Morning dawned gorgeous on May Day in Oxford. I was up at 5, out in the blue tinted air with the burnings embers of a new kindled sunrise on the horizon. Girded with good friends and the energy of dawn and motion, I joined the gathering river of people streaming through the early morning streets of Oxford, to gather in a slightly sleep-eyed crowd at the foot of Magdalen Tower. At 6 a.m. on the dot, a bell struck from the tower and the crowd shushed itself, the insistent sound like a sudden wind in the street. And the choir, watching the sun rise from the top of the tower, faced the dawn and began to sing:
The song is a traditional hymn of praise called “Hymnus Eucharisticus” and this is the translation from the original Latin:
O Thee, O GOD the FATHER–Thee,
All worship, praise, and glory be!
Thy hand bestows our daily bread,
And that wherewith our souls are fed.
To Thee, O JESU–Thee, the SON–
To Thee, alone-begotten One,
Who for our sakes didst not abhor
The Virgin’s womb–our hearts we pour.
When Thou upon Thy Cross wast laid,
To GOD a willing offering made,
The hope of life first dawned below–
Our joy, our only Saviour, Thou!
To Thee, O HOLY GHOST–by whom
The Babe was born of Mary’s womb,
Both GOD and Man–to Thee we raise
The hymn of everlasting praise.
O THREE IN ONE, Who didst devise
Such pathway back to Paradise;
This mystery of Love be sung
In every age by every tongue!
The quiet was deep, the music in rich threads that seemed to twine with the rising light. And when the hymn, and a beautiful prayer, and another two songs were finished, thousands of people cheered:
And another marvelous May Morning joined a grand parade of other celebrations in Oxford. I could have danced right along with the Morris dancers with their bells and flowers twirling up and down the streets as we walked back to breakfast. And now, the sun is risen, the sky is blue, and my mind echoes with the music. Rejoice. Rejoice! Spring is here and life leaps up anew.
(PS. I’ve been absent from here for awhile. I’ve needed some space in which to reconnoitre the intensity of this season. I shall return soon.)
Three days of hard writing. One day in Paris. Worth every ounce of work. Tonight my mind is rich with Impressionist splendors and unicorn tapestries and the opulence of the hall of mirrors at Versailles. But at days end, after twelve intensive hours of adventure, our little expeditionary force was tired out. So as the sun set, we walked a last few blocks up from the Eiffel Tower (which, I have decided, is lovelier than I expected, as if it was woven of steel lace that seems to glow gold) and went to Cafe Constance, a local place with little baskets of tender, crusty bread, with tables and patrons all jostled gladly together, and simple food that is the essence of comfort. I filled a stomach emptied by a day of hard walking with butter roasted chicken and potatoes simmered in herbs and bacon.
And then I glanced over my shoulder and saw one of the best sights out of a day crammed with unforgettable images. In a corner table under the stairs sat a very old woman with a round, pink face, seated on a red velvet bench. Swathed in a lovely wrap, her white hair was piled in a soft bun high on her head, and she sat very straight. But her air was gentle, slightly plaintive. Her fur coat was draped over the chair across the table, her hands rested quietly on her napkin, and the whole of her essence bespoke an old world gentility.
Until a tiny, spry little Yorkie suddenly dashed from under the table, sprang onto the red velvet and merrily stole her napkin.
“No, no!” she scolded. Then smiled. Laughed. And scratched his ears. The waiters were not in the least phased by the extra customer, and seemed quite familiar with the duo. They bent close to laugh and talk, take her order and acknowledge her canine companion. She smiled at the world and ate her excellent dinner with relish. In the hour we were there, she finished two entrees and four glasses of wine and was just leaning forward to order again. She was rosy, happy, attentive, alive.
Today I visited Saint-Chapelle. And was glad to remember these words from an author who is quickly becoming a favorite:
“We no longer dare to believe in beauty and we make of it a mere appearance in order the more easily to dispose of it. Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage and decision as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance. We can be sure that whoever sneers at her name as if she were the ornament of a bourgeois past — whether he admits it or not — can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love.”
