Glimpses – awakening to the indescribable

Early in a new year, and a leap year at that, I want to take a stab at describing what cannot adequately be described. As a contemplative and a musician, I have met, from time to time, with mystical experiences that beggar explanation, categorization or temporal understanding. In order to do so, a short preface.

At the foundation of Christian spirituality is the very basic principle of awakening or awareness. It comes in many different packages, under numerous ideologies, representative of a host of approaches each with practices that lend themselves to one’s emerging spiritual life.

To become aware is to wake from some form of slumber, sleep or sloth. One of the mysteries of spiritual awareness is that one does not awaken naturally. We are prodded awake by the loving work of God upon the sleeping soul. It requires this nudge of God upon our shoulder before any meaningful process of receptivity and relationship can occur. In order for us to ‘awake to our awakening’ we must receive the whisper of God speaking grace into the spiritual ear of our understanding.

I do not speak so much of the prophetic proclamation to “arise, shine; for your light has come.” No, before we can be so attuned to the prophet’s voice calling us to faithfulness and righteousness, we must first hear the voice of the Lover calling us to succumb to this wooing upon which our only response can be, “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.”

As comforting and romantic as that sounds, however, upon awakening to the first primal strains of the song of God, there comes a dissonance amidst the lilting notes. We awake to beauty and begin to see that which we have always yearned after but of which we were unaware, blind. This, however, can often be a fearful and groggy experience. Cobwebs yet invade our minds unaccustomed to such sharpness of color. Ears that have been plugged up suddenly pop as our inner altitude changes. It is as disorienting as it is invigorating…

I remember places, glimpses into…something; an awareness that hints at a proximity to the indescribable, numinous presence of God. These are never easy things to describe, but there is a delight in the attempt for, in so doing, I am taken back to some of those places. Not always, but for me it is often some dusty, old church or monastery; most often at night, alone. Yet, not alone. As I have since come to believe, they were, as the Celts called them, thin places where a barely perceptible sheath surrounds the holy otherness of God and where comes a mystical awareness of God so immanent that one feels he can literally smell God’s breath, touch God’s skin. These experiences have often made the hair on the back of my neck stand up.

Ironically, they used to happen often when I was a boy, long before I had any faith lexicon or tidy systematic theology with which to scrub them up and describe them away. I recall one particular time as I lay on our living room floor. I was probably eight or nine years old and, as I did every year, was watching the first snowfall of winter as flakes danced past the streetlight that stood outside our house. In that moment, I became curiously aware of a haunting peace that arrested my sensibilities and held me spellbound in what I can only describe as ‘rightness.’ In that moment, the cosmos and I were one. God, as I now understand God, was laying beside me on the living room floor that night, whispering wordless words to me, convincing me of my place in it all, be it ever so miniscule.

Another such thin place for me was an Anglican Church sanctuary in Nelson, British Columbia where for a number of years I taught at a Highland Bagpiping School (a place where other strange souls like myself learn to tame a five-legged creature destined to arouse suspicions and rouse neighbors). Connections in the community opened the door, figuratively and, in this case, literally, to spend as much time as I wanted in the church sanctuary after everyone else had gone home. I was given a key and carte blanche run of the place.

Most evenings after a long day of bagpipe students, some whiny, some lazy, all of them noisy, I would retire to this sanctuary with my pipes. For an hour or so I would simply play, enjoying the epic reverberance of the sound bouncing off the hard stone walls and floor. It was, for me, the closest I had yet been to what I might have then described as heaven. At times it was 2:00 am before finally getting back to my room.

A third such place was the hospital chapel in the same city. I was falling apart after a recent break-up with a girl to whom I had been engaged. My shattered interior was gradually reintegrated in that little chapel where I would weep and pray for hours, listening to John Michael Talbot, or the Monks of the Weston Priory sing beautifully doleful refrains. It was for me, through gallons of heart-crushing tears, the perfect requiem to my dying peace of mind. It would become the Introit to a new place of healing and restoration, albeit gradually. This is a story best left unfinished…

tin whistle

I play Irish whistle. Or, better, I play at Irish whistle. Even better still, it plays at me. Celtic music has changed my life forever. If there is a music that can have me utterly spellbound in seconds and quickly fumbling for the radio volume control, it’s that ancient, mystical but oh so immediate music of the Celts. The following short poem was inspired by a very simple little Irish whistle tune. But first a message from your sponsor…

