I wrote this on the date shown after the reading, but I began living when it happened in the 1980s. If I had to mark a single point in space-time when I knew of God, it would be this occasion, this encounter with the OTHER, the Light of Life who loves us, and makes us ever new.
You might call it the first romance novel. Sometime around the second century AD on an island off the coast of Turkey, the Greek writer, Longus, wrote a tale of mystery, adventure, and ultimately of love. It was Daphnis and Chloe, a story of two infants left in a pasture, separated as children, then facing great obstacles and challenges among gods and goddesses, nymphs, shepherds, and goatherds, who were finally united as lovers in a joyous celebration.
In the early twentieth century, around 1912, Maurice Ravel, living in Paris, completed a ballet, set to the story of Daphnis and Chloe. It is regarded as a masterpiece, “one of the most beautiful products of French music”, according to Stravinsky himself. The score is a work of wonder, but the ballet is rarely performed because the music stands complete in every way, even without dancers.
Less than a century later a little boy named Christopher ran onto the playground of his preschool in Memphis. It was recess, and as he rushed out he looked up. The rays of the sun had just poked through the clouds and showered upon him. He turned and ran, his arms and legs flying about, waving around (only children can wave their arms AND legs), and he called to his teacher, “Look! The heavens declare!”
I was sitting in a swing on the campus of the Harding Graduate School of Theology. The campus in Memphis had only two such swings and they were identical to the swings that dotted the main campus of Harding University, hundreds of miles away in a college town near Little Rock, Arkansas. Say the words Harding Swing, and in response all graduates of the school would form the same mental image. They were like freestanding porch swings, with sturdy wood frames, painted white. Couples frequented them, sometimes inconspicuously standing among the trees, forming a line in order to grab one for a few moments of romance between classes. At night, before curfew, it was almost impossible to find an empty swing, but here on the graduate school campus I had one all to myself.
It was perhaps by design, and certainly by bequest, that the graduate school was removed geographically from the main campus. I was sitting on the grounds of a beautiful estate, left to the school, possibly by old Southern cotton money. I didn’t stop to consider at the time that the fortune amassed by cotton may have been carried on the backs of slaves, but was now being used to broadcast a message of freedom and justice. The mansion—we still called it The Mansion—was the administration building and academic offices, and the classrooms were spread around the grounds. The separation from the main campus, a highly regarded private school in its own right, allowed for more free thought and exploration of ideas that might not align with the more conservative structure (some would say boundaries or walls), particularly in the Religion department of Harding University miles away.
So here I was rocking gently in a swing on a former estate in Memphis on a cloudy day, ruminating, chewing on what filled my mind. I’d just come from a systematic theology class and I had quite a feast to devour, mentally and spiritually. I prepared myself, taking a notebook from my pack along with my Walkman. It was the 80s and I had an actual Walkman that played honest-to-goodness cassettes. I hit “play” and Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe began.
I was pondering the present and all that I was being taught by my professors and through the thousands of pages of required reading. But, I was also reflecting upon my past, my heritage, what I had inherited as a Christian. It was full of unspoken, but lived-out-very-proudly teaching. Our God was a god of commands and obedience—somewhat tidy, like our homes. There were rules to be followed and wonderful rewards that were promised if we did. Some things were not to be done, and other things must be done. We believed that in the end we’d be saved by God’s mercy, of course, and we knew that we were “sinners in the hands of an angry God”. But, he had chosen us. We were part of an exclusive group, and we doubted that others outside our faith tradition would be counted among the number of saints. I imagine that few of us would find ourselves daring to hope, regardless of how sincere they were, that those “others” would ever experience the glories that we would. Or, that we might . . . because if pressed upon the matter, asked if we knew that we were saved, we’d look askance, wistfully, and simply mutter, “I hope so.” But, in practicality, we did not dwell upon the question much. We lived day by day, did right things, and rarely wrong ones. And whether assured of a future home with God or not, we would dern sure die trying. That was it: we’d die trying. We wore the name Christian proudly and although others had the same nametags, it was “us and them”, like Pink Floyd was singing at the time. We really were Christians, and they were confused. We had done the things that we must—checked them off our list—and they had not. Or, if they had completed, even an identical list, it had been done in the wrong order.
