Even though I believe that The Gift of Speaking in Tongues as the Pentecostals practice it is a malpracticed theology that is closer to group hypnosis and the madness of crowds than it is of any true spiritual event, we often take on a useful variation on the concept which takes us farther away from daily distractions and closer to a place of meditation and the contemplative life.
Think about how many times in you life you quote lines of scripture using the archaic language of the King James Bible:
thy kingdom come, thy will be done….
Or in school, reading:
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more;
it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Most people outside of Quaker circles no longer use variations on thee, thy, and thou in daily conversation. Yet by using those words in the language of spirituality, we place ourselves in a different emotional state – more reflective than using you and your. How easy it is to change our mental state by changing the pronouns we use or to add -eth onto the end of verbs:
He hideth my soul in the cleft of the rock. that shadows the dry thirsty land; he hideth my life in the in the depths of his love, and covers me there with his hand, and covers me there with his hand.
In talking to my friend Rev. D-Frazz about teaching religious ideas to non-religious people, this idea of speaking in tongues came to me, but not in the way the Bible speaks of it.
The Pentacost story speaks of the Holy Spirit falling upon men as if tongues of fire and by this visitation they all began to speak to each other in other languages, as the spirit enabled them. Not everyone could so speak, and some could instead hear.
This is the point at which my Pentecostal friends seem to stop reading and comprehending. It’s what happened next that is the making of the story:
At this same time, God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven were there in Jerusalem. When they heard this enormous sound (of the visitation,) the crowd came together and they were utterly amazed, because each person heard the sound in their own language. There was no incoherent babbling in ancient Sumerian, what they heard was in their own words. They asked the question of the day:
How is it that each one of us hears them in our own native language?
And so it is with our meditations.
The story above is a lead-in to teaching us about the Ministry of the Word to all nations and all peoples by coming to them and speaking in a language that they can understand. Using a language of both words and actions. Oh a second level it is also the story of how we can use language to speak within ourselves in a tongue understood by the heart.
The perfect example of this is the mantra. Oṃ maṇi padme hūṃ is the most familiar of the Buddhist mantras and is a series of seven syllables used in a spiritual practice of repetition. By removing focus from the outer world and focusing on the meaning of the syllables (rather than parroting the sounds) the practice leads to focus and inner peace. And even though the phrase is universal, probably only a small percentage of its users can speak or read Sanscrit.
A couple of decades back, Gregorian Chant was all the rage as the album Chantby the Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos was marketed as a $15 answer to finding peace and serenity. But this is something contemplatives had known all along.
Again, by moving the conversation away from our daily home tongue into a now dead language (Latin), the focus became not so much on what we were saying, but how it was being said. By taking away the challenges of “trying to form a sentence” in a prayerful moment, the prayer comes through the cadence of the sounds of the chant, and through the body vibrations of sounding the Om mantra, deep within our diaphragm. In that moment of simple movement of sound through the air, we catch a glimpse of the definition of prayer being “the breath within the breath.” It exists also as the silence beyond all silence, and as a simple hum.
How does this relate to non-religious or non-spiritual people? The same way that hymn singing does: when beginning a contemplative practice, any particular belief (or non-belief) is not a requirement. The must-have lists includes things like patience and persistance, a desire to self-learn within a great silence, and to work through what an early anonymous writer called The Cloud of Unknowing. Some form of spiritual enlightenment is the goal of such a practice. When you get there, please send me back a post card.
Practices vary greatly. My own includes the use of a single “sacred word,” same as is taught in the tradition of Contemplative (Centering) prayer. Some friends us visualizations or guided meditations in a yoga practice, and some recite rosaries or concentrate on plainsong. In each of these examples, the practice demands our moving away from the everyday words that we use and moving toward the words that we understand. The deeper knowledge of that which we seek then enables us to better respond to those around us, to see beyond words for words’ sake, and to hear instead the voice of the universe all around,
in our own native language that we can understand.
As the skies move from daylight to dark, we come to the time of the day to hear my favorite words from the Book of Common Prayer, from the last prayers of the day – Compline.
The prayer that follows is from the New Zealand Prayer Book and speaks to my … interaction, both good and bad … with the night.
Years ago when I was in Intensive Care in the hospital and coming through my first medical experience of coping with a condition over which I had no control, I feared the night. My body changed sleep cycles so that I would stay awake through the darkness and sleep during the day. It all seemed even more scary to me in its irrationality until one of my clergy pointed out to me that it was this fear that came from my loss of control.
It’s tough for people to go through that the first time. And it’s even more tough for guys to go through it. (See my other writings in this blog on “guys”)
Now – having gone through that challenge of the mind and the spirit – those hours are a welcome refreshment to me. Even on the sleepless nights, the hours of darkness are when I can settle down, away from the distractions I can see, and open my heart to welcome the rest of the quiet evening. When medical stress pops up and changes my sleeping cycles for me, I accept the change of my hours for what they are. I no longer live in fear of that night and that darkness, but feel glad for what I have done with my days, I find the rest I need, and I move through the hours, no longer the darkness as a villain – as a reminder of death.
I find in the hours of night a great peace that reminds me of how I felt as a child, settling on a comfortable pillow, under a cool sheet or a warm blanket, sleeping in great anticipation of another fun day to come.
Keep the faith!
Lord it is night:
The night is for stillness.
Let us be still in the presence of God.
It is night after a long day.
What has been done has been done; what has not been done has not been done.
Let it be.