I’m the first to admit that much of my poetry is so stream of consciousness as to seem like utter gibberish and an exercise in right brain futility. Poetry is, to me, like flushing out the radiator in my truck. Sometimes the result is at first messy, even unseemly, but hopefully the result is a better functioning. Things run better. Smoother. Life seems cleaner, cooler somehow. This is all I can hope for in my poetic endeavors, such as they are. I can only pray that, somewhere in the cascade of apparent lexical misfits, you find something that can flush your soul and give space for newness…and perhaps a little wonder.

come to me, little strains of pipe, sullen and sad, soft and sallow

fill up my ears with the wetted, be-dewed hillsides of morning’s music.

sift me like wheat till there remains nothing but myself,

chuckling in time to tunes both ancient and strange, friend

to brother and breast, bordered ‘round with chimes and chant

thumping drum and hymning hums awhirl and awake

to find my North from earlier ventures.

stop.

stop but once,

stop but once, but twice and find me once more

awake and alive to your dervishing tease,

your dancing, light and unfettered.

full round now, take my arm and turn

now to swing, now to step, to step and dance

till we are spent,

and fall down, complete.

Of life, love and bagpipes

I am a Highland Bagpipe player or piper in street talk. It is an instrument with which I have had a love-hate relationship for almost forty years now. For the longest time I wondered what might have gone through my parents’ minds when, at eight years of age, I loudly proclaimed my overweening desire to begin lessons immediately. That is, until I mused lately on the fact that both of my sons are rock drummers. I’m sure that bears at least some resemblance.

Perhaps not.

The Great Highland Bagpipe (GHB) as it is called by the musicology muck-a-mucks is an instrument uniquely designed to be heard. A perfect wake-the-dead alarm, they have been used for centuries to alert clans of forthcoming gatherings, oncoming battles and soon coming dignitaries. A piper on a hill is not just a cliché or quaint tourist post card. It does in fact typify much of bagpipe history. Moreover, as either clever tactic or cruel joke (depending upon whether one is a piper or not), the bagpipes were always the first line of defense in any conflagration. Apparently, troop commanders figured they could simultaneously amuse, entertain and confuse their enemy with a burly, red-haired, stumpy man in a dress, himself attacking the weapon of choice and tossing note after screaming note at them as a monkey flinging musical feces.

Like an octopus missing some legs the GHB consists of three drones – a bass and two tenors; a blowpipe through which ample air must pass into the bag acting as reservoir for this purpose, and a chanter that accommodates fingers eager to surprise the world with music both raunchy and wild, pristine and sweet. Heard under a best-case scenario in which all of the varied factors of its engineering converge successfully and wielded by someone with a modicum of experience lassoing them into submission, it is undoubtedly the most mystically beautiful thing I’ve yet heard. However, the usual encounter of the average passerby is a rather less than desirable auditory experience not unlike a grumpy orangutan humping an unsuspecting cat on the rush-hour freeway after a losing football game. That said, I confess such a description as that which I have yet to see.

Yet, it is what many might actually prefer when they hear this baffling instrument. It is, under any circumstances, an instrument that, like a crying baby on an airline, demands center stage. It is a sound that captured me even as a boy of seven years old. I well recall my first visceral experience with the bagpipe.

I grew up in a tiny bungalow in Calgary, Alberta the adopted son of a brewery worker and his house-wife, my mother. As I, along with my younger brother and sister, continued to grow, it became abundantly apparent that our consistent brushing of shoulders would only lead to inner-family disaster. My father set about building me a bedroom in our not-quite-finished basement. For some fifteen years to follow it would be my sanctuary – my monastery and the place where I found music, booze, girls (don’t mention that to my parents, they only know about the previous two) and ultimately salvation.

The spring before my eighth birthday I moved in. Kismet. I was also sick as a dog. My parents in true devoted fashion brought me hot soup, books (I’m a total nerd) and best of all, a TV to help wile away the hours spent in sniffly, coughing boredom. Changing channels one afternoon I happened upon a presentation of the Edinburgh Military Tattoo, an annual display of pomp, circumstance, bright lights, booming cannons and bagpipes – lots of bagpipes. It is filmed live at Edinburgh Castle. From the very first sound I was hooked. I cried through the entire thing, later asking my parents if I could learn to do what I had just seen but thought I had dreamed.

A love affair had begun.

Over Scotland

I love poetry. I used to write much more poetry than I presently do. I feel bad about that. Consider this part one in rectifying this. This poem was written gazing out from an airplane window while flying over Scotland in 1989. It was finished in 1991, the next time I was in Scotland.

High flying, window glass reveals tattered floor-

Pristine heaven greets eyes open to curving planet yonder

Stretching, reaching, sky-borne, we soar.

Place of kings bringing wonder to hearts that wonder.

