29 September 2010

150 (16-18)

16.  I never felt that I had to explain God using the language of theology because for as long as I could remember, I have been conscious of God's presence.  I'm not denying that there have been times when I have done all I could with my limited human powers to banish that presence from my life and other times when I felt that presence but have been as determined as I could possibly be to deny that sense of presence unabashedly, angrily, or destructively.  But fundamentally, the relationship has always existed. 

"I have set the Eternal always before me; God is at my right hand side--surely, I shall not be moved.  Therefore my heart is glad and my glory rejoices, my being is secure."  Well, not always.  But often.  I'm the first to admit I fall short and would like to get to a stage where I can stop with these childish rebellions.  "You make me to know the path of life; in your presence is fullness of joy."  It's true.  There's happiness and then there's "fullness of joy."  I've felt that a few times in my life.  One time during the early stages of my serious adult pursuit of Judaism, I was sitting in shul waiting for Kabbalat Shabbat services to begin and I felt my soul leave my body.  I could smell Shabbat dinner cooking in the kitchen at Hillel; I could hear students and faculty enter the prayer space and greet one another; my feet were on the ground, my butt was in my chair; but my essence seemed elsewhere, heavenward.  My father had been gone for more than a year but I was re-constructing my life without him using the tools and scaffolding of Judaism.  Shabbat was a place of refuge.  To be there, in its comforting shade, brought happiness that was no mere fleeting expression.  It didn't last, but it was a window opened on eternity.  It's always felt the same on the few other occasions such moments occurred.  "In Your right hand, pleasantness for ever."

17.  From the fullness of certainty in the 16th psalm comes David's prayer, begging for mercy.  My God, how fleeting were his moments of peace and tranquility.  No sooner is that peace experienced than the shadow and threat of violence falls, yet again. 

What a beautiful morning we woke up to today.  I even managed to get the kids out of the house without a major fight over clothing, breakfast, teeth-brushing or generally, school.  The air was fresh, the rain had passed, we were all light on our feet.  But walking down 8th Avenue, for a stretch of three or four blocks, each of the garbage cans that had been set out for pick-up, were dumped out, their disgusting comments spread across the walkway as a kind of dystopic minefield of Park Slope consumerism.  Who did it?  A crazy person?  A violent person?  A vengeful person?  Was it an art installation?

Sometimes, even in mild forms, destruction pursues us.  And we cannot hide, though we want to.  I thought back to our elevator ride downstairs this morning.  The girls, Nathan and I hopped on the car and a little neighbor, around 4, got on with his folks.  We said good morning and he immediately hid in his mother's arms.  "He's shy," she said.  "He wants to hide," I said.  I get it.  Who doesn't want that on occasion?  To be shaded, protected, shielded, by what we must face:  a conversation, the assault of noise and garbage, the onslaught of poverty, violence and war.  I mean, some days, you just don't want to get out of bed.

"Keep me as the apple of the eye; hide me in the shadow of Your wings."  Just for a few more minutes.  And then, with You showing me the way, let's go clean up more of this mess we've inherited here on earth.

18.  Visually, a thing of beauty.  I have no doubt David wrote it that way.  As I'm taking notes on these psalms, I keep a small notebook and my reaction to some psalms is graphically different than others.  We engage the word with word, with picture, with song, with silence.  But the 18th, like its clear inspiration in Moses' triumphant songs in the Torah, has a form all its own.

I like staring it.  Like a passing cloud, its shapes shift.  The poem opens with a nearly manic listing of God's metaphorical imagery of unmovable power:  Rock.  Shield.  Fortress.  Horn.  Tower.  And then a clear and proud expression of triumph over death.  David has triumphed and he is ecstatic and that shows, both in the language and in the graphic depiction.  Nature is in upheaval at the epic, divine battles for God's holy ones; the cosmological creation process moves in reverse to original time, chaos and disorder, before a new order breaks through.  The very foundations of the earth shake.  And David, like Moses at the beginning of the Exodus tale, is "drawn from the water" in order to redeem his people. 

In this fit of triumphant hysteria, he has one of his most subtle and powerful insights:  God is what we make God to be.  To the righteous God is righteous; to the merciful God is merciful; to the pure God is pure; and to the crooked God is crooked, subtle, quick with a curse.  What you see is what you show.  The Freudians might call this "projection."  For the religiously inclined, we might say that the world we build is the world we live in.  And when we're passive agents of having things always done to us, our "God" is passive, too.  So David, in his strength and victory, composes this celebratory words:
"Great is your salvation you give to your king--it's a tower we built!  You show mercy to your anointed one, to David and those who will follow, for evermore."  The spaces between the words, remarkable moments of quiet and reflection--which great leaders are capable of doing--in the midst of chaos, battle, war and triumph.

1 comment:

Marco Siegel-Acevedo said...

Thanks, Andy, for sharing the visual of Psalm 18. Where, say, a Roman Catholic raised on stained-glass iconography might feel that a text-based faith like Judaism is almost too austere, I find the abstraction of Hebrew to be so apt. It provides illuminating metaphor: you see a morphing cloud, I see a tree against the sky--sometimes the leaves are in the spaces, and sometimes they're in the Hebrew characters, twisting and turning in the breeze. So much more gratifying, and sensible, than anthropomorphism: looking for the face of God in the sunset, or on a piece of burnt toast.