As I sat swinging and listening, I was looking back, but also looking within and around. My head was abuzz with the ideas of St. Anselm, Tertullian, and Ignatius. Invigorated by de Chardin, Descartes, Neuhaus. Challenged by Barth, Brunner, Schleiermacher, and the Neibuhrs, H. Richard and my favorite, Reinhold. Reinhold Neibuhr. They were presenting a different kind of Christianity, a grander and broader way of faithful living, and a much, much larger God.
The music in my ears was growing more dramatic along with my dawning understanding. I was listening to a performance of Daphnis and Chloe by the Montreal Symphony led by Charles Dutoit. It had occurred, fittingly, in St. Eustache Church, known for its outstanding acoustics as well as for the accommodations that are made during recording sessions in April and October, when the surrounding streets are closed to traffic, and motorboats on the nearby river are prohibited. It was a flawless recording of an ethereal performance of a work of genius. The music swished and swirled along with the dance of great ideas, and another ballet was taking place in my mind. Questions beckoned me.
What if? What if the gospel truly was a mystery? How could it be, if we could deconstruct it into steps of salvation or even systematically articulate it? We had read those words—that it was a mystery. Could they be true? What is the exact nature of God’s gift to us unless it is unfathomable? The music was building, and I knew that Longus on his island was smiling as he wrote of love and its power to overcome. And Ravel was weeping in Paris as he notated on paper what was surely the voice of God in the sublime language of music. And the theologians with their free-flowing faith and their giant of a gift-giving God were more right than wrong. What did Paul mean when he said in response to God’s generous nature, “Shall we sin that grace may abound?” The question has no depth of meaning unless we could indeed sin, and grace would then abound. But what of ritual and sacrament and holy living? What is their place? Certainly they are what we do with this gift of God, but they can have no sway over it. Could it be factual, true, bankable, absolutely unquestionable, what has been written: that nothing can separate us from the love of God? No thing in all of creation!
And then, just as the music simmered and boiled and exploded in a crescendo of delight, the air around me changed. The hot, always-humid air of Memphis grew into a weightless breeze, and I looked upward, drawn there in response to the wind. The sun whispered and murmured, then shouted to me from the clouds. It was not peeking through them or even piercing them. It had burst them, broken them apart and shattered the sky into slivers of saffron. They, too, cracked and the jagged shards of light rained upon me and wedged themselves into me. Clarity washed over me as if I were waking from a dream and seeing a bright new day. It was an illumination, and I experienced with all of my senses the presence of God.
This was no small, still voice. It was abrupt, shocking! God is a god of fire who sears our souls over an open flame, ignited by his glance. He flays us open and examines our hearts and peels back our hidden-ness. He wastes no part of us as he lays us bare! Seeing the secret and touching the untouchable, he confronts all our attempts to quantify or constrict or control his salvation. It is a gift: pure, and so simple that it becomes foolishness to many. It is free and not-at-all of this world. Yet, it has crashed into this world with a force that cannot be reckoned with by any other power.
The music had subsided, but now it resounded deeply within me, and I must have stood because I found myself shuffling slowly across the grass. I looked back only once, and would not have been surprised to see the swing smoking and charred by the fierce light. But, it remained, sturdy and white, moving faintly back and forth. And I moved on.
As I write I’m thinking of another great theologian, that child named Christopher (whose name means Bearer of Christ). He had distilled all the great theology into its essence, running awkwardly and shouting, “The heavens declare!”
Although I’ve left that place and moved from that time, none of it has left me.
Still, today, I continue on: shuffling across the grass, dazed and amazed by God’s grace.
–Timothy Waugh, 1 January 2015