Monday, October 19, 2009

Thanks to Fragments of Christian Culture That Always Stayed with Me

From age 15 to my mid-50s, I rarely attended church, and still I'm pretty sure that God never abandoned me. Even when I found myself bobbing on an open sea without a life jacket, tiny bits of prayer and praise came to me like driftwood, like the coffin to which Ishmael clung. "A Mighty Fortress is Our God," the Doxology, the Our Father, the First and Greatest Commandment: These were four pieces of my Christian past that stayed with me.

At boarding school I studied German in my senior year. I loved the sound of the German language, still do. Some call it harsh, rough, crude; I find it beautiful. It might be that it makes my Anglo-Saxon roots ring. (FYI, Bull is not an Italian name, nor is Heffelfinger, my grandmother's maiden name.) For some reason, whenever I studied a foreign language, I loved discovering the translations of my favorite English verses, which were more often the original words from which "my" English had been translated. In German class I learned the original German of "A Mighty Fortress is Our God": Ein feste burg ist unser Gott, a hymn written by Martin Luther (left) himself.  I can't remember it all now, but I'm quite sure that I learned at least one full verse of this Protestant power hymn and spent a good week or two striding around campus in the manner of cracked adolescents everywhere, beating out four-four time with my right hand and muttering the hymn to myself with a fabulous faux German accent. It was consoling; it was, to use an overused term properly, empowering. I still feel the power of that hymn anytime I hear it, inside or outside my head. (This version is both grandiose and fruity enough to allow you to picture the cracked adolescent I once was.)

Like most boarding school students, I went home on vacation from time to time, and on these occasions, I went to Episcopal church with my parents—now more as a tourist than as a native. I distinctly remember a moment that always brought me back to childhood experience of the church: when we sang the Doxology, which if I recall correctly was sung as the offertory was presented:

Praise God, from Whom all blessings flow;
Praise Him, all creatures here below;
Praise Him above, ye Heavenly Host; 
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen.

Forty years later, at my father's funeral in that Episcopal church, I was brought to tears by nothing so much as by this Doxology. We did not bless ourselves, of course, when we came to the final statement of the Trinity, but I think it was this line, above any other, that led me to ponder the meaning of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. (I still prefer Ghost = Geist, a good, strong Germanic word.)

I took a year off during college to travel through Europe at the beginning of what became, for lack of a better term, the eastern spirituality phase of my life. Here, in Paris, I studied French at the Alliance Française for several months, and as I had done in German class, I learned the local version of a favorite piece of devotion, in this case the Our Father. Notre père, qui es aux cieux, que ton nom soit sanctifiée— It struck me as both curious and comforting that in French one addresses God with the intimate, personal form of You—tu, toi, ton, ta, tes—instead of the formal vous, vôtre. It brings God closer. What I remember most vividly is sitting at a particular sidewalk café, where we often sat late into the night, silently repeating to myself, Nôtre pere, qui es aux cieux . . . It was an odd devotion in those days of studying Buddhism, sufism, and related belief systems. But it returned to my consciousness regularly, and it strengthened me.

Back in college after a year off, I went through a period when the First and Greatest Commandment—Though shalt love the Lord, thy God, with all thy heart, with all thy soul, with all thy mind, and with all thy strength—was a sort of "mantra" for me (again because eastern thought systems seemed more congenial in those years). It amuses me now, and also pains me, that I never seemed to move on to the Second Commandment, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. I'm still working on that one. But while I do so, God, in His full triune form, yet close enough to hug—a mighty fortress and an intimate friend at the same time—is here with me, from moment to moment, each time I remember.