Today is St. Augustine’s day and I thought I would post here a sonnet inspired by Augustine’s beautiful commentary on the psalms. I wrote this sonnet in response not only to Augustine but also to Jeremy Begbie’s use of the Augustine passage in his excellent new book Redeeming Transcendence, and the poem was first published in that book this year. Here is the passage from Jeremy’s book, which includes the Augustine quotation, followed by my sonnet!
A remarkable passage from Augustine is worth mentioning here. In meditating on Psalm 32:8, he writes: “Sing in jubilation: singing well to God means, in fact, just this: singing in jubilation.” And what does that mean?
“It is to realize that words cannot communicate the song of the heart. Just so singers in the harvest, or the vineyard, or at some other arduous toil express their rapture to begin with in songs set to words; then as if bursting with a joy so full that they cannot give vent to it in set syllables, they drop actual words and break into the free melody of jubilation. The jubilusis a melody which conveys that the heart is in travail over something it cannot bring forth in words. And to whom does that jubilation rightly ascend, if not to God the ineffable? Truly is he ineffable whom you cannot tell forth in speech, yet we ought not to remain silent, what else can you do but jubilate? In this way the heart rejoices without words and the boundless expanse of rapture is not circumscribed by syllables. Sing well unto him in jubilation.”
The experience is well known in charismatic and Pentecostal worship. Ecstatic song bursts the bounds of verbal language. Augustine reminds us of the limits of speech, in the face of both the need for a particular affective articulation of the heart and the need to recognize that God exceeds all speech. The sung jubiluscan “say” the unsayable, affording a “boundless expanse of rapture”. And yet there is no suggestion that we are thereby to take flight from any obligation to scriptural words, or are absolved from the need for clear speech to, or about God – even a few minutes with this theologian’s major texts would make that clear. On the contrary, Augustine’s “boundless expanse of rapture” stems from attending to the God whom he believes has graciously employed frail human language in his saving purposes.
And here is my sonnet, you can hear me read it by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button. I am grateful to Bruce Herman for permission to use his striking painting of Augustine.
What else can you do but jubilate? St. Augustine On the Psalms
Augustine hears the sound of jubilation,
A snatch of song, hurrahing in the harvest,
He pauses, poised and open, pen in hand,
Held in the gracious space between God’s words,
And once again his restless heart is lifted
Within and through the song, into the Son.
A wordless song restores to him the words
Of scripture and his psalter breathes again.
Not circumscribed by syllables, but still
Delighting in them, jubilant, his pen
Turns to the furrow, opens the good ground,
So that the seed a psalmist sowed in tears
Might bear rich fruit for us in time to come.
We reap with joy and bring the harvest home.