When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at the knees of Jesus and said, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.”I’m with you, big guy. And both of us seem to be with Isaiah, who, stunned by the vision of heaven with bellowing seraphim shaking heaven with with songs, is only able to think, his bowels loosening,
“Woe is me, I am doomed! For I am a man of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”There seems to be a theme going through the scriptures for today that goes something like this: “What is God thinking? The Creator of the universe can’t do any better than me?” But before I get into all that, and you keep wondering why there’s a picture of an angel on fire on this page, let me just relate to you one piece of the myth of the Seraphim that I heard some years ago. Even more previously, let me also say that “Seraphim” is a plural, like “Cherubim” and “goyim” and “chaverim” - the singulars are, as you might expect, “seraph,” “cherub,” “goy” and “chaver.” I only bring this up because, while looking for a nice picture for this page, I kept encountering sentences on web pages like, “What is a seraphim?” which is like asking, “What is a horses?”, and that drives me nuts. But, as usual, I digress.
One of the most startling images I've heard of seraphim, that high rank of angels which somehow has become part of our tradition against any empirical evidence or human contact, I heard from John Gallen. As I recall, it is part of a rabbinic tale, not Christian as such, but part of the whole cauldron of imagination that is the matrix of the Judeao-Christian mythos. Seraphim, in this image, stand above the throne of God, which is surrounded by a river of fire. The Seraphim themselves are eternally overcome by God's beauty, and as the behold the face of the Holy One are consumed by love and melt away into the river of fire, and are born again out the river. That’s the context in which I hear yesterday’s vision of Isaiah, which is also the source of the song we sing at every Eucharist, the “Sanctus,” “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God of (pick one:) a) power and might; b) Sabaoth; c) hosts.” Poor Isaiah! These angels, which for all eternity are dissolving joyfully and lovingly into fire and rising again, are flying to him with an ember from a censer before God’s throne!
Even Paul’s honest self-appraisal in 1 Cor. today seemed to echo what was ringing out of the other scriptures: least of the apostles, not fit to be called an apostle, yet aware of what God had done through him, the faith that had been engendered by his preaching, he tellingly confesses,
“by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me has not been ineffective.”It strikes me that in all three cases, the touch of God somehow heals the “unworthiness” of the prophet or apostle, and that touch is distinctly different to each of the three. To Isaiah, it is an “angel,” that is to say, a manifestation of God’s word, to him somehow in a vision or dream. To Paul, it was being bone-jarringly, blindingly unhorsed on the road to Damascus, along with an apprenticeship to former enemies, that changed his life. For Peter, it was in his daily labor, Christ’s coming to him in his fishing, and giving him a new calling, that moved him.
“Unworthiness” is a strange word to use in a religion that is purportedly based on love. Each week before communion, when we receive the body and blood of Christ to be transformed into his life for the world, we say the words of the Roman centurion (Mt 8:8), “Lord I am not worthy that you should should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul will be healed.” That phrase, spoken by Catholics everywhere in one way or another, acknowledges both one’s sense of unworthiness and the ability of God to lead us to conversion by a simple act of God’s will. It doesn’t really address the worthiness question, though it seems to me it implicitly says that if I am healed, I will be worthy, which is false, in my experience. I’ll never be "worthy," whatever that means. But we’re not in the realm of “worth,” which is economic and business language. We’re in the realm of love, which transcends economics.
We know this, don't we, from our experience in life. When we are loved by someone, our worthiness is not an issue. We’re never worthy, but it doesn’t matter. The love of the other has made worthiness irrelevant, because it’s the gift of another’s heart, soul, body, self, that surprises us and transforms us. It's not like we can ever make ourselves worthy of love. Love his its own crazy economy; it stuns, surprises, comes out of the blue, cannot be earned, anticipated, or, even less, taken or stolen. Our unworthiness, or sense of unworthiness, is irrelevant, because God loves us. We have to hop over it and get on with what we’ve been called to do.
