Saturday 31 July 2010

The ethics of ice cream

Recently a good friend and I spent a few days together in Melbourne. One afternoon we were rambling around the city's wonderful Italian precinct, when we passed a little gelato bar. The gelati, bright and varied like so many flowers in a brilliant bouquet, glistened invitingly from behind the huge glass display. It was the wrong time of day for ice cream. The dusky Melbourne chill had started to gather, and we were already pulling our coats tight against the cold – but we found ourselves drawn irresistibly into the cheery little shop with its big bright display.

Pistacchio, lemon, chocolate orange, caffè, caramelised fig, rum raisin, green apple, bacio, blood orange... I made a quick provisional review of the range of colours and flavours, and then, determined not to waste another moment, I resolved to begin the all-important business of flavour sampling. "I'd like to try the melon and the dark chocolate," I said to the girl behind the counter, who had been waiting with benign attentiveness.

"No, I'm sorry," she replied at once. "Only one sample per customer." She pointed with tight-lipped authority to a sign on the counter that confirmed this ominous regulation, the capital letters printed in a stark juridical font.

"One sample?" I said, a little unsettled. "But how can I tell which flavour I want, if I only get one sample?"

"I'm sorry, one sample per customer."

"But don't you see?" I said, smiling generously. "Unless I try two flavours, how can I choose the one I prefer?"

She shrugged pleasantly, peering down at me like a judge from the bench, all kindliness and good intentions, but ultimately powerless before those ineluctable proceedings. "I'm really sorry, but nobody's allowed more than one sample. It's the rule."

As everybody knows, tasting different flavours is one of the chief joys of visiting a gelateria. But the samples do not merely serve an aesthetic purpose, they also have an important psychological benefit: the comparison of flavours allows you to make a final decision free of the usual burden of Menu Anxiety (together with the threatening subsequent possibility of Menu Regret). On this particular occasion, however, things were becoming difficult. Under these circumstances, the choice of a sample was itself rapidly descending into all the consternation of an actual decision.

Mustering all my inner resources, I told her I would try the melon. She handed me the tiny plastic spoon with its reluctant globule of pale green ice cream. Nervously, but hopefully, I tasted it.

And didn't like it.

Trying hard to conceal my growing sense of alarm, I said to the girl, "I'm afraid I don't like the melon. What do I do now?"

She smiled sympathetically, all innocence, and raised her eyebrows as though waiting for me to place my order. "Could I perhaps try just one more flavour?" I said feebly. "Don't you see that I can't choose any flavour if all I've tasted is something I don't like?"

"One sample per customer."

Stirred by her apparent misunderstanding, I looked at her passionately, full in the face, appealing to her not so much as the gelato girl but as a fellow human being. "But don't you see," I said warmly, "it makes no sense to provide one sample! It's just the same as providing no samples at all! I'm sure I would love many of these flavours – but at the moment, all I know is that I don't like the melon. Really, if you could just let me try one more, just the caramelised fig..."

Half smiling, she said, "Honestly, I'd love to let you try another flavour" – but then furrowed her brow and continued – "but if I let you have one more sample, I'd have to let everyone do it." Her voice rose triumphantly as she tightened the knot of this invincible Kantian logic, this gelatogorical imperative.

Believe me, I know better than to try to argue with a Kantian; I thanked her and ordered two scoops of caffè ice cream. I have no complaint at all about the caffè. (Admittedly it was not altogether what I had in mind, but that is beside the point – yes, I admit it, the cream was a little too heavy, the flavour a little too sweet; to be perfectly honest there was even a hint of coarseness, which I deplore in gelato.) But as my friend and I made our way down the darkening street, talking happily with plastic spoons in hand, I imagined my gelato girl returning dutifully to her work, quietly satisfied that once again the law had been upheld – not merely the law of ice cream, but that eternal law by which all things in heaven and on earth are held in balance and by which the threatening tides of chaos are kept at bay.

"Enjoy your caffè ice cream," I imagined her telling me. "It is for your own good. It is for the good of all creation."

See also the gelato girl's response.

