Tuesday, January 28, 2014

An Inconsistent Hiatus (until further notice)

Folks, I've had fun. Seriously. I've loved every post I've ever posted, and I do plan to keep posting in the future.

But not in the near future. I have to close up shop for a moment (though I may pop in every once in a while). I'm currently at the University of Memphis going through their MFA in Creative Writing program. It took five years and three tries before God saw fit to let me in there, and now I'm on the road to fulfilling what I truly believe is my "calling," my voce, my vocation: to be a writer.

Big surprise, right?

Anyway, one thing I learned last semester is that since creative writing is truly my craft (and not just another means to a degree), then I need to take it seriously. I need to devote all my energies and concentration to it, and thus my blog must go dark for now. As one writer put it, "Writing is not an indulgence. You give up your indulgences to write." Well, my blog is an indulgence; a very wonderful and (I think) important indulgence, but one nonetheless. So I'm giving it up. For now.

Until our next meeting....

The sea is calling me home.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The Other Side (of Delight)

"Delight yourself...in the Lord, and He shall give you the desires of your heart." Ps. 37:4

Gandalf hears drums in the Psalms.
Parallelism in the Psalms is not just a device used within verses; it can also inform a psalm's entire structure (or part of it). Take Psalm 1, for example: six verses set into two three verse parts contrasting "the godly" with "the wicked". Psalm 37 is another example, at least in the beginning. The commands to "trust," "delight," "commit," and "rest" in God are complimentary parallels meant to bounce off of and build on each other. Furthermore, as compliments to each other, they are also meant to be synonymous, a singular note swelling in intensity, like heavier and heavier beats of a drum.

Yet the synonymous nature of these four words is not completely apparent, at least as it is translated in English. Part of it makes sense: to "trust" something is to "commit" to and "rest" in it, and to "commit" to something (lit. in Heb: "to roll your load onto another") is to "trust" and "rest" in it, and to "rest" in something (like a bed or chair) is to "trust" in and "commit" to it. In each case, the meaning of the words play off of each other naturally, like mirrors reflecting the same sunbeam.

Just imagine a logistical gymnast.
But what about "delight"? It does not seem to fit quite so easily. Of course, it is still a positive term like the others, and we could reasonably imagine it following any one of the others: it is possible to "delight" in what you "commit" to and "trust" and "rest" in. Nonetheless, it does not necessarily follow them. To "trust" or "commit" or "rest" in something does not necessarily mean you "delight" in it. Your attitude towards the chair you are trusting and resting in may be quite neutral, and there are probably commitments you've made (to some chore or work or duty) that you can't say you're looking forward to. In fact, "trust" and "commit" can be occasions for fear as much as anything else, for they always contain a level of uncertainty, as when you trust your friend when he or she says the food they suggested for you is "not that spicy." Thus, the connection between "trust" and "commit" and "rest" is natural and easy, but the connection between them and "delight" is not; it requires some logistical gymnastics.

"Simply delightful..."
But perhaps we're missing something. Perhaps (as I said before) English is incapable of fully capturing the exactest meaning, which is not unheard of: it is not as rich a language as ancient Hebrew (or even modern Japanese). Its limitations are no mark against it, for limitations can be an occasion for glory as well as shame, for opportunity as much as disadvantage. The point here is that we are in fact dealing with a slight limitation. The Hebrew word used here that English translates as "delight" is not one of the typical Hebrew words for it, not one that carries all the typical meanings: to be glad in or take joy in or find pleasure in, etc. Rather, the Hebrew word here is "anog," which literally means "to become soft or delicate." The image it suggests is melting, like solid strips of cheese melting onto bread, or a cube of ice melting in a glass. The implication is relaxation: of molecules loosening their bonds, of breath exhaling from a body that's sinking into a couch after a long day's work, with all its muscles releasing their tension.

Now the connection is clearer and easier, for you cannot "commit" to something, nor truly "trust" in something, and certainly not "rest" in something, without this sense of ease, of relaxation, of losing the grip of your anxieties and laying your head down in gentle repose. The whole of life may be buzzing around you like angry hornets, but you are quiet and still in God. This is the other side of "delight," the other side of its ecstasy and joy, for this is the ecstasy and joy of being still and knowing that He is God.