The night is dark.
Let our fears of the darkness of the world and of our own lives rest in you.
The night is quiet.
Let the quietness of your peace enfold us, all dear to us, and all who have no peace.
The night heralds the dawn.
Let us look expectantly to a new day, new joys, new possibilities.
One of the greatest inspirational songs I’ve ever heard was one that WETA-FM in Washington, DC played every morning at 6:00 am for many years. I’m not sure if they still do, but in those early training school days of my retail career, I was up in suit-and-tie and on my way to class with the other trainees at 8am, then meetings at 9, and having my little section of the giant store open at 10. When I found the song playing each day at that time, I set my radio alarm so it was the first thing I heard every day. Not realizing it at the time, it was like a morning prayer, or reading the daily office before starting the day. All done in less than four minutes.
No loud alarms, no jumping out of bed, no choking down scalding coffee as I ran out the door. I just got up and started my new day.
It followed me from training days, to crawling up through drudge (and some grudge) positions. It followed me to the greatest day job I ever had involving an entire store, in which I had to make large-stroke decisions on the merchandising direction and look of the entire store, not just departments. Then it grew on to doing the same with multiple stores all across the country. Every step along the way – the usual expected office stress aside – it all begin simply with my beginning each sunrise as A New Day.
The career continued forward from there, and I stayed with the song for as long as I was able to work that with my early morning schedule. Retail hours get crazy some times and you’re doing double shifts or closing late, and it’s not so easy to get up every day at 6am like FM radio station clockwork.
When we moved to (back to) North Carolina to try my hand at a start-up company, we had left that regularity, and in a few years’ time I’d stumbled upon this contemplative practice that I write about so much here. It became that same continuity of spirit and serenity. I had to get up a lot earlier to get things done: 5 am each day so I could read through the liturgical readings for the day from the Lectionary (that would be Old Testament, Psalm, New Testament, and Gospel readings for the day.) Then 20 minutes for a timed “sit” – a time of silent prayer in the darkness of the early hours, in that quiet still-sleeping house, usually with the greyhound napping at my feet. The perfect prayer partner: he understood that the three chimes leading us into prayer was the beginning of this time of great silence, and the three chimes at the end was when he opened his eyes, looked up at me, and knew that the day was afoot, tail gently thumping the carpet!
After this meditation, for the first 2-3 years I wrote a homily each day: not so much sermonizing, as it was a sort of “note-to-self” back to me on what I had just read, and what(ever) had come out of that time of contemplation. I still go back and read those manuscripts and wonder at the growth and closeness to my God that I grew into more deeply on the pages.
It all began with a song.
“You Are The New Day” sung by The King’s Singers became an “old chestnut” of the group, and was seen quite often on PBS television stations as their sign-on/sign-off videos back in the days when television stations did not run 24 hours a day, and had to sign off at midnight. Often with some rendition of the National Anthem. Then they signed on again at some wee hour of the morning, and some used “You Are The New Day” for that.
A few years ago, the group performed a once-off variation in concert with a Christmas theme version of the lyrics, written by group member Philip Lawson. I first heard it live when they sang it during an interview on one of the Satellite radio stations, speaking with my friend Robert Aubry Davis. Like the audiences who heard it in concert, I fell in love immediately, and was glad to hear that they finally recorded the Christmas version because of the intense international popularity of this simple song.
The performance below is not by the Singers themselves, but done by a larger choral group, The Cambridge Singers, directed by John Rutter. With only the slightest variation to the original text, Lawson’s verses transform this most gentle love song into a Nativity cradle song for the rest of us – for the ones looking on.
Listening to the Christmas version, I’m reminded that – just as with my alarm clock going off to this sweet melody all those years at 6 am – what we are witnessing at the Nativity is indeed a New Day. And just as with the radio-alarm going off each morning – it is up to us to remember what this day represents, and to find our own ways to spread it forward in gentle peace and love.
On this Christmas, may we each find our own New Day.
Keep the faith!
Born on a New Day
performed by The Cambridge Singers and The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
directed by John Rutter
Christmas lyric variation by Philip Lawson
You are the new day.
Meekness, love, humility,
Come down to us this day:
Christ, your birth has proved to me
You are the new day.
Quiet in a stall you lie,
Angels watching in the sky
Whisper to you from on high:
‘You are the new day.’
When our life is darkest night,
Hope has burned away,
Love, your ray of guiding light,
Show us the new day.
Love of all things great and small,
Leaving none, embracing all,
Fold around me where I fall,
Bring in the new day.
This new day will be a turning point For every one,
If we let the Christ-child in, And reach for the new day.
Christ the Way, the Truth, the Life,
Healing sadness, ending strife,
You we welcome, Lord of Life.
Born on a new day,
You are the new day.
To see a popular PBS Television spot featuring the original King’s Singers version, please click on this link: You Are The New Day
You Are The New Day
Performed by The Kings’ Singers
Lyrics by John David
You are the new day.
I will love you more than me
and more than yesterday
If you can but prove to me
you are the new day
Send the sun in time for dawn
Let the birds all hail the morning
Love of life will urge me say
you are the new day
When I lay me down at night knowing we must pay
Thoughts occur that this night might stay yesterday
Thoughts that we as humans small
could slow worlds and end it all
lie around me where they fall
before the new day
One more day when time is running out for everyone
Like a breath I knew would come I reach for the new day
Hope is my philosophy
Just needs days in which to be
Love of life means hope for me
borne on a new day