By Donald Schell
Hanging thirty feet above the ground, I was only half way up the rope. My mind and every muscle in my body pulled up, up to the cliff top. From up there my son and five other pilgrim friends cheered me on. We were climbing this braided leather cord to see Debra Damo, the oldest church and monastery in Ethiopia.
I’d done vertical rappel in a ropes course. This was different - harder because climbing this line was all shoulder and arm work, and harder still because the monastery and church are at 8000 feet altitude,. My whole upper body ached for oxygen. Up on top an old monk and his young helpers drew up the safety line’s slack. They were ready to brace themselves and catch my weight if I slipped, but slipping would turn me into a pendulum weight banging against the cliff. Hand over hand, I pulled my way to the top. And I made it up.
If I’d had any breath left, the view across the mesas and gorges to Eritrea would have had been breathtaking, and yes, the thousand-year-old chapel of a fifteen hundred year old monastery was well worth the climb. But that braided leather line lingers in memory as powerfully as anything we saw at the top. Clinging to it, I looked up to the cliff edge and the sky’s intense blue, felt the rope in my hands, swayed with it, and smelled its long-handled age. Muscle memories fix a wild mixture of fear and excitement, elation and exhaustion. So now a month later, I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve told myself that something was ‘hanging by a thread.’
- The future of the Anglican Communion hangs by a thread.
- The U.S. economy hangs by a thread.
- With new work of teaching, consulting, and leading workshops, my priestly vocation hangs by a thread.
Just as the three strands of interwoven flesh - animals’ skins - made a lifeline and a way of ascent, the sixth century Syrian monks who built Debra Damo, despite their fierce asceticism, confidently wove Pleasure, Desire, and Gratitude into a line sturdy enough to carry us up into God’s embrace. Most Christians of that time braided this same line.
In our consumerist culture, and especially in the present financial crisis (which we suspect was brought on by greedy desires and the pleasures and power that money can buy) it won’t be easy to renew the crucial strands of our life line. But who is trying? For a single sermon commending pleasure or desire, we’ve probably heard twenty urging us to give or share because we ‘should be grateful.’ We’re in the grip of fearful Christian thinking from those bitter centuries that came to mistrust pleasure and desire.
The 14th century the Black Plague swept across Europe leaving in its wake a crippling mistrust of human flesh, largely focused in misogyny (why would men sin without a temptress?). As the Western church forced parish priests to put away their wives and live in celibacy, priests and patrons had artisan stone carvers carve the seductive temptress Eve and the horrors of a decaying woman’s body in the grave. Even then, though, there were other voices like Dame Julian of Norwich, who heard Jesus the Word saying that if there was any good thing he could have done to increase her pleasure and delight that he’d have gladly done it.
A few centuries later, Protestant reformers and the Catholic Inquisition furthered Christian mistrust of pleasure and desire. There are many such voices of warning, and a brief piece in the Café can’t re-weave the cord of pleasure, desire, and gratitude, but I can ask us to do the work. I’ll offer some accidental reflections on pleasure and desire and on gratitude, the third line, which makes it possible to braid a single, strong line.
“Thou Lord didst make all for thy pleasure,
Did give us food for all our days.”
Some readers will recognize this pair of lines from Francis Bland Tucker’s wonderful 1939 hymn, “Father we thank thee who hast planted.” The English text was brand-new in the 1940 Hymnal and people loved it, so it was kept for the 1989 Hymnal. I like to think that singing congregations’ delight in God’s pleasure contributed to the hymn’s success.
Tucker’s hymn paraphrases the Eucharistic Prayer from the Didache, a Jewish-Christian document from the late first or early second century (so, around 100 A.D.). Leonel Mitchell and Michael Merriman, two friends with many good years of liturgical teaching and practice between them, helped distill my question about who the Didache taught was experiencing pleasure. Lee looked back at the Greek to observe that in the original text God’s creation of all is ‘for his Name’s sake’ while God gave US food and drink ‘for our pleasure.’ And Michael recalled ancient Jewish blessings prayers (and some texts from the Psalms) that thank God for wine that ‘makes our hearts glad.’
Tucker’s neat synthesis for the hymn obscures something the Didache prayer emphasizes, that God gives food for OUR pleasure, so that it’s our pleasure that moves us to give thanks for God’s good gifts to us from the vast world of God’s creation.
My old congregation altered Tucker’s text to synthesize these ideas like this -
“Thou, Lord, didst make all for OUR pleasure.”
And then from pleasure in God’s gifts of food and life, we come to receive and enjoy God’s gift of Christ our true bread, and our pleasure at both moves us to offer awestruck thanks.
As an ex-Presbyterian, I’m tickled (maybe ought to be humbled) to hear my Puritan forebears fearlessly affirming their pleasure in God and creation. Eric Liddell, the ‘flying Scotsman’ who ran in the 1924 Olympics before going to China as a Presbyterian missionary famously said, ‘When I run, I feel God’s pleasure.’ And Liddell was simply echoing graceful wisdom from The Westminster Catechism of 1647, that Presbyterian voice from Cromwell’s England bold teaching that ‘Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.’
