I am so glad to have connected with Mags Blackie across many continents and the big wild internet. Her book on Ignatian Spirituality was a revelation, even for someone like me who feels as if she’s seen it all, Ignatian-wise. The song she writes about today for the How Can I Keep from Singing series has moved me deeply in the past. If you don’t know “I Will Rise”, have a listen.
I had hoped to share a reflection on a more scholarly piece of music. I take great pride in being well educated, and writing about a piece of music which we play regularly at our Sunday masses seems rather pedestrian. But this is the piece of music which has arrested me in the last few months.
As I am writing this, I am listening to the track and tears are welling in my eyes. As I have said this is a piece of music I know well. The moment it caught me in a whole new way was singing it as at the funeral of my closest friend’s husband. He was just 37 years old. He was a good man and a good friend.
On this occasion the music was different. Firstly, it was being sung by a different band so it did sound different. Secondly, I am usually playing the flute rather than singing. I am aware of the words, but I am not usually singing them myself. Thirdly, the lyrics have quite a different impact when you are looking at a coffin.
I haven’t included all the lyrics here, but the essence is clear.
There’s a peace I’ve come to know
Though my heart and flesh may fail
There’s an anchor for my soul
I can say “It is well”
Jesus has overcome
And the grave is overwhelmed
The victory is won
He is risen from the dead
Chorus: I will rise when He calls my name
No more sorrow, no more pain
I will rise on eagles’ wings
Before my God fall on my knees
I will rise
There’s a day that’s drawing near
When this darkness breaks to light
And the shadows disappear
And my faith shall be my eyes
It is one thing to sing these words when death is a mirage: some point in the future that has no real bearing on the current moment. It is quite another to sing these words over the lifeless body of a friend.
I have always paid attention to the words I sing at Mass. I am uncomfortable singing hymns and songs which don’t reflect either my theological understanding or an authentic response to God. I have always found this song to be deeply moving, and grounded in reality.
There are two phrases which now catch my attention: ‘It is well’ and ‘I will rise’.
It is well: I have grappled with the words of Julian of Norwich in different ways over the years ‘All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.’ I have come to know the hope which is so deeply instilled in this phrase. But it is a promise for the future, not a declaration about the present. And yet singing these words on that day I found myself wondering where the ground of my faith lies. In the end I was left with the eerie sense that there is no contradiction in saying ‘It is well’ and in grieving at the same time. My friend’s death did not shake my faith, and God comforts those who mourn.
I will rise: this turns out to be the more challenging to me. Because I do not know what the life to come will be. My faith is not founded on salvation so much as it is on redemption. Salvation, to me, is what happens after death, whilst redemption is the process whereby our current realities can be transformed. Redemption is the experience of finding grace through circumstances which look hopeless. I do not doubt redemption, but I am not so sure about salvation. ‘I will rise’ – if I am honest I don’t know that I will (or indeed anyone will). This phrase I sing with a questioning hope – it is all I have!
This song now reminds me of the deep fragility of life and of the vulnerability of my faith. It is a song that draws me in and reminds of the grace of God, and yet I cannot escape facing myself. It pulls me into a space of truth. A space which is at once profoundly comforting and deeply disturbing. It is a space of encounter with God.
Margaret (Mags) Blackie is the author of Rooted in love: Integrating Ignatian spirituality into daily life. She is an academic at Stellenbosch University in South Africa. She has research interests in medicinal chemistry, science education and Ignatian spirituality. She blogs at magsblackie.com
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