Driving home from a difficult meeting yesterday I found myself lingering on the Christian music station.
Believe me, I know.
It’s been a surprise to me that the older I get the more willing I am to listen to Christian contemporary music and, even more so, country music. Country music, it turns out, is very funny, very aware of itself as a genre, and deeply informed by the real human experience of suffering. It’s also just really singable–great for rolling down the windows and throwing back your head and letting loose.
There’s one song in particular–a little bit country, a little bit CCM–that I look forward to stumbling on during the radio scan. “Soul on Fire” by Third Day. Now, I know nothing about this band. I had to Wikipedia them just to know who they are. But when Mac Powell growls I’m waiting for the day/ When I am a soul on fire I can’t help but to grin.
Everything good about my evangelical childhood comes back to me in a flash of sunshine and happiness, and my sixteen-year-old self raises her hands in praise to sing along God, I’m running for Your heart/ I’m running for Your heart/ Til I am a soul on fire.
I get that this sort of emotionalism is embarrassingly earnest for some of you Reformed folk. My forty-one-year-old self cringes a little too.
But no less than the great polymath and doctor of the church and fabulously wild mystic Hildegard of Bingen also tells us to “Be ablaze with enthusiasm. Let us be a living, burning offering before the altar of the Lord.”
That’s a spectacular image–the self as a continuously burning offering upon the altar–but the image also gestures toward a deep truth Hildegard herself surely knew:
Being burnt alive hurts.
Living life at this level of intensity, with burning attention and fierce urgency, requires our everything. Every bit of energy, every moment of our lives, consecrated and poured out. Over and over again.
“[T]o burn with a hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy” as the nineteenth-century writer Walter Pater insists, is the only way to live. To live in any other diminished way “on this short day of frost and sun, [is] to sleep before evening.”
So, with Walter Pater and Hildegard of Bingen and Mac Powell, and “with this sense of the splendour of our experience and of its awful brevity, gathering all we are into one desperate effort to see and touch”
Sarina Gruver Moore teaches English and writing at Grove City College in Pennsylvania.