Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Williams on Augustine on Speaking God

What cannot be said may still be sung. Sung not only in the hymns and psalms of which he is speaking in the Confessions passage, but in the wordless 'jubilus', the almost formless chant of the laborers in the fields:

Singing to God is singing "with jubilation" [in jubilatione]. Now what is this singing with jubilation? Think of people singing as they go about some hot and exhausting job at harvest-time, say, or in the vineyard. They start celebrating in their happiness with the words of familiar songs. But they end up turning away from words and syllables, as if they were filled with so much happiness that they couldn't put it into words. And off they go into the noise of 'jubilation.' This kind of singing [jubilum] is a sound which means that the heart is giving birth to something it cannot speak of. And who better to receive such 'jubilation' that the ineffable God - ineffable, because you cannot talk about him. And if you cannot talk about him, and it is improper just to keep silence, why, what is there left for you to do but 'jubilate' - with your heart rejoicing without words, and the immense breadth of your joy not rationed out in syllables? (en. in Ps. 32.8)

That is one of Augustine's most memorable images of Christian prayer and praise. But more profound and suggestive if another image drawn from music, occurring in the last few pages of the
Discourses of the Psalms, expressing so much of his teaching on grace, desire, purification from the world's ways, and the sheer beauty of truth that it might well serve as a summary of his vision. He is commenting on the words, "Let them sing praises unto him with tabret and harp" (Ps 149.3)

We should not pass over the mysterious meaning of 'tabret and harp' in silence. On a tambourine you have a skin stretched out, and in a stringed instrument you have catgut stretched out. So in both instruments ordinary flesh is being 'crucified.' That man who said, "The world is crucified to me and I to the world" (Gal 6.14) must have sung praises really well on this 'tabret and harp'! And he who loves a 'new song' wants to take you to be that harp, that tabret. He gives you his instructions when he says, "Whoever wants to be my disciple, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me." Do not let him throw away his harp and his tabret. Let them be stretched out on wood [of the cross], and all fleshly desire dried out on them. Strings or sinews sound more sharply the more they are stretched out. And what does Paul the apostle say about making his harp sound more sharp and clear? "Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call" (Phil 3.13-14). So he stretched himself out; Christ touched him, and the sweetness of truth gave tongue. (en. in Ps. 149.8)

- Rowan Williams The Wound of Knowledge, 97-99

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