This is a matter of life…
I have always had a difficult relationship with faith. From an early age I learned that Christianity is something that grandparents practice, and kids have to put up with. For me, the most I ever remember religion manifesting itself in my household was in short blessings before Christmas dinner, during which I would keep my eyes open and look across the table to my younger sister, who would share a smile with me before we both pretended to open our eyes with the rest of the family. On the odd occasion, my parents would talk about how they were raised Christian, but how faith wasn’t really that important to them at this point in their lives. But that was as far as the conversation ever went. So, living with my immediate family, I was effectively raised without faith. We weren’t an anti-theistic household by any means, but we also weren’t a family of practicing Christians. Faith was simply a concept that floated just out of reach. An unspoken agreement that God just isn’t important to a family of four (later three with my parents’ eventual divorce) that was just trying to make it through another year. And so, I was raised without faith in God.
This lack of faith materialized in my pre-teen years as a gross, misguided belief that all religion was terrible. It causes wars! It divides families! It pressures kids into dogmatic regimes that strip them of their own identity and replace it with one that God would have intended them to have!
I was basically an edgelord from age 11 – 14.
It was somewhere in high school that I began to challenge my own beliefs. Why was I so adamant that God wasn’t real, and if He was, that He was an autocratic son of a bitch? How did I get here? In part, my tumultuous coming-to-terms with my own sexuality led to feelings of systemic oppression from religious sects. And that certainly is a problem, yes, but in my mind the few loud voices outweighed the majority of happy, healthy, normal-life-living Christians who didn’t seek to wipe out minorities and wage wars against opposing non-secular nations. I don’t know when it began, but by the time I finished high school I had gradually begun to loosen up and consider the fact that maybe religion ain’t all that bad. And heck, who am I to say that God doesn’t exist?
And so I labelled myself as agnostic. Which is like, a total cop-out but hey I have commitment issues okay? My Faith Status™ was currently set to “???”.
This was also around the time I picked up a fun little album I’d heard about called Illinois by an artist whose name I wouldn’t pronounce properly for at least a year to come. I remember touring through London, England for the first time, and popping that first track on while riding the bus. Now, whenever I hear the creak of the piano bench that opens the “Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois”, I have fond and vivid memories of discovery, wonder, and the unmatched feeling of joy that comes with experiencing a new place for the first time. Discovering Sufjan in that way was like falling in love. Have you seen Before Sunrise? I’m Julie Delpy and Sufjan is a young, charming Ethan Hawke. I fell in love with the feeling of listening to Sufjan’s music before I really “got” the meanings of the songs. It all felt so new, and so overwhelmingly meaningful. Of course, to a 17-year-old dealing with identity crises galore, everything is meaningful. But this was different. It wasn’t just a phase, Mom! I truly thought that I might find something in his lyrics that would change my life.
Well, I don’t know if I did, exactly. I mean yeah, I bawled my eyes out to “Casimir Pulaski Day”, basked in the bizarre sounds of A Sun Came and Enjoy Your Rabbit, and had an existential breakdown listening to Age of Adz. But that happens to everyone, so that story isn’t unique. However, in all this time something strange happened. Without realizing it, I would find myself looking up Bible verses to better understand lyrics. I began digging deeper and deeper into the religious meaning of many of his songs. Then one day it kind of just occurred to me that when Sufjan was singing about faith, I felt something. I wasn’t able to name it back then, but I think that feeling was of yearning. I had a desire to explore faith, because at that point I think I realized that I felt like I was missing something in my life, and perhaps that was it.
But where is all this going? Well, flash-forward about 5 years. It’s my final year of university and my best friend, whom I had been living with for 3 years now, is a devout Christian. He’s also one of the best people I have ever met. Well he had offered to take me to his church if I ever felt like tagging along one day. Finally working up the courage (and managing to wake up on a Sunday morning), I joined him one frosty day in December. It was the first day of Advent.
