Prayer After “The World Spins Madly On”

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Almighty God,

You moved your servant to listen to “The World Spins Madly On” by the Weepies, that short, beautiful song of unfulfilled longing, broken promises, and utter helplessness in the face of this barbarian called life that you have let loose on us.

In this song you remind your servant that of all the contingencies of life, people, days, places, memories, words are just that – things that pass by us and are not meant to stay with us. You make us reflect on the only perennial thing in this contingent universe, mankind’s need to say goodbye to these contingencies. All these things, they come by our lives for but a moment.

But in the words of our father Augustine, we desire these temporary things to last an eternity. And in our efforts to make our own heavens on earth with the temporary things of this earth, we only render our heavens into foretastes of hell, creating glimpses of that separation that awaits those who, like those angels in ages past, declared their refusal to serve you, knew what it meant, and meant it with their hearts.

And in this song, O Lord, you cause us to ponder how the world does not care as these hells multiply, in our own lives and in lives all over its continents. Little wonder that we are jaded, O Lord, as our cries of agony of loss, small and large alike, are just met with the world simply moving on. Our world is so cold, and our search for comfort in this world for the pain of our loss only seems to compound this pain, as the sheer contingency of all things tears away our comforts that we have band-aided over our wounds.

But in your wisdom, you deign to heal our wounds borne from our bindings to those that would only leave us. And indeed, you deign to heal them with these very contingent things to which we cling, but in so doing you create your own portals to a truly eternal life. With water, oil, salt, bread, wine, bodies and words, you put together a vault of the sacramental life to immerse us in, thus showing viscerally to our own senses that our longing for the eternal can be fulfilled. Our recurring pain need not be the only eternal – nay it was merely an illusion – experience in this mad world, nor do they need to be meaningless knocks of fortune. Let these portals you have created, O Lord, take up these temporary things of this world gone absurd, such that they do not just get meaninglessly lost in the passage of the moments.

May it please you that, in the moment when moments march no more, you would in your mercy show us how every instance of loss and being lost in this life of ours – and yes, even the end of that life when we shall lie motionless in bed for the last time – forms the threads in this cosmic tapestry of your saving work.

For our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.

Praise be the name of the Lord, both now and forever.

 

The Lord’s Descent into Hell

Below is an excerpt from an ancient Holy Saturday Homily entitled “The Lord’s Descent into Hell”, parts of which are included in the Liturgy of the Hours for the day.

Something strange is happening- – there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began.

God has died in the flesh and hell trembles with fear. He has gone to search for our first parent, as for a lost sheep.

Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, he has gone to free from sorrow the captives Adam and Eve, he who is both God and the son of Eve.

The Lord approached them bearing the cross, the weapon that had won him the victory.

At the sight of him Adam, the first man he had created, struck his breast in terror and cried out to everyone: “My Lord be with you all.” Christ answered him: “And with your spirit.”

He took him by the hand and raised him up, saying: “Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.”

I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. Out of love for you and for your descendants I now by my own authority command all who are held in bondage to come forth all who are in darkness to be enlightened, all who are sleeping to arise. I order you, O sleeper, to awake.

I did not create you to be held a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead. Rise up, work of my hands, you who were created in my image.

Rise, let us leave this place, for you are in me and I am in you; together we form only one person and we cannot be separated.

For your sake I, your God, became your son; I, the Lord, took the form of a slave; I, whose home is above the heavens, descended to the earth and beneath the earth. For your sake, for the sake of man, I became like a man without help, free among the dead. For the sake of you, who left a garden, I was betrayed to the Jews in a garden, and I was crucified in a garden.

See on my face the spittle I received in order to restore to you the life I once breathed into you. See there the marks of the blows I received in order to refashion your warped nature in my image. On my back see the marks of the scourging I endured to remove the burden of sin that weighs upon your back. See my hands, nailed firmly to a tree, for you who once wickedly stretched out your hand to a tree.

I slept on the cross and a sword pierced my side for you who slept in paradise and brought forth Eve from your side. My side has healed the pain in yours. My sleep will rouse you from your sleep in hell. The sword that pierced me has sheathed the sword that was turned against you.

Rise, let us leave this place. The enemy led you out of the earthly paradise. I will not restore you to that paradise, but I will enthrone you in heaven.

I forbade you the tree that was only a symbol of life, but see, I who am life itself am now one with you. I appointed cherubim to guard you as slaves are guarded, but now I make them worship you as God.

The throne formed by cherubim awaits you, its bearers swift and eager. The bridal chamber is adorned, the banquet is ready, the eternal dwelling places are prepared, the treasure houses of all good things lie open.

The kingdom of heaven has been prepared for you from all eternity.