Our pleasure delights God. Both giving us our daily bread and giving us Christ the bread eternal please God because both ordinary bread and Christ our living bread delight and pleasure us. We’re all of us the prodigal welcomed home to a Great Feast in OUR honor and for our pleasure. Receiving God’s vast blessings with pleasure moves us (makes us want or desire) to offer God our thanks. We’re in bolder and more paradoxical territory than ‘It is right to give God thanks and praise.’
‘Whoever does not dance, does not understand what is coming to pass.’- The Acts of John
Gospel scholar Joachim Jeremias in his Unknown Sayings of Jesus, argues that Jesus spoke this challenge in his lifetime. Naturally enough, early Christian liturgies did include congregational dance. The fourth century Easter Troparion—“Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and on those in the tombs bestowing life.”—describes and celebrates Christians’ stomping dance to celebrate Christ’s Resurrection.
But some pastors and theologians feared that the pleasure and desire of dance tipped too easily toward sinful thoughts and whatever else might follow. In fact, like them, we find it hard to receive our bodies and our bodies’ irrational desires gratefully, so after only a few centuries, dance lost its place in Christian worship except in Ethiopia where it remained part of ordinary congregational life. Thank God that Anglican worship in other parts of Africa includes a renewal of drumming and congregational dance.
But speaking my gratitude skips a step. Like many other Episcopalians, I grew up in another church community, one where all dance was reckoned sinful. As it happens, my parents weren’t peddling the line, “we don’t dance.” For them dancing wasn’t a taboo. They admitted they didn’t dance because they’d never learned how and were afraid to begin. They didn’t dance, but they’d rejected their church’s moralism. These two faithful Christians joked about the undifferentiated morass of “don’ts” they’d grown up with in Christian Endeavour – not just no smoking and drinking, and no dancing (because dancing ‘led to other things’), but also no playing cards (not even Old Maid), and no movies or physical labor on Sunday. We didn’t go to movies on Sunday to avoid offending weaker sisters or brothers. My dad was a physician. My parents said they didn’t smoke because of the health risk.
1960. I wince to think of Fridays in junior high school gym class. Friday gym period was a sock hope. Once the girls were in place, their gym teacher would put a 45 record on the turntable, our cue as guys to pad across the polished floor in our socks and ask a girl to dance. ‘I don’t dance’ was not an excuse. ‘You’re here to learn.’ I always crossed the floor as slowly as I could. One day on the other side, I found that fate left the girl who was universally reckoned most desirable of our whole class standing alone against the wall. I approached her cautiously and asked, barely speaking, “May I have this dance.” She grimaced and said, “With you? You’ve got to be kidding.” The gym girls gym teacher insisted she had dance with me. I didn’t die, though I felt like I might.
An intellectual pal who was easy to talk with and only happened to be a girl classmate suggested I put some music on at home and try ‘just wiggling’ in front of a full length mirror. I tried. Even with no one watching, I couldn’t cut loose and wiggle my hips. Sunday School had frozen my hip joints, spine and shoulders. Though I felt stupid, I knew condemning words like ‘profane’ and ‘lewd,’ lay in wait for me if I let the music move my body. I wanted to dance, and I wished my body could hear, but the music drenched my cells in adrenaline for flight.
I first got what I wanted in a high school visit to an Episcopal Church. Hearing the Christian call to prayer, “The Lord be with you,” unlocked my hips and I knelt. My body in that small way was expressing something that mattered to me. The joy at bending knee and hip for prayer was so exhilarating that I refused to hold myself back, so went forward to kneel at the rail to receive communion, even though I wasn’t confirmed and knew I was breaking the rules to receive. This was an altar call I welcomed joyfully.
Finally had desire unlocked what was frozen. Desire hadn’t let me rest, and in the end it moved me to a path I’m still pursuing. Gregory of Nyssa in his Commentary on the Song of Songs says that we are most like God in our infinite desire.
‘Give thanks in all things.’
- I Thessalonians 5:18,
In college I discovered folk dancing. Learning each new dance, I still felt like the tin woodman with un-oiled joints, but after several rote repetitions of the stiff-jointed angular movements, music and repetition unlocked my joints, movement flowed. I was dancing. I loved that breakthrough moment when I could feel real dance beginning. Gratitude came with the promise of freedom. For the next dozen years, circle and line dances from around the world offered me a place I could move with music.
When I married Ellen I wanted to live deeper into that freedom and really dance with her. Some shuffling memory from junior high school plus a little bounce from folk dancing at least got us the dance floor. For me, a crowded dance floor felt best. Less visible. One day about eight years after we were married, Ellen and I were at an Episcopal Social Ministries Benefit Tea Dance at San Francisco’s Mark Hopkins Hotel. A couples’ elegant ease with big stand style dancing captivated us. They weren’t showy, but they moved together as we wanted to, so when the band took a break, I asked where they’d learned to dance. ‘We teach’ they said. I wrote down time and address and the next Sunday we started ballroom dancing lessons. For three years we hardly missed a week. Week by week for three years, we danced our way to deeper understanding and love. Learning to dance together was as deep as any conversation we’d ever had.
There’s the three braid strand - pleasure, desire, and gratitude. I started this reflection with pleasure. Braiding, each is equally essential. I might have told other stories if I’d begun with desire or gratitude, but once braiding has begun, each is line is important in turn, and as Christians of the first centuries knew, together they carry us to Life.
The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is President of All Saints Company.