The waves of death or the water of life?

Water, vital and mortal
returning to the great ocean not by choice

Water must be one of the most two-edged thing that exists.  It can kill you; but you cannot live without it.  It is dangerous; it is essential.  We take it completely for granted until it is absent.  We fear it viscerally (this is why people are so fascinated by the Titanic), but we know how precious it is.  We grow and take shape in the waters of the womb, and in many versions of a life-and-death myth, we return as drops into the Great Ocean when we die.  This two-sidedness is a crucial element in its use as metaphor or symbol.

An index of God’s power and scope
God creating earth
God presiding over Creation, outside the water and in control

The psalms talk about water (as a real thing) in two diametrically opposed ways.  There is bad water (the sea, floods), and good water (rain in the desert, the gentle stream supplying water for sheep and the hunted deer), wild water and tame water, you might almost say deadly water and living water because the contrast is so extreme.  God’s power and might are indicated by his control over water in its entirety.  His house is above the rains, and some pictures of Creation show him outside and above the circle of waters which the earth floats within, so he is even above the ‘waters above the heavens’ (Ps 148).  The waters are God’s tool : he can use them to help or to destroy utterly.  Man is frightened of the mightiness of water, but it belongs to God and does his bidding.  Even when the waters are not actively hostile, they are mysterious and potentially dangerous.  This is a very sensible attitude for any person to have.  Water should be taken seriously.  This is another fear that begets wisdom, like the fear of the Lord.  The very power of water shows how great God must be to rule it (Ps 64/65).

Fishermen, but not ocean-going

The Israelites were not a sea-going nation, despite having a coast.  The Red Sea is an idea full of menace, regularly cited as the example of how God can weaponise water (Pss 65/66, 76/77, 77/78, 105/106), but mostly their experience of water is on a smaller scale : lakes, rivers, springs.  They go out to fish on lakes, but the ‘men who go to the seas in ships’ are only referred to once in the Psalms, and then in a sort of head-shaking way, as the psalmist prays for their safe return or arrival at a harbour. This is in Psalm 106/107, where these sailors are the third category of people who need God to rescue them, for no one else will be able to do so.  And the sea is full of monsters, remember, which God made to play with (Ps 103/104).  Leviathan as God’s rubber duck.  How mighty are your works, O Lord.  What God is great as our God? (Ps 76/77)

drowning people underwater
the perils of the deep
Water, water everywhere
safe amid perils

Water’s presence in real life (or, conversely, its absence in time of need) is another reason why it occurs so often in the Bible.   Our need for God is similarly elemental,  but can be similarly complicated.  The Old Testament God can be fierce and terrible.  He can be destructive; indeed, the psalmist prays for God to destroy God’s own enemies and the psalmist’s as well (sometimes, the other way around),  just to keep things tidy;  positive collateral damage.  The great flood means death to almost everyone; but Noah and his family are saved by God.

Generous rain (Ps 67/68) : moving towards metaphor

Another aspect of water which makes it a good image for God is its potential to create growth.  This comes up repeatedly in the psalms with a variety of adjectives (dry, weary, parched, thirsty, shrivelled, scorched) applied to not just the land, but men’s hearts, even their bodies (Ps 62/63).  God provides the water, and everything bursts into growth; You provide for the earth:/ you drench its furrows; /you level it, soften it with showers (Ps 64/65 ).  Water is always dynamic in the psalms; it makes things happen, starts life, makes trees grow and flourish.  Death is a return to dust (Ps 103/104), the removal of water.

Seascape at night, storm
God is never far away
God +water = life

This is one reason why it is seen as God’s own element.   From the beginning of creation in Genesis 1,  God plus water equals life.  Water is the source and also the means of creation (you can’t mould dry clay; when Jesus needs to make dry earth potent for healing, he spits on it, John 9).  In the early days of salvation history, God is often encountered near a water source.    Hagar meets him at a well when she is thrown out by Sarah (Gen. 16) and then again when she and Ishmael are cast out definitively (Gen. 21).  She and Ishmael have run out of food and water and have lain down to die, when ‘God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water; and she went and filled the skin bottle with water and gave the boy a drink’ (v.19, out of the New World Translation, because it’s the most literal and prosaic version that I have).  God, water, salvation, and a woman’s agency : a grouping we will see again.

Real water in the Psalms is a positive thing….

