“But I still my soul and make it quiet, like a child upon its mother’s breast; my soul is quieted within me.” (Psalm 131:2, BCP)
From our very moment of creation–those little cells furiously dividing in a womb–there’s one voice, one heartbeat, one digestive system that calibrates reality for us. When we are again near that same heartbeat, napping on top of Mom, or hear that same voice (even decades later!) the deepest, most primal part of us responds. Some bit of ourselves, deeply coded with the nourishment (the life!) that this person provided for us, always knows Mom’s voice and body, the being that taught us by her simple presence and lifeblood what life and the world are.
God does exactly the same thing for us, but on an even deeper and more primal level. The most profound calm, the Most-Anti-Anxious-State, the greatest security, and the truest reality arrives when we sit in the presence of God. Yoga and meditation (and prayer) teach us to do this literally–to physically sit down, to face up to our racing minds (and hearts) and start digging in our heels, slowing down our minds, listening through distractions and listening into quietness.
One of my colleagues has a plaque on his office wall, “Bidden or unbidden, God is present.” God is sitting next to you, where ever you are, whether you want him there or not–when we quiet down, we can start to notice his presence.
Part of the point of yoga and meditation and prayer is to help us recalibrate to that original orientation–sometimes it’s awkward and feels uncomfortable or even painful (physically, or socially, or psychologically) to slow down, to sit down, to quiet down. Persistence in sitting quietly, in praying (or meditating or doing yoga), begins to loosen up our knotted up selves, and the searing shout of silence starts to feel more like a peaceful river of quiet.
God, his identifying heartbeat, his stirring voice, is not always the loudest or most insistent sound (often it is one of the quietest) in our lives, though it is the most profoundly sustaining.
For what God says to us in the quiet, a sermon preached by Sam Wells, “The Heart of God.“
For what struck me about Psalm 131 last September, “Psalm 131 Mash Up” (isn’t it funny how certain poems speak to you at particular moments of the year? And isn’t it funny how the same words evoke something so different in the same person a year hence?)
Sunday mornings are rough. Getting the kids up, fed, dressed, hair-combed, and out the door (or, if you don’t have kids, doing the same thing for yourself, after your Saturday night…). When you get to church, don’t you just want to park it in a seat? Why do these cruel Episcopalians and Roman Catholics (and others) make you stand, and then sit, and then kneel, and then stand again, and then kneel again? Add in crossing yourself and bowing–if you’re the CrossFit type–and it’s practically a full-fledged work out before noon on a weekend!
Firday night, I visited our girls’ choir rehearsal. It’s been almost 15 years since I attended one of my junior high choir rehearsals, but when the choirmaster gave the command to prepare to sing and poised his fingers above the keys, my spine involuntarily straightened and my lungs filled with air–and then I reminded my body that I wasn’t part of the choir. I’ve been out of a choir longer than I’d ever been in one, and yet, dear Mr. Johns, our music teacher, had so drilled into his students–at least me!–the importance of posture in singing, that when my body was put in the same kind of environment again (not in a physical sense, as we were in the cathedral and not an old high school great room; but in a psychological–and spiritual–sense), it still responded the same way.
Early Friday morning, I’d taught a Men’s Bible Study (the new priest gets invited to visit everywhere, without regard for gender!) on the Psalms. Explaining the five-book structure of the psalms, we turned to the end of 72:
18 Blessed be the Lord God, the God of Israel,
Who only does wondrous things!
19 And blessed be His glorious name forever!
And let the whole earth be filled with His glory.
Amen and Amen.
20 The prayers of David the son of Jesse are ended.
When I started reading verse 18, my right hand had an insatiable urge to reach up to my forehead. What I mean to say is that I had said and heard “Blessed be the Lord God, the God of Israel” at the beginning of the song of Zechariah (Luke 1:68) so many times (it’s used at the service of Morning Prayer in the Book of Common Prayer) that my body, and a piece of my mind, forgot that wasn’t the same environment–in Morning Prayer, when we begin to say Zechariah’s song together, we cross ourselves, because it is a New Testament canticle (song/psalm). My body is learning the same involuntary response to God’s Word that it learned in response to the prepare-to-start-singing command from junior high.
Episcopalian (or Roman Catholic, or other) gymnastics trains our bodies, minds, and souls to have a particular response when holy things happen–when holy words are said, when we ask the Holy Spirit to come into us afresh, when we admit that we’re sinners dependent on God’s mercy. These actions, which are the most important things we do all week, train us to recognize those moments and to respond to them appropriately–with reverence, with fear, with joy, with attention.
“34 Your clothing is stained with the blood of the innocent and the poor,
though you didn’t catch them breaking into your houses!
35 And yet you say,
‘I have done nothing wrong.
Surely God isn’t angry with me!’
But now I will punish you severely
because you claim you have not sinned.”
Where were your clothes made? Who died to provide you with fashions to cover your body? Whose blood is on the everyday comforts with which you surround yourself?
