Pain--is missed--in Praise.
In her 1993 book, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography, poet Kathleen Norris documented how the Plains shaped and challenged her soul. She told how a frenzied New York life gave way to an austere North Dakota sojourn, how her agnostic mind gave way to a rekindling of the faith of her grandmothers. This led her in surprising directions. She became a lay preacher in her Presbyterian church and began hanging out at the local Benedictine monastery.
Now, in her follow-up book, The Cloister Walk (Riverhead Books), from which this article comes, Norris explores more deeply her rediscovery of the Christian faith. During two nine-month visits to a Benedictine community in Minnesota, she enters into the premodern monastic world with its ancient rituals, rhythms, and ways of seeing. Her role becomes that of a translator, interpreting what she discovers for modern sensibilities. In this chapter, she focuses on the seemingly familiar psalms, finding them transformed when experienced in the context they were created for: public worship.
Church meant two things to me when I was little: dressing up and singing. I sang in choirs from the time I was four years old and for a long time believed that singing was the purpose of religion, an illusion that was rudely swept away by the rigors of catechesis. Church was also a formal affair, a matter of wearing "Sunday best" and sitting up straight. Like the girl in Anne Sexton's "Protestant Easter, 8 years old" I knew that "when he was a little boy / Jesus was good all the time," and I made a confused attempt to connect his story with what I saw around me on Sunday morning: "They pounded nails into his hands. / After that, well, after that / everyone wore hats . . . / The important thing for me / is that I'm wearing white gloves."
I have lately realized that what went wrong for me in my Christian upbringing is centered in the belief that one had to be dressed up, both outwardly and inwardly, to meet God, the insidious notion that I need be a firm and even cheerful believer before I dare show my face in "his" church. Such a God was of little use to me in adolescence, and like many women of my generation, I simply stopped going to church when I could no longer be "good," which for girls especially meant not breaking rules, not giving voice to anger or resentment, and not complaining.
Not surprisingly, given their disruptive tone, their bold and incessant questioning of God ("How long, O Lord, will you hide yourself forever?" [Ps. 89:46]), the psalms were largely excluded from Sunday worship when I was a girl, except for a handful of the more joyful ones selected as suitable for responsorial reading. The wild and often contradictory poetry of the psalms is still mostly censored out of Christian worship in America, though Catholics, Episcopalians, Lutherans, and other mainstream Protestants hear snippets every Sunday. In worship services that lack a liturgical structure one hears less of the exacting music of poetry than lax, discursive prose that provides the illusion of control over what happens in church, and in the human heart. And the Pentecostal churches that allow for more emotional response in their worship try to exercise control by sentimentalizing emotions. Their "psalms" are likely to be pop tunes about Jesus.
Not having been to church for some 20 years following high school, I rediscovered the psalms by accident, through my unexpected attraction to Benedictine liturgy, of which the psalms are the mainstay. A Benedictine community recites or sings psalms at morning, noon, and evening prayer, going through the entire Psalter every three or four weeks. As I began to immerse myself in monastic liturgy, I found that I was also immersed in poetry and was grateful to find that the poetic nature of the psalms, their constant movement between the mundane and the exalted, means, as British Benedictine Sebastian Moore has said, that "God behaves in the psalms in ways he is not allowed to behave in systematic theology," and also that the images of the psalms, "rough-hewn from earthy experience, [are] absolutely different from formal prayer."
I also discovered, in two nine-month sojourns with the Saint John's community, that as Benedictine prayer rolls on, as daily as marriage and washing dishes, it tends to sweep away the concerns of systematic theology and church doctrine. All of that is there, as a kind of scaffolding, but the psalms demand engagement, they ask you to read them with your whole self, praying, as Saint Benedict says, "in such a way that our minds are in harmony with our voices." Experiencing the psalms in this way allowed me gradually to let go of that childhood God who had set an impossible standard for both formal prayer and faith, convincing me that religion was not worth exploring because I couldn't "do it right."
