Timelessness Resounding into Time
Become an empty singing bowl, whose chime
Is richness rising out of emptiness,
and timelessness resounding into time1
Thus Malcolm Guite, chaplain at Girton College at the University of Cambridge, opens his recent poetry collection, The Singing Bowl. In lieu of the traditional invoking of a Greek muse, as poets from Homer to John Milton have done, Guite opens with a prayer for inner silence so that another Spirit, that mysterious third Person of the Trinity, might speak through his poetry. This is artistic kenosis, a Christian poet’s self-emptying and prostration before the true muse, God himself. But more than alluding to the muses or to Christ’s emptying of himself (Phil 2:7)2, Guite alludes to—and prays to take part in—the wondrous and miraculous act of incarnation. Through this mysterious process, ineffable and boundless divinity is transcribed into our material, mortal reality, subject to all the limits therein. Timelessness resounding into time.
The Gospel of John teaches us, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…. And the Word became flesh and lived among us” (John 1:1, 14). The spiritual became the physical. God entered history, as it sometimes said. Mankind previously only knew God as fire and thunder, an echoing voice and a statue of glittering jewels, but with the Incarnation of Jesus, the ancients met him, touched him, even shared a meal with him. God entered Creation to save it, because in Creation he sees something worth saving.
Our material bodies are not inherently evil constructs from which we must be released, as the Gnostics taught. Nor was Jesus merely a ghost or a spirit seeming to be flesh, as the Docetists taught. God took on a physical body because he intended the physical realm for good: “And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31).
Our Christian language often falls into the trap of reviling Creation. How often do many of us hear about the wickedness of “the world” and “the flesh”? The second phrase in particular is despised. “Flesh” just sounds sensuous and insidious. The word is so plump with sex and avarice that sin drips from the ending consonant sound. Flesh is an evil word. It is the name of the enemy. . .But the Word became flesh and lived among us, because God made the material world and he saw that it was good. I don’t say this to drain passages about sin—which we translate with the word flesh—of theological importance, or to minimize the broken nature of Creation. My own body reminds me daily of its multitudinous defects. However, to say our universe is broken is not to say that it is wicked. A good God made it and declared it good, and while Creation is broken, it is also being restored by the saving work of Christ.
The transcription of the spiritual to the physical is not just good, it is the charter of the Christian. When artists and craftsmen begin their labors with prayer, they petition the immaterial Holy Spirit to fill them with the wisdom and goodness of God, in order to make material works that radiate the qualities of God. Cathedrals are brilliant models of this. Spires point our gaze upward toward heaven. Light filters through stained glass windows of saints, so that by turning our eyes on these holy figures we may see the Father of Lights beyond them. Our works need not be artistic to be divine in origin either; even the smallest work of charity by the power of the Spirit is a monument. Giving food and shelter to someone in need is every inch a manifestation of the divine, every inch a masterpiece as the Sistine Chapel. Each one of us is a servant of God and it is our task to act in this material world with the spiritual gifts he bestows.
Creation and the Incarnation, God’s entrance into history, are astounding events. No less astounding is our role in Creation. We must not allow ourselves to become cynical in the face of evil in the world. Neither can we denigrate the universe that God declared good. We must, as Malcolm Guite writes, become like empty singing bowls, whose richness comes from emptiness. We are the instruments of God, and we will make no music if we are filled with ourselves.
1. Malcolm Guite. The Singing Bowl (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2013), xv.
2. All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Copyright © 2000; 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.