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Learning  Wisdom from the Psalms

July 19, 2010

wisdomI’d like to begin with a story that a friend of ours, a Director of Novices of his religious community, would often tell.   A novice of his once said to him, and I’m sure it was more than one who did this, “I don’t get anything out of praying the psalms.”  Since the novice had been in the community for some time the Director knew him well.  And so his response to him was:  “I think you have difficulty with the psalms because you have difficulty receiving anything that is given to you.”  The Novice Director here was pointing to a lack, one I think we can all recognize to some degree in ourselves, of what Fr. Adrian van Kaam calls “transcendent openness.”  The depth of our encounter with the Psalms, and thus of their meaningfulness to us, depends on the level of our transcendent openness, our capacity in the moment to attune to, receive, and respond to new disclosures of the Spirit to us.

    Adrian Van Kaam points out that we are a “fundamental possibility” for deepening spiritual presence but that this must be activated by a personal readiness for deepening.  The new spiritual disclosures that life is always offering to us only rise in our awareness when this possibility and this readiness coincide.  In the story above, we see the director pointing to the fact that his novice lacks spiritual readiness, because his mind and perhaps heart are closed to anything that he doesn’t already possess.  He lacks what Nicholas of Cusa calls “learned ignorance,” that highest level of human knowing that lives in awareness of how little it really knows.

    The Psalms, as all of the Sacred Scriptures, are language of a very special kind, a language that Jesus invites us to make our home in, because it is a dwelling place of the deepest hospitality wherein we meet the Other and are formed, through our transcendent openness and capacity, into that Divine life that is our true Way of Being.  But to enter that dwelling place requires a “spiritual readiness” characterized by the learned ignorance of which Isaiah speaks:

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,

nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.

For as the heavens are higher than the earth,

so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.

                    (Is. 55:8-9)

The Psalms, as all Sacred Words, mediate to us the mind and heart of God, the life of Spirit, but they require of us a “spiritual readiness” which is a not knowing.  They require a presence that seeks not only to understand but also a willingness to receive what we do not understand.

    The Psalms are constantly reminding us of who we are and of who God is.  And although we are created in God’s image, although God has “put all things under our feet” in the words of Psalm 8, the same Psalm also reminds us that it is God’s name that is great.  In the words of Psalm 24, “the Earth is the Lord’s and its fullness, the seas and all who dwell in it.”    It is God who established the earth out of the chaos.  In the Biblical view it is God’s Spirit that keeps the chaos at bay, and it is humankind’s place to witness to this truth.  God is indeed God.  The glory of humankind, and the wholeness and consonance of our lives, cosmically, communally, and personally lie in our awareness, recognition, and praise of the Creator and the witness and testimony such a way of living gives.  In his small book Praying the Psalms, Thomas Merton quotes St. Augustine:

We are taught to praise God in the Psalms, not that God may get something out of this praise, but in order that we may be made better by it.  Praising God in the words of the Psalms, we can come to know God better.  Knowing God better we love God better, loving God better we find our happiness in God.  (p. 12).

Merton points out, “The Psalms being hymns of praise, they only reveal their full meaning to those who use them in order to praise God.  To understand the Psalms, we must experience the sentiments they express in our own hearts.  We must sing them to God and make our own all the meaning they contain.” (p. 13).

    St. John of the Cross points out that one measure of one’s transformation in the Spirit is the passing from seeing God in all things to seeing all things in God.  This is the way that the Psalms see all things.  And so, as Merton suggests, we begin to understand the Psalms as we also begin to see all things, including ourselves, and all aspects of our lives “in God.”  When we enter the words of the Psalms, by heart, when we praise God, as the Psalmist does, with our whole being, our minds and hearts become one with the mind and heart of God.

    Psalm 90 shows us the dynamic of this process. It begins by bringing us into that place that is our true home, the place of our eternal life:  “You have been our abode in every generation.”  The Psalm then explicates the contrast between God’s eternity and our facticity.  When we choose to live separated from the life of God, we are “returned to dust,” caught in a life that is, to quote Thomas Hobbes, “nasty, brutish, and short.”  The following verses contrast our life of time with that of God.  As human beings we live in forgetfulness, we act, speak, relate, and live as if we are eternal.  Psalm 90 invites us to begin to see time as God sees it.  “For a thousand years in Your eyes are like yesterday gone, like a watch in the night.”  (v.4)  To God our life is like that of the grass that sprouts in the morning and passes or at least changes at night.  In the memorable words of verse 12:  “To count our days rightly, instruct,/that we may get a heart of wisdom.”   The Psalm invites us to see the time of our lives, of the earth’s life, as God sees it and says that as we do so we will develop “a heart of wisdom.”  But in order to know time as the Infinite God does we must “count our days rightly.”

    We must know our finitude and our human limits.  It is by recognizing and beyond that by appropriating and accepting our finitude that we gain wisdom of heart.  And from that wisdom we recognize that all is gift, including our fragility and vulnerability.  It is out of a sense of gratitude that we praise God, and this gratitude is born of the realization that Creation, including our own life, is a gift.  We are living in the proper order of things when we live in gratitude and when our lives are filled with praise, rejoicing, and gladness.  But this is not naïve optimism, it comes from wisdom of heart.

    The Zen Master Kosho Uchiyama in his text Opening the Hand of Thought writes:

Living in peace is the unfettered realization of life as life and is not at all off in the clouds.  Rather, all reality, undisturbed by thought, is reflected as it interdependently appears and disappears.  Genuine peace is like a clear mirror that simply reflects all images as they are, without anything sticking to it. (pp. 106-7).

It is our own ideas that stick to the mirror and that cloud our wisdom of heart.  It is simple presence to things as they are (“to count our days rightly, instruct, that we may get a heart of wisdom”) and not as we would re-create them in our own minds that is the source of real wisdom.

    In a sermon on the parable of the weeds and the wheat Reinhold Niebuhr writes:

Human beings are creature and creator.  We would not be creators if we could not overlook the human scene and be able to establish goals beyond those of nature and to discriminate between good and evil.  We must do these things.  But we must also remember that no matter how high our creativity may rise, we ourselves are involved in the flow of time, and we become evil at the precise point where we pretend not to be, when we pretend that our wisdom is not finite but infinite, and our virtue is not ambiguous but unambiguous. (italics added, p. 48, The Essential Niebuhr) .

    When we cease “to count our days rightly,” that is forget the difference between who we are and who God is, then we, as readily as anyone, can become evil.  The Psalms remind us not to despise our human state, our actual life, but rather to receive it as God gives it to us and thus wisely to respond to the gift with gratitude and joy.

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