Wednesday 28 July 2010

On failing to be a good preacher

I had a good discussion with some students today about preaching. If you're preparing for ministry, you'll need to develop some basic homiletical skills and techniques, and you'll need the kind of critical feedback that can help you to become a better preacher. But you don't really ever want to become a "good" preacher – the kind of trained professional who can deliver flawless, carefully calculated and perfectly executed homilies. To preach is to accept responsibility for the Word of God in the world. It is to put ourselves in an impossible position: we should speak God's word, but we can't make this happen. No amount of exegetical mastery or homiletical savviness can ensure that God will speak to the congregation. As Karl Barth famously put it: “As ministers, we ought to speak of God. We are human, however, so we cannot speak of God. We ought therefore to recognise both our obligation and our inability, and by that very recognition give God the glory.”

For me, the paradigmatic experience of preaching is not the good sermon, but the failed sermon: when you're trying to speak God's Word, but you're looking out at a sea of bored, distracted, yawning faces, people furtively glancing at their watches – when you yourself, the preacher, are glancing at your watch and wondering when it will all be over. Anyone who has to preach regularly will know this experience. It is an exemplary experience, because it's here that you encounter the real nature of preaching: the fact that it arises not from the preacher's fullness, but from an unbearable emptiness; the fact that it is always bound to fail – it has to fail – unless some miracle occurs, unless God speaks.

The most beautiful vases are often made to look unfinished; there is something incomplete about them, a kind of beautiful, beckoning lack. In the same way, I think preaching should be performed in such a way that it never seems quite finished, never perfect or complete. When you stand up and begin to speak, you are marking a vacant spot, a need, a prayer for something else, something other to occur.

As I was discussing this today with some students, I realised that this is why I tend to preach without notes, or with only a very minimal outline. At any cost, I want to resist the temptation to become a good preacher. I want to make it easier for myself to fail.

Sunday 25 July 2010

Church FAIL

A couple of readers have pointed me to this sublime aberration: Man Church. The website describes it as "church the way a man expects it to be done. No singing, short sermon, time to talk with other guys, no women present, and coffee and donuts. That's the way men want to do church. The topics of discussion will have a definite manly focus – being the best possible husband, father, employee, leader – being a real man.... This ain't your mama's church!" Whoa, totally manly! But where are the guns, the fast cars, the barbecued meat? Where are the lap dancers? (Oh, I forgot: what men really want is "no women present".)

There's a memorable passage in Karl Barth's dogmatics about the perversion that results whenever special men's or women's groups are formed (he's not talking here about sexual relationships, but about wider forms of sociality):
Everything which points in the direction of male or female seclusion, or of religious or secular orders or communities, or of male or female segregation – if it is undertaken in principle and not consciously and temporarily as an emergency measure – is obviously disobedience. All due respect to the comradeship of a company of soldiers! But neither men nor women can seriously wish to be alone, as in clubs and ladies’ circles. Who commands or permits them to run away from each other? That such an attitude is all wrong is shown symptomatically in the fact that every artificially induced and maintained isolation of the sexes tends as such – usually very quickly and certainly morosely and blindly – to become philistinish in the case of men and precious in that of women, and in both cases more or less inhuman. It is well to pay heed even to the first steps in this direction. (Church Dogmatics III/4, 165)
This testimony is true. It's why, in the church, I have always refused to participate in those grimly edifying "men's groups"; and why, in spite of my natural fondness for female company, I even find myself avoiding the "women's groups"!

Man Church – or any variation thereof – is an ecclesiological FAIL. In the body of Christ, "there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no 'male and female'; for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:28).

Saturday 24 July 2010

Welcome to my world: a baptismal sermon

A sermon by Kim Fabricius

I’d like your opinion about a couple I know, about something they did, did to their child. Of course they loved their baby to bits and surrounded him with all the care in the world, cooing and cuddling, bathing and bonding, taking tender care about all his needs and his feeds and his smelly little deeds. They were good parents. But then one day they made a decision: they decided they didn’t want to keep their baby to themselves, or even to their own kin; they decided they wanted to share their child with other people, indeed to raise their child as part of another family, a genetically unrelated family, where their child would have not only other brothers and sisters, but also other mothers and fathers too. In fact, this new family would, in principle, supersede their own family as the child’s true and ultimate home. Tell me, what would you think of parents who would do such a thing with their child?

And another thing. To mark this transition from the biological family to this new family, this couple arranged for a special occasion – but what an odd occasion it was. For one thing, it took place on a Sunday morning, when most other folk were still in bed, and in a rather odd building. For another thing, there was no booze (fancy a special occasion without any booze!). And then there were the guests: many of the people at this occasion the parents didn’t even know, or didn’t know very well. In fact, it was precisely these people, many of them quite old, and a few even a bit doddery, who turned out to be their child’s new parents and siblings. Again, what would you think of such parents?

