In 1991, Van Morrison released “Hymns to the Silence,” a two-CD tour de force that seems at least partly autobiographical.
Morrison’s folk-tinged and bluesy rock ‘n’ roll on this album, as across his whole career, has an indefinable “something” that carries him and his audience to depths of pain and heights of wonder.
I often play the first three songs of Disc 1 as a kind of spiritual discipline. Yes, I know that some people doubt that Van Morrison could be much of a spiritual guide, but, countless times, these three songs have re-centered me.
The first is “Professional Jealousy.” It’s about the insidious effects of envy on both the envious and the envied.
The song describes the serpentine ways jealousy can becomes a kind of ruinous “personal invasion,” turning other people into rivals and competitors.
At the extreme, jealousy spins webs of deceit, rumor and “black propaganda” to trap those whose success illogically feels like a threat.
All the while, those who see through the green eyes of envy don’t see how the success they resent has come, for the envied person, at great personal cost:
Not even his family will understand what’s happening
The price that he’s paying or even the pain.
Weaving in and out of the song is Morrison’s take on what it takes to be successful or effective:
The only requirement is knowing what’s needed
And then delivering what’s needed on time
Rather than allow envy to corrode our hearts, the wiser way is to redirect our attention away from what other people achieve and toward our own opportunities and responsibilities.
Our effectiveness depends on tending to “the work” that is ours to do. We find out the next thing needed, and we do it “on time” – reliably and dependably.
Marketer Seth Godin says repeatedly that, no matter how creative we are or how wonderful our ideas might be, nothing matters unless we “ship” – unless we get something useful and good out the door and into the world.
The second of the three re-centering songs is “I’m Not Feeling it Any More,” and it’s an honest and searing admission of the kind of numbness and listlessness that overtakes us when we’ve had too many hard things for too long.
It’s a soulful lament, a painful confession. For example:
I was giving everybody what they wanted
And I lost my peace of mind
And all I ever wanted was simply just to be me
All you ever need is the truth
And the truth will set you free.
Those last two lines come, of course, from Jesus and remind us that the “bondage” we feel to our personal status quo is not what God intends for us.
Hearing the truth, even if it is at first unsettling truth, about God, about us and about the world will lead to our freedom.
The last of the trilogy of songs is “Ordinary Life.” The refrain says:
Ordinary life, be my rock in times of trouble
Get me back on the earth, put my feet on the ground.
Often, far more often than I remember, the most spiritually significant and emotionally important thing to do is the simplest and most ordinary thing.
Weary? Take a walk, a nap or a break. Stuck? Step off the treadmill of frantic activity into Sabbath space and time. Let being matter more than doing for at least a while.
When we’re off-center, we need to come back to the shelter of “ordinary life.” We love the people who cross our paths, enjoy the grace that comes to us day by day, and leave the rest to God.
We find delight in small and modest things, just as Jesus found signs of God’s tender care in blooming wildflowers and flying birds.
We give thanks for small but significant things: daily bread, a roof over our heads, a baby’s smile, an elder’s example, stories that tell us who we are, the love of our families, the devotion of friends, a good night’s sleep, music to tune our hearts, candles in the window, the fragrance of flowers, and the sound of the ocean rushing to the shore.
Most of all, we give thanks for the goodness of God, who creates and sustains ordinary life.
His fans call Morrison “Van the Man.” I know why.