I entered the church and boy did I feel like I stuck out. As it turned out, my friend’s church had a largely middle-aged to elderly congregation, so as soon as a new 20-something walked in, all eyes were turned towards him. I managed to say hi to everyone I could, and quickly found that all of the people there were so friendly. Like, it was obvious that everyone actually wanted to be there. The whole room had an energy of joy and family and acceptance. Then the service began. There was singing, and I cried, and people went up to the front to ask for prayers for their friends and family who were travelling, or dying, or having a baby, and I cried. The pastor, Vicki, delivered a heart-felt sermon that connected religion back to current issues, most notably rape culture and women’s rights in the age of Trump. I wasn’t crying at this point, but I was surprised that a sermon could be so contemporary and meaningful in a way that wasn’t simply ideological. The people here cared about real problems and chose to tackle them through the lens of Christianity.
At the end of the service I was invited to share in the traditional wine and bread of Communion. My friend told me I didn’t have to if I didn’t want to. He said that this represented a commitment, that eating and drinking of Christ was an act that told God that your faith is real, and strong, and undying.
In a moment of new-found inspiration and overwhelming emotion, I partook in Communion. For the first time in years I felt like I was accepted, and that I belonged. I cried again after the service. It felt incredible to feel like I mattered to people, despite them not knowing me, simply because I was present and willing to share my soul with others.
But should I have done that? Should I have eaten of the flesh, and drunk of the blood? What does that feeling of community have to do with actual, true faith? And why was I crying so much?
I felt like a sham, because I’ve never really believed in God. But I also felt like maybe I could, maybe I already did. Having listened to Sufjan Stevens for several years at that point, I was no stranger to the beauty that can come from faith. But in a strange way, I think his music in some ways romanticized belief. Like, if I were to have just been born religious, maybe I would have this beautiful thing in my life that gave me meaning and purpose, that gave me things to write and sing about. But I had never attempted to believe. I’d never gone to church or prayed or watched Veggie Tales. I always assumed that I had no faith, that it just wasn’t me. But now, faced with the beauty of community, and the grace of my best friend reaching out to me, and the wonder of discovery of the meanings and teachings held within the Bible, I was thrown into a crisis of faith.
It just turns out that my struggle is the exact opposite of Sufjan’s in “Carol of St. Benjamin the Bearded One”.
Sufjan’s music has often reflected crises of faith. Carrie and Lowell is chock-full of these themes, as is Age of Adz. But these albums are expected to tackle those kinds of tough questions. The former is very explicitly about the loss of Sufjan’s mother, so of course there are going to be moments of “Why would God do this?”. It’s expected. But where I didn’t expect to find this Jacobian struggle with the Lord is in his Christmas albums. I went in prepared to be delighted by Christmas jingles and moved by re-interpretations of classic hymns and carols. But when I stumbled upon “St. Benjamin”, a Stevens original, I was floored by its brutal honesty, and the beautiful way in which Sufjan speaks of this crisis of faith and its eventual resolution.
Although I’d be lying if I said I picked up on the meaning on the first listen. Nah, I first started digging it when I heard the “Carol of the Bells” intro. That’s always been one of my favourite Christmas songs. The driving, powerful rhythm and the truly chilling, ominous tone of the piece has always appealed to me. And when I first thought Sufjan was doing a cover of it, boy howdy was I prepared to be blown away. The flutes! The banjo! The bells! All building to a sprawling...! Harmonic...! Silence? All of a sudden the storm ends. Sufjan cuts through the fanfare and begins to softly sing about seeing someone playing in the snow, snowman at their side, and remarks that “The things you want in life you have to really need.”
Now, I will never pretend to know exactly what an artist is singing about at any given time. What Sufjan meant to write and what I interpret may be two wildly different concepts. But I also believe that art belongs to the artist and the audience equally, so I will explain my interpretation and connection to the song.
The opening verse transports me back to when I was young. I live in Canada, so when I was a kid the snow banks always seemed to be insanely large. I have vivid memories of being out on my lawn, fully decked out in snow gear, playing in the banks with my sister. We would sled down the hill in my backyard, throw snowballs at the house and at each other, and yes, we would build snowmen. The first verse opens, for me, with an image of my kid sister, puffy pink jacket standing stark against 6 feet of snow, packing together the base of a snowman that will stand sentry over our yard until spring. The first instance of “The things you want in life you have to really need/This is a matter of life” speak to me of family. Christmas, in all its commercialized glory, generates a great deal of wanting. As a kid, this is typically toys, days off from school, and big juicy turkeys on Christmas Eve. But none of these things are necessities. These are not matters of life or death. What I really wanted at Christmas time was what I needed: family. For all the difficulty that comes with living with the same people for a quarter of your life, when you begin to spend less time with them, you realize that the things you miss and remember most about those youthful Christmases weren’t the presents or the food, it was the time spent with the people you loved. Having a rather large family himself, I have no doubt that Sufjan would agree with the sentiment.
