Program Note: Three Poems on Grief and Faith

In May of 2018 I led the choirs and orchestras of TCC Wayland and Westgate Church in a concert which included three original pieces I wrote over the last few years. Here is the program note that accompanied these pieces.

Program Notes:

In greyish doubt and black despair
I drafted hymns to the earth and the air
Pretending to Joy, although I lacked it
The age had made lament redundant.

So here’s the question – who can answer it–
Was he a brave man, or a hypocrite?
– In Black Despair by Czeslaw Miloz

I’m excited to share three pieces on tonight’s program of my own composition. These draw texts from three poems that have been meaningful to me on my own spiritual journey. Though some come from a very real place of brokenness and emptiness, these songs are prayers for anyone who has walked through loss, trauma, heartbreak, grief, or failure. They are for anyone who has walked the path of Christ. Perhaps tonight, you feel broken or beat down by life. Whether this feeling is a kind of grief from an external loss that you had no control over, or a kind of shame because you did have control and missed the mark, these songs speak directly to that place. And the Gospel is this – God knows our story, knows our failures and losses, and turns toward us in love.

As for me, I can say with confidence these words by T.S. Eliot:

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language
And next year’s words await another voice.”

1. Overture: When in the Soul of the Serene Disciple • Text by Thomas Merton (1977)

One who finds themselves at the end of themselves will resonate with these words by Thomas Merton, a Cistercian monk, theologian, and poet. His poem recalls the feeling of emptiness and despair and is the scene we find ourselves at the beginning of a spiritual journey. When consoling one enduring grief, the best thing to do is often to say nothing at all, and Merton understands this. “Be still: there is no longer any need of comment.” 

When in the soul of the serene disciple
With no more Fathers to imitate
Poverty is a success,
It is a small thing to say the roof is gone:
He has not even a house.
Stars, as well as friends,
Are angry with the noble ruin.
Saints depart in several directions
Be still:
There is no longer any need of comment.
It was a lucky wind
That blew away his halo with his cares,
A lucky sea that drowned his reputation.
Here you will find
Neither a proverb nor a memorandum.
There are no ways,
No methods to admire
Where poverty is no achievement.
His God lives in his emptiness like an affliction
What choice remains?
Well, to be ordinary is not a choice:
It is the usual freedom
Of men without visions.

Notice how Merton describes this failure in seemingly contrasting terms – the life of a disciple is a “noble ruin.” Our failures and losses are not turned into successes, but can be viewed as a “lucky wind” because by walking through them in faith we stop trying to earn our salvation and earn our worth by our own merits. We can turn to God and honestly say the words uttered by the prodigal son in Luke 12, “I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.”  But the Father has compassion. He responds with a disorienting radical love. The Gospel is this: not only is he welcomed back into the family, but given a feast in celebration completely undeserved. Merton’s poem is a lesson in humility, where there is no room for boasting even in our failures. We are okay with just being okay, and this is a lesson I am learning and re-learning every day.

2. The Valley of Vision • Puritan Prayer by Arthur Bennett (1975)

The second song in this cycle is a Puritan prayer about finding God in the valleys and struggles of life. It has been with me since hearing it at a Bible study in California over 10 years ago. The prayer is one of paradoxes, reminding us that the spiritual journey is not a climb up a mountain but a descent as we walk the path of Christ. The early Christian hymn from Phillipians 2 says of Jesus,

“…though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him…”

But the Gospel is this: it is by humbling ourselves that we are exalted. It is our brokenness that God uses for our healing and ultimately His glory. The invitation in this prayer is to open your heart in the midst of sin and grief to God’s joy, grace, riches, and glory. 

Lord high and holy meek and lowly
Thou hast brought me to the valley of vision
Where I live in the depths
but see Thee in the heights
Hemmed in by mountains of sin
I behold thy glory

Let me learn by paradox
That the way down is the way up
  to be low is to be high
  the broken heart is the healed heart
the contrite spirit is the rejoicing spirit
the repenting soul is the victorious soul
to have nothing is to possess all
to bear the cross is to wear the crown
to give is to receive
that the valley is a place of vision.