For me, this has meant hopping over my self-perceived lack of musicianship and training and use my gifts as well as get better at what I do. I can’t be paralyzed by the fact that I don’t have the musical background that most of my colleagues have, because what I do have, a calling to be a pastoral musician, means that somehow, if I am open to the experience, discipline, and possibility of growth, I’ll get what I need to do the job. Yes, I have to learn more about music and worship and scripture and people all the time, but what I feel about myself as “unworthy” of being in the same company as my friends and colleagues, who have come to the same vocation by different roads, is irrelevant.
As a young man, in high school and college, I felt a strong desire to perform and write music, especially for worship, but most of my efforts in these areas felt clumsy and embarrassing to me until my first or second year of college, when I started to learn more and more from some of my really talented peers. I can even remember one morning, lying in bed, in that time between sleeping and waking, when I really felt I “understood” music, when linear melodies and chords suddenly changed into something more flowing and dynamic, and I knew that I’d never see music the same way again. And yet, even though I had great support and collegiality among my musical classmates, and admitting that much of what I was writing was derivative and imitative of popular cultural events like the music of Jesus Christ Superstar and my songwriting heroes like Cat Stevens and Paul Simon, it still cut me to my soul when things I wrote and we rehearsed and performed were belittled and reviled by others. It took me a long time to be able to play a song in church on the piano without a panic-induced overload of adrenaline made me make numerous mistakes and embarrassing gaffes. Even good performances of my works sometimes evoked negative responses and laughter. Once a jazz-flavored piece of mine cause some particularly cruel wags among the upper-classmen to toss coins around the piano (and this was during mass, at a seminary!) Some of those days were emotionally tough, but they were balanced, as I say, by the community and support we gave one another in our circle of friends. And they taught me a lot, too, about having a thick skin, and keeping on at something until I got it right.
What is the word that was spoken that healed me? Who told me, as Christ told Peter, “Do not be afraid!” What was the coal touched to my heart by the hand of the seraph that let me quit being completely introverted and worried about being accepted and turned me into what I have been in my life of faith and music? I think it was Christ in the song sung by the people of God at mass, which sometimes, for reasons not completely clear to me, has been a song of my fashioning. One of them happens to be the musical version of Psalm 40 we sang at daily mass last week in St. Louis, which I wrote in the seminary and was first played in the same chapel where later the coins were thrown around the piano, a psalm which as the refrain “Here I am, Lord, here I am, I come to do your will.”
Let me give you a brief example. Two, one being the via negativa. It's Saturday evening, and I just heard these readings again, and I thought immediately of my own fear and my own vocation. I thought of the fear I feel about my work in the parish, the tensions that are there, how I wonder about whether I should get out of the way. I remember that this is a vocation, that it is not supposed to be easy, that it marks the way of the cross if I'm doing it right. I feel like I'm pushing the rock uphill, all the time. I'm Paul, I'm Peter, I'm Isaiah. "Here I am," I say, "send somebody else." And I'm confused about what to do with my new songs in the crazy church and glutted church music business today. Who's going to fly over with that burning coal and light a fire in me again? Who's going to fill my empty boat with fish and scare the crap out of me and then say, "Don't be afraid; we have bigger fish to fry"?
Well, I'll tell you who it was this week. It was Sister Regina in St. Louis who said, "Just do it" when I mentioned my confusion and fear on Facebook. It was my friend Terry Wells in St. Louis, who told a story about singing "Safety Harbor" on 9/11/01 when her inner-city parish took up a collection for New Yorkers in the hours following the terrors of that day. I don't know who it will be tomorrow, or whether other voices will prevail. But I know that whatever I do or decide, the presence of God in people will hold me up, probably more strongly the darker the hour seems.
So to all of you who have ever been the voice of Christ, your life a song of praise to the “One who sits upon the throne,” eliciting the eternally kenotic love of the Seraphim at the river of fire, thank you for being the voice that sings to me, “Do not be afraid.”