And a final thing, perhaps the most outrageous thing of all. At this occasion there was a man wearing a sombre black gown, as if he were taking a funeral. In fact, that is precisely what the man said was happening: that his parents were bringing their child to this occasion to mark his death, his death to the world from which he was brought, but which (so the man in the black gown declared) is a world that is itself passing away, yet a world that spends most of its time and energy pretending it will go on forever, thereby entangling itself all the more inescapably in the cords of its own extinction. For is that not the nature of the world we live in? Do we not live in fear and denial of death, compulsively seeking longevity, security, the ultimate risk-free environment, which, however, a moment’s clarity exposes as the sheerest fantasy? On this occasion, however, (so the man in the black gown declared) we get real and deny this denial of death, as the child, in the ritual of the occasion, dies and is buried, with everyone present acting as celebrants of his funeral.

Again, for the last time, what would you think of such parents? Let’s be honest: bringing their child to be handed over for shared parenting is outrageous enough, but bringing the child to his own funeral, what kind of parents would do such a macabre thing? You might think that, at best, they were being irresponsible, at worst, abusive, and that they should be reported to the police and social services. In fact, if you are not a Christian, you are bound to think this way. In fact, many Christians themselves think this way. Which just goes to show how domesticated and sentimentalised baptism – because, of course, that is what we are talking about here, baptism – it just goes to show how domesticated and sentimentalised baptism has become, and how the church itself has colluded in “watering-down” the meaning of its sacrament of initiation. Indeed it goes to show how close the church is coming to losing its identity, and in losing its identity, losing its very soul.

Hear again Paul’s words in his letter to the church in Rome, which go straight to the point: “Surely you know that when were baptised into union with Christ Jesus, we were baptised into union with his death. By our baptism, then, we were buried with him and shared his death …” (Rom 6:3-4a).

There it is in the Bible (I’m not making it up!): to be baptised is to die – but it is a certain kind of death: it is to die with Christ. And it is a certain kind of funeral: it is to be buried with Christ. But if that is so, it means that, appearances notwithstanding, in baptism our deaths are now behind us. Which, in turn, means, that we are released from our obsession with death, our fear of death, our denial of death, all of which speaks of our enslavement to death – from which baptism frees us. For not only is death now behind us, above all life is now ahead of us. But again, a very specific kind of life: it is life in Christ. For as Paul continues: “By our baptism, then, we were buried with him and shared his death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from death by the glorious power of the Father, so also we might live a new life” (6:4).

We are all gong to die. One day Adam is going to die too. But today we proclaim that, in fact, Adam’s death is now behind him and that life, the life of Christ – a new life of love, joy, and peace – is Adam’s future, and indeed is there now for the taking – or rather the receiving – through his union with Christ.

And that’s where we come to Adam’s “new family”. For in being baptised into union with Christ, Adam becomes a son and brother of everyone else who has been baptised into union with Christ. He has been born anew, of water and Spirit (John 3:5), born, that is, into a new family, with new siblings and new parents (including the doddery ones!). Fellow Christians are now, in fact, Adam’s closest relations. “Blood is thicker than water,” people say. Not so, Christians say: “Water is thicker than blood.”

I am under no illusions of just how mind-blowing all this is. And not only because baptism is, ultimately, supernatural, but also because (as I have tried to suggest) it is quite unnatural, and a quite unnatural way of life follows from it, a way of life that contradicts the way the world and his wife go about their business. For if we are introducing Adam to the new way of life of Jesus, we will try to teach him not to become an earning, shopping, and consuming machine, ever agitated and restless, or someone who wants to be “famous”, but a human being who is happy in his own skin and, above all, grateful just to be. We will also try to teach him not to become a cunning climber and schemer, ever out for Number One, but a human being whose Yes is Yes and No is No, who doesn’t deceive or discard other people but puts them first. And, finally, we will also try to teach him not to become an eye-for-an-eye kind of guy but a turn-the-cheek kind of geek, who is kind to everyone, who takes a punch rather than gives one, who prays for those who wish him ill, who lives at peace even with his enemies.