The next verse begins to shift attention from children to adults. “Only parents cry/Oh, when they want to/Show the world they're still alive”. I don’t think I can fully delve into this one as I’m not a parent yet (unless you count cats as children, which they basically are), but I am no stranger to the idea of hiding emotions as you grow up. Especially as a man, I was told from a young age that crying isn’t “manly”. It’s not cool. It’s a display of weakness, and I can’t be weak. It’s my job to be strong for everyone around me. When my parents split, I was the only man in my house, and the eldest child. I quickly felt that it was up to me to help hold the family together. To be strong for my mom, who was going through the turmoil of divorce. And for my sister, who was no doubt being affected by the departure of our father, whom she had always had a particularly strong attachment to. Even my dad, who had recently been hospitalized for a disease that nearly took his life and left him forever altered. I needed to be strong for all of them. No crying, not in front of anyone that knew me. I would routinely find myself sobbing alone in my room, sharing my shame with only my dog. After so long of forcing myself not to express these emotions, I grew into a person who would often bottle them up. What this led to was an eventual feeling of something missing. I sometimes feel like I can’t express the emotions I want to. Like I can’t feel sad enough to get any sort of emotional release. I can un-jokingly say that this is part of the reason I got into Sufjan Stevens. His music makes me cry, and the crying reminds me that I’m real, that I’m alive, and that there is still a bit of that little kid left bopping around my now-adult mind.
What this verse says to me is that with age can come a loss of strong emotion. A cynicism that can leak into other aspects of life, like faith. The verse finishes with “And in my heart and in my spirit I believe/The draft beneath the doorframe comes to challenge me/This is a matter of life”. I take this as the first mention of a struggle with faith. The draft is a cold, creeping sense of cynicism and dread that challenges his faith. But his heart (body) and spirit (soul) take this as a challenge, not a defeat. He resolves to steel himself against the cold, and grapple this loss of faith, as this is another matter of life and death. Faith is as important to him as family. These are two common cornerstones of a person’s life, and losing either of them could destroy that life entirely. Sufjan does not often comment about his religion publicly, but I don’t think it’s a great stretch to say that his faith is likely very important to him, and not something he sings about lightly. As we move into the third verse, at the cusp of his crisis of faith, a new character is introduced to the song.
This is where things get biblical.
The introduction of the titular St. Benjamin comes abruptly in the third verse. In my mind, this interaction takes place in a snowy forest, quiet and dense with cedars. St. Benjamin approaches, and through small action inspires Sufjan to come to some conclusion. Let’s dissect this.
St. Benjamin was a Deacon in the 5th century who was imprisoned during a time of religious unrest in Persia. All of the churches in Persia were burned by King Isdegard. Christians were imprisoned and tortured, sometimes put to death. For a deacon like St. Benjamin, it was no surprise that he was quickly locked up. He served a full year term and was released under the condition that he no longer speak of religion. However, he went directly against command and continued preaching about Christ until he was imprisoned, tortured by having reeds forced underneath his finger nails, and ultimately disemboweled with a stake. With a grisly end, St. Benjamin became a martyr for his steadfast faith.
When St. Benjamin appears to Sufjan, he represents this unwavering faith. His hands are cloaked to hide the scars from his torture. He wishes not to dwell on the gruesome past, but to delight in the eternal life gifted to him by God. And then he “brushe[s] his beard against [a] cedar tree”. An odd gesture, certainly, but knowing Sufjan there’s a bit more research to do to fully appreciate the action. In Christianity, the cedar tree is often spoken of as being strong, majestic, and holy. A symbol of greatness. But more importantly to this story, the cedar was used in acts of ritual cleansing. In this detail lies the climax of Sufjan’s tale: The cleansing of his body and soul by a Christian saint.
