A friend of mine asked me and several other people about our experiences of awe. I've had a few, and there is one that stands out, but I haven’t written about it publicly before. This is a story that I normally save for close friends, for those who know me well enough to know when I’m kidding about something and when I’m really not. It feels a little dangerous putting it out there for public scrutiny and anonymous skepticism; this is a private story. But I’m telling myself that hardly anyone reads this blog anyway, and going ahead.
It was the summer of 1996, after the end of my 2nd year at the University of Minnesota. I had started my time in Theodism in January, and had been freed from my thralldom at Midsummer. Shortly thereafter, I flew down to Texas to work on my grandfather’s cattle-ranch and in his steel shop – that was the arrangement we had in return for him and my grandmother paying for my room and board while I was in college.
There was a drought that year in Central Texas, and it hit the small towns hard: the reservoir of the little town of Wortham, where my grandfather’s steel shop was, had dried up. Little signs had been planted along the highway reading “Pray for Rain”. It also hit the cattle ranchers, and a lot of them were selling out. Our ranch had water from an underground spring that kept the cattle from getting too thirsty, but no rain meant no hay, and no way to feed the herd over winter (commercial cattle feed could be bought, but the price was steep enough to mean heavy debt, and maybe bankruptcy for a number of them). The people I talked to were tired with worry, and pretty much out of hope, but they still said “Pray for Rain,” echoing the signs along the highway.
During one week, we had cut what little hay there was, and left it to dry. That Saturday, I went with Jerry the farmhand to try and bale up what we could. I was pulling the tetter – a machine with spinning circular combs to fluff up the hay and make it easier for the baler to pick up – and I started on the outside edge, spiraling inward. The hay was so light on the dry ground that I sometimes lost my place, but I kept at it. Jerry started behind me on the baler, which picked up the sparse rows of hay and would occasionally open to let a 6-foot tall round bale roll out. Not often enough, though.
In the middle of the field was a rise tall enough that it hid the other edge. I was about three spiraling rows ahead of Jerry, so I stopped the tractor facing North, on the opposite side from him, where he couldn't see me, and shut it off. I listened to the quiet for a little bit, and then drank some cool water from my jug, wiped the sweat from my brow, and recited a Theodish hymn to the god Ing, which was the only piece of liturgy I knew at the time. I looked up at the sky and addressed my words to the god Thunor. I spoke about the drought, about the hardship it brought, and I asked for rain. In return, I said, I would write a hymn to Thunor, and I would brew a batch of beer and sacrifice half of it when I got back to Minnesota. Then I sat, took another drink of water, started up my tractor and drove on.
It was about an hour later when Jerry started having problems with the baler. The hay was getting bunched up and stuck in the intake. I helped him clear it out and we went on; I didn't think about it at the time, but that sort of thing tends to happen when the humidity is rising. Again and again I’d see him stopped, I’d go help him clear the hay out of the intake, and then we’d start again.
About two hours after I’d stopped and spoke my words skyward, I was rounding the rise in the middle of the field. There, as I turned toward the East, was a towering thunderhead. My eyes grew round, my jaw dropped open – I nearly fell off the tractor – and I felt rising up a giddy astonishment mixed strangely with an overwhelming fear. I wanted to run and hide. I wanted to jump up and down and shout and point. I didn't know what else to do, so I laughed (a little crazily, perhaps) and kept driving my tractor, looking surreptitiously at the storm cloud as it grew nearer and nearer. The barely-suppressed giddy panic did not pass, and before long, raindrops started to pelt down on the dusty earth. They were huge raindrops, hard and bruising on the skin. We parked our tractors under a tree and ran for the pickup as the rain fell ever harder behind us. We climbed in, soaked to the skin and shivering, and began to drive to the house.
The whole way home, I stared out of the truck window grinning like a fool. One thought kept rushing over and over through my head: It’s REAL. It’s all REAL. I understood the gulf that was between the belief I felt at that moment and what I had felt prior to that day, which was more of a longing to believe. I had the sense of someone’s attention on me; the attention of someone so overwhelmingly huger than I could imagine that he could snuff me out as easy as breathing. This frightened me more than anything has ever frightened me before. I looked up at the still-storming sky, smiled, and said a Thank you under my breath.
There’s more to the story – I asked for rain more than once that summer, and it rained each time I asked – but the important part is that I made good on my offer: I started working right away on that hymn, the first I had ever composed. Although it wasn't very good (first works rarely are, I suppose), it started me on the path of studying the old poetic forms and composing the hymns I post here, which is a major part of my religious life. When I got back to Minnesota, my girlfriend helped me to brew that batch of beer (a blueberry stout, if I recall) and to sacrifice half of it as well. She, now my wife, is an award-winning brewster in her own right, and she brews (and sometimes pours) the libations over which I sing my hymns.
Here’s that first hymn, in all it’s rawness. Like I said, it isn't very good. But I still sing it when the thunderstorms come.
Smithe in smithem îsern smîtand,
Hit werthath warm, brand burnand,
Erme sterkiath, stivne kaltiand:
“Hâl thû Thuner, håmerhaldand!”
Ekkere bûra, thorstige, stûvige,
Fretlîke zerle, bênmîthige,
Kinda ondlêta, herde, hungrige:
“Hâl thû Thuner, triôwewerthich!”
In Threth-hâmum thâwlîke, êzenhringida,
Thuner almechtiga, unbeid, unbrêzen
Erthe sunu râdieth reinwolken,
Håmer klinnand, blixen liâchtand!
Thiu triôwe hî haldeth is îsern, êzen,
Êthe send wichtige and mein is mechtich,
Môd is mizil tô månnum bisitta,
Sâ anskîr thâ tiâga and wes forthfarand!
Smiths in smithies, iron smiting,
It grows warm, brands burning,
Arms strengthen, voices calling:
“Hail thou Thunor, hammer-holding!”
Farmers’ fields, thirsty, dusty,
Fretful farmers, bone-weary,
Children’s faces, hard, hungry:
“Hail thou Thunor, trustworthy!”
In virtuous Strength-home, oaken-ringed,
Thunor almighty, unbowed, unbroken
Earth’s son readies rain clouds,
Hammer ringing, lightning flashing!
The troth he holds is iron, oaken,
Oaths are weighty and main is mighty,
Courage is great to men beset,
So harness the goats and be forth-faring!