Thursday, May 14, 2015

Learning "Alleluia!"

At this season, I still sometimes have dreams about the classroom.  I have one final exam left.  But I suddenly realized I've never been to the class.  I have no idea what I was supposed to have learned.  Or I do remember, but I can't find the exam room.  I taught my last class twenty-five years ago.  I took my last exam as a  student thirteen years before that.  But the bones remember. It's May, and school is or soon will be out!

But not for us.  St. Benedict steps into our school day reveries to remind us that we are lifelong learners in "the school of the Lord's service" (RB Prologue 45).  School won't be out till "they call the roll up yonder," as an old song puts it.  Every day brings us something new to learn, or something old to practice.  And we're not studying for a grade.  We're studying to know the Teacher, the Christ of endless riches buried in endless seams of light, waiting for us to make yet another energizing discovery.

The Easter curriculum we've been exploring since Easter Sunday and will explore until Pentecost Sunday on May 24 offers a particular class entitled "Learning Alleluia."  Alleluia's abound in Sunday liturgies and in the daily Liturgy of the Hours, where we sing (or say) alleluia's that weren't there during Lent and will disappear again after Pentecost.  Even the psalms are peppered with the word year round, except during Lent.  It doesn't seem to call for much study.  A few syllables, easily said or easily sung.  Just verbal punctuation marks we hurry past to the get to the meat of the next verse. 

It is in fact a simple word.  In Hebrew it means, "Praise Yahweh!"  "Yahweh" is of course the mysterious identifier God reveals to Moses from the burning bush when Moses asks God's name.  It is variously translated as "I am who I am" or "I am who am" or "He is who is," it's as close to  a personal name as we get, but it isn't really a name at all in any familiar sense. It doesn't tie the holder to a particular family or a particular place or a particular work, as, say, "Johnson" (John's son) or "Berg" (mountain) or Miller and Baker do.  It is held by one Being only and not shared with a host of others.  And so holy did the Jews consider it that, after a while, they never spoke it aloud. Readers substituted "Adonai" (Lord) for it when reading the Scriptures aloud.  Allelu-Ya praises the Name without speaking it.

But it's the praising part that constitutes "alleluia"'s demand.  Evelyn Underhill, in her classic book Worship, explains that worship as such requires a purity of focus on God and a corresponding detachment from every remnant of self-concern that exceeds most of our ability.  Self-forgetting does not come easily to any of us. That lesson requires a lifetime to learn in the school of the Lord's service, doesn't it?  Thanksgiving comes more easily.  And it is certainly a major characteristic of Christian prayer, both private and public.  Thanksgiving keeps one eye fixed on God but the other fixed on us who are the beneficiaries of the countless gifts God heaps upon us.

Praise seems to stand somewhere between worship in the purist sense and thanksgiving.  On the one hand, we find the mysterious denizens of the heavenly Jerusalem – “what sounded like the voice of a great multitude in heaven” (Rev. 19:1), “the twenty-four elders and the four living creatures” (Rev. 19:4), and "something like the sound of a great multitude or the sound of rushing water or mighty peals of thunder” (Rev. 19:6)—singing “Alleluia” as a refrain before the throne of God.  They recall the even more mysterious “living creatures” seen by the prophet Ezekiel to move instantaneously in any direction taken by the Spirit (Ezekiel 1:19-20).  These beings, and their counterparts in the Book of Revelation, seem to focus all their attention and energy on nothing but God.  Alleluia indeed!

On the other hand, we have the insistent voices of the psalmists, whose words we pray daily, lamenting their suffering, cursing their enemies, complaining and complaining and complaining.  It is “woe is me!” they often address to God, not “alleluia”!  I am not about to pass judgement on psalmists long dead, but I know that when I am busy complaining about the heat or the cold, an aching shoulder, a work overload, or someone else’s misbehavior, I may be addressing the psalmists’ words to God as I sing the Divine Office, but I’m afraid my focus is very largely on my own small self and its troubles.  In every case except Psalm 88, the authors of the psalms of lament invariable turn from complaint to confident thanksgiving to God, in whom they trust as their deliverer.  They remind me, too, to make the switch from “gimme” to “thank you” in the end! 

It’s all part of the “alleluia” curriculum. “Alleluia” takes the next step, from self-consciousness to God-consciousness.  It is a very long step.  St. Benedict presumes it will take all the rungs of the ladder of humility,  all the ways small and great he calls us to practice love of neighbor, even when we imagine the neighbor to be less than loveable, all the hours and hours in choir and in life practicing our “alleluia’s” until, very slowly, they become our native language.  He sums up the process and the goal of “alleluia” in Chapter 72:3-7, 11-12:  “This, then, is the good zeal which monks must foster with fervent love: They should each try to be the first to show respect to the other (Rom 12:10), supporting with the greatest patience one another’s weaknesses of body or behavior, and earnestly competing in obedience to one another. No one is to pursue what he judges better for himself, but instead, what he judges better for someone else… Let them prefer nothing whatever to Christ, and may he bring us all together to everlasting life.”  “Alleluia” sings better, but oh, how beautiful Chapter 72 sounds when it is read as the story of a Benedictine’s life!

So remember as you choose graduation cards and gifts, make plans for summer vacation, and otherwise take note of the start of summer,  for us as Benedictines, tomorrow is another school day in the school of the Lord’s service—tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.  Every day, St. Benedict urges us to “1Listen carefully… to the master’s instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart” (RB Prologue 1).  And these studies are not drudgery crying out for a summer break.  On the contrary,  “as we progress in this way of life and in faith, we shall run on the path of God’s commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love” (RB Prologue 49). Alleluia!

Copyright 2015  Abbey of St. Walburga