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You have not danced so badly, my dear,
Trying to hold hands with the Beautiful One.
You have waltzed with great style,
My sweet, crushed angel,
To have ever neared God’s Heart at all.
Our Partner is notoriously difficult to follow,
And even His best musicians are not always easy to hear.
So what if the music has stopped for a while.
If the price of admission to the Divine
Is out of reach tonight…
For He will not be able to resist your longing
You have not danced so badly, my dear,
Trying to kiss the Beautiful One.
You have actually waltzed with tremendous style,
O my sweet,
O my sweet, crushed angel.
My friend Chuck and I meet once a week to study for the GRE. We know we wouldn’t glance at a single analogy this summer without the accountability. Even then, our plans to plow through a few more drills during our time together are inevitably amended for the sake of rousing discussion about theology and our vocations as educator-artist-theologians.
Last week we were musing about good theology–about the nature of it, the courage and creativity of it. I confessed to him how badly I crave to write something honest and beautiful like our favorite scholars and theologians. Like Foucault, or Simone Weil.
“There are these rare moments of ecstasy when I’m playing with my band–” Chuck told me. He is a musician, and you would know it by hearing him mention a few words on the subject; you can hear it in the reverent tone of his voice. “These moments of beauty and ecstasy–I think they’re like the beauty of theology you’re talking about.” I nodded, encouraging him. “When I’m with my band I can’t force that, you know? It’s a combination of too many things–it’s the way the musicians are playing together that night, it’s the space, it’s the crowd and their chemistry with us.”
Remembering the rush of a great concert, I affirmed, “Yes, that’s what I want, and I know it is about more than just me. When I write I am working so hard, but God doesn’t always show up, ya know? That energy and beauty doesn’t always come.” I paused, and then confided to him, “We’ve been working on these applications to doctoral programs, Chuck, and I feel like there is so much riding on this performance. It’s like a show with an audience full of the most brilliant musicians, all of them scrutinizing you, expecting to witness greatness…”
“I’ve been at shows when the ecstasy didn’t come. When the performance never reached that perfection,” he told me. “But you know, I could tell how much the band wanted it. And sometimes that’s enough for a great show. It’s not the ultimate; it not ecstasy, but sometimes it’s enough for audience to just witness that hunger within you.”
Hafiz says that even when we do not dance so badly, and even when we waltz with tremendous style, God does not always appear there on the dance floor. This does not mean that God is not watching the beautiful dance, I am sure. “So what?” Hafiz says, writing so affectionately of this angel as she dances. So what? So what? Perhaps the performance can be beautiful, even as her partner still pauses at the edge of the dance floor.
Perhaps I can create something beautiful, whether or not perfection takes me for a waltz today…
Sometime before midnight on New Years Eve I found myself nuzzled into the living room couch with another friend who studies theology in graduate school. Amid the dancing, yelling, and clamoring of glasses at the party that surrounded us, she spoke one of the most simple, profound things I had heard about God in a long time.
After describing the details of a rigorous seminar course on prayer she had completed early that month, she said, “You know, I came out with a lot of doubts about whether God works in the world the way we often think God does. But I do think that God moves in people.”
A poet friend of mine once described the different types of poems she writes. She identified one kind by describing a visit to a museum when she found herself standing before this particular painting, staring and staring, simply captivated by it at the deepest parts of herself. She couldn’t walk away. She had to write a poem about this surprising moment of wonder that simply grabbed her. She writes these poems about simple, startling moments. I think God moves in people.
The more theology and philosophy I study, the more confused I am about the Infinite working in the finite. I’m reading Karl Barth and at the moment he is trying to convince me that in my human limitation I do not know God from within. He says something like, human beings cannot know this wholly-Other God but through the revelation of scripture and the Church. What to say? I do not have convincing words for responding to this brilliant theologian at the moment.
But I have wonder: I have these moments when God moves in me. And in these moments the finite world may be simply what it is, but something in me is different. The wonder persists beyond the limits of what I can explain with my rigorous reasoning right now. I’ll keep trying to put words to it.
The liturgy begins when a handsome young man, dressed neatly in an argyle sweater, lifts the worn brass trumpet to his lips. His eyes are closed, his composure calm. With just one breath, everything in the tiny cathedral comes to a halt. We remove drink classes and beer bottles from our lips. Bar chatter hushes. We join the trumpeter’s band in shifting our eyes toward the sound—toward the man who is filling this tiny Boston bar with the most commanding, memorizing music….
Throughout the years I have experienced the benefits of going to worship services at unfamiliar churches. Foreign religious environments force me to face my own assumptions about God and religion—about who God is, how that God is to be worshiped, and what God’s worshipers look like and think about. When I stand with charismatics lifting their hands in praise, or kneel with Muslim women as they whisper Arabic words of prayer, I ask myself, “What can I learn from this genuine expression of worship? How does this push me to think about God in new ways? Who is this God before me?”
Last night in Wally’s Jazz Cafe, I found myself asking these questions. Although I have a casual appreciation for jazz music, I am no musician (to my dismay). I know nothing of the music theory and rhythms and chords upon which jazz improvisation is situated. I could not recognize the finger settings and swift movements as the musicians’ fingers fluttered across trumpet, alto sax, electric guitar or acoustic bass. The rhythmic bounce and sway of the drummer appeared chaotic to my untrained eye.
But while sitting there at the small wooden table—I believed. The aesthetics and decorum of the worship space were foreign, but the energy, vulnerability, conviction of the performance before me was intoxicatingly persuasive. I didn’t know how to recognize It, but I knew the Jazz God was in the room. I believed it. I could feel It. I heard It. I witnessed It in their worship.
I want to believe in the religious experiences of others, at least most of the time. Only in assuming their genuineness can I begin to meet their Gods for myself. And many times, these meetings become meetings with my own God in new ways.
I spent the evening at ArtXchange, a gallery in downtown Seattle dedicated to promoting cultural exchange through the art they showcase. As I studied the featured exhibit by Deborah Kapoor against the captivating, meditative chant of a live Indian music group, I kept thinking about how my love of art is so bound up with spirituality.
In the opening stanzas of “Origins and History of Consciousness,” a poem by Adrienne Rich (it is among my favorite poems of all time), she characterizes the “true nature of poetry” as “The drive to connect./ The dream of a common language.” These simple phrases capture the real quality of poetry like no other description I have ever encountered. I would also apply the description to other mediums of artist expression, including the various mediums I enjoyed tonight. Literary, visual, and performing art captures me because it is a tangible form of our common human yearning for…for something beyond systematic grammar and simple cohesive reason. We need meter, clay, melodies and creativity to convey what our systematic, straight-forward prose cannot: something more. It is out of our dream of a common language that we create and engage art of all kinds.
And it is out of a “dream of a common language” that I pray. That I meditate. That I seek God in metaphors and old rituals. My spirituality pours out of the same longing that brings me to art–a longing to connect with reality in a way that transcends the division and limitations of ordinary words.
Both art and spirituality pull me beyond myself into the realm of this common language–a language beyond words that feels so much more Real than a lot of the talk I hear all day long.