Saturday, February 16, 2008

Psalm 23: A Roadmap

This weekend, I am giving a retreat at our Abbey Retreat House. Its title is "Roads: a Lenten Poetry Retreat." What follows is a sketch of one of the retreat conferences. Think of it as what Wikipedia calls "a stub": a basic nub to which you are invited to add your own reflections (though not online, alas!) The translation given here is the King James Version, on which I grew up as a Presbyterian until a quirk of the divine sense of humor landed me in a Roman Catholic religious community. The divine sense of humor sees no need to explain its quirks.

Although very few of us now live among sheep, Psalm 23 remains one of the most cherished jewels of the psalter. Somehow its imagery touches a core that does not seem to depend on our surroundings. There are, of course, countless ways of reading this psalm. By a quirk for which I will not hold the divine sense of humor responsible (God is responsible for enough!), I have begun to think of it as a map of the life journey of the human spirit. Maps sketch the land. They don't tell us which roads we have to choose to travel it, but they tell us something about what landscapes we can expect to find as we do.

Psalm 23 (KJV)
1 The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. 2 He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. 3 He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.


These verses have always provided comfort to us human wanderers as we weary of roads that sometimes seem to be going nowhere except perhaps in circles, or roads that seem so long we have forgotten their beginning and their end. We just want to lie down and rest for awhile. Let someone else be responsible for running the universe, never mind my small fragment of it.

In Jesus' day, I imagine, shepherds still led flocks from place to place in search of food and water. JesuIn times and places where shepherds still care for sheep, a good shepherd can sense the flock's fatigue. One option is to drive them on despite it: they have a destination to reach before sunset. I don't know about you, but that's an option I too often choose for myself. In our goal-and-achievement oriented world, I want to get the job done on time, no matter how tired I get in the doing. It takes a very strong shepherd indeed to make this stubborn sheep lie down in the grass, let the mountain breezes play over it, and the refreshing sound of running water lull it to sleep. Yet, like Elijah in 1 Kings 19, I can travel so much faster and farther if I take the refreshment offered. One of my humbling discoveries in life is that God's timetable differs from mine. There will be time to reach the destination, although it may not be the time I planned.

4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

The pastures carpeted in green grass and watered by running streams are oases, not journey's end. The temptation of the desert road on which the scriptures concentrate during Lent is to pitch our tents, settle down, and refuse to budge. "I like it here, in whatever oasis of the soul I happen to have been led to." Why move on? But if we don't, we'll never get to the Promised Land. Luckily, the resources of every oasis are limited. Eventually, we sheep run out of food and water. The Shepherd picks up his staff and leads us on.

The publication of Mother Teresa of Calcutta's private journals and letters caused great consternation among those who believe that the good always walk in the light. Here she was, a cultural icon of spiritual heroism, admitting that she traveled a good long ways in darkness. How could her community allow the world into that secret (which, I gather, she made no real effort to keep a secret from those who might care)? Perhaps it was a clever bit of shepherding on the Shepherd's part to allow us all to see how real and how inevitable is the valley of the shadow of death through which all of us must travel. In part, the shadow is cast by our enlarged egos. (See the posting "The Valley of the Shadow of Death I) In part, though, the shadow is cast by the awareness of our own very real (and unwanted) mortality. We cannot really live until we have embraced the fact that we are going to die. St. Benedict, in his Rule, urged us, without a hint of morbidity, to keep death daily before our eyes. It's a great curative for our self-inflated illusion that we are the rulers of our universe. Death is one reality we cannot rule. Embracing its inevitability frees us from that illusion. Illusions shed like useless baggage free us to travel on with a lighter heart. The language of the psalm reminds us that travel we do. Death is a passage, not a doorless wall. Many people are really afraid to negotiate that passage alone, although my grandmother was wont to say, "Dying is the one thing you have to do alone". Not really, though, as she herself might have added, diligent bible-reader that she was: the Shepherd goes first and goes with, to lead us through.


5 Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.

Here is the reason for getting up out of that refreshing field and moving on: there is a better feast awaiting. The psalmist transforms the Shepherd into the best of hosts, one who anoints the parched and weary arrivals with oil (often read as an image of the Spirit of God by the Christian imagination), sets the table and fills the cups to overflowing. This vision of journey's end, rich in biblical allusions to the great and final feast, reveals the Shepherd's "goodness and mercy" in goading us out of our comfortable oases and making us brave once more the burning desert sands and the icy night of the valley of the shadow of death so that we can finally come to rest in the House of God.

6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.

Back to the unfinished present. We aren't there yet. But the Shepherd's care and the Host's promise give us the courage to believe that we don't have to travel on our own resources. "Goodness" and "mercy" are biblical ways of describing God in shorthand. We still have all the days of our life to get through, but even the valley (or maybe valleys) of the shadow of death don't look so terrifying with goodness and mercy along for company. This seems to me a perennial warning against choosing cynicism or bitterness for traveling companions. They are so inclined to feel more at home in the valley of the shadow of death than in the house of the Lord. I imagine them dragging at our coattails to keep us from leaving the valley for the House of Light.

©2008, Abbey of St. Walburga


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