Yes, all this is so radically counter-cultural, for it clearly involves living an exposed and vulnerable life, a life at considerable risk, a life on which the “health and safety” bureaucrats might like to slap a restraining order, a life that might incur suffering in some contexts, even if only ridicule, for its eccentricity, in our own.

That’s why bringing your child for baptism – some may think it’s sweet; in fact, it is quite heroic. If you want a life of ease, pleasure, and success, a gated and protected life among your own, then the last thing you want to be is baptised. If, however, you want a life full of real meaning and lasting purpose, the kind of life God wants us to live, the kind of life, in Jesus, God shows us how to live; if you want a life that is not ephemeral but eternal, a life not just for now but forever, life as it is going to be when God completes his work in progress, life that begins even now, in the sacrament of baptism that proclaims the old world going and a new world coming, and calls us to live tomorrow’s life today – then you’ve come to just the right pace, you’re taking part in just the right occasion, you’re watching a sneak preview of the end of time as we know it, and the beginning of time as you couldn’t imagine it in your wildest dreams.

Today, the Lord says, “Adam, welcome to my world!” Indeed God’s invitation is always open to everyone to enter this strange new household of the church, and this strange new world of being a Christian.

Friday 23 July 2010

Bonhoeffer, Gandhi, and Christian discernment

The new issue of Uniting Church Studies 16:1 (2010) is devoted to theological debate about the church's proposed constitutional preamble on indigenous Australians (which I've blogged about before). It includes my essay, "'In his own strange way': Indigenous Australians and the Church's Confession" – if you'd like a copy, just send me an email. I've posted a few excerpts on earlier occasions – here's one more small excerpt, where I discuss Bonhoeffer's relation to Gandhi (a topic I hope to explore in detail one of these days):

This exercise of discernment once more involves the question of the church’s posture or position. Discernment is not an exercise of ecclesiastical power; it is not an expression of the church’s superior vantage point. Rather discernment opens the church to judgment. [...] It is an act of humiliating obedience; it is a dangerous and necessary enactment of the church’s confession—the confession that the church has nothing of itself, and everything from Jesus Christ.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer [...] provides an instructive example of this practice of Christian discernment. In the early 1930s, amidst intense struggle with the Deutsche Christen, Bonhoeffer felt increasingly drawn to India. He wrote to Gandhi, asking if he could spend several months sitting at his feet and sharing in his pattern of daily life. Bonhoeffer wanted to form a monastic community in Germany—he believed the future of the German church depended on it—and he planned to use Gandhi as his model, including Gandhi’s commitment to ‘life together’, ascetic practices, nonviolent resistance, and the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount. In a letter of 1934, Bonhoeffer describes his eagerness to learn from Gandhi:
It sometimes seems to me that there’s more Christianity in [India’s] ‘heathenism’ than in the whole of our Reich Church. Christianity did in fact come from the East originally, but it has become so westernised and so permeated by civilised thought that, as we can now see, it is almost lost to us. (Bonhoeffer, London, 1933-1935, 152)
In this surprising place, Bonhoeffer discerns the work of Christ. And this discernment is simultaneously an experience of judgment. The authentic ‘Christianity’ of a Hindu community becomes a mirror in which the western church perceives its own profligacy and degradation. Bonhoeffer does not wish to become a Hindu, nor is he interested in anything resembling interfaith dialogue. It is rather his exclusive commitment to Christ that drives him to Gandhi. He discerns Christ’s way in Gandhi; while the church crumbles to ruins all around him, Bonhoeffer perceives Jesus Christ living and active in India, and so he resolves to seek Christ there, to learn from the ‘heathens’ what it means to become a disciple of Christ.

As the church exercises discernment, it is thus judged and questioned from outside itself. It perceives surprising signs of Christ’s free and unprincipled activity in the world, and it finds its own life subjected to Christ’s searching and commanding Word. From this position—not a position of superior knowledge about God, but a position of judgment—the church hears Christ’s call and confesses. From this position, the church refuses to regard itself as the exclusive arena of God’s activity; it looks not to itself but to Jesus Christ.

Milbank, Williams, Hauerwas, Levine...

Lots of great stuff over at the new ABC Religion and Ethics site:

Sunday 18 July 2010

Maggi Dawn, Writing on the Wall

Maggi Dawn, The Writing on the Wall: High Art, Popular Culture and the Bible (Hodder & Stoughton 2010), 272 pp.

