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The Dance of Formation

December 2,  2010

And David danced before the Lord with all his might . . .

(2 Samuel 6:14)

danceDancing is a recurrent theme in the mystical literature of spirituality, expressing the notion that human life is created to flow in harmony with God’s will and purpose for our time on this earth.  Heaven and earth need not be separated.  On the spiritual level of our mind and will we are innately disposed to experience consonance in the midst of dissonance and to receive graciously the gift of healing union even in adverse and fragmentary circumstances of everyday reality.  When our human vision is transformed by the power of transcendent insight, we begin to apprehend the wholeness of things, the oft-referred to “music of the spheres,” which John of the Cross spoke of as “silent music.”  The great Hindu-Muslim mystic Kabir ends one of his poems with this prayer:

How blessed is Kabir, that amidst this great joy

           he sings within his own vessel.

It is the music of the meeting of soul with soul;

It is the music of the forgetting of sorrows;

It is the music that transcends all coming in and all going forth.

Teresa of Avila, a great mystic of the Catholic Christian tradition, testifies to the abiding joy and strength she has received through union of soul with the Beloved:

She lives not for herself, but lives

To serve the Lord of Love in all,

And swims across the sea of life

Breasting its rough waves joyfully.

For those who have surrendered themselves to the mystery, life is transformed and God becomes “Lord of the dance.”  In such persons there may occur an awakening that is an inner attuning to the rhythms of the cosmos and the spiritual life uniquely lived.

     Adrian van Kaam spoke of this phenomenon in the spiritual life as a “dance of formation”:

Human life, like a river, must flow in consonance with the dance of formation in space, time, and history.  This forming mystery manifests itself in the resistances of everyday life that invite us to rise up in nobility and strength.(Formative Spirituality, Volume III, p.53)

The theme is admirably presented in a startlingly evocative poem of Madeleine Delbrêl, a twentieth century French woman who left an indelible mark on the Church of her time.  Two essays on this website fill out relevant aspects of her biography and spirituality. The dance in this case is audaciously related to the foundational disposition of obedience.  For Delbrêl, who came to faith by choice and conviction, obedience to God’s will expressed the precise way in which the believer is called to respond to God’s invitation to the dance.  Obedience is the effective means of learning to flow with ordinary reality and bearing with life’s rough spots: Dancing with God we discover our rhythm, we learn to move “with” rather than away from or against the daily resistances we encounter in our daily field of formation.  With God as the ever-present Lord of the dance, we learn the steps required to dance appropriately with each unique person, situation and event in life.

     For the interested English reader an unofficial translation of Delbrêl’s poem “Le bal de l’obeisance” (M. Delbrêl, 1966) follows:


The Dance of Obedience

by Madeleine Delbrêl


We played on the flute and you did not dance.


It’s the 14th of July.

Everyone is going dancing.

Everywhere, for months, everyone is dancing.

The more we are dying, the more we dance.

Waves of war, surges of dance.


Truly there is much noise.

The serious people are in bed.

The religious recite matins of saint Henri, king.

And I think

Of the other king,

Of King David who danced before the Ark.


For if there are many holy ones who do not like to dance,

There were many who had to dance,

So happy were they to be alive:

St.Teresa with her castanets,

St. John of the Cross with the Infant Jesus in his arms,

And St. Francis, before the pope.

If we were happy about you, Lord,

We could not resist

This need to dance which unfurls in the world,

And we would come to guess

Which dance it pleases you to have us dance

In espousing the ways of your Providence.


For I think you have had perhaps enough

Of people who, always, talk of serving you with the airs of Captains,

Of knowing you with the airs of professors,

Of overtaking you by the rules of sports.

Of loving you as we love ourselves in an old relationship.


One day when you desired a bit of something else,

You created St. Francis,

And you had made your juggler.

For us to be allowed to invent

To be joyous people who dance their lives with you.


To be a good dancer, with you as elsewhere, one must

Not know where that leads.

One must follow,

To be cheerful,

To be light,

And above all not to be rigid.

One must not ask for explanations

On the steps you like to make.

One must be like an extension,

Agile and alive before you,

And to receive from you the rhythmic transmission of the orchestra.

One must not want at any cost to advance,

But to accept to turn, to be going beside.

One must know how to stop and to slide instead of walking.

And that would only be imbecilic steps

If the music did not produce harmony.


But we forget the music of your spirit

And we make of our live a gymnastic exercise;

We forget that, in your arms, life dances,

That your Holy Will

Is inconceivable fantasy,

And that there is monotony and boredom

Only for the aged souls

Who are wallflowers

In the joyous dance of your love.


Lord, come, invite us.

We are ready to dance this errand for you,

These accounts, the dinner to prepare, this evening watch where one will have



We are ready to dance for you the dance of work,

The one of heat, later the one of cold.

If certain tunes are frequent and minor, we will not tell you

That they are sad;

If others cut our breath a bit, we will not tell you

That they are put us out of breath.

And if people knock us about, we shall take it laughing,

Knowing well that this always happens with dancing.


Lord, teach us the place

That, in this eternal romance

Starting between you and us,

Controls the singular dance of our obedience.


Reveal to us the grand orchestra of your designs,

Where that which you permit

Casts strange notes

Within the serenity that you want.

Teach us to don each day

Our human condition

As a ball dance robe, which will make us beloved of you

All of its details like indispensable jewels.


Make us to live our lives,

Not like a chess game where all is calculated,

Not like a match where everything is difficult,

Not like a theorem that cracks the skull,

But as in an unending feast where your encounter renews one,

As a ball,

As a dance,

In the arms of your grace,

Within the universal music of love.


Lord, come, invite us.

Translated by Romeo J. Bonsaint, SC,PhD

December 2, 2010

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Last updated: 11/24/10.