I learned that when you go to church several times a day, every day, there is no way you can "do it right." You are not always going to sit up straight, let alone think holy thoughts. You're not going to wear your best clothes but whatever is not in the dirty-clothes basket. You come to the Bible's great "book of praises" through all the moods and conditions of life, and while you may feel awful, you sing anyway. To your surprise, you find that the psalms do not deny your true feelings but allow you to reflect on them, right in front of God and everyone. I soon realized, during my first residency at Saint John's, that this is not easy to do on a daily basis. Before, I had always been a guest in a monastery for a week or less, and the experience was often a high. But now I was in it for a nine-month haul, and it was a struggle for me to go to choir when I didn't feel like it, especially if I was depressed (which, of course, is when I most needed to be there). I took great solace in knowing that everyone there has been through this struggle, and that some of them were struggling now with the absurdity, the monotony, of repeating the psalms day after day.
I found that, even if it took a while--some prayer services I practically slept through, others I seemed to be observing from the planet Mars--the poetry of the psalms would break through and touch me. I became aware of three paradoxes in the psalms: that in them pain is indeed "missed-in Praise," but in a way that takes pain fully into account; that though of all the books of the Bible the Psalms speak most directly to the individual, they cannot be removed from a communal context; and that the psalms are holistic in insisting that the mundane and the holy are inextricably linked. The Benedictine method of reading psalms, with long silences between them rather than commentary or explanation, takes full advantage of these paradoxes, offering almost alarming room for interpretation and response. It allows the psalms their full poetic power, their use of imagery and hyperbole ("Awake, my soul, / awake lyre and harp, / I will awake the dawn" [Ps. 57:8]), repetition and contradiction, as tools of word-play as well as the play of human emotions. For all their discipline, the Benedictines allowed me to relax and sing again in church; they allowed me, as one older sister, a widow with ten children, described it, to "let the words of the psalms wash over me, and experience the joy of just being with words." As a poet, I like to be with words. It was a revelation to me that this could be prayer; that this could be enough.
But to the modern reader, the psalms can seem impenetrable: how in the world can we read, let alone pray, these angry and often violent poems from an ancient warrior culture? At a glance, they seem overwhelmingly patriarchal, ill-tempered, moralistic, vengeful, and often seem to reflect precisely what is wrong with our world. And that's the point, or part of it. As one reads the psalms every day, it becomes clear that the world they depict is not really so different from our own; the fourth-century monk Athanasius wrote that the psalms "become like a mirror to the person singing them," and this is as true now as when he wrote it. The psalms remind us that the way we judge each other, with harsh words and acts of vengeance, constitutes injustice, and they remind us that it is the powerless in society who are overwhelmed when injustice becomes institutionalized. Psalm 35, like many psalms, laments God's absence in our unjust world, even to the point of crying, "How long, O Lord, will you look on?" (v. 17). I take an odd comfort in recognizing that the ending of Psalm 12 is as relevant now as when it was written thousands of years ago: "Protect us forever from this generation / [for] . . . the worthless are praised to the skies" (vv. 7-8).
But this is not comfortable reading, and it goes against the American grain. A writer, whose name I have forgotten, once said that the true religions of America are optimism and denial. The psalms demand that we recognize that praise does not spring from a delusion that things are better than they are, but rather from the human capacity for joy. Only when we see this can we understand that both lamentation ("Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord" [Ps. 130:1]) and exultation ("Cry with joy to the Lord, all the earth" [Ps. 100:1]) can be forms of praise. In our skeptical age, which favors appraisal over praise, the psalms are evidence that praise need not be a fruit of optimism. But Benedictine communities draw their members from the world around them and naturally reflect its values to some extent.
Women in American society are conditioned to deny their pain and to smooth over or ignore the effects of violence, even when it is directed against them. As one sister said to me, "Women seem to have trouble drawing the line between what is passive acceptance of suffering and what can transform it." This is the danger that lies hidden in Emily Dickinson's insight that "Pain--is missed--in Praise": that we will try to jump too quickly from one to the other, omitting the necessary but treacherous journey in between, sentimentalizing both pain and praise in the process.
