Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Sacrament of Grief: VI

This is Part VI. Read Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, and Part V.


Adveniat regnum tuum. Fiat voluntas tua... [9]

Vespers begins to wind down, though you might just as well say it approaches the climax, as the brothers sing the doxology and antiphon to the final psalm. The Psalms are generally less familiar to Latter-day Saints. We don’t do much with them. In our Sunday School classes they get a grand total of an hour every four years, and it’s a shame. They are a bit wilder than our usual devotional fare, calling on God to pour out judgment on enemies, sometimes even railing at the Lord. Threaded through the lodes of hope and faith there are fine veins of anger and despair. The Psalms, in short, are emphatically not “correlated.” They have a certain emotional heft and gravitas, they bluntly admit to a messy spiritual reality I feel I could never share over a pulpit. That kind of thing just isn’t done; doubts are to be kept on their shelves in the back until they’ve been resolved, at which point we can bring them out, floating in their sealed and labeled jars, showing them briefly to illustrate a point in a talk or lesson. (It’s the confessional grille again though, isn’t it? It is alienating to see these displays, and know that back at your house the little bastards are still armed with teeth and spines and slow venom.) Perhaps this is why we do not engage the Psalms more fully, resistant as they are to the tidy endings and reliable deus ex machina resolutions we like.

When I began learning psalm chant, I was surprised by the sensation of joining in something larger than myself, even if I was singing alone. I think it was (at least partly) the effect of the unflinching honesty, like the rough hands and lined faces that tell the story of those who daily turned their backs on the rising sun and scorched a trail across a continent. You almost feel like you’ve jumped into a river of prayer that has cascaded down the craggy rockface of centuries. Never is that feeling keener than during the Lord’s Prayer.

While always familiar, I actually only memorized the words of the prayer as a fourteen-year-old. Every summer, my grandparents would hold what they termed a “Mini MTC.” All the grandsons between the ages of 14 and 18 were invited for two weeks of scripture study, farm labor, basic music lessons, talk preparation, Grandma’s home cooking, a little fishing, and the attendant insanity of a herd of teen boys under one roof. I will never understand what possessed two otherwise sane individuals, who had already raised and married-off ten children, who had each served missions in their youth and then two more as a couple, to decide that this was just what they needed to spice their golden years. It must have been a logistical nightmare, and an utterly exhausting ordeal for both of them. And that’s only considering the official schedule; rest assured, there was a whole other list of unsanctioned activities that we engaged in with equal enthusiasm. (One year, eight of us nearly drowned––long story––to say nothing of the eyes and digits we ought to have lost pursuing our aggressive, and fairly successful, firework-cannibalizing/bomb-crafting program.) When we weren’t busy making ourselves generally uninsurable, we also memorized a number of scriptures, among them, the Lord’s Prayer. After those summer sessions, I never really thought much about it much. I certainly did not use it in my personal prayer life.

Now, though, there is something moving about saying the same words that have been formed by so many lips, words passed from parent to child, words whispered at deathbeds, at burials, at weddings, at births. The same words in a thousand different languages, repeated in time of joy or sorrow, in the face of fear or with gratitude for averted disaster, or just to count away the minutes. Words of a long-gone Jewish mystic, or of God Himself, history buzzes with them. When wondering at the Restoration, puzzled by why, of all the searching souls in the world, this uneducated fourteen-year-old should have his (not uncommon) question answered with light and fire, I think perhaps it was also an answer to the billion pleas: “...thy kingdom come...” Even more encouraging, at the beginning of the prayer we find that in spite of all our weakness, in spite of the evil we commit and the evil we allow, Christ is still willing to say with us “Our Father...”

The whole atonement in two words.


[9] “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done...”

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