Emily Garcia was raised in the Evangelical Free Church. In her freshman year at Princeton she was baptized at the Easter Vigil, and joined the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion four weeks later when she was confirmed on Good Shepherd Sunday. She is in the discernment process for the Episcopal priesthood, is a published poet, and is this year’s Kellogg Fellow at the Chaplaincy. In this column she will take a piece of “old” (or older) literature as a starting point for an informal reflection on the religious life.
There’s a song called “One by One,” and it’s been one of my favorite songs since I first heard it. You can listen to it here, on NPR. It was written “around 3 a.m.”, sung in a slow, steady voice by a woman named Connie Converse, and recorded in her friend’s house at a dinner party in 1954. Twenty years later, Ms. Converse packed up her things and drove off, and was never heard from again.
“We go walking in the dark,” she sings. “We go walking out at night— / and it’s not as lovers go, two by two, to and fro, / but it’s one by one—one by one, in the dark.”
About five hundred years before Ms. Converse was born, a man named Kabir was born to a family which had recently converted from Hinduism to Islam. He became a major figure in what we now called “the bhakti movement”—a movement of devotion whose disciples spoke to their God in immediate, intensely personal language, taking images from both Hinduism and Islam, and disregarding or opposing the orthodoxies and hierarchies of both traditions.
These poets—Kabir, Mirabai, Janabai, and others—speak in a language that would be familiar to the Psalmist(s), to the author of the Song of Songs, as well as to many Christians from different times and traditions. It is a language of “passionate devotion” and “inward love,” as the translator Arvind Krishna Mehrotra says. Here’s one of Mehrotra’s translations:
My husband is called Hari,**
And I’m his young wife.
My husband is called Rama,**
He’s an inch taller than me.
Looking my best,
I go in search of Hari,
The lord of three worlds.
He’s nowhere to be found.
We live under the same roof,
Sleep in the same bed,
But seldom meet.
Fortunate the bride, says Kabir,
Whose husband loves her.
Now this, I thought, was something that Connie Converse would also understand. Kabir and the object of his devotion are together, but “not as lovers go, two by two, to and fro,” but “one by one.” In the second verse, Converse sings, “We go walking out at night. / As we wander through the grass / we can hear each other pass / but we’re far apart—far apart, in the dark.”
When I first thought of these two texts posed side by side, I had suddenly an image of myself walking through a field of liturgy—murmuring the Nicene Creed, mouthing petitions, following the rise and fall of the Great Thanksgiving with my head and heart entirely somewhere else. The liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer is the bed I sleep in, the field I walk in—the services of the Daily Office, the rites of Holy Eucharist, and the many prayers for many different situations. Like Kabir and Converse, I believe that the object of my love and devotion is near, but at times—for days, or weeks, or months—“we seldom meet.”
I thought of what the Psalmist says: “I was like a brute beast in your presence” (73:22b). And then I remembered how this Psalm continues: “Yet I am always with you; / you hold me by my right hand. . . . Whom have I in heaven but you? / and having you I desire nothing upon earth” (23, 25).
And this, too, is something that Converse knows, as she closes her song with this verse: “We are walking in the dark. / If I had your hand in mine / I could shine, I could shine / like the rising sun—like the sun.”
**Mehrotra notes that while “Hari” and “Rama” are names of specific deities in Hindu mythology, here Kabir uses them as names for “his personal god,” a god beyond such identifications.)