The sister, speaking of the women she counsels--displaced homemakers, abused wives, women returning to college after years away--says, "It doesn't help that the church has such a lousy track record here. We've said all these crappy things to people, especially to women: 'Offer it up,' or 'Suffering will make you strong.' Jesus doesn't say these things. He says, 'This will cost you.'"
Anger is one honest reaction to the cost of pain, and the psalms are full of anger. Psalm 39 begins with a confident assertion of self-control: "I will be watchful of my ways / for fear I should sin with my tongue" (v. 1). The tone soon changes in a way familiar to anyone who is prone to making such resolutions only to watch them fall apart: "The prosperity [of the wicked] stirred my grief. / My heart was burning within me. / At the thought of it, the fire blazed up / and my tongue burst into speech" (vv. 2-3). Typically, although judgment is implied in calling another person wicked, the psalmist's anger is directed primarily at God, with the bitter question, "And now, Lord, what is there to wait for?" (v. 7).
Many Benedictine women find that the psalms provide an outlet for such anger; the psalms do not theologize or explain anger away. One reason for this is that the psalms are poetry, and poetry's function is not to explain but to offer images and stories that resonate with our lives. Walter Brueggemann, a Lutheran theologian, writes in Israel's Praise that in the psalms, pain acts both as "the locus of possibility" and "the matrix of praise." This is a dangerous insight, as risky as Dickinson's. There's a fine line between idealizing or idolizing pain, and confronting it with hope. But I believe that both writers are speaking the truth about the psalms. The value of this great songbook of the Bible lies not in the fact that singing praise can alleviate pain but that the painful images we find there are essential for praise; that without them, praise is meaningless. It becomes the "dreadful cheer" that Minnesota author Carol Bly has complained of in generic American Christianity, which blinds itself to pain and thereby makes a falsehood of its praise.
People who rub up against the psalms every day come to see that, while children may praise spontaneously, it can take a lifetime for adults to recover this ability. One sister told me that when she first entered the convent as an idealistic young woman, she had tried to pretend that "praise was enough." It did not last long. The earthy honesty of the psalms had helped her, she says, to "get real, get past the holy talk and the romantic image of the nun." In expressing all the complexities and contradictions of human experience, the psalms act as good psychologists. They defeat our tendency to try to be holy without being human first. Psalm 6 mirrors the way in which our grief and anger are inextricably mixed; the lament that "I am exhausted with my groaning; / every night I drench my pillow with tears" (v. 6) soon leads to rage: "I have grown old surrounded by my foes. / Leave me, you who do evil" (vv. 7-8). Psalm 38 stands on the precipice of depression, as wave after wave of bitter self-accusation crashes against the small voice of hope. The psalm is clinically accurate in its portrayal of extreme melancholia: "the very light has gone from my eyes" (v. 10), "my pain is always before me" (v. 17), and its praise is found only in the possibility of hope: "It is for you, O Lord, that I wait" (v. 15). Psalm 88 is one of the few that ends without even this much praise. It takes us to the heart of pain and leaves us there, saying, "My one companion is darkness" (v. 18). We can only hope that this darkness is a friend, one who provides a place in which our deepest wounds can heal.
The psalms make us uncomfortable because they don't allow us to deny either the depth of our pain or the possibility of its transformation into praise. As a Benedictine sister in her fifties, having recently come from both the loss of a job and the disintegration of a long-term friendship, put it to me, "I feel as if God is rebuilding me, 'binding up my wounds' " [Ps. 147:3]. "But," she adds, "I'm tired, and little pieces of the psalms are all I can handle. Once you've fallen apart, you take what nourishment you can. The psalms feel like a gentle spring rain: you hardly know that it's sinking in, but something good happens."
The psalms reveal our most difficult conflicts and our deep desire to run from the shadow. In them, the shadow speaks to us directly, in words that are painful to hear. In recent years, some Benedictine houses, particularly women's communities, have begun censoring the harshest of the psalms, often called the "cursing psalms," from their public worship. But one sister, a liturgist, said after visiting such a community, "I began to get antsy, feeling, something is not right. The human experience is of violence, and the psalms reflect our experience of the world."