God’s total control over the (real) waters means that they are usually described either in a neutral or positive way.  To be negative about the Great River, or the seas, or the waves, would be disrespectful to God as their Creator.  Water in this sense can be dark and mysterious, and the scale is huge, but it’s not ever actually hostile itself in the Psalms.  God keeps the waves of the sea in a flask (Ps 33), he rules its raging (Ps 88/89).  To him belongs the sea, for he made it (Pss 94/95, 145/146), he does wonders in the deep (Ps 106/107), he can turn a rock into a pool, a flint into a spring (Pss 106/107, 113/114), and the sea into dry land (Ps 65/66, 73/74, 76/77, 77/78, 135/136).

Pharoah's horses in the Red Sea
Very easy to get bogged down
..but be careful if it’s figurative

The negative aspect is much stronger with the figurative waters.  The underworld of the Old Testament tends to be cold and watery rather than the fiery hot hell of the New Testament.

Sea monster in waves
Darkness, billows and monsters

The psalmist sees obliteration in terms of hostile waters : the waves of death (Ps 17/18), the torrents of destruction (Pss 17/18, 41/42), and a recurring image, like a bad dream, is of being in a muddy pit (or well?) with no way out, nothing to set foot on, and with the waters rising (Ps 68/69, 87/88, 123/124, and 129/130, ‘Out of the depths’).  He calls to God to draw him ‘out from the mighty waters’ (Ps 143/144),  and then sings him a song of praise when he does so.  There are many references to (figurative) sinking, to drying up, to being parched, drinking one’s own tears.  There are a couple of particularly arresting images, one where the psalmist describes himself as ‘like a wineskin shrivelled by smoke’ (Ps 118/119), and another where the wicked man is described thus : He put on cursing like his coat;/ let it soak into his body like water (Ps 108/109).   I’m not sure whether that second line is a curse upon the man or a description of what he did, but either way it’s like something from a horror film.

Some positive images

Of course there are positive images as well (Your justice is like the deep, Ps 35/36), particularly for rain, which you might expect in a hot country where water can go short.  Rain is life-giving and crop-giving, called ‘generous’ (Ps 67/68), and an image of gentle beauty in Ps 71/72, where the king’s son is described as descending ‘like rain on the meadow,/ like raindrops on the earth’, welcome as only rain in a desert country can be.  The food provided for the starving escaped Israelites, manna and quails, is described as ‘raining’ down (Ps 77/78).  Mostly, the positive images of water tend to be linked to the sheer size of God. The sea can thunder praise, the rivers clap their hands (Pss 95/96, 97/98), or it can flee from God’s actions and the river reverse its course (Ps 113/114), but the point is that these huge natural things, powerful as they are compared to a human, have no power comparable to God’s.  Moab is merely his washbowl (Pss 59/60 and 106/107);  water is under his control for his own use.

New Testament water slightly different

In the New Testament, water is again one of the most significant images, but I cannot think of a single instance where Jesus uses it negatively (someone will e-mail me, I’m quite sure!).  For him, it is living water, the water of life, welling up to eternity.

plenty of peril, but a serene Jesus (Peter Hackett)

He is baptised by immersion in the Jordan; he turns water into wine at the wedding in Cana; he washes his disciples’ feet (and has his own washed with tears earlier).  He accompanies the fishing apostles in their boat, he hitches lifts across the Sea of Galilee, he walks on the water.  He shows no sign of fear at any point.  When he is in the apostles’ boat and a storm blows up, he is fast asleep on a cushion (Mk 4), but when the frightened apostles wake him, he quells the storm with a word.  This is what God can do.

Still or sparkling

One of the things I particularly like about the water in the psalms is how carefully the psalmists distinguish between different sorts : seas, lakes, rivers and springs.  They all have separate characteristics.  When I set the words to a tune, I try to remember which sort of water we are talking about.  The past master at this is Handel, and some of his best work here is in the oratorio Israel in Egypt, which gives him wonderful opportunities.  He sets music to represent hail as one of the Plagues.  The waters of the Red Sea stand upright as an heap;  and Pharaoh’s horses and soldiers sink and perish under the torrents of its return.  Obviously I can’t do anything like this, but I do like to try and make the water show either in the melody or accompaniment.  It’s not just the psalms, either; we are lucky to have the Isaiah 12 Canticle among the Easter music, with its wells of salvation, and I have tried (according to the Response translation) to emphasize either hauling the water from the wells or hearing it ripple up freely from the springs.

