Friday, January 10, 2020

January 10: Common Dependence on God, Tower of Babel, "Five Lesson on the Color Black"

More from Merton on his earliest religious experiences:

The old Zion church was a white wooden building, with a squat, square little belfry, standing on a hill, surrounded by high trees and a large graveyard, and in a crypt underneath it were buried the original Douglas family, who had settled there on the shore of the Sound some hundred years before.  It was pleasant enough on Sundays.  I remember the procession that came out of the sacristy, a choir of men and women, dressed in black, with white surplices, and led by a Cross.  There were stained glass windows up behind the altar, one had an anchor on it, for its design, which interested me because I wanted to go to sea, and travel all over the world.  Strange interpretation of a religious symbol ordinarily taken to signify stability in Hope:  the theological virtue of Hope, dependence on God.  To me it suggested just the opposite.  Travel, adventure, the wide sea, and unlimited possibilities of human heroism, with myself as the hero.

Then there was a lectern, shaped like an eagle with outspread wings, on which rested a huge Bible.  Nearby was an American flag, and above that was one of those little boards they have in Protestant churches, on which the numbers of the hymns to be sung are indicated by black and white cards.  I was impressed by the lighting of candles on the altar, by the taking up of the collection, and by the singing of hymns, while Father, hidden behind the choir somewhere, played the organ.  

One came out of the church with a kind of comfortable and satisfied feeling that something had been done that needed to be done, and that was all I knew about it.  And now, as I consider it after many years, I see that it was very good that I should have got at least that much of religion in my childhood.  It is a law of man's nature, written into his very essence, and just as much a part of him as the desire to build houses and cultivate the land and marry and have children and read books and sing songs, that he should want to stand together with other men in order to acknowledge their common dependence on God, their Father and Creator.  In fact, this desire is much more fundamental than any purely physical necessity.

At this same time my father played the piano every evening in a small movie theater which had been opened in the next town, Bayside.  We certainly needed money.

It doesn't surprise me that some of Thomas Merton's earliest intimations of the presence of God in his life are connected with music.  Some of my earliest memories of church and God are also musical.  I remember sitting next to my mother in a pew, listening to her strong soprano voice.  The old hymns:  "Come, Holy Ghost" and "Mary, Full of Grace" and "Panis Angelicus."  In my mind, when I was a child, my mother's singing was as close to God as I could get.  It lifted me up.

As I got older, I joined church choirs and started playing the piano and pipe organ.  Now, almost 40 years later, I have been a liturgical musician for the majority of my life.  Most of my church life has been spent in choir lofts, looking down at the backs of people's heads.  When I was younger, I used to think I had a God's-eye-view of things.  This, I thought, was how God saw all of us from his perch in the heavens.  For a long time, in the choir loft where I play the pipe organ, there was a sign that read, "When you sing, you pray twice."  I believe that saying.  Music--like prayer and poetry--elevates human expression.  It's sort of the only way we humans can truly approach the divine.

Today, I attended the funeral of a very close friend.  She was a woman who devoted her life to music in the church.  For almost 60 years, she directed and sang in choirs, always with humility, feeling like she wasn't worthy to stand in front of sopranos, altos, tenors, and basses, waving her arms.  More than once, after a Sunday morning choir anthem, she would look at me and say, "I feel like a complete failure."  And she meant it.

I often feel the same way with my poetry.  When I sit down to write something new, I have a vision in my head, a song in my ears, of what I think I want to write.  What comes out of my pen onto the page never really comes close to that initial vision.  In some ways, as I write, I feel like I'm reenacting the narrative of the Tower of Babel.  I want to capture words that are divine--King David, the gospel writers, Shakespeare, Keats, Wordsworth, Dickinson, Whitman.  Instead, I end up writing something that sounds more like the literary equivalent of the Three Stooges.

For the funeral today, I was asked to write and read a poem for my friend.  It was difficult for me.  I worked on the poem all week.  Actually, I had the first four sections of the poem done by Tuesday.  They came to me fairly easily.  The last section gave me a lot of trouble.  Every time I started writing, I ran into a wall.  Last night, I thought I had it finished.  It wasn't.  So, I got up at six o'clock in the morning today and went to work.  By 8 a.m., the poem was done.

I'm still not sure it's any good.  You will have to be the judge of that.

Saint Marty thinks he's fallen short.  Again.

Five Lessons on the Color Black

by:  Martin Achatz

for Sally Z.

In the beginning, before there was light,
before heavens and earth were split,
before sun and moon, day and night,
seas and volcanoes, tectonic shifts,
before mastodons and sequoias,
mud and breath and Adam,
sleep and rib and Eve,
before the naming, when everything
was shapeless and void,
there was God, and God wore black.

At the bottom of the Quincy Mine
Number 2 shaft, 1.75 miles below
earth’s surface, turn off lights,
phone.  Extinguish candles, torches.
Stand still.  You will experience
complete black, where there is no
up or down, left or right, floor,
ceiling, or walls.  Where everything
exists and doesn’t exist in vertiginous
nothing.  This is how Christ
entered the world.

Black absorbs all colors.
The purple-blue bruises of Advent, Lent.
Cardinal thorns, spikes of Holy Week.
Snows of Christmas, Easter, when joy
piles up like a blizzard,
joy on joy on joy.
Hot roses of Gaudete Sunday,
Laetare Sunday, when expectation
blossoms through meat fasts, candled wreaths,
the way crocuses blossom
through winter into spring.
And the abundance of green all other times,
so ordinary we don’t even notice
it sitting on the side of the road,
homeless, begging for our eyes.
Put on a pair of black pants,
button up a black shirt,
slip on a pair of black shoes,
and you are the gospels.

The word “black” comes from Old English,
Proto-Germanic, Proto-Indo-European,
Dutch, Latin, Ancient Greek.
It’s an old word, kicked around
by bare and sandaled feet
for thousands of years, probably
grunted by Neanderthals as they
scrambled away from the black
palm of night.  Eaten by Vikings
as they crossed continents of black ocean.
Caught in squirming, black nets
on the shores of Galilee.  In most languages,
it means to burn, glow, blaze,
shine, flash, luminesce.  Black
fire.  Black stars.  Black
hosannas in black bowls of sky.  Black
resurrection, when you open
your eyes, see an empty, black
cave.  Black coffee on Sunday
morning, where cream swirls
in the cup like light into a black

is all about the black
you left behind.
Empty, black
chair at the kitchen table.
Black, winter
branches, where wind
plays scales, makes
me think of Kilmer:
. . . only God can make
a tree.  Black
chime of an unanswered
phone call.  And the last, black
words you spoke to me
two Sundays ago.  I hold
them in my hands now.  Count them.
One.  Two.  Three.  Four.
They gleam like polished onyx
in my palms, bright holes
in my skin.  I put them
in my pocket, carry
them with me everywhere,
feel their weight against
my leg, hear them rattle
together, making a black
sound, like the one Christ
made at the back of His throat
when He found out Lazarus
had died.  Or the one
Lazarus made when he stumbled
out of his grave, into
the arms of his best friend.
I take those words out
now, let them fluoresce the black
air of  this place.  They are everything
and nothing.  They are you.  Me.
Us.  Say them now.  Send them
out into the dark matter
of the universe, where they will
nova, become star, galaxy,
angel host, infant, salvation.
Four words.  Four syllables.
Four breaths.
I.  Love.  You.  Babe.

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