The psalms are full of shadows--enemies, stark images of betrayal: "Even my friend, in whom I trusted, / who ate my bread, has turned against me" (Ps. 41:9). Psalm 10 contains an image of a lion who "lurks in hiding" (10:9) that calls to my mind the sort of manipulative people whose true colors come out only behind the doors of their "lairs." Psalm 5 pictures flatterers, "their throat a wide-open grave, all honey their speech" (v. 9). As C. S. Lewis has noted in Reflections on the Psalms, when the psalms speak to us of lying and deceit, "no historical readjustment is required. We are in the world we know."
But all-American optimism, largely a middle-class and Protestant phenomenon, does not want to know this world. We want to conquer evil by being nice, and nice people don't want to soil their whole gloves with the gritty anger at the heart of a cursing psalm such as 109, in which the psalmist is driven to cry out against his tormentor: "He loved cursing; let curses fall upon him. / He scorned blessing; let blessing pass him by." The imagery roils like a whirlpool, drawing us in and down: "He put on cursing like his coat; / let it soak into his body like water; / let it sink like oil into his bones" (vv. 17-18).
Evidently in the Hebrew it is clear that this breathtaking catalogue of curses, as one commentary reads, "should be understood as the curses of the psalmist's enemy against him." The intent is to show the bully what it is like to have "no one show any mercy" (v. 12), how it feels to be hated. But the poem also shows us how it feels to hate: its curses are not just a venting of anger but a devastatingly accurate portrait of the psychology of hatred. Though the psalmist starts out speaking of love, of praying for his enemies, he fails as we tend to do when beset by evil, to keep the love foremost.
The psalmist finally reaches out of his paranoiac maelstrom, saying, "Let the Lord thus repay my accusers" (v. 20) and recalling his own true condition: "I am poor and needy / and my heart is pierced within me" (v. 22). This most painful of psalms ends with a whisper of praise, the plea of an exhausted man for help from a God "who stands at the poor man's side / to save him from those who condemn him" (v. 31).
It is good to fall back into silence after reading this psalm out loud, to recall that it is true prayer, in that it leaves ultimate judgment to God. But it also forces us to recognize that calling for God's judgment can feel dangerously good. It became clear to me in Benedictine liturgy that, as one sister explained, the "enemies" vilified in the cursing psalms are best seen as "my own demons, not 'enemies out there.' " But, she added, noting that the psalms always resist an attempt to use them in a facile manner, "you can't simply spiritualize all the enemies away."
Adults can be hypersensitive about admitting to offensive emotions, and children sometimes are more able to allow for the hyperbole of the psalms. I once assigned Psalm 109 in a class I was teaching, and one woman ended up reading it to her nine-year-old granddaughter after she had encountered her in tears. It was a hot afternoon, and the girl had ridden her bike over a mile along a dusty trail to the neighborhood swimming pool, hoping to cool off. But she arrived just as the staff was closing it, and one officious youth was short with her. Her grandmother explained that she had to study a poem about being angry, and it might help to read it aloud. But soon after, she had entered the catalogue of curses--"Let their children be wanderers and beggars / driven from the ruins of their home. / Let creditors seize all their goods" (vv. 10-11)--the child cried out, "Oh, stop! Stop! He's just a college kid!"
The daily praying of the psalms helps monastic people to live with them in a balanced and realistic way, appreciating their hyperbole without taking it as prescriptive. Benedictines become so close to the psalms that they become, as more than one sister told me, "like a heartbeat." The psalms do become a part of a Benedictine's physical as well as spiritual life, acting on the heart to slow it down, something I came to know as I often came to noon prayer with my mind still racing with the work I'd interrupted. Beginning to recite a psalm such as 62, which begins, "In God alone is my soul at rest," I would feel as if I were skidding to a halt. Like many of the psalms, it laments human falsity, those who "with their mouth . . . utter blessing / but in their heart they curse" (v. 4). But the next line: "In God alone be at rest, my soul," offers not only a pleasurable poetic repetition but a shift from pain into hope, a widening of horizons that is not only sound but comforting.