In the Psalms class this semester, we’ve been struggling with the sometimes-judgmental and sometimes-angry God we seem to be facing in those poem-prayers. It’s been hard to face up to the fact that the living God is more than a comforting Teddy Bear. Let us not try to castrate our God, the Almighty Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
The first chapters of Jeremiah make clear that God’s wrath is on those who are unrepentant and who lie to themselves, saying they are righteous and faithful when they are full of rotting sin. 2:22, “Though you wash yourself with lye, and use much soap, the stain of your guilt is still before me, says the Lord God.” (RSV) We live without intent and without reflection, we trample those who cannot pick themselves up, and we are culpable for our transgression. It’s not pretty, but is it true. Would we really even want to worship a God who wasn’t livid at this sort of treatment of the poor and downtrodden?
Two of the most infamous psalms in Scripture are 88 and 137, so it seemed like an especially brilliant idea to tackle them both in one go during the 35 minutes alloted for Sunday School (usually it’s more like 45 minutes, but the preacher went long…). Here are a few notes from our class’ wonderings and wanderings:
Though these two prayers have no particular relation to each other, put together, they have something specific to teach; Psalms 88 & 137 take God seriously in a way that we are often unwilling to consider. When a child is clearly upset but says, “No, nothing’s wrong!!” she’s distancing herself from you. She won’t allow herself to be made well or to be changed. Prayer, real talking to God in despair and in anger requires that you be ready for God to act, to transform you and the situation. To share your sadness and anger with God, you must admit that you are sad and angry, and to admit that you aren’t in control and aren’t able to help yourself means you are humbling yourself. It’s significant that in this depression and anger, these composers turn to God; they’re hurt and broken by the world, but they cling to God by continuing to offer prayers.
One woman said, “Whenever I want to pray about something that makes me angry or hurt or sad, I say to myself, ‘well, I should trust more. I should not let this get me down–then I can pray about it.’ But the truth is that these psalms show us that we should approach God just where we are.”
1 By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
2 On the willows there
we hung up our harps.
3 For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’
4 How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?
5 If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither!
6 Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy.
7 Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites
the day of Jerusalem’s fall,
how they said, ‘Tear it down! Tear it down!
Down to its foundations!’
8 O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall they be who pay you back
what you have done to us!
9 Happy shall they be who take your little ones
and dash them against the rock!
Well, there’s no country called Babylon anymore, so maybe the psalmist got his wish. I think there’s more to be mined here than that: looking at the psalm again and thinking about it from a perspective of “good guys” and “bad guys” or perhaps even “God’s people” and “the Evil one,” what is the Scripture saying to us? We live now in the midst of evil, strangers in a strange land; this place is not our home. We endure violence and struggle against our sin. But someday, we will struggle no more, and we will endure no more evil; happy shall be the one who roots out the progeny of evil, killing off all hints of evil, burning away all darkness–rooting out its very babies, that it has no future.
A Song. A Psalm of the Korahites. To the leader: according to Mahalath Leannoth. A Maskil of Heman the Ezrahite.
1 O Lord, God of my salvation,
when, at night, I cry out in your presence,
2 let my prayer come before you;
incline your ear to my cry.
3 For my soul is full of troubles,
and my life draws near to Sheol.
4 I am counted among those who go down to the Pit;
I am like those who have no help,
5 like those forsaken among the dead,
like the slain that lie in the grave,
like those whom you remember no more,
for they are cut off from your hand.
6 You have put me in the depths of the Pit,
in the regions dark and deep.
7 Your wrath lies heavy upon me,
and you overwhelm me with all your waves.
8 You have caused my companions to shun me;
you have made me a thing of horror to them.
I am shut in so that I cannot escape;
9 my eye grows dim through sorrow.
Every day I call on you, O Lord;
I spread out my hands to you.
10 Do you work wonders for the dead?
Do the shades rise up to praise you?
11 Is your steadfast love declared in the grave,
or your faithfulness in Abaddon?
12 Are your wonders known in the darkness,
or your saving help in the land of forgetfulness?
13 But I, O Lord, cry out to you;
in the morning my prayer comes before you.
14 O Lord, why do you cast me off?
Why do you hide your face from me?
15 Wretched and close to death from my youth up,
I suffer your terrors; I am desperate.
16 Your wrath has swept over me;
your dread assaults destroy me.
17 They surround me like a flood all day long;
from all sides they close in on me.
18 You have caused friend and neighbour to shun me;
my companions are in darkness.
A pscyhologist was in the class and she observed, “This sounds like clinical depression. The words that are used, the way it’s described–it’s practically textbook.” She is exactly right; the psalmist wants to have hope, but can’t muster it. There is nothing but darkness. We have friends and loved ones who suffer depression, some of us have lost people to the illness. Here in Scripture is preserved one experience of depression, perhaps to let us know that this may be a part of life on earth. This sort of brokenness may not be solved on this side of Heaven. We must admit that not all will be made well in advance of the end. The psalmist reminds us of something very important in verses 10-12: “Do you work wonders for the dead?” he asks; “Is your steadfast love declared in the grave?” he challenges. In Jesus Christ, and in the salvation God offers us through him, yes–God does work wonders for the dead; indeed, his steadfast love is declared exactly in the grave. This does not provide a cure for depression, but we are given hope of healing, whether in this life, or the life to come.