Stipple green, ground richly steeped in lush, purple hue-

Woven pattern of road-cut scenes moves closer,

Sky meets peripheral sky, horizon’s hazy blue.

Shadows run as daylight comes.

Well-fermented scenes from ancient dreams-

Walls of stone, hearts of flesh, eyes of steel,

Pageantry in motion, all is as it seems.

Like God in man, surreal kisses real.

Robert Rife © 1991

Reflections of January Residency, 2009 – Part 1

By now it has become rather apparent that my M.A. program January Residencies have been deeply formative experiences. At the risk of boring the reader into a coma, I continue to share these experiences with part 1 of my 2009 reflections…

Who am I? In total recognition that I am among the countless throng throughout history who have asked this deepest of questions, my query is not of the kind asked by the philosopher who plumbs archetypes, epistemologies and the like. My question is less enigmatic and more practical in nature. More personal. My reflections on the January Residency are within the broader framework of my spiritual journey over the past few years.

I play the bagpipes among other Celtic instruments. It’s not that this information is particularly unique or interesting in and of itself. However, an early childhood fascination with all things Celtic and the means by which I began to learn the instrument make for good dinner conversation. Watching a television program featuring the Edinburgh Military Tattoo from Edinburgh Castle as a boy forever sealed my fate as a lover of the instrument. It also ended any hopes my parents may have had that I might play Chopin Etudes or Beethoven Sonatas in the shopping mall with the other little social climbers!

No, it was the fact that my mother revealed certain information to me after that night which forever changed the trajectory of my life. I am adopted. Moreover, I am adopted from a family with profound Scottish roots. The connection was complete. I was a mystic long before I ever knew what that meant. Who I am has been the primary question I’ve asked ever since.

In October of 1983 while praying in a dark gymnasium at Foothills Christian College, Calgary, Alberta I prayed a prayer: God, I want to be a man of integrity. At the time, steeped as I was in conservative evangelicalism, this meant a certain thing to me. I believed I was asking for a solidity, immovability, authenticity and trustworthiness – in essence, to say what I believe and believe what I say. My inability to stay very long with anything, to make decisions or share convictions rather than opinions revealed the fissures in the fractured windshield of my projected life. My prayer, in retrospect, was a prayer for something I didn’t fully understand. It was a prayer that I become a man of God, or at least to be known as a man of God.

The years that followed have, for me, completely unraveled a commonly held assumption among western evangelicalism – that a post conversion life was to be reflective of victory, an unwavering trust in God, and a consistency in discipleship and faithfulness to the primary tenets of Bible study, prayer and witnessing. Although these things will always be central for me, the circuitous journey I have undertaken has shown me many things I could never have foreseen.

My life prior to my conversion at age 18 could best be described as narcissistic, blissfully entitled and blessed. The world held great wonder for me. Everything around me – relationships, the created order, experiences, my place in the world – was cause for wonder, celebration and poetry. However, the oldest of three adopted children, I enjoyed a great deal of freedom and lived a pampered life with respect to the fulfillment of desires. Our home was small by most standards, five people in a 900 square foot bungalow (with one bathroom!) in a decidedly blue-collar area of town. But I was denied nothing. I could easily celebrate my existence since I was rich, globally speaking, and was the center of my family’s time and attention.

As my life continued to point me ever so gradually toward heavenly things I succumbed to the romancing of God while driving home from a singing gig in Edmonton, Alberta. I was 60 pounds overweight and profoundly hung over. My conversion was for me, earth shattering. At least in the short term I was an excellent candidate for the evangelical demand of a good testimony. I can in fact point to the existential realities of a deep sorrow for my sins accompanied by the delicious joy reserved for those who serendipitously embrace a way of life birthed in hope. Changes in my demeanor, direction, sensibilities and relationships were immediate and obvious. I was, in C. S. Lewis’s words, surprised by joy…

Welcome.

Welcome to innerwoven, a place to discuss matters related to the Christian spiritual journey. Specifically, my interests lie in the many places of intersecting dialogue among worship, the arts, liturgy, and spiritual formation. As both a church music director (Yakima Covenant Church, Yakima, WA) and a graduate in spiritual formation and leadership (Spring Arbor University, MI) these are for me, increasingly, matters of genuine excitement. More selfishly, it is a place to share my circuitous journey of faith and the ways I’m seeing God in my world. In the world.

This is a safe place to be where all discussion is good discussion inasmuch as it strives unto mutual respect, love and understanding. Denominational baggage…please leave it at the door upon entering. But when you do, do so with my warm invitation to share this journey with me.

Pax Christi, Rob