A review by Kim Fabricius

James Smart once spoke of “the strange silence of the Bible in the church”. Forty years later – cause and effect? – the smart will speak of the all-too-familiar silence of the Bible in society. The unchurched don’t know their Palm Sunday ass from their elbow, and a vox pop opining that Easter celebrates the near-death experience of a bunny wouldn’t surprise me in the least. It gets worse. Students who arrive at university to read English are often surprised to learn that Paradise Lost isn’t a study of the environmental depredation of Tahiti.

Okay, I exaggerate. But not much. Biblical illiteracy in the UK is pandemic in popular and high culture alike. Enter Maggi Dawn, Cambridge college chaplain and star blog babe, to give us an education in this fabulous and fluent book, which takes what used to be well-known Bible stories, re-narrates them, and then shows what the arts have made of them down the ages.

Maggi takes nothing for granted, so the texts she explores, with a teacher’s eye for the panoramic picture, are printed in full – and, yes, she even explains what Palm Sunday and Easter are! So this is a book for the beginner. But the cognoscenti too will learn a lot from it, while preachers and Bible study leaders will find it a valuable resource for illustration and illumination.

There are scores of references. The main art-form on which Maggi draws is painting, so it’s a shame that there are no reproductions, but this lacuna is no doubt for reasons of cost. Poetry and classical music are also well represented; however fiction less so, which surprises me. As Ben and I well know from our Culture for Theologians series, you can always count on a smartass to point out your omissions, so I cannot resist mentioning a few deserving-a-mention contemporary novels: Timothy Findley’s postmodern fantasy about the Noah family, Not Wanted on the Voyage; Joseph Heller’s wry take on David, God Knows; and Jim Crace’s disturbing retelling of Christ in the wilderness, Quarantine. (By the way, does anyone know James Morrow’s hilarious satire on the death of God, Towing Jehovah?) And Maggi misses a trick when, discussing Caravaggio’s two versions of Supper at Emmaus, she doesn’t link them with a contemporary novel in which the National Gallery version plays a crucial role, Salley Vickers’ The Other Side of You (though in discussing the Magi, she does mention Miss Garnet’s Angel). Still, my smartassery aside, Maggi should count herself lucky that she doesn’t get a Theology Fail for her typically English – and dare I say womanly? – neglect of Moby-Dick!

Of course I’m talking high culture here. The thing is, so is Maggi, mainly. Which in a book addressed to Jack and Jill is the single criticism of the book I would make. The important exception is modern popular music, where the talented Maggi is really in her element. The dearth of films is especially puzzling, but perhaps the explanation lies in the numerous books already out there on reel issues. And anticipating that the learned might knock the book’s theological oversimplifications, I would simply insist on its single and important objective: namely, to get the unwitting to see how steeped in the Bible is Western culture, and to encourage them to return to the source which, far from being a stagnant pool, is an ever-rich reservoir. And once there, who knows, they may find that from the pages of this reportedly boring collection of books, the living God still speaks and excites.

The jacket of Writing on the Wall – an allusion, of course, to the ominous scene in Daniel 5 – depicts the title, in a clever double-entendre, as part of a street-scene of graffiti. Which prompts me to reiterate some “theological graffiti” I wrote for F&T last month –

Maggi Dawn,
This isn’t a come-on,
But at her winsome blog I’ve lingered,
Musing if she’s rosy-fingered –

and, mindful of another Homeric epithet, the “wine-dark sea”, to conclude by inviting you to open a bottle of South African Shiraz and enjoy this winsome book.

Sarah Coakley on the church's sex crisis

The new ABC Religion and Ethics site features a three-part series by Sarah Coakley on the current sex crises in the Catholic and Anglican churches: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3. This sketches an argument that Coakley develops fully in her forthcoming book, The New Asceticism (T&T Clark 2011).

Friday 16 July 2010

Categorical imperative

Today I met with the Australian theologian Andrew Dutney. He promised he would wear his Karl Barth button – it may well be the greatest thing you've ever seen:

Wednesday 14 July 2010

On book dedications

Book dedications are generally a pretty bland affair. From time to time, you come across a humorous or poignant dedication. C. S. Lewis dedicated a book to his close friend Owen Barfield, "wisest and best of my unofficial teachers". One of Tim Winton's novels bears the beautiful dedication to his wife, "Denise, Denise, Denise". But in exceedingly rare instances, there have actually been dedications that are works of art in their own right. One of the most moving and powerful is the dedication to Charles Olson's great essay in literary criticism, Call Me Ishmael (1947). This was Olson's first book; his father had died several years earlier; the dedication page reads:

O fahter, fahter
gone amoong

O eeys that loke

Loke, fahter:
your sone!

