Monday, May 14, 2007

Heaven Can't Wait IV

[From a book of 23 essays called "Heaven", edited by Roger Ferlo, Seabury Books, April, 2007. See link to Church Publishing.]

There was a space of about three years when circumstance created the opportunity to realize what I had always suspected I was born to do: sing the Night Office. This was not the contemporary truncated "Night Prayer" found in recent breviaries. This was full-blown broken-sleep eleventh-century Night Office with its ancient Latin chant, much of it sung from memory in the dark. We rose at midnight to pray in solitude and gathered at 1:00 AM. We sang through the dark hours until 3:30 or 4:00 AM, depending on the feast.

I lived from one Night Office to the next. Daytime in the scullery with carrots, potatoes, and leeks passed in a dream of fatigue and the joy of life taken out of time. Even on the mandatory night off, when I collapsed gratefully onto my bed and sank into oblivion, my heart was awake and singing.

It was neither a young community nor a happy one, but the Night Office never failed, not even when there was only one person left singing on a side during the Laudate psalms, the others having tranced in sleep as they leaned against their misericords. The Night Office had a life of its own, and we were privileged to be tributary to its ever-flowing stream. The opening of our lips immersed us in the music of creation as it sang the passing of one day and, note by note, line by line, awakened the dawn of the new. The night held all the joys and sorrows of the human race, all the agony and beauty of creation, birth and death—named, marked, remembered, and bathed in the river of psalms flowing into eternity.

I have mostly gotten over wishing I had died in France, which process has been a greater death. The Night Office goes on, whether it is silence singing over the cold sea outside my Alaska window or Latin psalms chanted in a Provençal chapel.
But these are not heaven, either.

The wilderness here has welcomed me, and whales have sounded my bones. Sometimes my harp settles so sweetly into its tuning that alone it plays the music of the spheres. It is always trying to play, even if it risks destroying itself. That is the nature of harps.

With friends I have laughed until I cried, and alone have cried until I was empty, a tablet erased of suffering, pain, sin, joy, which together have rendered me receptive to being written on anew.

But none of this is heaven.

It was Isaac of Nineveh who confirmed what I had supposed all this time: that the biblical phrase "the world to come" refers not to pie in the sky by and by but to "the kingdom of heaven within you."

"Once you have reached the place of tears, then know that the mind has left the prison of this world and set its foot on the road towards the new world. Then it begins to breathe the wonderful air which is there; it begins to shed tears. For now the birth pangs of the spiritual infant grow strong, since grace, the common mother of all, makes haste to give birth mystically to the soul, the image of God, into the light of the world to come. . . . Then you will start to become aware of the transformation which the whole nature will receive in the renewal of all things, dimly and as though by hints."

Heaven is without beginning and without end. It's when I'm not looking for heaven that heaven appears. It is by definition more than I can ask or imagine. It permeates all that I live, have lived, and will live, in weal and in woe. It suffuses the ordinary flow of our lives if only we will stop trying to cut it down to our size, to objectify it, to make it finitely less than it is.


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