Peaceful holy well
St Brannoc’s holy well/spring
Welling up to eternal life

Springs are always special, because they are mysterious but unthreatening.  Holy wells are often little springs that have been turned into places of pilgrimage, from Bible times (Abraham’s wanderings are marked by wells and springs), through early history (St Non’s in Pembrokeshire, near St Davids) until quite recently (Lourdes).  Springs are places of hope.  The water in the spring quenches thirst but is itself unquenchable.  This is Jesus’ great image for his message, the Good News he came to give.  Instead of the hard work of hauling up the water, a spring just ripples out.   As [God’s people] go through the Bitter Valley [or place of weeping], they make it a place of springs. The autumn rain covers it with blessings (Ps. 83/84).

Deja vu
Baptism : water and new life

This week’s readings are all about water.   (These are the readings we use for the First Scrutiny of those planning to be baptised at Easter, so they can be used even in other years of the liturgical cycle.)  The Old Testament reading is from Exodus, and shows the escaped Israelites desperate for water, which Moses supplies when God tells him where to strike the rock.  The psalm commemorates this event.  St Paul explains how God’s love has been ‘poured’ into our hearts.  And the Gospel is Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well, a fascinating encounter that I have written about before, as she is a rare female voice in the Gospels.

Jesus talking with woman at the well
Sir, give me some of that water

God arrives at a watering place.  He speaks to a woman.  She believes him, and her life takes a new direction.  We have indeed seen this before.  She also spreads the blessing she has received; once a spring starts to well up, it is hard to stop it.  This unnamed woman turns out to be one of the most effective evangelists.

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Does it actually mean me? : excluding language

The Communion of Saints, the Holy Souls

All Saints and All Souls always make me notice the Lectionaries’ choice of excluding language.  This is in spite of the names of the feasts, which are comfortably non-gender-specific.  The whole point is surely that we are praying for and with all saints and all souls.  Most congregations seem to contain (several) more women than men, but of course there aren’t any at the altar.  It seems perverse to insist on ‘the just man’ always as our paradigm, especially when it is not necessary.   Using a translation like ‘Such are the men who seek your face, O Lord’ (Psalm 23/24, for All Saints) deliberately excludes more than half of the people present, but it is possible to find acceptable alternatives (see the CAN or OZ version of the psalm in question).

Some Christians are female

Practically speaking, what can a church musician do?  It’s probably not an option to alter the words of the Response as given in the Mass books, as this will sow confusion, which immediately stops people singing with commitment.  So for the Response we are dependent on the bishops’ seeing the light; but you can tweak the cantor’s words slightly.  You don’t want to upset anyone or spoil the rhythm (and even I would put those things in that order), but it is possible to make the language less excluding, and this is desirable.

woman with finger over mouth
No need to be silent about the women
Languages with gender

English is a gendered language (though less so than many others), and there is nothing we can do about that.  Our scriptures come to us from a time where human rights were not regarded as belonging to women as well.  You can’t help to write a faithful narrative if you aren’t allowed to learn to write. History has been presented in a paticular way, and the language in which we talk about anything has been affected by it. If ‘man’ and ‘men’ were genuinely inclusive terms, we would not have so much gender discrimination, and women might even turn up for those weekends inviting ‘men’ to discernment of their priestly vocations…..and maybe even be allowed in (now there’s a really terrifying and radical thought).  ….And the US would not have needed the nineteenth amendment, because ‘all men’ has in fact only ever meant ‘all men and no women’.  (…..And hurrah for New Zealand which got its act together before anyone else on women and the vote.)

Practical considerations

I can’t change the world, or the Church, or even my own parish, but I would like to discuss some of the practical problems of the language of the psalms and its need not to exclude.  At the most basic level, ‘man/men’ is a strong single syllable, and ‘people’ is two syllables, the second one weak.  This is very important in the psalms, where rhythm and cadence are crucial, so it can be necessary to be slightly more creative rather than simply going for substitution.  To go back to All Saints, this is why the CAN version works so well : it translates the idea rather than the word, and it does it with style.

Psalms better than many other texts

I am glad that I am usually working with the psalms rather than the other readings, because so much of the my text is in the first or second person. ‘I’ is not gendered, and ‘you’ has neither gender nor number in modern English, but in some ways, this makes it all the more shocking when you suddenly come up against something like ‘Such are the men’, because it has not been an issue before.  I have been feeling included in these prayers; suddenly the door is slammed in my face.  I am excluded; I don’t feel that I am part any longer of the company that loves to seek the Lord’s face.  Let’s see what might help.

