Listening through All Souls


The Resurrection, Fra Angelico, San Marco Museum, Florence

A sermon for All Souls’ Day, November 2, 2012.  The scripture readings are Wisdom 3:1-9, Psalm 130, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, and John 5:24-27.


The psalm sums up this night pretty well.  “Out of the deep have I called unto thee, O Lord.”   Psalm 130, known by its Latin nickname, “de profundis” has been prayed and played through the ages. It’s the same, regardless of the version we use, “de profundis,”  “Out of the depths,” (KJV), “Out of the deep,” (BCP), or with Eugene Peterson’s translation, “Help, O Lord, the bottom has fallen out of my life!”(The Message).

St. Augustine, in his very last days, when he was extremely sick, is said to have written the words of Psalm 130 on his walls.  He wanted to read them, and pray them, and breathe them with his very last breath.   John Wesley heard these words sung as an anthem one day at St. Paul’s Cathedral, and it was later that same day that he felt his heart “strangely warmed,” which began conversion, renewal, and a whole new direction for his ministry.

The depths out of which the psalmist cries are deep, dark waters.  They’re like the depths at the beginning of creation, when chaos ruled.  They’re like the depths into which Jonah fell.  They are just like the deep waters feared, and skirted around, and finally crossed by the people of Israel as they moved toward freedom. 

On this All Souls’ Day, we can only imagine how this psalm must sound to people in New York, New Jersey, and other areas so hard hit by the recent hurricane. The depths are all too real.  All the scriptures about watery chaos, about darkness, and feeling lost—that’s their physical reality.  We pray for God’s closeness and presence with them.

For too many others, and maybe some here, crying to God from the deep, “de profundis” is less a physical experience than an emotional one, or a spiritual one.  The death of a loved one can make us feel like we’re drowning.  An illness can make us feel like we’re swimming in deep water, but losing our strength.  The demands of work and family, and life itself, can even swamp us. 

The prayer of psalm 130 begins, “Out of the deep have I called to you, O Lord,” and then prays that God would hear.  But the other scriptures, and, in fact, our faith itself, suggests that the answer to the prayer comes not so much with God’s hearing us, but more through OUR listening and hearing God.

The reading from Wisdom warns us that our eyes can mislead us.  It will seem like those we have loved have died.  It will look like disaster.  It will appear as though they are far, far away.  But they are with God. They are alive and well.  We shouldn’t believe everything our eyes suggest.

To the Thessalonians, in our second reading, Paul declares. He preaches.  He sounds the word that God’s own trumpet will sound one day.  The archangel calls, and the dead are raised. And we will be raised with them.  And so, listen well.  Open your ears for the wind, for the trumpet sound, for the angel wings, for the raising up of all creation.

Jesus says, “anyone who hears my word and believes ….”   We don’t have to strain our ears to hear.  We don’t have to learn a cryptic language.  We don’t have to learn to listen in some new way.  We are given ears to hear… we just need to listen, to quiet the voices and the noises and the worries and the fears, and the doubts,  and simply listen.

In the poem named, All Souls, May Sarton suggests that we listen through the lives of others, even through the lives of those who have died.   She asks,

“Did someone say that there would be an end,
An end, Oh, an end to love and mourning?
What has been once so interwoven cannot be raveled,
nor the gift ungiven

No, instead, she says,

Now the dead move through all of us still glowing,
Mother and child, lover and lover mated,
are wound and bound together and enflowing.
What has been plaited cannot be unplaited
– only the strands grow richer with each loss
And memory makes kings and queens of us.

And then, Sarton suggests that we grow into a deep place, but no longer the deep that feels overwhelming and scary, but a new deep that is full of life and the ones we have loved. And that’s where the listening comes in:

Dark into light; light into darkness, spin.
When all the birds have flown to some real haven;
We who find shelter in the warmth within,
Listen, and feel new-cherished, new-forgiven,
As the lost human voices speak through us
and blend our complex love,
our mourning without end.”

Mourning and grief perhaps never end.  But they change shape.  They change tune.  They change us, as we listen for God, and we begin to hear God’s love for us more deeply.

Listening, actually has to do with obedience.  That word, “obedience,” is often misused in church.  Too often, “obedience” has to do with following rules, fulfilling commandments, conforming to law.  But the word we have in English, “obedient,” comes from the Latin, “ob,” meaning to, or towards, and “oedire,” meaning “to hear.”  To be obedient is to “hear towards,” to “listen into,” even when it’s not clear what we’re listening for, or who we’re listening to.

One of the most beautiful contemporary settings of Psalm 130, De profundis, is by Avro Pärt.  In order to write the music (or the prayer), the composer had to listen.  And Pärt sometimes listens in an unusual way.  It’s a method that uses a primary voice or tune, in this case to sing out mournfully, the words of Psalm 130, while underneath and overtop, there are little sounds, bell-like, building, wrapping around, increasing.  Asked about this idea of little bells ringing around a theme, Pärt explains

Tintinnabulation is an area I sometimes wander into when I am searching for answers – in my life, my music, my work. In my dark hours, I have the certain feeling that everything outside this one thing has no meaning. The complex and many-faceted only confuses me, and I must search for unity. What is it, this one thing, and how do I find my way to it? Traces of this perfect thing appear in many guises – and everything that is unimportant falls away.  (Richard E. Rodda, liner notes for Arvo Pärt Fratres, I Fiamminghi, The Orchestra of Flanders, Rudolf Werthen, (Telarc CD-80387).

When we’re in the depths, stuck out in the deep, with no sight for land or friend or help of any kind, the answer forward is in obedience—true obedience. The answer is in “listening toward” Christ, “listening toward” his love, “listening toward” his promise of eternal life.  We may not hear the words clearly at first.  But through faith, we can live “listening toward” God’s welcome, until the day the words are clear and strong because they’re being whispered in our ear, with God’s eternal embrace.

May we have ears to hear the wisdom of All Souls speaking through us, and may we listen into the Resurrection to Eternal Life.  In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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