Joy Unspeakable

Art: Week 2

Joy Unspeakable
Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Last week I shared reflections from our CONSPIRE 2018 presenter Barbara Holmes on art that ordinarily has not been considered “sacred” by Western culture. Over the next few days I’d like to share more of her insights on music from African American culture and the black church. While there has been a growing interest in Christian contemplation over the last several decades, much of it has been through a Euro-centric lens, focusing primarily on silence and solitude. Holmes draws attention to the many unsilent, embodied, and communal contemplative practices that can lead us into the gift of contemplation, union with God.

Holmes begins her book Joy Unspeakable with this evocative poem, tracing the thread of creative expression from the birth of the universe through the Christian Desert Mothers and Fathers (who were dark-skinned, though they’re often portrayed as white), through slavery and the continued oppression of people of color. Again, I invite you to read the poem aloud, perhaps a couple times.

Joy Unspeakable
is not silent,
it moans, hums, and bends
to the rhythm of a dancing universe.
It is a fractal of transcendent hope,
a hologram of God’s heart,
a black hole of unknowing.

For our free African ancestors,
joy unspeakable is drum talk
that invites the spirits
to dance with us,
and tell tall tales by the fire.

For the desert Mothers and Fathers,
joy unspeakable is respite
from the maddening crowds,
And freedom from
“church” as usual.

For enslaved Africans during the
Middle Passage,
joy unspeakable is the surprise
of living one more day,
and the freeing embrace of death
chosen and imposed.

For Africans in bondage
in the Americas,
joy unspeakable is that moment of
mystical encounter
when God tiptoes into the hush arbor,
testifies about Divine suffering,
and whispers in our ears,
“Don’t forget,
I taught you how to fly
on a wing and a prayer,
when you’re ready
let’s go!”

Joy Unspeakable is humming
“how I got over”
after swimming safely
to the other shore of a swollen Ohio river
when you know that you can’t swim.
It is the blessed assurance
that Canada is far,
but not that far.

For Africana members of the
“invisible institution,” the
emerging black church,
joy unspeakable is
practicing freedom
while chains still chafe,
singing deliverance
while Jim Crow stalks,
trusting God’s healing
and home remedies,
prayers, kerosene,
and cow patty tea.

For the tap dancing, boogie woogie,
rap/rock/blues griots
who also hear God,
joy unspeakable is
that space/time/joy continuum thing
that dares us to play and pray
in the interstices of life,
it is the belief that the phrase
“the art of living”
means exactly what it says.

Joy Unspeakable
is
both FIRE AND CLOUD,
the unlikely merger of
trance and high tech lives
ecstatic songs and a jazz repertoire
Joy unspeakable is
a symphony of incongruities
of faces aglow and hearts
on fire
and the wonder of surviving together. [1]

Reference:
[1] Barbara A. Holmes, Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church, second edition (Fortress Press: 2017), xvii-xviii.

Image credit: Portrait of Dizzy Gillespie, John Lewis, Cecil Payne, Miles Davis, and Ray Brown (detail), by William P. Gottlieb, 1946-1948, Downbeat, New York City, New York.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: When Miles Davis blows the cacophony that can barely be contained by the word song, we come closest to the unimaginable, the potential of the future, and the source of our being. —Barbara Holmes

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