Daily exposure to the psalms also makes it possible to become numb to them, to read even the most stunning poetry ("By God's word the heavens were made, / by the breath of God's mouth all the stars" [Ps. 33:6]) in such a way that you scarcely notice what you've said. But what often happens is that holiness reasserts itself so that even familiar psalms suddenly infuse the events of one's life with new meaning. One sister told me that as she prayed the psalms aloud at the bedside of her dying mother, who was in a coma, she discovered "how perfectly the psalms reflected my own inner chaos: my fear of losing her, or of not losing her and seeing her suffer more, of saying goodbye, of being motherless." She found that the closing lines of Psalm 16--"You will show me the path of life, / the fullness of joy in your presence"--consoled her "as I saw my mother slipping away. I was able to turn her life over to God."
Internalizing the psalms in this way allows contemporary Benedictines to find personal relevance in this ancient poetry. Paradoxically, it also frees them from the tyranny of individual experience. To say or sing the psalms aloud within a community is to recover religion as an oral tradition, restoring to our mouths words that have been snatched from our tongues and relegated to the page, words that have been privatized and effectively silenced. It counters our tendency to see individual experience as sufficient for formulating a vision of the world.
The liturgy that Benedictines have been experimenting with for 1,500-plus years taught me the value of tradition; I came to see that the psalms are holy in part because they are so well used. If so many generations had found solace here, might I also? The holiness of the psalms came to seem like that of a stone that has been held in the palm by countless ancestors, illustrating the difference between what the poet Galway Kinnell has termed the "merely personal," or individual, and the "truly personal," which is individual experience reflected back into community and tradition. That great scholar of mysticism, Evelyn Underhill, makes the same distinction when speaking of prayer, admitting that "devotion by itself has little value . . . and may even be a form of self-indulgence," unless it is accompanied by a transformation of the personal. "The spiritual life of individuals," she writes, "has to be extended both vertically to God and horizontally to other souls; and the more it grows in both directions, the less merely individual and therefore and more truly personal it will be."
Recent scholarship regards the psalms as liturgical poems that were used in ancient Israel's communal worship. Even individual laments such as Psalm 51, it is believed, were incorporated into a public worship setting. But praying the psalms is often disconcerting for contemporary people who encounter Benedictine life: raised in a culture that idolizes individual experience, they find it difficult to recite a lament when they are in a good mood, or to sing a hymn of praise when they are in pain.
The communal recitation of the psalms works against this form of narcissism, the tendency in America to insist that everything be self-discovery. One soon finds that a strength of the monastic choir is that it always contains someone ready to lament over a lifetime of days of "emptiness and pain" (Ps. 90:10) or to shout with a joy loud enough to make "the rivers clap their hands" (Ps. 98:8). Though, as one sister says, "we're so different I sometimes think we live in different universes, the liturgy brings us back to what is in the heart. And the psalms are always instructing the heart." This is not a facile remark. The vow of "conversion of life," which is unique to Benedictines, means that you commit yourself to being changed by the words of the psalms, allowing them to work on you, and sometimes to work you over.
A cursing psalm such as 52--"You love lies more than truth . . . you love the destructive word" (v. 3)--might occasion self-recrimination, demanding that we pray it for someone who is angry with us, and also reflection on just how justified that person might be in leveling such an accusation against us. Psalm 22, which moves dramatically from pain ("My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" [v. 1]) to prophetic praise ("All the earth shall remember and return to the Lord" [v. 27]), might pose a challenge to the rational mind. What if there is no one to hear such a prayer? What if one is simply too exhausted by despair to pray it? Herein lies the gift of communal worship. "In the really hard times," says one sister, "when it's all I can do to keep breathing, it's still important for me to go to choir. I feel as if the others are keeping my faith for me, pulling me along."