Into the calm of delight.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2014

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Heaven (and the Fulness of God)

"...with You is the fountain of life; in Your light we see light." Ps. 36:9

Parallel (in contrast)
Hebrew poetry follows the logic of parallelism: the first part of a poetic line is mirrored in the second part, either in contrast or by compliment. The parallelism found here is complimentary, implying that "life" and "light" are in some way synonymous, which is not an unheard of biblical image. Jesus was said to be the "life" that was "the light of men" (John 1:4), and He Himself said that any who followed Him would have "the light of life" (John 8:12). This imagery even has its biblical contrasts, such as when the "Shepherd Psalm" talks of "the shadow of death" (Ps. 23:4). None of this is new symbolism: light and dark have long been associated with good and evil and all their corollaries, and this image is consistent in the Bible as well.

What is interesting here is the odd repetition in the second part of the verse: "in Your light we see light." It smacks of tautology, but I believe it can't be anything so banal. Psalm 36 is broken into three movements: the first describes the wicked as those "with no fear of God" before their eyes (vs. 1-4), the second describes God and why it is foolish to not fear Him (vs. 5-9), and the third describes the separate fates of the righteous and the wicked, of those who fear God and those who don't (vs. 10-12). The odd repetition comes at the end of the second movement; it is the climax of the psalmist's thoughts on God, the purest expression of why we should "fear" Him. As such, I like to think it is more than a mere redundancy.

More than just this.
The Hebrew word used here both times for "light" is "owr," which means more than just illumination (like lighting a match). It means illumination in every sense of the word: glory, splendor, the dawn, happiness (i.e., someone's face "lights up"), enlightenment, and of course, life (the "spark" or "flame" within). It is an all-encompassing light, a Light of lights, one that includes all lights and yet is reducible to none. Now, there is still a repetition, but it is not "light" and "light" but rather "all-light" and "all-light". In short, the psalmist is saying, "In Your All-Light we see all light," or "In Your full Goodness, we see all that is good," or "In Your full Glory, we see all that is glorious," etc.

It is similar to Psalm 16:11 where it says, "In Your presence is fullness of joy." The Hebrew word for "fullness" is "soba," which means to be filled to satisfaction. "Fullness" of joy is a summation and fulfillment of joy, a culmination of all that is joyous. Likewise, just as God is "fullness of joy," He is also "fullness" of light. He is all things joyous, all good and glad moments and objects and concepts, in a single source; and He is all things luminous, all glorious and vivid and illuminated things, in a single source. He is the All-Light and the All-Joy: in His Light we see all other lights, and in His Joy we find all other joys.

Home at last.
This is why Augustine said that our hearts are restless until they rest in God, and why Anselm said that the "most supreme" Being had to encompass all that was good while being reducible to none of it, and why Aquinas posited God as the proper desire and home of the soul, drawing it to Himself like gravity draws a stone to the earth. In the Christian mind (as in the mind of our Hebrew ancestors), there is only one place of complete satisfaction, only one place of rest and peace at last and forever, and it is not in money, sex, power, success, prosperity, self-actualization, self-discovery, activism, capitalism, socialism, progressivism, conservatism, or the thousand other flawed institutions and endeavors of fallen humanity. Rather, it is in God alone, for He alone is the All-Joy, the All-Light, the All-Good, the source and fullness of all things joyous and splendorous and wonderful.

In this life, we are blessed enough to catch just shadows and echos of His greater life, both in the way that all facets of existence declare His glory (Ps. 19:1-4) and all visible things reveal His invisible attributes (Rom. 1:19-20). The numinous moments allotted to us now contain enough beauty to weaken us like a wound, if we're paying attention. How much more then shall the effect be when faith turns to sight and all shadows turn to all-light and all echos swell into one mighty voice as singular and as multifaceted as a symphony? How much sweeter will life itself be when we find its fountain in God and taste and see its fullness in Him? I know no other definition of Heaven than that.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2014