O LORD, you have searched me and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways.
Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O LORD.
You hem me in--behind and before; you have laid your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain.
Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea,
Even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.
The Hebrew fathers of the contemplative Christian tradition were the great poets of the Psalms. The 150 songs of praise, some ascribed to King David himself, formed the foundation of Jesus's own education and became the chief cornerstone of the "Divine Office", the monastic tradition of prayers sung seven times a day.
What is utterly astonishing about the psalms is the enormous diversity of moods and attitudes these poems contain. Some, like Psalm 42, are fervent odes of longing ("As the deer pants for the waterbrook, so yearns my soul for you, O God"); others, like Psalm 98, are songs of exultation and celebration ("Let the rivers clap their hands, let the mountains sing together for joy"). A surprising number carry the weight of grief ("By the waters of Babylon, we sat down and wept") or shame (Psalm 31 reads, " I am the scorn of all my adversaries, a horror to my neighbors, an object of dread to my acquaintances; those who see me in the street flee from me.."). Nothing within the human experience is off limits, not even betrayal (" For it was not an enemy that reproached me; Then I could have borne it: Neither was it he that hated me that did magnify himself against me; Then I would have hid myself from him. But it was thou, a man mine equal, My companion, and my familiar friend.").
As a child, I used to believe in pretty prayers, filled with polite language and respectful petitions. Studying and praying the psalms has changed that, for the Psalms are seldom polite. Rather, they are intimate., with all the force and power of a truly unguarded relationship, revealing all the passions, hopes, desires, beauty and ugliness of the entire range of the really real . I struggled for years with the psalms of darkness, those lenses into the worst aspects of the human psyche. Psalm 109, for example, begs on behalf of an enemy, " Let his children be fatherless, and his wife a widow. Let his children be continually vagabonds, and beg: let them seek their bread also out of their desolate places" . While I still have an enormous preference for the poems of beauty and love, I have begun to understand that what the complete psalter presents is an invitation, a model for us to bring our whole selves (however small and petty and deeply flawed) to the altar, to hold nothing back in our relationship with the Sacred. Even doubt and despair are reverenced as holy: Jesus's last dying words were from Psalm 22, " My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"
I think this is why the monastic tradition insists on praying the entire book of 150 psalms- every week. Over time, monks and nuns learn to chant the entire book by heart. Some poems are emphasized more (the sweet and short Psalm 134 is sung every single evening for Compline), but each and every one is included at least once a week, offering a profound recognition and acceptance of the complexity of what it means to be fully human.
This lovely painting by Perugino speaks to the little acknowledged history of the Christian church: it is the love child between a Jewish father ( Hebraic monotheism) and Pagan mother ( the Orphic and Eleusinain mysteries). In Perugino's image, this is represented by the Hebrew prophets on the left (including Solomon and David) and the female Sibyls on the right (the wise women oracles of the Ancient world).
The Christian Contemplative tradition has some rather startling ancestors, it turns out, including the wise old mathematician Pythagoras. In the coming weeks, I'll share images and stories that I have discovered as I have traced the family tree of contemplative practice.