It helps that the psalms themselves keep moving. In a monastic choir, they inevitably pull a person out of private prayer, into community, and then into the world, into what might be termed praying the news. Psalm 74's lament on the violation of sacred space--"Every cave in the land is a place where violence has made its home" (v. 20)--has become for me a prayer for the victims and perpetrators of domestic violence. Watching television footage of the Los Angeles riots of early 1992 gave me a new context for the words of Psalm 55 that I encountered the next morning in the monastic choir: "I see nothing but violence and strife in the city" (v. 9). Hearing Psalm 79 ("They have poured out water like blood in Jerusalem / there is no one left to bury the dead" [v. 3]) as I read of civil war in the Balkans forces me to reflect on the evil that tribalism and violence, often justified by religion, continue to inflict on our world.
But the relentless realism of the psalms is not depressing in the way that television news can be, although many of the same events are reported: massacres, injustices to those who have no one to defend them, people tried in public by malicious tongues. As a book of praises, meant to be sung, the Psalter contains a hope that "human interest" stories tacked onto the end of a news broadcast cannot provide. The psalms mirror our world but do not allow us to become voyeurs. In a nation unwilling to look at its own violence, they force us to recognize our part in it. They make us re-examine our values.
When we want to "feel good about ourselves" (which I have heard seriously proposed as the purpose of worship), when we have gone to the trouble to "get a life," current slang suggesting that life itself is a commodity, how can we say, with the psalmist, "I am poor and needy" (Ps. 40:17) or "my life is but a breath" (Ps. 39:5)? It seems so negative, even if it is true. How can we read Psalm 137, one of the most troubling of the psalms and also one of the most beautiful? The ultimate song of exile, it begins: "By the waters of Babylon / there we sat and wept, / remembering Zion."
In a line that expresses the bitterness of colonized people everywhere, the psalmist continues:
For it was there that they asked us,
our captors, for songs,
our oppressors, for joy.
"Sing to us," they said,
"one of Zion's songs."
O how could we sing
the song of the Lord
on alien soil? (Ps. 137:3-4)
These lines have a special poignancy for women: All too often, for reasons of gender as well as poverty and race, we find that our journey from girlhood to womanhood is an exile to "alien soil." And how do feminist women, who often feel as if we are asked to sing in the midst of an oppressive patriarchy, asked to dress pretty and act nice, read such a psalm? We may feel, as radical feminists do, that the very language we speak is an oppressor's tongue. How, then, do we sing?
If the psalm does not offer an answer, it allows us to dwell on the question. And as one encounters this psalm over and over again in Benedictine liturgy, it asks us to acknowledge that being uprooted and forced into servitude is not an experience alien to our "civilized" world. The speaker could be one of today's refugees or exiles, an illegal alien working in an American sweat shop for far less than the minimum wage, a slave laborer in China. When one reads the psalm with this in mind, the closing verse, containing an image of unspeakable violence against Israel's Babylonian captors, comes as no surprise: "O Babylon, destroyer, / he is happy who repays you the ills you brought on us. / He shall seize and shall dash / your children on the rock!" (vv. 8-9).
These lines are the fruit of human cruelty; they let us know the depth of the damage we do when we enslave other people, when we blithely consume the cheap products of cheap labor. But what does it mean to find such an image in a book of prayer, a hymnbook of "praises"? The psalms are unrelenting in their realism about the human psyche. They ask us to consider our true situation and to pray over it. They ask us to be honest about ourselves and admit that we, too, harbor the capacity for vengeance. This psalm functions as a cautionary tale: such a desire, left unchecked, whether buried under "niceness" or violently acted out, can lead to a bitterness so consuming that even the innocent are not spared.
What the psalms offer us is the possibility of transformation, of converting a potentially deadly force such as vengeance into something better. What becomes clear when one begins to engage the psalms in a profound way--and the Benedictines insist that praying them communally, every day, is a good place to start--is that it can come to seem as if the psalms are reading and writing us. This concept comes from an ancient understanding, derived from the Hebrew word for praise, tehilla, that, in the words of the Benedictine Damasus Winzen, "comes from hallal which does not only mean 'to praise' but primarily means 'to radiate' or 'to reflect.' " He states that "the medieval Jewish poet Jehuda Halevi expressed beautifully the spirit of the Psalter when he said: 'Look on the glories of God, and awaken the glory in thee.' "
I never felt particularly glorious at morning, noon, or evening prayer in my time with the Benedictines, but I did begin to sense that a rhythm of listening and response was being established between me and the world of the psalms. I felt as if I were becoming part of a living, lived-in poem, a relationship with God that revealed the holy not only in ordinary words but in the mundane events of life, both good and bad. As I was plunged into mysteries beyond my understanding-the God the psalmist has exhorted to speech ("O God, do not keep silence" [Ps. 83:1]) suddenly speaking in the voice of the mysterium tremendum ("from the womb before the dawn I begot you" [Ps. 110:3])--I recognized the truth of what one sister told me. She compared Benedictine liturgy to "falling in love, because you don't enter into it knowing the depths. It's a relationship you live with until you begin to understand it."
