Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Zion Song

Just recently, I have returned to using a book called The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron to help jumpstart my writing a bit. One of the tools that she recommends for a daily discipline of writing is called Morning Pages.

The Morning Pages is a practice of producing three pages a day preferably right when one wakes up in the morning. Cameron calls those pages a “brain drain”. I like what that suggests: they are a kind of morning cleansing, an emptying out before being filled with all the hecticness of a day. They are also a way of getting down on paper the angsts we go through in everyday living -- the emails to answer, the documents and articles to write, the class to teach on Wednesday, the sermon to preach on Sunday or the pressure to complete the next blog entry that is long overdue and then seeing dust on the blinds that I just dusted last week.

Julia Cameron says that there is no wrong way of doing Morning Pages. “They are not meant to be art or even writing. Pages are meant to be, simply, the act of moving the hand across the page and writing down whatever comes to mind. Nothing is too petty, too silly, too stupid or too weird to be included.” And I would add that nothing is too private, secret or dark to include either. On the mornings I can get up early enough to do them, they are an excellent preparation before we start our prayer day at 6AM with Vigils.

We have offices, our monastic liturgy, five times-a-day. Can it be tedious? Indeed. The psalms can be monotonous and never ending. The Scripture passages can sometimes sound like they are from a different planet. The collects can be so carefully crafted and yet distant and lifeless.

But, the offices are our Opus Dei, the Work of God, our very reason for being monks. Whether I like it or not, they are the great dialogue between humanity and God. If that is true, nothing is too taboo, too remote and even disconcerting that can’t be spoken. Not even our darkest passions and violence are off-limits. God knows them anyway. As Jesus says, “…For nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.” (Matthew 10:26, NRSV) He even compels us to shout what is told in secret from the rooftops.

My preparation of Morning Pages is a small microcosm of the entire day of monastic prayer, and with that practice, I not only exercise my writing skills but my receptivity to the Divine Office. If I can reserve my criticism of my own Morning Pages, then, who am I to criticise the Divine Office.

My own voice together with the other voices bouncing around the monastic church brings to light the complexity and diversity of the human condition and the language to express it, including my own judgmentalism, prejudice and resistance to prayer. We sing in unison that one antiphon, canticle or psalm, with one language, that one dialogue with God. Whether it is our experience or not, we are bound to be vocalising someone else’s, maybe giving voice to someone who can’t speak it themselves. If we really look deep enough within ourselves, we might even find we are giving voice to an experience we have denied owning up to for a long time.

Most of what we chant each day is songs, poems. Some to me are not great art and some are. Some I can chant or recite easily because I can empathise with the sentiment. Others require words coming out of my mouth I don’t necessarily want to say or to accept. But ultimately that shouldn’t matter. They are all part of that catharsis that speaks to and for millions, and like it or not they are our language … all of our language as human beings.

One of the Psalms that exemplifies that cleansing most for me is Psalm 137. It is a song of exile, of Israel in Babylon. The first part is a moving lament full of longing and mournful reminiscence. And then, it abruptly changes tone to a startling rage, a rage many of us would be uncomfortable repeating. The translation of the psalm below is from The Message, which captures the true bite and relevance for our own day.

Alongside Babylon’s rivers
we sat on the banks; we cried and cried,
remembering the good old days in Zion.
Alongside the quaking aspens
we stacked up our unplayed harps;
That’s where our captors demanded songs,
sarcastic and mocking:
“Sing us a happy Zion song!”

Oh, how could we ever sing God’s song
in this wasteland?
If I ever forget you, Jerusalem,
let fingers wither and fall off like leaves.
Let my tongue swell and turn black
if I fail to remember you,
If I fail, O dear Jerusalem,
to honor you as my greatest.

God, remember those Edomites
and remember the ruin of Jerusalem,
That day they yelled out,
“Wreck it, smash it to bits!”
And you, Babylonians – ravagers!
A reward to whoever gets back at you
for all you’ve done to us;
Yes, a reward to the one who grabs your babies
and smashes their heads on the rocks!

I have to admit that most monastic breviaries (office books) omit these verses, including our own. Many religious writers and theologians, including monastics, throughout the centuries have tried to spiritualise these verses by describing them as rages against our sins. The psalmist, however, probably didn’t even consider that interpretation. No, I think this psalmist really meant children here. These attempts to tone down his meaning are a dishonesty.

Robert Alter writes about these verses, “No moral justification can be offered for this notorious concluding line. All one can do is to recall the background of outraged feeling that triggers the conclusion: The Babylonians have laid waste to Jerusalem, exiled much of its population, looted and massacred; the powerless captives, ordered – perhaps mockingly – to sing their Zion songs, respond instead with a lament that is not really a song and ends with this bloodcurdling curse pronounced on their captors, who, fortunately, do not understand the Hebrew in which it is pronounced.”

Alter’s commentary reminds me of a story told in the film Amandla, an excellent documentary about the music of the anti-apartheid struggle here in South Africa. One woman who was a recording star in the 40s talked about the cheery songs black Africans would sing for their white oppressors, mainly to sell records. Those who supported, upheld and benefitted from apartheid and who could buy the records had no idea that they were hearing songs about them “getting what’s coming to them”. Welcome to the human experience!


  1. “They are not meant to be art or even writing. Pages are meant to be, simply, the act of moving the hand across the page and writing down whatever comes to mind. Nothing is too petty, too silly, too stupid or too weird to be included.”

    Sounds quite liberating

  2. Yep and so is praying what you think you should never utter.

  3. I recently started the book as well, and am now into my third week of Morning Pages.

    Would be interested to know whether you are still beating the sun out of bed to do this.