Hurrah for adjectives

Adjectives can stand alone quite comfortably for a neutral sense : ‘the just’, ‘the poor’; so it’s possible often just to leave out ‘man’ where it occurs.  I should not need to say this, but I am not doing this in order to exclude ‘men’, but to include everybody.  I like men, I even married one, and I have sons as well as daughters.  I want everyone to feel that they are included.

No need to throw the men overboard
The pronoun problem

The big problem is pronouns.  We don’t have neutral pronouns for people in English (because it is a gendered language, just as Latin is), so if the sentence goes on after ‘the just’, ‘he’, ‘his’ and ‘him’ will keep cropping up.  In an ideal world, you could alternate between stanzas, so half the time it would be ‘she’ or  ‘her’ instead.  That is not going to happen.  It need not be a big deal, but some people would still object (though it’s worth asking them why it is such a problem, as the words themselves are translations of translations and not intrinsically magic).  There are in fact many cases in the psalms where the adjectival noun (‘the poor’ etc) is followed by the neutral plural ‘they’, which is on-trend at the moment.

Try it the other way round

I think it would be a good corrective if, maybe once a year, there were a Sunday Mass where, without making a fuss, each occurrence of the word ‘man’ were changed to ‘woman’, ‘he’ to ‘she’, ‘him’ to ‘her’.  I don’t think you would need to do anything else to make some of the men (the ones paying attention) in the congregation feel a little uncomfortable.  Because many (if not all) women do, nearly every Sunday.  We should not be using language which excludes them.

We can all be ‘sons’

‘Sons’ is a particularly tricky case, as ‘sons’ have legal rights (of status and inheritance) which daughters usually didn’t (that’s why we have that dreadfully clumsy ‘co-heirs’ in the Proper).

Acquiring more rights as a ‘son’

Jesus made us all ‘sons’ of God, so no one is a second class citizen.  Maybe we should put this ‘sons’ in inverted commas, so that its significance is a little clearer.

‘Sons of men’ is an expression which annoys me,  as it is a periphrasis (even a cliche) which means nothing more than ‘human beings’, but it’s made up of two unnecessarily excluding words and it totally omits any reference to the woman who has actually done the labour to deliver the child.  You notice in certain psalms, just as in other certain sets of prayers at e.g. Morning and Evening in the Divine Office, that certain writers like to use such expressions repeatedly (Psalm 11/12, for example, Ps 28/29), and it can become a little wearing.

Moving from exclusion to inclusion : Psalm 28/29

To take a specific example : in Psalm 28/29, I’d be very tempted to replace ‘you sons of God’ with ‘children of God’, which has the same syllable count and just needs the stress shifting slightly.  It’s a call upon everyone to praise God; why on earth (sic) should it be gendered?  With good will, this does not need to be a problem, and I do know that it is not the most important thing; but Jesus was all about inclusion, especially of those who might be overlooked by other people.

Jesus talking with woman at the well
The Lord bravely including a woman in the conversation
Age is no excuse

‘Brethren’ is almost archaic enough not to matter, but not quite.  It’s just like addressing a group of students as ‘gentlemen’, something I am old enough to have experienced personally;  nowadays, it’s rude.  ‘Brothers and sisters’ is fine when speaking; when singing, you can substitute ‘people’ for ‘brethren’.  Same syllable count, same stress pattern.

Location can make a difference

Different countries do handle this differently, and if excluding language is bothering you, it might be worth checking the other versions of a given psalm.  There is a sad lack of follow-through, however, and sometimes a psalm starts well and then flounders.   An example from All Souls is the CAN version of Psalm 102/103, which starts so well with ‘children’ and ‘those’, moving on to ‘we’ and ‘us’ as pronouns. Then mid-verse it suddenly switches to ‘he’, ‘his’, and ‘him’, which is disconcerting.  I’d stick to ‘we’, ‘our’ and ‘us’.

The Church thinks in centuries, we are told, and is still to catch up with Jesus’ ease of manner when dealing with women.  We don’t so much need a separate theology of women as a realisation that what the sexes have in common is far more than what divides them.  Women are people too.  We can all be people!  Our liturgical language won’t be perfect for a long time yet, it’s a work in progress; but let’s try to make it including rather than excluding where we can, and remember our sestren as well as our brethren.

we can all sing together if no one is pushed out

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.