[Note: Today is Johann Sebastian Bach’s 326th birthday which brought to mind this piece that Lanier wrote last year referencing, in part, Bach’s use of the letters S.D.G. If you’ve read it before, it’s worth re-reading. If you missed it last year, you’re about to experience an extraordinary essay.–Pete Peterson]
And Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground. —Nehemiah 8:6
I was a Christian, and I was a dancer. A ballerina, as I liked to avow with all the solemnity of seventeen. Studying classical ballet three and four days out of the week, showing up early to stretch before class, wrestling against all the opposing forces of aching muscles and tight tendons to add a fraction of a degree to my arabesque or half an inch of height to my grande jete’. I loved it, and I worked hard, both of which I owe almost exclusively to the much greater fact of a superlatively excellent teacher. She drew me out of the back corner of regional ballet school indifference and she scraped grimly away at an acquired layer of sloppiness and mimicking conformity, down to the very bones of my so-called technique. We spent untold class time spread out on the floor with anatomy books and I was made to perform all manner of ridiculous maneuvers in order to find and feel the muscles we were talking about. I danced for months without any shoes at all, and marched across the floor, en pointe, holding chairs over my head. She would call for sixty-four changement at a time and then call for them again, and drill me on the names of the famed “Eight Positions” as I assumed them in rapid succession.
In short, she taught me how to dance. She set something free within me; something longing for expression, but something equally desirous—even dependent upon—the limitations of form and structure that make classical ballet the art form that it is. I loved it more than ever; the more that was required of me—the more I experienced the essential freedom of the form—the more lovely it became. The restlessness and joy and angst and elation of youth found voice and wing in that simple studio, all alone, under the eye of a fiercely loving taskmaster. And I was happy. And I read in the Bible about ‘doing all things as unto the Lord’, and I was happier still.
But I had no idea what it meant, that majestic little verse and the worlds of possibility it suggested. I had never gotten my mind and heart around the concept of art as worship.
Never, that is, until the day we began working on our piece for the recital. There were three of us at that first rehearsal: my sister and another friend and myself. We were stretching out, whispering and giggling, and speculating inwardly, if not outwardly, about the diaphanous costumes the occasion would doubtless require. (It didn’t, by the way—plain white tunics and single silk flowers softening harsh little buns turned out to be the order of the day. And nothing could have been more perfect or appropriate to accompany Bach’s Sheep May Safely Graze, though not-too-distant memories of Nutcracker performances and pink net made it hard for me to see it that way at first!) We were talking—but suddenly our voices dropped and we looked around us a little awkwardly. Where was our teacher? She had been there a moment before, watching us stretch or cuing up the CD player. We hadn’t even noticed when she’d left, and it was odd that she’d disappear so soon upon the start of the rehearsal, being the stickler for time that she was.
I looked around the open studio, beyond the marley floor which delineated our classroom, past the piano and chairs and shelves of music. And I saw her—in a heap in a back, dark corner of the studio. She was on her knees and her face was to the ground. And she was praying.
At first I was frightened—had something terrible happened, or had she just learned of some disaster that had catapulted her into such a desperate, un-self-conscious attitude of prayer?
But as the mists of my dullness gradually cleared, the truth broke with a light that pierces to this day: she was praying for inspiration, for the choreography and for the execution of it. She was entreating the favor of God upon this endeavor and imploring His ability to procure it. She had the spiritual vision to see that this was not just a workshop recital for families and friends at a little performing arts school—it was a chance to honor the God of the universe. To love God with the heart, soul, mind and strength. To create something beautiful out of love for Him and to lift it up as an offering of praise.
That moment changed everything for me, in the way that small, seemingly trifling moments often do. All my loves—writing, music, dancing, homemaking, gardening—have since been charged with the influence of it. And not only by the ‘glory’ side of the equation; by the appeal, as well, if not more so. I have in that memory of my beloved and respected teacher, face down before the God she adored, an image of the creative process that I will carry with me for the rest of my life. Creativity is a giving, an offering to others and a glory to the Creator-God. But it is also a receiving. And the courage to create and not valuate our offering by the market standards of the world is, I believe, a gift in itself, and one to be sought most earnestly by the likes of such frail co-creators as we humans prove ourselves to be.
I used to love to tell my ballet students and piano students what we all probably know and already admire about Bach, namely, that he ever signed his scores and compositions with the letters S.D.G. at the end: Soli Deo Gloria. But of equal insight to me is the way that he opened them: J.J. Jesu Juva.
Jesus, help me to make something beautiful for You. In this poem. In this bit of earth. In this story. In this cake or loaf of bread or painting or song. Not only can I not do it truly, essentially, without You. I can’t do it for You without You.
The very acknowledgment is an act of worship, and I see the humility of the ‘great ones’ in this practice. Madeleine L’Engle underscores that writing—or any art form—is an act of faith. Not a blind fumbling in the dark but a reaching towards what we know is there. She loved to image artists as midwives, assisting in the birth of some bright gleam from heaven upon our world. I smile at the thought of C.S. Lewis by his study fire, musing patiently over the mysteries of God to the good of us all. And I read, with, O, what joy, of Sheldon Vanauken praying “daily, almost hourly, that God would speak through [his] two typing fingers” as he fulfilled his vocation to write A Severe Mercy.
It’s a beautiful thing, this holy desperation, and liberating in the extreme. God is not going to magically make me write like Elizabeth Gaskell or Jane Austen or George Eliot just because I ask Him to. But He is going to enable me to write from the burden of love He has laid upon me, to the end that He desires, which is more desirable than all to me. And the desire and the desiring draw me irresistibly into the heart of Love itself.
It’s one of the lovely paradoxes of this pilgrims’ way: we pour out our hearts in worship and find them filled in the very act. We stumble under our weakness, our grasping at words and colors and notes, and just when we think we’ve fallen we find the grip of a mighty embrace lifting us with wings like eagles’. We imagine we know the end of our art—where our ambitions lie—and we make our plans accordingly, only to discover we’re being propelled merrily along in some kind of crazy empowered helplessness towards a dream we’d likely have laughed at in our saner moments.
I found myself toward the end of last year under a big writing deadline, the enormity of which I hadn’t the least idea until I had assumed it. To say that I spent most of November with my head down upon my desk asking God for help would not be too far off the mark. (I wish I could say that I spent as much time thanking Him for it when it came.) I have never felt so out of my league and over my head. And, as I told my husband, the joy of it was an almost incandescent thing. I wished that I could always live with such intensity, such dependence upon God and awareness of His help. Exhausting as it was, it was one of the shining seasons of my life.
It was a glimpse, I think, small but lucid, of the great antiphonal exchange of prayers and praises, giving and receiving, with which art greets worship and worship quickens art. A snatch of the music of the spheres.
A hint of what it’s going to mean to love God face to face. I think there’s only one thing I’m going to be able to do then:
…And they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen. —Revelation 7:11, 12
Lanier Ivester is a “Southern Lady” in the best and most classical sense and a gifted writer in the most articulate and literal sense. She hand-binds books and lives on a farm with peacocks, bees, sheep, and the governor of Ohio’s leg. She loves old books and sells them from her website, LaniersBooks.com, and she’s currently putting the final touches on her first novel, as well as studying literature at Oxford.