Lord in the daytime
stars can be seen from deepest wells
And the deeper the wells
the brighter thy stars shine
Let me find thy light in my darkness
Thy life in my death
Thy joy in my sorrow
Thy grace in my sin
Thy riches in my poverty
Thy glory in my valley.

3. Love (III) • Text by George Herbert (1633)

If God is love, and the Gospel is grace, George Herbert’s third poem on love beautifully captures a soul’s response to first seeing God for who He truly is. It is shocking – we often wrestle with believing we are worthy of unconditional love. “If only you knew who I truly am…,” we often think to ourselves, limiting just how far Christ would go to love his children. But Herbert identifies with the shameful hesitancy of a soul receiving Christ for the first time. We don’t feel worthy, and by earthly standards, this is true. We are not perfectly kind, perfectly grateful…we are not perfect, so we do not deserve the perfect love of God. But the Gospel is this: as we place our faith in Christ, we gain his identity through his righteous life, and he bears our blame on the cross, fully identifying with our sinfulness. It’s the great exchange: Christ’s righteousness for our unrighteousness, and inspired Herbert to write these words. This poem, written in the first person, depicts Christ simply as “Love.” As you read, you can substitute the word Love for the word ‘Christ’ or ‘God’, and make this poem your own prayer.

Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
Guiltie of dust and sinne.
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lack’d any thing.

A guest, I answer’d, worthy to be here:
Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkinde, ungratefull? Ah my deare,
I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes but I?

Truth Lord, but I have marr’d them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, sayes Love, who bore the blame?
My deare, then I will serve.
You must sit down, sayes Love, and taste my meat:
So I did sit and eat.

In the Kingdom of God, if our entrance is not earned by merit, so too our participation neither improves or reduces our status at God’s feast. We are guests, who are simply offered a seat at the table. The Gospel is this: Christ sees us, and as we turn toward him in faith, Christ forgives us, bears our blame, and invites us to feast at His table.

Herbert sums this up in his hymn, “Repentance” (1633):

But you will sin and grief destroy;
That so the broken bones may joy,
And tune together in a well-set song,
Full of His praises,
Who dead men raises.
Fractures well cured make us more strong.

Recording coming soon!

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“A lucky sea that drowned his reputation…” On making meaning from emptiness with Thomas Merton and Richard Rohr

In the summer of 2017 I spent 10 weeks at l’Abri Fellowship in Southborough after a pretty tough life transition. I was learning to grieve, and grieving doesn’t come easy. I spent many days reading books, listening to lectures, and generally trying to put meaning back together. Several months in, I discovered that it was not books on theology that spoke to me, but poetry. There’s some part of the mind, or perhaps the heart, that poetry accesses through our imagination which can startle us and wake us up.

One poem I discovered was through Richard Rohr’s book “Falling Upward,” recommended by my spiritual director. Rohr speaks about a model for life’s spiritual journey in which after an ascent (which he calls, the “heroic” journey), we often find ourselves in a place where our effort, talent, skill, and success can carry us along no further. Many people might call this a mid-life-crisis, but this is not just about quitting your job or buying a sports car. Rohr speaks to a crisis of limitation, where we no longer view life as a climbing up a mountain, no longer looking to achieve the next step in the ladder, but begin to find new meaning in the journey of wisdom, which, as Christ models for us, is always a descent (i.e. Phil 2, “Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant.”).

Sooner or later (and for me it was much sooner than I expected) we find ourselves in a state of utter failure and loss, at a place where our own intellect and resources will not save us. It is from there that God can remind us that he and he alone is the rock on which we stand. “In the divine economy of grace,” Rohr writes, “sin and failure become the base  metal and raw material for the redemption experience itself.” From this place of failure Rohr reminds us that our fall or failure is actually the biggest grace we can receive, if we truly receive it. There’s a ton of wisdom in the Enneagram here, which I believe is a very effective tool in spiritual growth, and I hope to expand on in future posts.

At the end of the book, Rohr points to Merton’s Poem, published in 1977, as a unique vantage point of one who has just begun their second half of life. Merton writes:

When in the soul of the serene disciple
With no more Fathers to imitate
Poverty is a success,
It is a small thing to say the roof is gone:
He has not even a house.

