Counting Sheep

It was that second glass of wine that did it, I'm pretty sure. Or maybe the excitement of seeing so many of my colleagues and friends after being in hiding for these past eight or nine months. Or possibly the exercise of tidying up before and after. Or maybe again the after-effects of finishing the draft of chapter one this past Wednesday and the encroaching horror of the thought of starting on chapter two (What if I can't think of anything to say? What if I haven't read enough? What if I don't have the sources? What if...?), albeit not for a week. Be that as it may (and would I ever say "Be that as it may" without being seriously sleep-deprived?), here I am, still awake, watching for the morning.

I've done everything I could to help myself feel sleepy again: washed the dishes, surfed the Internet, read a bit more in Post Captain, fed the cat, drunk several glasses of water and tea, rearranged the furniture, fed the cat (oh, I said that). But nothing's worked and it's going to be dawn soon. Is there a lesson in any of this? One of my friends suggested doing breathing exercises when I was sleepless a few nights ago (gotta love Facebook!); I guess I could try that. Usually just shifting where I'm trying to go to sleep helps most; the couch is a regular bed for times like these. Nope, not tonight, which will soon no longer be tonight. Look, how dark it is still outside, but the birds are singing and the dawn is sure to come.

What kind of meditation might one try? "Breathe in; I am breathing in. Breathe out; I am breathing out." I wish for my own sake that I had memorized more psalms. Then I could breathe them. "My soul waits for the Lord; more than the watchman for the morning, more than the watchmen for the morning." Is that right? I could get up and check my prayerbook, but I don't remember what day one says that psalm, so it would mean looking through all of them until I came to it. Or maybe I just remember snatches of the psalm from another context, not my morning prayers at all. A colleague of mine told me a story a few months ago, actually almost a year ago, about someone he knew having had to memorize all of--what was it? A chapter from John, possibly the account of the Passion? I wish I could remember. The point was, that person found herself once in a state in which she could do nothing but think (there had been an accident or an illness, again I forget) and what saved her was being able to recite this chapter--or was it the whole book?--over and over to herself. Without it, she would have been lost, to herself, to the world, if not to God. This person was my friend's mother: she would have died and he would never have been born (I think this is right; again, I'm not sure). The point of the story being, oh, my: was it the specific text? Yes and no. It was the discipline of having something in one's memory so securely that it would be there, whatever happened; and it was the text that saved her.

"My soul waits...." No, I want to look it up. I need to know. But what if I didn't have to? What if I could say to myself the whole of the Office, without having to look it up? What refreshment, what nourishment. "More than the watchman for the morning, more than the watchman for the morning." Even these little snatches of verse comfort. Perhaps I can remember a few more. "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures, he restores my soul. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil. Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever. Surely goodness and mercy will follow me, all the days of my life....and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever." Well, that's sobering. I can't even remember one short psalm correctly (I know it's all mixed up--can you recite the whole thing?).

And yet, the scholars at Eton were expected (at least according to their founding statutes of 1444) to be able to recite the whole of Matins of the Virgin (invitatory psalm, nocturn of three psalms and three readings, Te Deum, collect, plus antiphons and responsories) while making their beds, so, ahem, clearly not with a book in their hands. "Domine, labia mea aperies; et os meum annuntiabit laudem tuam. Deus, in adiutorium meum intende; Domine, ad adiuvandum me festina. Gloria patri et filio et spiritui sancto. Sicut erat in principio et nunc et semper et in secula seculorum. Amen. Alleluia. Ave, Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum. Venite exultemus...." Um....that's about as far as I can get without looking it up, and that's only the opening invitation to prayer, with only the incipit of the invitatory psalm (Ps. 94 [95]). Not very impressive for someone who has, um, been working on the Office as intensively as I have these past eight months.

