scepter of the house of Israel,
you open and you close without contest!
O Antiphon for December 20
Opening, closing the gates heaven,
can you be like a woman?
Tao Te Ching, #10
I’m down with my brother monks at the hermitage for Christmas. I was supposed to preach today, those gorgeous readings form the Song of Songs (2:8-14): "Hark! My lover––here he comes springing across the mountains… Arise, my beloved, my dove, my beautiful one and come!"; and John the Baptist leaping in the womb of Mary at the Visitation (Lk 1:39ff.). I was preparing to talk about Origen’s use of that reading from the Song of Songs:
The soul is not made one with the Word of God and joined with Him until such a time as all the winter of her personal disorders and the storm of her vices has passed so that she no longer vacillates and is carried about with every kind of doctrine … Then also she will hear ‘the voice of the turtle dove’, which surely denotes that wisdom which the steward of the Word speaks among the perfect, the deep wisdom of God which is hidden in mystery. (On the Song, III)But Bruno came to my cell at around 9:30 and asked if I would trade with him. Mind you, we very rarely visit each other’s cells so it was like I was getting a Visitation myself. I honestly thought maybe he didn’t know I was there and was coming because he had stored something here. But instead, he asked me to preach for him that day because he had to go to town for a broken tooth, and he would trade me for another day. It was the story of the Annunciation, Gabriel appearing to Mary and announcing that she was to bear a son. I agreed but demanded he give me a double portion of his spirit. Well, I really asked him to give me an idea of what he had been going say. He launched into a bunch of stuff but this is all I remembered after he left: “The purity and poverty of faith.”
So I started out by saying, "We can say it over and over again, but at some point we will really believe in spiritual reality, that if we are receptive and open, that is, if we are pure and poor, if we have the purity and poverty of faith, if we are ready, the Word will be planted in us, individually and corporately."
When I set the scene of the Annunciation to music in the oratorio that I wrote, “The Song of Luke,” after the recitative there was a little ballet. In the music there is a dialogue going on between the clarinet (the signature instrument of Gabriel-God) and the oboe (the signature instrument of Mary). All the way through the piece they are answering each other, contradicting each other, teaching each other even. Only at two points do they ever play the same notes in unison. For the first time, I told the performers to just blurt out the long sustained note without any regard of beauty of tone (a nod to Hindemith’s solo viola sonatas). But the second time they play a unison line I wanted them to sound like one instrument. I was speaking with another musician and composer recently, one who is very well-schooled, and he said to me, out of nowhere––meaning I don’t think he has ever heard the Annunciation Dance that I wrote for the “Song of Luke”––“For example, you would never have an oboe and a clarinet play together”! Well, I was too stupid to know that, and I remembered that we had had a hard time getting them to blend live and on the recording, but eventually we did get it. It just takes some work. It takes a certain purity of tone on the part of the oboe, which normally is difficult to play and has a thin reedy sound at its best. And it takes a certain “poverty” even on the part of the clarinet to not dominate the volume.
And maybe it’s the same thing with divinity and humanity. If we just keep trying, we can eventually line the timbre of our humanity up with the timbre of divinity. And perhaps God’s clarinet will also change its timbre a little bit in order to line up with ours, just as the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, just as Jesus humbled himself to share in our humanity.
That phrase, “poverty and purity of faith” applied too to the first reading from Isaiah 7. The Lord offers Ahaz a sign––“Let it be deep as the nether world, or high as the sky!” But Ahaz says, “I will not ask!” And because Ahaz did not ask, because he had no agenda and was pure receptivity, because he was virginal and chose to be poor, the virgin conceived and bore a child––God with us. It reminded me of Solomon too who wouldn’t ask for anything other than wisdom.
I’m kind of stuck on this idea lately, that someone said to me years ago, that we are all “feminine” in the spiritual life, that is, archetypally feminine, that is, receptive instead of aggressive. I know that there are certain feminists who do not like classifying certain things as feminine, but even the Tao also calls this the feminine, the yielding. And then it occurred to me (in the middle of celebrating Mass) that the phrase from the Tao that I was about to quote: “Opening closing the gates of the sky, can you be like a woman?” was awfully similar to the O Antiphon, the title for Jesus, that was to be sung that day: “O Key of David, scepter of the house of Israel, you open and you close without contest.”
We need a lot of this attitude and outlook, a lot of this lack of agenda, a lot of this receptivity, individually and corporately, if we are to be on the spiritual path. We need to have no agenda about the divine. Receptive and virginal like Mary. Like Ahaz who wouldn’t even ask for a sign. Like Solomon who wanted nothing but wisdom. Like Jesus who emptied himself. A friend of mine wrote me and added to that list, “like Joseph who doesn’t speak but just surrenders to a dream. Like Peter who just dives in.” And like his two year-old daughter who wants nothing but laughter. “Behold, because you did not ask for a sign,” the Lord tells Ahaz, “the virgin will conceive and bear a child and you shall call him God-With-Us, Emannu-el.” I think it was Ahaz himself who was the virgin at that point––and Solomon, even Joseph––like Mary. I even suggested that Jesus himself was a virgin, who “emptied himself.” When we have a lack of agenda, when we are emptied, then we are fertile ground for the surprise of the Word taking root there.