Stars, as well as friends,
Are angry with the noble ruin.
Saints depart in several directions

Be still:
There is no longer any need of comment.
It was a lucky wind
That blew away his halo with his cares,
A lucky sea that drowned his reputation.

Here you will find
Neither a proverb nor a memorandum.
There are no ways,
No methods to admire
Where poverty is no achievement.
His God lives in his emptiness like an affliction

What choice remains?
Well, to be ordinary is not a choice:
It is the usual freedom
Of men without visions.

And now with some of my annotations:

When in the soul of the serene disciple
With no more Fathers to imitate
Poverty is a success,
It is a small thing to say the roof is gone:
He has not even a house.

I lamented many things, but one deep sense of shame came from realizing that I was no longer living up to the heroic image I had for myself – one who is successful, without failure, without problems, and generally well put together. Oh, and I also actually lost my house.

Stars, as well as friends,
Are angry with the noble ruin.
Saints depart in several directions

There’s a certain emptiness in grief that is amplified by the fact that nobody can say anything to make you feel better. The best consolation in grief is simply someone sitting with you and saying “I’m sorry. I can’t make it better, but I can be here with you.” I cherished the friends that were able to say that without trying to make me feel better.

Be still:
There is no longer any need of comment.
It was a lucky wind
That blew away his halo with his cares,
A lucky sea that drowned his reputation.

I suppose looking back on it it is lucky. There are many good things that have come from tragedy, but to say that it is lucky is not to say that “something good will come of it,” but is to say that when your external facade (i.e. our metaphorical “halo”) is blown away, and your reputation destroyed, you have nothing else to stand on, and, because of Christ and only because of Christ, that is a lucky place to be.

Here you will find
Neither a proverb nor a memorandum.
There are no ways,
No methods to admire
Where poverty is no achievement.
His God lives in his emptiness like an affliction

A quick reminder to an over-achiever like me that there is no prize for finding this poverty, no special award for being content with emptiness. Don’t humble brag, or try to say how awful your life is and how you deserve the most praise for enduring such suffering. There is no easy end or cliché moral to the story.

What choice remains?
Well, to be ordinary is not a choice:
It is the usual freedom
Of men without visions.

I am still learning the importance of humility – of being okay with just being okay. It is a certain freedom when I can remember it, though this #enneagramthree has a tough time sometimes. So hard that I decided to write music and turn it into a concert for choir and orchestra. Oh well.

Yes, I’ve set this poem to music for choir and orchestra. We’re performing it on May 19th at Westgate Church in Weston. Read more here!

A poem I wrote last year

The Sermon on the Mount, James Tissot

 

A People Blessed
A Meditation on Matthew 5:1-16

A people blessed the kingdom seeks
Disciples gather on the hill
To see their rabbi’s words and will
Illuminate their path and feet

He turns our world upside down
A people blessed the kingdom seeks
Not rich but poor, not strong but meek
are those who learn to wear the crown

The greatest sermon ever told
Are these the words our savior speaks
A people blessed the kingdom seeks
Fulfilling prophets’ words of old

Praise to the God of heaven’s peaks
And to the Son who went below
And when the Spirit overflow
A people blessed the kingdom seeks

Wilfred Owen – Maundy Thursday

British poet and soldier, Wilfred Owen is famous for his war poetry undoubtably evoked by his service in the First World War.  Britten’s War Requiem (1962) may be considered an homage to the poet, as Lt. Wilfred Owen was famously killed in action on November 4th, 1918, just one week before the Armistice that declared the end of the war.  His pre-war poetry is often overlooked, but is particularly poignant in showing his aversion to conventional (in this case orthodox) religion.

MAUNDY THURSDAY

Between the brown hands of a server-lad
The silver cross was offered to be kissed.
The men came up, lugubrious, but not sad,
And knelt reluctantly, half-prejudiced.
(And kissing, kissed the emblem of a creed.)
Then mourning women knelt; meek mouths they had,
(And kissed the Body of the Christ indeed.)
Young children came, with eager lips and glad.
(They kissed a silver doll, immensely bright.)
Then I, too, knelt before that acolyte.
Above the crucifix I bent my head:
The Christ was thin, and cold, and very dead:
And yet I bowed, yea, kissed – my lips did cling.
(I kissed the warm live hand that held the thing.)

Wilfred Owen