Monday, December 13, 2010

Waiting for God

In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard examines two aspects of stalking animals: stillness and pursuit. She employs them both to catch a glimpse of the fish and the muskrats that live in the creek. Dillard writes about seeing. She writes of encountering nature and the divine. Like Moses in the cleft of the rock she waits motionless and watches, for fish and muskrats and, we suppose, for God; or like Jacob at the Jabbok she pursues her quarry with patient, unrelenting persistence.

‘You have to stalk everything. Everything scatters and gathers; everything comes and goes like fish under a bridge. You have to stalk the spirit, too. You can wait forgetful anywhere, for anywhere is the way of his fleet passage, and hope to catch him by the tail and shout something in his ear before he wrests away. Or you can pursue him wherever you dare, risking the shrunken sinew in the hollow of the thigh; you can bang at the door all night till the innkeeper relents, if he ever relents; and you can wail till you’re hoarse or worse the cry of incarnation always in John Knoepfle’s poem: “and Christ is red rover . . . and the children are calling / come over come over.” I sit on a bridge as on Pisgah or Sinai, and I am both waiting becalmed in a cliff of the rock and banging with all my will, calling like a child beating on a door: Come on out! . . . I know you’re there.’ (Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Perennial Classics edition, 1999, 207)

(By the way, I have read a few of Knoepfle’s poems but have never come across the one Dillard quotes – does anybody know where I can find it?)

Advent is about waiting, not only for Christmas but also for God. It is about opening our eyes and ears, attuning our spiritual senses to the presence of the Spirit. We can do this in at least two ways: We can sit or kneel quietly and, ceasing all other activity, turn our attention toward God. We can also, during the course of everyday living, pay greater attention to the people and circumstances around us, actively looking and listening for traces of God there. We need both approaches. When we follow them we might find, with Elizabeth Barrett Browning, that:

Earth’s crammed with heaven,
and every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes –
the rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.

(Elizabeth Barrett Browning, ‘Aurora Leigh’, The Poetical Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Macmillan, 1897, 466)

Taken together, these two ways might produce a kind of virtuous circle. The practice of Morning Prayer attunes our senses to the presence of the divine. As we live attentively, we discover God in the everyday and so return our prayers in thanksgiving. As Abraham Joshua Heschel puts it, ‘Prayer is our humble answer to the inconceivable surprise of living.’ (Heschel, Man’s Quest for God, Aurora Press, 1998, 5)

Advent gives us an excuse to practise.

‘Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!’ Psalm 27.14


Nigel Coles said...

many thanks

David K said...

I have been struck by how much the arts have been represented on the blog so far - poetry, song, music, paintings - including Robert's thought-provoking piece today. What is this saying to us I wonder?

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Nigel and David for your comments. The question you raise, David, about the arts is an interesting one. I know that many artists think the church (particularly the Baptist variety) has little place for their contribution. Yet it seems to me that ministry relies on the arts. I am reminded of Craig Barnes', 'The pastor as minor poet' (Eerdmans, 2009). I have always been struck by the use of the arts in the theological work of Paul Fiddes, Richard Kidd and even NT Scholars such as Sean Winter (to name only a few). My hat is off to the many art-lovers on this blog but particularly to Jim Gordon, Clare McBeath and Tim Presswood. While people like me reference the arts, people like these create them!