I'm not even sure how one would go about memorizing the whole of this text. Beatrice of Nazareth (d. 1268--I'm pretty sure; I'm better at dates than psalms, it seems) could recite the whole of the psalter from memory, in the correct order, when she was eight. Yes, eight. Or maybe seven. Before she entered the Cistercian convent where her father was a lay brother. The whole of the psalter; all 150 psalms. From memory. Before she was eight. I can't even remember correctly the whole of the single most quoted psalm in our day (not, interestingly, in the Middle Ages; Psalm 23--actually, Psalm 22, wait, yes, that's right, in the Vulgate numbering--doesn't seem to have been that popular in Beatrice's day). (Should I be checking all these numbers and references? I should as a scholar, but that would rather obviate--do I mean obviate?--the point of this exercise).

There's a wonderful passage in Post Captain when one of the ships (if it is a ship; not a brig; sloop?) signals Jack with chapter and verse of a psalm (Psalm 148, I believe*) and Jack, "not being much of a biblical scholar," doesn't get the reference immediately. It is about the Lord not taking pleasure in a horse, which is a bit oblique for the context even after you look it up, which, yes, I had to, even though I read this psalm fairly regularly now, as part of one of the morning offices, maybe even yesterday's.** Later, Jack declares his intention to preach on the coming Sunday instead of just reading from the Articles of War, and Stephen is rendered helpless with laughter, wondering, no doubt, what exactly bluff, not-much-of-a-biblical scholar Jack could possibly preach on. Jack says he's been reading in the Bible and found a number of passages on the necessity of obedience, a virtue in which his crew is at present somewhat lacking. Why did I start telling this story? Oh, yes, about knowing the Bible.

I do know it, much, much better than Jack. And yet, clearly, I don't, otherwise it would be with me now, in more than just snatches. I have impressions, patterns--the Old Testament, Genesis, stories about Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; Joshua and the walls of Jericho; the Psalms in the middle, then the books of Solomon--I know the Song of Songs best, but I bet I still couldn't recite it--then prophets; and then the New Testament, Gospels, Acts--I've never really read Acts properly--letters, Paul's first, then others, again, that I haven't studied as closely as Paul's, then the Apocalypse, heaven a giant cube, Terry Pratchett calculated once how big, gemstones for doorways into heaven, a beast, a lamb. But no texts, nothing that could win me those prizes in The Waltons (was it the movie?), when the kids have to quote passages from the Bible in order to win little gifts, and one of the sisters helps out a neighbor (can this be right?) with the passage, "Jesus wept." There, a whole verse of Scripture. "Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth. Your breasts are better than wine." "You are all beautiful, my sister, my bride; there is no spot in you." "Love is as strong as death." Have I remembered even these passages correctly?***

I live surrounded by texts, and yet none of them are actually mine, not in the way that medieval Christians would have known them. Again, I'm sure I read somewhere about someone saying that one only really knows a text if one can recall it; it's not the same knowing where to look it up. Lesson for tonight: I want these texts. I want them to be with me when I am sleepless in the middle of the night; they are the texts of the night office, after all. They are the texts with which we wait for God, longing for Him, "more than the watchman for the morning, more than the watchman for the morning."**** More to the point, I need these texts; I need to be able to say them by heart, not just to be able to find them by looking them up. I am empty without them and need to be filled. If even just the fragments that I can remember can be so powerful, what would it be like to know them whole? If Beatrice could learn all of them when she was eight, surely I can learn a few. If only I weren't so tired.

Breathe in; I am breathing in. Breathe out; I am breathing out. "Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will show forth thy praise. Lord, come to my assistance; Lord, make haste to help me. Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be. World without end, amen. Alleluia. Hail, Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Come, let us exult..." Well, it's a beginning.

And, oh, look. It's dawn.

*Nope; it's 147.
**Nope; it was Thursday.
***Yes, apparently: Song of Songs 1:1, 4:7 and 8:6.
****I've looked it up: Psalm 129 [130].


Popular posts from this blog

Credo ut intelligam

Make the Middle Ages Dark Again

Nation, American Style

Talking Points: Three Cheers for White Men

Wisdom and Folly at the Forge of Tolkien (plus Milo!)