Monday 12 July 2010

Awesome new site: ABC religion and ethics

The ABC's new Religion and Ethics portal was launched earlier today. Edited by our friend Scott Stephens, the site provides a platform for intellectually rigorous public discussion of theology, religion, society and ethics.

In Scott's opening blog post, he writes that the site will "bring you original opinion and analysis by the most influential scholars, theologians, religious leaders and commentators from Australia and around the world. The goal is to inform and increase our shared capacity for public discussion and debate about matters that affect us all."

Opening pieces today include Rowan Williams on refugees, Stanley Hauerwas on greed, David Novak on Judaism and torture, Mohamad Abdalla on the Qur'an and domestic violence, and a great piece by Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im on Islam and human rights. Perhaps best of all is Paul Griffiths' remarkable piece on death and dying – it raises some very pointed questions about medical ethics: "Catholics need to begin to think and teach again, in public, about the ars moriendi, the art of dying. One way in which this might be done is for the church to educate its wealthy ... that it might be good for them to die sooner than they do and with less care than they have come to think their right."

This is an exciting event for religious discussion on the web. The site will have new features daily, so be sure to visit often! Regular contributors will include Rowan Williams, Tariq Ramadan, Slavoj Zizek, Stanley Hauerwas, David Novak, John Milbank, Abdullahi An-Na'im, Peter Hitchens, Amy-Jill Levine, Abdullah Saeed – and many others.

Thursday 8 July 2010

Sydney public lecture: Nate Kerr

In addition to Sarah Coakley's public lecture in Sydney next week (she'll be speaking on theology and sexuality), our friend Nate Kerr will be giving a public lecture the following week, Monday 19 July. He'll be speaking on church and mission, in a lecture titled "'The Disintegration of the World': Christ, Church, and Mission". Don't miss it!

If you still haven't read Nate's book on Christ, History and Apocalyptic (2009), you really should read it – it's real theology. And in case you missed it, be sure also to check out the co-authored manifesto on "Kingdom-World-Church", which has been hotly debated around the web.

Tuesday 6 July 2010

George Herbert: prayer, language, silence

At the Sarah Coakley symposium next week, I'll be giving a paper on "Prayer as Theological Method". It's partly on the relation between prayer and theology in Augustine's De Trinitate, and partly on the way poetry exemplifies this relation between prayer and theological language. Here's an excerpt from the section on prayer.

George Herbert’s much-loved sonnet, ‘Prayer’ (I), portrays this tendency of language to be overwhelmed by the divine plenitude:

Prayer the Churches banquet, Angels age,
Gods breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth;

Engine against th’ Almightie, sinner’s towre,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-daies world transposing in an houre,
A kinde of tune, which all things heare and fear;

Softnesse, and peace, and joy, and love, and blisse,
Exalted Manna, gladnesse of the best,
Heaven in ordinarie, man well drest,
The milkie way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bels beyond the stars heard, the souls bloud,
The land of spices; something understood.

The whole poem comes rushing out as a single breathless exhilarating sentence, piling image upon image in a kind of rhapsodic abandon. The images are startling, contradictory, incapable of conceptual reduction. Prayer is as gentle as breath or the fragrance of spices, yet it is also a violent ‘engine against th’ Almightie’, a battering ram with which the Christian lays siege against God. It is as soothing as ‘a kinde of tune’, yet it’s a tune that strikes ‘fear’ into the heart of all creation. It is exotic, strange, inexplicable – the Milky Way, the bird of paradise, the land of spices – yet also as homely and familiar as dressing in one’s Sunday best. Yes, prayer is heaven, but it is ‘heaven in ordinarie’. It maps out the contours of the inner self – ‘the soul in paraphrase’, ‘the souls bloud’ – but also reaches ‘beyond the stars’. It’s like a ship’s sounding line, not dropped into the sea but cast up into the sky, a ‘plummet sounding heav’n’. Similarly, it is ‘reversed thunder’: Jove’s thunder is turned back on himself, a bolt shooting up from earth to heaven.