But is it really St. Benjamin? Are we talking about a literal apparition of a long-dead guy with a huge frock of hair dangling down his robes? In my mind, no. In my interpretation of the song, Sufjan finds himself alone with nature in the middle of the wintery woods, when a bird appears. This bird lands in a cedar and goes about his birdy business, but for one intimate moment it locks eyes with Sufjan. The bird sees this intruder in its forest, and it does not flee. Perhaps it feels safe in its cedar home and is just curious of this man. But to Sufjan, this is the sign from God that tells him to hold on to his faith. In ritual cleansing, as previously mentioned, cedar was a main ingredient. But the cedar was placed inside of a bird, and the bird’s blood was dripped onto the one being cleansed. So the appearance of this particular bird in this particular tree drew symbolic connection for Sufjan to consider St. Benjamin. To remember the sacrifice he made in the name of faith. To hold on, and think about what he really needs to live. To understand that faith is a matter of life.
And hey, White-Throated Sparrows are pretty common in the US, in all their bearded glory.
And so we’ve made it to the final verse, a coda of the first, in which Sufjan recollects the image of the child with the snowman. Newly cleansed and with his faith re-invigorated, he can now see clearly the things that are important to him. The things he wants and needs. To me, this comes full circle to family and faith. In struggling with his faith, and winning, he is now at peace enough to focus on his family, and have himself a merry little Christmas.
I found something in this song. Those words I was looking for many years ago that would change my life. This song doesn’t necessarily inspire faith, but it does capture one person’s struggle, from start to finish. It shows that it is possible to come to terms with a subject as difficult to comprehend as faith. This song answers all of my questions from that first day at church:
Should I have eaten of the flesh, and drunk of the blood? Yes. That act is a commitment to God, sure, but for me it also acted as one method through which I attempted to discover myself. It is an act of faith, but I don’t need to feel guilty for not knowing what my faith is. It was one way to try to let God into my life, whatever the result may be. Sufjan’s act was in taking a moment to watch a bird. Mine was in consuming the bread and wine.
What does that feeling of community have to do with actual, true faith? Faith in God is faith in man. If we are to truly try to live Godly, then we must love our fellow humans and accept them for who they are. The things I felt that day were not dissimilar to the feeling of sitting at the Christmas dinner table. Family goes far beyond blood, and I believe the feeling of belonging to a family is central in the worshipping of God.
And why was I crying so much? Because I’m alive, and because I’m allowed to.
I’m still figuring things out. I still struggle with faith on a pretty consistent basis. But knowing that someone like Sufjan, who seems like he has things pretty figured out with the Lord, also has these crises is very comforting. I have a great amount of respect for artists who speak candidly in their works about weakness. And in such a wild and eclectic album, this reprieve into such a deeply personal song is a sacred moment. The first breath of cold air as you step out into a wintery night. Sufjan’s openness lends to the listener’s ability to put themselves into the song. Because I’ve certainly had experiences like this one – I think we all have. In my interpretation, “The Carol of St. Benjamin the Birdied One”, a small moment of being alone with nature was enough to clear Sufjan’s head and remind him of what’s important. This happens to me all the time; I’m sure most would say the same. Self-reflection is important for discovery and growth, and the peace and beauty of nature is an effective catalyst for introspection. Through his song, Sufjan extends some advice to anyone experiencing a challenge this holiday season. Whether it be about faith or family, love or loss, his words are spoken plainly: “Go for a walk”.
Darius Hahn is a professional stage manager, theatre technician and music lover based in Kitchener, Ontario. When he’s not touring Canada with ballets and stage plays, he is in charge of running tech for his local church, which always features a live band on Sundays. Music is a passion and a hobby, and he is currently working on writing his own to contribute to the incredible and diverse music community that exists today. He would like to thank his partner, Clare A., for putting up with his constant rants about which artist actually deserved that Oscar; and his friend Jeremy V.D.H. for showing him the beauty in faith and friendship. Darius can be found tweeting (rarely, but not never) at @Darius_Hahn.