Dance and Transcendance

 

There is something uncanny about the subgenre of electronica broadly called “dance music”. In sample after sample, whether it is Ellie Goulding’s “Burn“, Juventa’s “Move Into Light“, Armin van Buuren’s “Waiting for the Night“, Koven’s “Eternal and You” or Seven Lions’ “World’s Apart“, the listener will notice that this musical genre better epitomises the postsecular than any other, for it is the most upfront in bringing in the vocabulary of soul, redemption, transcendence, eternity, light and darkness familiar to many believers, including many Christians.

Indeed, many Christians number amongst the devotees of the dance music scene, and possibly because of the overlap between the vocabulary of their faith and the lyrics blasted from the speakers, backed up by the aesthetic statements built into the music videos and live concerts, be they the enhanced strings in the harmonics, flashes of light breaking the monotony of the dark, the streaks of cloud drawing our gaze into the heavens, or the technologically enhanced superimpositions on temporality, modulating voices into multiple inflections, expanding bodies beyond natural capacities or making nature itself portray realities beyond what is physically possible.

Is the allure of the dance subgenre to a critical mass of young adults and the supposed ties to transcendence speaking to something built into our makeup as persons?

Scripture offers an obscure clue in 2 Samuel 6, when the Ark of the Covenant is brought into the holy city of Jerusalem after the defeat of the Philistines and David, the man after the heart of God, dances half naked in front of the crowd, but more importantly in the intimate closeness to the God who dwelt in the Ark.

The ancient Church would seem to build on this and offer a more heavenly parallel via the Cappadocian Fathers, in particular St. Gregory Nazianzen. In the course of talking about how the three persons in the transcendent Godhead related to one another, Gregory used the term perichoresisWhile nowadays used to denote the very technical process of “circumincession” or the “creation of space for another”, it is interesting that the original usage of the term related to a form of dancing. The persons of the Trinity, in whose image we are made, to which all were drawn and in whom all find their eternal home, were thus depicted as engaged in a transcendent and eternal dance. The natural act of dancing, therefore, was used as to echo the transformed state of creation – indeed creation in its redeemed form – in their participation in the Godhead.

There is plenty that would set apart the reciprocal self-giving of the Trinity’s perichoresis from the isolating gyrations and simulated liturgies of the dance floor. Nevertheless, one cannot in the name of rejecting the blasphemous within dance music, dismiss also the important overlaps between the two sets of practices and logics, and in so doing understand the allure – dare one say salvific appeal? – and organisational power of music in postmodern culture, in its interface with the spiritual dimension in the human person.

A Sin Called Sadness

In the reading of Scripture, we are familiar with the exhortations against committing specific sins. Do not fornicate, do not kill, do not steal, do not cheat your neighbour, and so on. We are warned that to sin is to earn the fruit of sin, which is death.

What is less obvious are the exhortations that do not fit into any recognisable schema, most probably due to their isolated mentions in obscure parts of scripture.

Key among these more obscure exhortations is found in Psalm 98, in which the exhortation is to “make a joyful noise unto the Lord”, or in Psalm 66 “shout for joy to the Lord”. Many may think this as an optional suggestion for exuberance, until one considers its converse, which is sadness. In the Wisdom of Sirach, more commonly known as the Book of Ecclesiasticus, we are warned against “Sadness” and “Sorrow”. More than a warning, we are given a chilling a reminder of what sadness can do. The Book of Ecclesiasticus presents us with a prescription and a warning that says “put sorrow away from you, for sorrow has killed many” (Sir 30:23).

The reader might sympathise with such an exhortation, arguably due to the familiarity with the phenomenon of literally dying from a broken heart. However, the ancient tradition of the Church does not confine the reading of this verse to a causal connection between emotion and medical outcomes.

As can be seen from a new book on the vices by Dr. Rebecca DeYoung, published by Brazos Press, early Church Fathers such as Evagrius Ponticus and John Cassian have designated sadness as leading to spiritual death, so much so that sadness was classified as one of the capital sins. Even though Gregory the Great was to remove sadness from the list of deadly sins to make the more familiar list of seven, sadness nonetheless lurked behind the operation of many of the other deadly sins, in particular sloth.

Sadness was thus seen as more than just a pervasive and morose emotion. As a vice, it was also a predisposition that could prime us towards separation, not only from loved ones, but even from God Himself. This link has been given some recognition in the liturgical life of the Latin Church, especially on “Rorate Sunday” in Advent, during which a Gregorian hymn couples Isaiah’s familiar cry for the dew to drop from heaven and the clouds to rain the just (Isa 48:5) with a less familiar rhetorical question from God: Why art thou consumed with grief, for sorrow has estranged thee.

