Daniel P. Strandlund
St. John’s Episcopal Church
Meditation for Choral Evensong
Sunday of Proper 24
October 16, 2016
Many of us had to memorize Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 when we were in high school. I bet most of us still remember some of the words:
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate¦.
It was so long ago we memorized that poem for English class, and yet the words are still there, somehow, though we rarely pull them to the forefront of our attention anymore.
It is the unique power of the mind to hold something like a sonnet in its entirety, all at once. But when we recite it out loud, the sonnet enters into our embodied existence, into the changeableness of time, and so the words must come one by one, line by line.
In his Confessions, St. Augustine uses a similar example to explore how we make sense of our existence in time. He says that time past exists no more, and that time yet to come does not exist yet, and the present is so fleeting that no sooner have we considered it than it has slipped into the past (239-241). How, Augustine asks, are we to make sense of it?
Augustine offers a simple and elegant solution: only in the mind are past, present and future held together with real coherence. The past is available to us through memory; the present is available to us through sight; and the future is available to us through expectation (242-244, 250).
Augustine uses the example of a particular psalm he has memorized. He holds the whole psalm in his mind, and as he recites each syllable, the words flow from the stanza of an expected future, through the present moment of his lips, until they are a memory. The words of the psalm, like the events of an individual life, flow from future, to present, to past”and yet the entirety of the psalm is always present and recognizable to him. It is always this psalm, and not another.
I like to imagine that God holds our individual lives in mind the way Augustine held the words of his beloved psalms. Our rising and our falling, each iambic generation, is more well-travelled by God’s meticulous attention than the words of the sonnet we memorized in high school. The particular turns of phrase, the odd coincidences of internal rhyme”each of our lives is a unique poem held gently by God’s attention.
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May. / And God smiles fondly to himself. Yes, that’s certainly something she would do.
But we most go a step further. God does not hold us in mind as individuals only, but as communities. St. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians, I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea¦. (1 Cor 10:1). By invoking the Israelites’ time in the wilderness, Paul reminds the Church in Corinth that they are part of a much older historical community. Paul remembers their past for them. He reminds them that they are this community, and not another. It is this poem God is reciting, and not another.
And what of us? The generations before us, in both the Episcopal Church and the wider Anglican Communion, has given us the gift of the Daily Office. It’s part of what makes us this community and not another. When we pray the Office, when we commit to it as a discipline, the words become familiar to us; we hold all of them in our minds all at once. And when we pray, we speak from word to word, from line to line, out of habit, out of our second nature, no longer having to focus our attention on them. By speaking them out loud, or better yet by singing them, our bodies learn the words more fully than our minds do. And then our minds themselves are renewed as it dawns on us that it is not we who are praying the words, but God who is speaking us into being, line by line, moment by moment. We have been grafted into the very bone marrow of the Church, that we are the living flesh and bone of the body of Christ, who is the only Word God ever speaks.
You are the recitation of God’s love poem.
What a gift to gather for Evensong. As the Bard says,
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.