed, swollen with moisture,
                   bursts asunder its covering of soil
                   and out peers the blade of wheat, full of symbols.
                   So faith, whose bosom is filled with goodly fruits,
                   is a blade bearing praise.


Praise is like the sap coursing through the blade of wheat. It energizes faith.  It also displays “goodly fruits.”  One has only to think of a favorite parable of Ephrem, that of the sower, and the seed that brought forth grain a hundredfold (Matt. 13).  Again there is this sense of profusion and abundance that with respect to praise continually grows larger.  Ephrem declares that the more we praise, the wider our inner or spiritual vision.  We see greater and greater evidence of God’s compassion and praise all the more.


          I also believe there is a relation between rootedness and praise.  I once asked the Benedictine Fr. Laurence Freeman about the relation between praise and stability.  This question would have been anachronistic to Ephrem as monasticism had not yet arrived in Syria.  But Freeman’s answer reminds me of a verse from Ephrem.  He replied you only have to look in the cemetery.  I gave a quizzical look, to which he added.  There is a cherry tree there in full blossom.  Without its roots and their stability we would not have such a riot of color.  St. Ephrem writes in Faith 80:


Scripture decrees that by his faith
the righteous man shall find his life;
for truth itself is root and stem –  
a noble tree – and on its branch,   
our righteous works God took, like fruits,   
and placed, where now, by faith, they hang. 25.


Praise needs to root itself in truth, not deception or ingratitude, greed or arrogance.  When stabilized by the truth, the tree is noble and the fruits hang in a profusion of praise.


One can go deeper than the spiritual perception that speaks with mouths filled with praise.  Ephrem suggests that the most profound praise is silent.


         Fish are both conceived and born in the sea
         if they dive deep, they escape those who would catch them.
         In luminous silence within the mind let prayer recollect itself,
         so as not to stray. 26.


Sebastian Brock notes that the “movement of praise from sound to silence is seen by Ephrem as a counterpart to the movement of God from the silence of His ineffable Being to the divine Utterance, the Word.” 27


Like the Welsh poem’s “perfect rite,” Ephrem’s poem, “The Eucharistic Marriage Feast,” situates praise as an integral part of Christian life.  Praise places Christ at the center around which everything else is oriented.  Ephrem begins his poem with reference to the wedding feast at Cana:

    I have invited You, Lord, to a wedding feast of songs,
   but the wine – the utterance of praise – at our feast has run out.
   (You are) the guest who filled with good wine the jars;
   fill my mouth with Your praise.
 

The poem ends with paradox.  Greek philosophy with its reliance on static definition had not yet arrived in Syria.  This happenstance freed Ephrem to use paradox as a more dynamic and fluid way of doing theology.
   
It is right that humanity should acknowledge Your divinity,                  it is right for the supernal beings to worship Your humanity;            the supernal beings were amazed to see how small You become,      and those below to see how exalted!


The refrain again finds praise grounded in truth:

Praise to You from everyone
                   who has perceived Your truth. 28.

 

Conclusion


          Everywhere one looks with what Ephrem calls the luminous eye, praise is the human response to the truth of God’s overwhelming compassion.  There is laughter at being received into God’s presence, but fear at the deconstruction or loss that is praise’s beginning.  This may be the loss of a worldview that has been turned on its head, or the loss of a way of life that had seemed so dependable and was found to be false.  From loss praise redirects the faithful to those Galilees where the dynamic prospect of healing and wholeness may find fulfillment.  Praise expects God’s merciful activity in the world.  Each person finds their worth through praise by virtue of their asymmetric relationship with God and their interdependence with God’s creation.  Everything else is congratulations where self is at the center.  This may be good as far as it goes but congratulations is a “one-off” declaration of success.  Praise is a process that leads to continual conversion and growth.  It may be that praise at its deepest is expressed in silence.  When one encounters praise in different cultures one finds a breadth of meaning.  Praise seems so central that without it one could scarcely be called human.  Let Ephrem have the last word:

While I live I will give praise, and not be as if I had no existence;
 I will give praise during my lifetime, and will not be as someone dead
among the living. 29

 

Notes



1.  Brock, Sebastian P., and Kiraz, George A., translators and editors; Ephrem the Syrian: Select Poems; Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 2009; p. 217.  This paper was first presented at the Philadelphia Clericus on April 23, 2012.

