"Agape misce nobis"
"Know you what it is to be a child?” asked English poet Francis Thompson, a devotee of William Blake and a man who, in the terrible years of his addiction to opium and battle with consumption, would plead for a seat by the open fire in the Skiddaw Pub off Goldney Road in the dread cold of a London winter. “It is to have a spirit yet streaming from the waters of baptism … to believe in love, to believe in loveliness ... lowness into loftiness, and nothing into everything.”
Thompson’s words seem particularly apt to me this week, after a visit to the baptismal font of William Blake located in London’s St James Church Piccadilly.
You may know the church. Built by Christopher Wren, damaged in WWII and repaired, in danger of closing during the secular end of the 20th century. Instead of closing, the church resurrected itself as a kind of a center for spirited and 'radical welcome,' focusing on progressive action and a seeming unconditional support to the homeless, to exiles and to asylum seekers -- while additionally establishing itself as a center for classical music and the performing arts.
I decided to visit St James Piccadilly to see Blake’s baptismal font, in what I came to recognize through the experience was a vainglorious and Quixotic attempt to ‘baptize’ myself in the same waters as the great visionary English poet.
It being, by the way, the same day I went to Westminster Abbey, a tight-as-a-tick tourist trap well guarded by polite but rigidly punctilious church officials in royal red robes -- where I surreptitiously placed a chaste kiss on Chaucer’s tomb, hand to mouth to forehead of the tomb, while the ever-present guards were looking elsewhere.
No guards in St James Piccadilly, but the visit to the font wasn't a lot more satisfying to the touch than placing my hand to Chaucer‘s stone tomb. I moistened my forefinger with my tongue and placed it in center of the font. I went out to a fountain in the church garden with some rain water in it, came back in and put finger to font a second time.
Try as I might, I just could not get the feel for Blake’s DNA or the holy water he had experienced. The font was dry as a bone, seemingly centuries dry.
Puzzled and somewhat let down, I settled into a pew near the back. And there I began to listen as a clarinetist (Nadia Wilson) and a rehearsal pianist practiced for an afternoon concert. Clarinet sonatas by Bax, Ireland, Horovitz and Martin Butler.
It was a moving musical experience, but it was something more.
As I sat in the dimly lit church listening, unwashed homeless men, reclining in the pews in various states of consciousness, began to stir. One by one, as the music washed over them, they sat up and looked around, at first dazed, then with an increasing recognition of where they were and what was happening.
It reminded me of nothing less than that famous scene depicted in a drawing in the Catacombs of Rome, reclining Christians in Corinth at a communal feast, and a woman pouring wine for them.
Agape, Misce Nobis (Spiritual Love, mix for us), one of the drawing’s legends reads. The other inscription? Irene, Porge Calda (Peace, cleanse the wine) -- Irene being the Greek goddess/horai who symbolized Peace.
Afterwards, 'breaking bread' with my MFA classmate Robert Peake -- who I met at the Fleet River Bakery near the Holborne Station -- I tried to explain what I'd experienced. Tried and failed, that is, over latte and a honey nut bread which Robert insisted I share with him. I didn't quite know what to say about the font and my experience of it, so instead my conversation drifted to what I'd experienced in the music.
It wasn't til afterwards that it came to me. What had proved to have been a touchstone was not my forefinger in a dry marble font. It was in the sharing of an awakening with homeless men reclining in pews.
It wasn't in the holy water, it was in the music.
It wasn’t in the initiation, it was in the renewal.
I had tried to touch Chaucer in his grave. I'd tried to baptize myself in Blake's own vision. Instead, my search for a visionary touchstone, at the long-dry font Blake was baptized in, found its mark in an experience of quite a different, but wholly equal kind -- 'a spirit yet streaming from the waters of baptism,' as Thompson put it.
The various Christian churches recognize seven basic sacraments -- the Anglican being typical, focusing on the initiation/renewal sacraments of Baptism and Communion, and including among the other five one called 'Anointing of the Sick.'
To see it as Thompson does, the spirit streams from sacrament to sacrament, too -- from baptism to communion to caring for the weak -- and what I had experienced was a communal and individual reawakening and celebration, in the form of music, amounting to an anointing of outcast men.
An "outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace given unto us" through unconditional compassion and art.
Or as those wise old Greeks put it: 'Agape, Misce Nobis' -- Spiritual Love, mixing it anew -- in an old stone church in Piccadilly that had survived wars and periods of spiritual apostasy, remaking itself for fresh use in the 21st century.