In the dynamic of this liturgy one rides the psalms like a river current, noticing in passing how alien these ancient and sophisticated texts are, and how utterly accessible. When I encountered Psalm 61, which asks God to "set me on a rock too high for me to reach" (v. 2), I think of the dying ten-year-old girl in Robert Coles's The Spiritual Life of Children, who said as she slipped into a final coma, "I'd like to go to that high rock." When I read Psalm 131 with its image of the soul as "a weaned child on its mother's breast" (v. 2), I remember the Benedictine sister retired from a university professorship on account of a debilitating illness who said, "For so many years, I was taught that I had to 'master' subjects. But who can 'master' beauty, or peace, or joy? This psalm speaks of the grace of childhood, not of being childish. One of my greatest freedoms is to see that all the pretenses and defenses I put up in the first part of my life, I can spend the rest of my life taking down. This psalm tells me that I'm a dependent person, and that it's not demeaning."
There is much beauty in the psalms to stir up childlike wonder: the God who made whales to play with, who calls the stars by name, who asks us to drink from the stream of delight. Though as adults we want answers, we will sometimes settle for poetry and begin to see how it is possible to say, "My soul sings psalms to God unceasingly" (Ps. 30:12), even if that means, in the words of one Benedictine nun, "I pray best in the dentist's chair."
The height and depth of praise urged on us in the psalms ("Let everything that lives and that breathes / give praise to the Lord" [Ps. 150:6]) can heighten our sense of marvel and awaken our capacity to appreciate the glories of this world. One Benedictine woman has told me of herself and another sister getting permission from their superior, in the days before Vatican II, to don army-surplus parkas and ski-patrol pants and go cross-country skiing in the early spring. Coming to a wooded hill, the women sank in waist-deep snow and discovered at their feet a patch of hypatia blossoms. "There'd been an early snow that fall," she said, "and those plants were still emerald green, with flower buds completely encased in ice. To me this was 'honey from the rock' [Ps. 81:16]. It was finding life where you least expect it."
Sometimes these people who live immersed, as all Benedictines do, in the poetry of the Psalter, are granted an experience that feels like a poem, in which familiar words that have become like old friends suddenly reveal their power to bridge the animal and human worlds, to unite the living and the dead. Psalm 42, like many psalms, moves the way our emotions do, in fits and starts: "Why are you cast down, my soul, / why groan within me? / Hope in the Lord, I will praise God still" (v. 5). But its true theme is a desire for the holy that, whatever form it takes, seems to be a part of the human condition, a desire easily forgotten in the pull and tug of daily life, where groans of despair can predominate. One sister wrote to me: "Some winters ago, when ice covered all the lands surrounding our priory, deer came close in search of food. We had difficulty keeping them from eating our trees and even the shrubs in our cemetery." Having been at the convent for many years, she had known most of the women buried there. One morning she woke to find that "each deer had selected a particular tombstone to lie behind, oblivious to us watching from the priory windows. The longing for God expressed at the beginning of Psalm 42, 'Like the deer that yearns / for running streams, / so my soul is yearning / for you, My God,' has stayed with me ever since."
Kathleen Norris is the author of Dakota: A Spiritual Geography and three volumes of poetry. Reprinted by arrangement with Riverhead Books, a member of the Putnam Berkeley Group, Inc., from The Cloister Walk by Kathleen Norris, copyright 1996 by Kathleen Norris.
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