2.  Chadwick, Henry, translator; Saint Augustine Confessions; New York, Oxford University Press, Oxford World’s Classics, 1998; p. 3.                        

3. Ford, David F. and Hardy, Daniel W.;  Living in Praise: Worshipping and Knowing God; Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic. 2005; p. 2.  Ford and Hardy use the term abundance.  I think of God’s compassion as inexhaustible and overwhelming and so use the word superabundant.  We see this in Mark’s story of the feeding of the 4000.  Jesus has compassion, and not only are the 4000 fed with seven loaves of bread (That is abundance.) but afterwards there were seven full baskets left over (Mark 8: 1-10).  In a later book, David Ford meditates on how being overwhelmed shapes our lives.  He concludes that “God is a self-distributing God continually overflowing in love through the Holy Spirit,” (Ford, David F.; The Shape of Living: Spiritual Directions for Everyday Life; Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1999; p. 194).

4.  Ford and Hardy, Opus cited, page, 92; and Ford, The Shape of Living, p. 185.

5.  Jones, Alan; Journey into Christ; Minneapolis: The Seabury Press, 1977; p. 139.

6.  Franke, John R.; Manifold Witness: The Plurality of Truth; Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2009;p. 112.

7.  Allchin, A. M.; Praise Above All: Discovering the Welsh Tradition; Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1991; p. 3.

8. Scripture citations are taken from the New Revised Standard Version unless indicated otherwise.  Here the translation from the Revised Standard Version is clearer with respect to the point I am trying to make.

9.  de Waal, Esther; The Celtic Way of Prayer: The Recovery of the Religious Imagination; London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1996; p. 168.

10. Davies, Oliver; Celtic Christianity in Early Medieval Wales; Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1996; pp. 52-3.  I follow Davies in his interpretation of this poem.

11. Damane, M. and Sanders, P. B., editors and translators; Lithoko: Sotho Praise-Poems; Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974; p. 22.

12. Gleason, Judith; Leaf and Bone: African Praise-Poems; New York: Penguin Books, 1994; p. 19.

13. Coles, Robert; The Secular Mind; Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999; p. 123;  quoted in: Cutler, E. Clifford; By Night: Sermons & Meditations in a Third Millennium; Thorofare, New Jersey: Edward Brothers, Inc., 2010; p. 5.

14. Jacobson, Rolf; “The Costly Loss of Praise,” Theology Today; 57, no. 3 O 2000, p. 381.

15. The Book of Common Prayer; New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

16. Whitman, Walt; Song of Myself; East Aurora, New York: Roycrofters, 1904; accessed by the Internet Archive.

17. Brueggemann, Walter; Israel’s Praise: Doxology against Idolatry and Ideology; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988; p. 1.

18. de Waal, Esther; Opus Cited; p. 182.

19. The group Christian–Jewish Allies for Justice in the Middle East was formed in 2009 at Saint Paul’s Church, Philadelphia for the purpose of teaching the facts on the ground, many of which are unjust, in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank.  When one understands praise as the human person’s response to the overflow of God’s compassion, it tempers the human proclivity toward violence.

20. Zscheile, Dwight J.; People of the Way: Renewing Episcopal Identity; New York: Morehouse Publishing, 2012.  See especially pages 36, 68, 76 and 91.

21. Stetkevych, Suzanne Pinckney; The Mantle Odes: Arabic Praise Poems to the Prophet Muhammad; Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010; p. 27-49.

22. ibid., p. 57.

23. Brock, Sebastian; The Syriac Fathers on Prayer and the Spiritual Life; Cistercian Publications, Inc., 1987; n. 56, p. xli.

24. Griffith, Sidney H.; “A Spiritual Father for the Whole Church: St Ephaem the Syrian,” Sobornost, Volume 20: 2, 1998, p. 27.  Also, Brock (The Luminous Eye) p. 168.

25. Palmer, Andrew; “St Ephrem of Syria’s Hymn on Faith 7: an ode on his own name;”  Sobornost, Volume 17:1, 1995; p. 29

26. Brock, Sebastian, (The Syriac Fathers); p. 34.

27. Brock, Sebastian; The Luminous Eye: The Spiritual World Vision of Saint Ephrem; Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1992; p. 79.

28. Brock & Kiraz, opus cited; p. 217.

29. Brock, The Luminous Eye; p. 45.

 

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