Part of the Christian moral life then calls for a vigilance against something that is incredibly deadly, yet also incredibly ingrained into the texture of everyday human experience. It is something that we must recognise, even articulate and express in lament. The Christian is also called to be vigilant against simulations of the antidote to sadness, which is the frenetic cheerfulness lacking in any foundation. Be that as it may, the Church does, to borrow from the words of Michael Hanby’s article on boredom, have a solemn duty to put a “resistance of joy”. It is a resistance that does not ignore the sadness in this world but also, in Hanby’s words “make a radical ontological affirmation, and yet this affirmation is…only intelligable if the world is created in the Father’s loving delight for the Son”. Such an affirmation then cannot be found in the inner cheerfulness of the human person, but in that person’s praise of God in the liturgy.

When a Dead Body Attends Mass

One morning, probably due to a combination of liturgical illiteracy and bad timing, a coffin with a body was casually wheeled into a suburban parish in the middle of the Eucharistic liturgy, in preparation for a funeral which was to come immediately after.
So there it was, a dead body, cutting through the almost boring familiarity of the space between “Let us pray” and “One God forever and ever”.
At first glance, a dead body casually gliding into a non-funerary liturgy might seem to some slightly odd. Other folk might seem irritated at the funeral director’s awkward sense of timing. After the initial awkwardness and rage, however, the presence of the coffin and the corpse therein can be seen to be not an interruption but a correlation, a visible reminder to those attending the Eucharist at just what the Eucharist is about.
What is striking in this action is the sight of two bodies facing each other. On the one hand there is the dead body of the deceased, while on the other is the paradoxical body of Christ, the body that is sacrificed yet is brimming with life that is passed onto those who receive it.
In a way, the Eucharistic body is not completely juxtaposed with the dead body. Indeed, as Graham Ward reminds us in an essay on the Eucharist in his City of God, the Eucharistic body is the archetype of the human body. It is no accident that St. Augustine, in his sermon on the Eucharist, once described the Eucharistic Body as “who you [the congregant] are”.
Set against this backdrop, the body of the deceased is not longer a mere dead piece of flesh. As mentioned in a previous post, bodies also prophecy to a future moment. The ancient Church looked to the body as a signal to the last day when these bodies, long waiting for their restoration, are brought back to life as it was on the day of Christ’s death. The dead body, in other words, is a signal to that end of history where the glorified body of Christ is made fully manifest.
As the body – both the Eucharistic Body of Christ and of that of the deceased – catapults our imagination to that future moment, they also pull as back to another moment in the past, indeed the very first moment in history in the Garden of Eden. For in was in that garden when creation enjoyed uninterrupted communion with its Creator, and the Eucharistic Body of Christ, in drawing us to Communion with Him, draws us also to a restored Eden. The flowers arranged on top of the coffin offer this little hopeful glimmer of that thing both ever ancient and ever new.

Take Me With You: A Theology of Running Away

Readers may remember an old post from 2012 where suggestions were made on the construction of a theology of escape or running away. There it was suggested that the desire for escape operating within popular culture, that in turn operated upon an impulse that the Christian tradition could and should affirm. This was developed further in a conference paper for the Centre for Theology and Philosophy at Oxford University in 2013.
Whilst the Oxford version might have been a bit too specialist, a more publicly accessible version was presented at the Dawson Society for Philosophy and Culture in Perth earlier this year. The podcast is now available at the Dawson Society’s website, which also contains a number of other prominent speakers on politics, literature and philosophy.

 

To access the podcast, click here.

Faith in Two Foetuses

 
There is a rather humorous story in circulation in the blogosphere about a debate on belief between two twins still in their mother’s womb. A point worth noting is the platonic inflection given to the relationship between the twins and their mother, which parallels the patristic understanding of the relationship between God (through Christ) and His creation, whereby God, because he is fully transcendent, is at the same time fully intimate with each of His creatures. 
According to the version as depicted in the Serbian Orthodox blog Again and Again, the debate begins when the first twin asks another:
A: Do you believe in life after birth?
B: Of course, there must be something after birth.
A: That is nonsense. There is no life after birth. How would this life look like anyway?
B: I don’t know exactly, but I am convinced that there will be more light and that we will be able to walk and eat with our mouths…
A: That is complete nonsense. You know that it’s impossible to run and eat with your own mouth, that’s why we have the umbilical cord. I’m telling you, after birth there is no life.
B: The umbilical cord is too short. I’m convinced that there is something after birth. Something completely different from what we are living now.
A: But no one has ever returned from there. Life ends after birth. Besides, life is nothing else but existence in a tight and dark environment.
B: Well, I don’t know exactly how life after birth looks like, but we will, in any case, meet our Mommy. Then she will take care of us.
A: Mommy? You believe in Mommy? And where, according to you, would she be?
B: Everywhere around us, of course. Thanks to her, we are alive, without her, we would not exist at all.
A: I don’t believe it. I have never seen Mommy, so it is clear that she doesn’t exist.
B: Yes, it is possible, but sometimes, when we are perfectly still, we can hear her sing and caress our world. You know, I am convinced that life after birth, in fact, is only just the beginning.