These dizzying spatial images stretch the imagination beyond its furthest limits. The stage on which prayer takes place is infinitely vast. Yet juxtaposed with this immensity is the image of prayer as ‘the soul in paraphrase’, a tiny abridgement of all the depths and complexities of a human story. Indeed prayer is an hour-long abridgement of the whole ‘six daies world’ – an image that at once evokes the huge dimensions of prayer and its minute scale. It is a gigantic mystery that sounds the most profound depths, yet so small you can fit it in your pocket: like a whale drawn on the back of a matchbox.

In the final stanza, all the senses are engaged. Prayer is soft and supple to touch; it tastes like manna; it is the vision of a star-filled sky; it smells like the land of spices; it sounds like the distant peal of bells (either earth’s bells heard in heaven, or heavenly bells heard on earth: Herbert is tantalisingly ambiguous). This explosion of sensual imagery doesn’t serve conceptual clarity. What would church bells sound like if they echoed from another galaxy? What does an exotic country smell like, a country you’ve never visited? Come to think of it, what exactly does heavenly manna taste like? If these images teach us something about prayer, it is primarily by destabilising our understanding, driving us to the brink of an unspeakable mystery.

And so the whole great cascade of imagery is finally resolved in just two words, ‘something understood’. I say resolved, since traditionally the sonnet introduces a resolution after the volta, or turn: the sestet in the Italian sonnet, or the final couplet in the Shakespearian sonnet. In Herbert’s poem one anticipates a resolution, but it never seems to arrive – until it suddenly interrupts the final line in a way that is startling, abrupt, unexpected. Just as prayer abridges all history into an hour, so the whole poem is condensed into these closing words. What is prayer? It is ‘something understood’. These are the only words in the poem that are not wrapped up in some imagery: here there is neither concept nor imagery, only a quiet understanding.

The real purpose of all the conflicting images was simply to clear this space – not, in fact, a space for understanding (as though the poem were trying to ‘explain’ prayer), but a space for prayer itself. As talk-about-prayer passes over into praying, something is understood that language can never capture. In fourteen lines we have plumbed heaven and earth, feasted and made war, spanned all the farthest reaches of time and space. But now – as so often in Herbert – we find ourselves kneeling alone in the dusky light of a little country church, listening softly to that profound yet homely silence. Here at last, where understanding ceases, prayer is understood.

Certainly, then, there is something akin to an apophatic moment. The moment of silent understanding, however, occurs not in opposition to the clumsy limitation of language, but within it. It is Herbert’s first thirteen-and-a-half lines that create the experience of the poem’s close. It’s not as though there were first of all a sheer wordless experience of prayer, which is subsequently described in words. Rather the poetic language itself creates the conditions for an experience of silence. Wordless prayer is a possibility within language. Contemplative silence is the calm eye at the centre of the roiling storm of language.

To put it another way, Herbert’s poem is not about the poverty of human language, but about the inexhaustible riches of prayer. Prayer is too much – too much for language, too much even for poetry. More than anywhere else in Herbert’s poetry, we catch a glimpse here of language straining against its own possibilities – not as one struggles against a straitjacket, but as a horse champs at the bit before a race, straining because there is too much to say. Silence is not the phenomenon that ensues when language reaches its limit, much less some primordial pre-linguistic abyss from which language subsequently emerges. In the company of a close friend, I sometimes find myself reduced to silence. Not because the relationship is wordless (nothing is more verbose than friendship), but because in friendship one can never say enough; the real goal of friendship is to talk your way into silence. This is just what Herbert portrays in so many of his poetic conversations with God. One can never say enough to God. And so, in its fullness, language ripens into silence. Language is outrun by its own resources, it spills over into the baffled joy of contemplation.

Sunday 4 July 2010

Who are we called to be?

A hymn by Kim Fabricius
(Tune: Moscow)

Who are we called to be?
The Father’s family –
greatest is least.
Sisters and brothers, pray
for bread and peace today,
and for the poor that they
share in the feast.

Who are we called to be?
The Son’s community –
song, salt and light.
Become what Christ became,
witness to Yahweh’s reign,
go set the world aflame –
God’s dynamite!

Who are we called to be?
The Spirit’s colony –
exiles and clowns.
Live as the dispossessed,
free of the fear of death,
heal hate with tenderness –
world upside-down!


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