Sublime Repetition: Grace Renews the Exhaustion of Fallen Nature

Gaudete

The third Sunday of Advent has dawned and passed, inching the faithful another shambling stretch closer to the God-Man’s nativity. We’ve entered into Gaudete Week, “gaudete” being Latin for “rejoice,” the first words of this Sunday’s entrance antiphon: Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, gaudete (“Rejoice in the Lord, and again, I say, rejoice!”). This introit [1] combines Paul’s command to rejoice in Philippians 4:4-6 [2] with Psalm 85:1 [3] by linking the motif of the Lord being near in both passages. Here, again, is where liturgy helps us to see, and more than that, feel, the unity of Scripture in a way that isn’t didactic or heavy-handed. Instead, it frames the instruction within praise and song and directs the worshiper to hear her experience as part of Israel’s and the church’s story. This is what all liturgy does: it orients ourselves away from merely who and what we are on our own terms and towards a way of being that is more authentic than the microwave dinner existence we inherit from being-in-the-world.

And that’s part of the problem for us: authenticity, that is, finding something outside of us as more authentic than the improvisations we clumsily throw together day by day. Fidelity to fixed things isn’t exactly an evangelical trademark, but this isn’t inherent to movement: it’s a symptom of the church’s Babylonian American captivity. We, the inheritors of the modern and postmodern displacement of self, the world, and time instinctively equate authenticity with spontaneity. The concept of preparation for rejoicing or even of patient expectation are alien to us; if we don’t all of a sudden feel a feeling welling up in us, threatening to burst, our faces contort at the “contrivance” we’re being subject to. If something is genuine, it arises unbidden- period. This is part of the evangelical’s perpetual dissatisfaction with their prayer life- we take seriously that devilish , “Well, I don’t feel like reading my Bible right now- it’d be fake to do it, then.” Then we continue putting it off as we feel progressively more guilty about the growing gulf between our present and the last time we pored over the Word. Our American catechesis forms us to want everything immediately, in both senses: instantaneously, and without mediation through created means. And our existence is so typically graceless when we incarcerate ourselves in this view of reality- we reject the means of grace we could have access to at any moment. But our a prioris area like thorns warding us away from the good so plentifully offered within them. It’s well nigh impossible, on this view, to derive any sort of enjoyment in regular, repeated things; the demand for exclusively unexpected, unprepared, and utterly unique is an impossible ambition, bound for disappointment. Which really means there is no vitality in this way of looking at things- only a sullen moroseness, locked into a cynical disenchantment falsely paraded as “wisdom,” whose greatest dissatisfaction is the ordinary, whose greatest fear is being bored.

If nothing else highlights the distance between this mindset and God’s, look only at the repeated, predictable rising of the sun. In his classic Orthodoxy, Chesterton observed that children, “because they are in spirit fierce and free… want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, ‘Do it again’.” He posits that God is strong enough to exult in monotony (do your teeth gnash as you read that word?), that His appetite for the good corresponds better to the wonder of the child; after all, Chesterton says, He is the one who says, “Do it again!” to the rising of the sun and the setting of the moon. Is our appetite for the unpredictable more serpentine than divine? I think so.

Seamus Heaney agrees, and his poem “The Rainstick” manifests this beautifully. Heaney links the unexpected with the repeatable by unveiling the music hidden within the very ordinary cactus stalk: it “produces a music that you never would have known/To listen for.” The sound of water refreshes the dryness of the “mundane”; grace renews the exhaustion of fallen nature. Pleasure erupts at the beauty concealed within the givenness of the rainstick. Then Heaney hones in on something:

What happens next
Is undiminished for having happened once.
Twice, ten, a thousand times before.
Who cares if the music that transpires
Is the fall of grit or dry seeds through a cactus?
You are like a rich man entering heaven
Through the ear of a shower. Listen now again.

Heaney tells us, “Do it again!” The beauty, the pleasure, is inexhaustible; it slices through the stale conditions we impose upon experience. Repetition refreshes that truth to us if we have eyes to see and ears to hear. How often we expect great things from singing with other saints? From praying together towards one end? From preaching? From hearing the Word? And that’s why we have liturgy: it is the retraining of our affections and a rehabilitation of those pernicious a prioris, but never as an end in itself- it always launches those goods towards worship. Liturgy tells us to be patient; liturgy tells us to rejoice even if we feel apathetic; liturgy tells us to lament even if we’re triumphantly ecstatic. And it does so week in, week out, unceasingly directing us to the blueprint for authentic human existence: Jesus Christ. God grant us grace to love the ordinary and cherish the repeatable as we both remember and await the coming of our Lord.


[1] A portion of a psalm which opens Western liturgies and whose antiphon is sung as the ministers process to the altar.

[2] “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”

[3] “LORD, you were favorable to your land; you restored the fortunes of Jacob.” Other versions, however, accent a note of exile appropriate to the Advent season, one that can be coordinated gloriously with a hymn like “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” e.g., “O LORD, You showed favor to Your land; You restored the captivity of Jacob” (NASB), “LORD, thou hast been favourable unto thy land: thou hast brought back the captivity of Jacob” (KJV).

Image courtesy of http://www.capuchinfranciscans.org

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One thought on “Sublime Repetition: Grace Renews the Exhaustion of Fallen Nature

  1. Thanks Ian!
    So many statements here resonated with me. I want to go back in time and talk through this entire post with my ninth-grade self.

    Like

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