Monthly Archives: March 2012
Over the summer I read Paul Kelly’s ‘mongrel memoir’, How to Make Gravy. It was a lot more insightful than many rock autobiographies, mainly because Kelly is a very intelligent and thoughtful man. I found it particularly interesting because he was raised a Catholic, but like other artists such as Martin Scorsese who have also jettisoned the faith of their childhood, Paul Kelly’s imagination remains baptised, forever shaped as it were by the faith he no longer holds. That is, perhaps even despite himself, he still sees the world through the prism of the practices and doctrines of Catholic Christianity, even though he no longer practices his faith or describes himself as a believer. And then this Catholic imagination is given expression in his music.
One (and only one) of the ways this Catholic imagination is manifest in his music is Kelly’s frequent recourse to Scripture. In How to Make Gravy Kelly explains that he often opens up the Gideon Bible in a hotel room for inspiration when he is looking for a lyric. One such example of this is the haunting ‘Meet me in the Middle of the Air’, a song he composed for the film Tom White. The lyrics of the song are largely taken from Psalm 23, perhaps the most famous passage in the Bible which begins: ‘The Lord is my Shepherd, there is nothing I shall want’. The refrain that runs through the song: ‘come and meet me in the middle of the air, I will meet you in the middle of the air’ is actually an allusion to 1 Thessalonians 4:17 , but when Kelly uses it he is drawing upon a line that he says has been around for a hundred years in blues, Gospels and spirituals. Woody Guthrie, Dylan, Led Zeppelin have all used the line, asking God/Jesus to meet them in the middle of the air. It has become a key phrase in the history of American music for expressing the human being’s desire for God.
This is where Paul Kelly’s use of the line takes a significant twist, because in the past it has been used as an invocation, as as prayer that the singer prays expressing his or her desire for God, his or her desire to be met by Jesus. But in Kelly’s song, the protagonist is not the human person, it’s God. It is God who is saying, ‘come and meet me in the middle of the air’. It is God telling us that he is our true Shepherd, who will lead us home. In this lyrical twist Kelly is being deeply faithful, perhaps more faithful than he realises, to a critical scriptural insight: that our desire for God is superabundantly surpassed and fulfilled in God’s desire for us.
This is because God really does meet us in the middle of the air… he meets us on the Cross, where Jesus is lifted up as the place of union, in his own racked and tortured body, between God and the human race. “When I am lifted up”, Jesus had prophesied, “I will draw all to myself”. This is fulfilled in the middle of the air as he is suspended from the Cross between heaven and earth. This image of the crucifixion as the bridge between heaven and earth is perhaps most powerfully captured by Dali’s famous painting of the Crucifixion, based on the drawing of St John of the Cross. In the painting, we are as it were looking down from above Christ as he hangs upon the cross, down to the earth below. This is the mystery of Good Friday, that our desire for God is surpassed by God’s desire for us, most powerfully manifest in the Crucified.
The cover version of ‘Meet me in the Middle of the Air’, below is by Eddie Perfect and Tripod. Have a listen:
Last night a bunch of my friends got together with an old friend of ours who was visiting from overseas. We had become friends about a dozen years ago, and since then some people married and had children while others have been ordained; some have moved interstate and overseas while some of us have returned to Melbourne. We did what any group of friends does when it gets together after a while: we brought each other up to speed on what life is like now, a wide-ranging conversation of windy career paths, buying houses, study and different ministries in the Church. Of course we also reminisced about times we had shared in years gone by, which by this stage required being reminded of things we had said and done that some of us had long forgotten. For a part of the evening the Indigo Girls provided the accompanying sound-track, conjuring up memories of similar soirées in years gone by. I think most of us realised that there were a few ghosts present too: friends who for various reasons couldn’t be there last night. They were missed. Mostly though, we laughed. A lot.
As I drove home I couldn’t help but reflect upon the significance of those friendships in my life. I had been a pretty lonely kid, wounded by the taunts of school yard bullies, and these were among the first friends that let me feel safe in truly sharing myself. Our friendships have survived mistakes and conflicts and diverging journeys, and in so doing have taught me a great deal about forgiveness, about myself and about friendship itself. While I was driving I was reminded of Yeats’ famous poem, ‘The Municipal Gallery Revisited’, in which the poet reflects upon the portraits of his famous friends hanging in the gallery. My friends will almost certainly never be as famous as Yeats’ friends, but as I revelled in the ordinariness of our gathering, I felt the final lines of Yeats’ poem nevertheless expressed my sentiments too:
Think where man’s glory begins and ends,
And say my glory was I had such friends.
I have recently had cause to wonder about whether young people find friendship more difficult today than in the past. There seems to be fresh pressures that conspire against deep friendship at work in our culture. Of course, young people desire friendship as much as they ever have; it is their capacity to forge enduring friendships that I am not so sure about. Some young people possess a precarious sense of security and self if they have not experienced the love of their parents that can make the levels of trust required to form friendship problematic. Many voices in our culture are suggesting that the social media can stunt genuine relationships as people spend more and more time online. The pervasive perception of all relationships through the lens of sexuality can also obscure the distinctive form of friendship from other kinds of love. And our culture’s obsession with image and success can combine to produce a fear of being vulnerable and a satisfaction with superficiality that militates against the depth and vulnerability that make friendship possible. Just as the mere sight of a steak by a starving man only intensifies rather than satisfies his hunger, these impediments only increase young people’s desire for friendship. And so E.M. Forster’s famous epigraph may well be the most appropriate epigraph for this generation too: ‘Only connect…’
While friendship is one of life’s chief joys, I think it is possible to fall into a certain idolatry of intimacy that paradoxically punctures the very thing it most desires. Friendship, like all forms of love, needs a little air to breathe, and it can be suffocated when people make it an end in itself. Our passion for connection, for friendship, actually find its fulfilment in God. We’re made for communion with God, and in and through him communion with one another. And so memorable gatherings of friends are signposts to heaven, because they point to the eternal communion we are to enjoy with God and with one another forever. As C.S. Lewis was wont to say, Christians never have to say goodbye, because we know that our friendships here are elevated by grace to the joys of eternal life.