Dear Parish Faithful,
I am sure that many of our psalter readers have already come across Psalm 42 (which actually begins Book II of the Psalter according to the Hebrew canonical division). And this psalm begins with a beautiful image that has captured the minds and hearts of theologians, artists and believers throughout the centuries:
As a hart longs for flowing streams,
so longs my soul for thee, O God.
My soul thirsts for God,
for the living God.
When shall I come and behold
the face of God? (v. 1-2, RSV)
A "hart," of course is a deer, usually applied to the red dear when over five years old. And "soul" - not to be confused with the Greek use of the word referring to a "substance" distinct from the body - can be translated as "my whole being," or simply as "I."
As the biblical scholar Robert Alter comments on this opening:
The poignancy of this famous line reflects the distinctive tone of this supplication, which instead
of emphasizing the speaker's suffering expresses above all his passionate longing for God.
(The Book of Psalms - Translation with Commentary, p. 148)
This supplication indicates that this psalm is an individual lament; and a lament deepened by unidentified men treating his faith in God with a skepticism. that amounts to cruel taunting. The lament is further expressed by the psalmist being grieved that he does not have access to the Temple in Jerusalem where he could enjoy being in the presence of God, and where he apparently took part in processions leading to the Temple:
My tears have been my food
day and night,
while men say to me continually,
"Where is your God?"
These things I remember,
as I pour out my soul:
how I went with the throng,
and led them in procession to the house of God,
with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving,
a multitude keeping festival.
Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my help and my God. (v. 3-5)
Yet, the last verse above is a kind of refrain in this psalm and expresses his ultimate faith in God (also in v. 11)
For our immediate purpose of meditation and reflection, I would like to explore that beautiful beginning of the psalm and its possible impact on us as we read it. Here is a person - the psalmist - who "longs" for the "living God." This longing can be translated as "yearning" or "desiring." And the "living God" is One who is not an abstract concept or a philosophical ideal. God is not an arid intellectual construct of our minds, but the God "of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob" who invites us into a relationship with Him that will satisfy all the longings of our whole being. At this point, a certain question arises with an irresistible inevitability: Just what do I long/yearn for/desire more than anything else? What is "out there" that can serve as "flowing streams" that can actually satisfy my thirst for that "something" in life that makes my life meaningful? It belongs to our very nature to have that longing. A host of wonderful possibilities arise (we will not concentrate here on those desires awakened by our baser passions, centered around money, sex and power): Do I long for good health and a long life more than anything else? Is it a wonderful and loving spouse that would satisfy my every desire? Would it be for loving children who are not only successful in life, but who are also good human beings with wholesome characters that bring honor and respect to our families? Perhaps it is a circle of faithful friends with whom I can share all of the joys and sorrows of life, always trusting in their support and love? I would have a difficult time understanding someone who would not have a strong desire for those very things just enumerated.
Yet, the psalmist carries us toward an even deeper longing, into that non-temporal and spatially unrestricted reality that corresponds to an inherent thirst for transcendence that exists at the heart of our personal being. This longing cannot quite be satisfied by the best of finite conditions, relationships and fulfilled earthly desires. It can only be satisfied by the living God: "ineffable, inconceivable, invisible, incomprehensible, ever-existing and eternally the same" (Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom). The inexhaustible space in the depths of our hearts can only be filled in a satisfying manner by the presence of God. If I read the Scriptures correctly, any conceivable desire - including the good ones mentioned above - that is more intense than the desire for God would be idolatry. And that never ends well. That our surrounding culture works to suppress that longing for God, or to re-direct it to the finite world of space and time as the only reality is truly sad and can only lead to tragic results for countless persons, as well as deflating our experience of the world around us. Jesus began by challenging us to "change our minds" and re-direct our lives toward God first, and then our families, neighbors, and the beauty of the world around us will open up to new and deeper relationships and well as to a more penetrating gaze. He also declared: "Where your treasure is, there will be your heart also."
So, what is it that we desire with our whole being? Coming to terms with that question may be a good thing to try and accomplish during this Great Lent.