Songs Too Wide for Sound
When Carol Gregg asked me to talk in chapel this morning about my own faith journey, I told her that I’d need three hours just to cover the time I’ve spent running around in circles on that particular trip, never mind what little time I’ve spent in meaningful movement toward some sort of fragile understanding. But as you know, pastors are notoriously tough negotiators, and for all of my arguing, I ended up with ten minutes. I’ll try to use them wisely.
I admit I hardly feel up to the task of discussing faith: how, we ask, as philosophers have asked for millennia, can reason account for that which surpasses reason? This is the mystery of our faith as Christians, the mystery we are called to ponder time and again.
I chose a poem by William Stafford for today’s reading in part just because I love it: Stafford was one of our truly great poets, I think. I take the poem to be about the nature of faith because it speaks to the constant uncertainty that we must accommodate if we are to live in the world of the intellect as we do at a college like Alma and yet have a faith commitment to a higher presence. As I read the poem, you might listen for the fragile uncertainties at its center:
There are songs too wide for sound. There are quiet
places where something stopped a long time
ago and the days began to open
their mouths toward nothing but the sky. We live
in place of the many who stir only
if we listen, only because the living
live and call out. I am ready
as all of us are who wake at night:
we become rooms for whatever almost
is. It speaks in us, trying. And even if
only by a note like this, we answer.
The poem is like a koan in the Buddhist tradition, in that it presents us with a paradox that leads to thought and, perhaps, to enlightenment. How, we ask, can a song be too wide for sound? How do days open their mouths? How can we become rooms, whether for something that is, or is not?
Through these paradoxes, I think Stafford tries to get at the mystery of our connection to one another, at the place where we meet with those who have come before us and those who will come after us. For Christians who live with doubt and acknowledge the fractured nature of faith in our modern world, that place is God and the mystery of God is, as I take it, what this poem is about.
The passage from John demonstrates that our doubting is nothing new. Jesus’ emergence among the living challenges the disciples to affirm the faith that they have for so long claimed. Thomas may be the doubting one, but the faith of the other disciples is, like his, based on seeing—‘We have seen the Lord!’ they say to him. By contrast, we in our modern context know that our faith must be of the second sort that Jesus describes because we have not seen and yet we believe: we are not, after all, “witnesses of these things,” as Peter says in a passage from Acts. Thomas’s skepticism—unless I see it, he tells his fellows, “I will not believe it”—challenges the disciples not because it is in opposition to their stance but because it the same as theirs. It exposes them, for their belief too follows from seeing the risen lord, not from the unseeing faith to which Jesus calls them.
This blind faith is of course uncomfortable for us, a challenge, especially in a community like ours based on reason and on knowing. How are we to come into the light, as Thomas does in his expression of belief: “My lord and my god!” but without his need to see? Though committed to rational thought, communities like ours show us the way to faith, and the rituals of our church communities affirm the path: the breaking of the bread compels us to see faith in the light of community. I’m reminded of an experience I had not too long ago as I sat in St. Bartholemew’s, a mud church in Zaria, Nigeria. The service was conducted in Hausa, a west African language that I do not know. To my ears, the hymns were a counterpoint to more familiar sounds of worship, but I joined along, not knowing the words I sang. Given my unknowing, it was as if I’d become a child again, and I recalled the mornings in church as a kid when the meanings of the liturgy—of the words and rituals of our faith—seemed so far beyond my grasp and yet so profound and moving. I suppose I vaguely understood then, as a child, what I was reminded of again in that service at St. Bartholemew’s: the metaphors of faith give richness to our lives and mean more for us, I think, than doctrine ever could. Unable to understand the words spoken and sung in this mud church in the middle of Nigeria, but joining wholly with my fellow congregants nonetheless, I was confronted with the power of metaphor that liturgy provides. I experienced in those moments a paradox of faith: in my unknowing, I came, nevertheless, to know.
With faith, we can feel incomplete and complete in God, at once, but this paradox may disturb us in our rationalist and postmodern western society. We stand with Thomas: we want evidence and we want proof, though the very foundation of our tradition denies that we will find them. And this, I think, is where a community like Alma is critical for our development as people of faith: in an academic community like ours, we can come to know the fractured and partial nature that faith may often have even as, paradoxically, we find it to be transcendent, the source of all unity. If we in this college community do our work well as stewards of a vigorously intellectual approach to the spiritual, our students will come to discover both the fearsome uncertainty of faith and its blessed assurance.
The poet Kathleen Norris says of the understanding of God, “with God there is always more unfolding what we can glimpse of the divine is always exactly enough, and never enough.” This, for me, is what the faith experience is about: the glimpses of God we find in those still moments where we seek Him are perhaps all we will ever know of God in this life.
They can’t possibly be enough.
And they are more than we will ever need.
To the eternal questions of faith that wake us at night, that haunt us in an age when faith has become but another commodity to be bought and sold in the “self-help” section of amazon.com, we try to answer, only to realize that we are left with vast and sometimes unutterable mystery. We are answerers without answers, I suppose, left constantly aware that we can’t speak of the awesome mystery of God in terms that fully grasp it.
In this skeptical age of ours, we are more like Thomas than perhaps we care to admit. It is in our nature to doubt our faith and to feel keenly its awkward fit in our rational world. But the gospel reminds us of the promise and the metaphor of the resurrection, gifts of God that enable us, unseeing and unknowing though we are, to see and to know.
*Stafford, William. “Answerers.” Contemporary American Poetry (5th ed.). Ed. A. Poulin Jr. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1991. 573.