I’m in a writing vortex. Have you ever experienced this? It’s when you eat and sleep and breathe and wake up in the night thinking about a project until you feel just a tad, the smallest tad, mind you, insane. Writing is hard. Sweat and tears hard. People always seem to have this image of writers as lounging in a high-backed chair sipping tea and being inspired. For me, it’s an almost painful exercise in wrangling the inchoate, intuitive things I know on the level of deepest soul into the cramped containers of words. It takes hours. It takes intense, ridiculous focus. It takes a vortex.
This is the only way I know to get a book written.
But at dusk tonight, as a round, flared crimson sun shimmered down the horizon and the world got misty and cool, I sat with my lovelies and we took a deep breath. You have to do that, you have to make the space in which to breathe and claim it as a discipline, a grace. We talked and wondered, discussing how life is richly blessed. But we also spoke of how it is never easy. How good relationships, like good books, take an immense amount of work. How life demands much more, sometimes than we think we can give. Easy? I don’t know that it ever will be.
For a long time, I felt that my life was somehow all wrong, that the pace and stress and work and swiftness of the days were an imbalance. I kept looking for a life of calm in which to finally settle. But it never stopped, and finally I understood. I think this swift, river rush of a life is where creativity and love, good work and hard choices are forged. Anything worth doing is difficult. And a breathless heart can follow you even into the calmest life.
The secret I think is in a Psalm I recently quoted to a friend – Psalm 131 – “I have composed and quieted my soul…” I thought of that this evening, breathless and strained as I was. In the middle of this muddle, this work, this swiftness, the secret of it all is learning to quiet and compose my soul so that calm rises up within me, an inner room in which I may dwell if I so choose…
I stood at the sink tonight, in a tiny house in a country I’ve never visited before, up to my elbows in sudsy water. I’m on a brief, and wholly working holiday with half of my family. Tomorrow, we work on a project, and work darn hard. Tonight, however, after a trek to a village shop for a week’s supply of crusty bread and cheese, we rested. And ate with relish. A little of the weariness of the travel day sloughed away with the salad and bread, the dark wine and soft cheese. We lit candles. Listened to music. And as I washed up, my brother sat facing me over the counter playing samples from Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack for Interstellar. Funny how weariness can both heighten and blend the senses. In the slowed consciousness of my growing exhaustion, the warm water was a grip on my skin, the music not just a melody in the room, but somehow suffused throughout it, one with my gentling pulse. I felt that I stood soaked in music as in water.
“Listen, listen,” said my brother, explaining the intricacies of harmony and counterpoint that made the rich soundscape, that made of notes and instruments a narrative unfolding in my imagination. “He’s not just making music as a background, he’s using the whole soundscape to help tell the story.”
Show, don’t tell, says every writing instructor I’ve ever met. Taste and see, says the Psalmist. Abruptly, immersed in music and sleepiness and grace, I wonder if God evokes as well as dictates his love. For weeks now, I’ve studied the Incarnation. I finished my doctrine project on the train this morning, thank you very much. My mind is crammed with theological points about the embodied Word that speaks in the tiniest particular of human physicality and experience, that narrates itself to us in touch and taste and sound and sense. But my mind and body have been in ceaseless, unseeing movement; I have been too busy with outlining the Incarnation to experience it.
Yesterday, I had an hour of panic over many things. I fretted. I squirmed. And wondered why I couldn’t gain center again.
Stop and taste. Halt and see.
I stood at the sink tonight, beloved souls near me, the water hot and gentle on my hands. food in my stomach, a tender, pink sky fading out the window, music, that music like air in my lungs, and in my weariness, I stopped. I tasted and saw. I savored every sense as it tingled with given life, even felt the heavy, rich exhaustion of the moment. And I saw.
This Word of ours, he’s not just making beauty as a background, he’s using all the world to tell his story…
A man should hear a little music, read a little poetry, and see a fine picture every day of his life, in order that worldly cares may not obliterate the sense of the beautiful which God has implanted in the human soul.
-Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Rembrandt van Rijn, Portrait of Christ's Head, c. 1650