Sunday, December 24, 2006

A Commentary on Psalm 42

Psalm 42 (English Standard Version)

To the choirmaster. A Maskil[a] of the Sons of Korah.

1 As a deer pants for flowing streams,
so pants my soul for you, O God.
2 My soul thirsts for God,
for the living God.
When shall I come and appear before God?[b]
3 My tears have been my food
day and night,
while they say to me continually,
"Where is your God?"
4 These things I remember,
as I pour out my soul:
how I would go with the throng
and lead them in procession to the house of God
with glad shouts and songs of praise,
a multitude keeping festival.

5 Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my salvation[c] 6and my God.

My soul is cast down within me;
therefore I remember you
from the land of Jordan and of Hermon,
from Mount Mizar.
7 Deep calls to deep
at the roar of your waterfalls;
all your breakers and your waves
have gone over me.
8 By day the LORD commands his steadfast love,
and at night his song is with me,
a prayer to the God of my life.
9 I say to God, my rock:
"Why have you forgotten me?
Why do I go mourning
because of the oppression of the enemy?"
10As with a deadly wound in my bones,
my adversaries taunt me,
while they say to me continually,
"Where is your God?"

11Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my salvation and my God.

Psalm 42 is a profound and beautiful poem that succinctly encapsulates the spiritual life. It begins very appropriately in highlighting the flaming heart and impetus of man's spiritual quest: the inexorable thirst for the living God--the yearning for the eternal perfections that nothing but a divine Love and Life can satisfy. Throughout the Old Testament, the encounter with the God of Israel is likened to a divine feast and celebration. Again and again, the Israelites are invited to "taste and see that the LORD is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him!" (Psalm 34:8). And the necessity of a single-minded hunger for God is emphasized tirelessly. Thus are the Israelites commanded above all to 'love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength" (Deuteronomy 6:5). And thus did the prophet Isaiah (55:1) cry out in words suffused with divine desire:

Come, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and he who has no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.

The fourfold 'come' expresses not so much man's desire for God, but God's thirst that we may thirst for him. For the increasing revelation of God will finally reveal that it is not so much we who love God, but it is really God who love us, and that 'God is love' (1 John 4:16). As St John explains, "This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins." (1 John 4:10)

Indeed from a Christian perspective, the death of Christ on a cross is the supreme sign of God's yearning for an estranged humanity. The Son of God is also the Lamb 'who takes away the sin of the world' (John 1:29). It is this sacrifice that tears apart the veil (Isaiah 25:7) which blinds those who 'loved the darkness rather than the light" (John 3:19). It is this cup and baptism (Mark 10:39) that frees men to seek God with burning hearts. It is at this culmination of utter self-giving that Jesus fulfills the profoundest yearnings of Hebrew spirituality and his own words of supreme invitation:

"I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst." (John 6:35)

"If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. 38Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, 'Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.'" (John 7:38)

For the mountain of the cross is where the eternal banquet is inaugurated, where the words of Isaiah are fulfilled in their deepest sense:

On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine,
of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined.
7And he will swallow up on this mountain
the covering that is cast over all peoples,
the veil that is spread over all nations.
8He will swallow up death forever;
and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from all faces,
and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth,
for the LORD has spoken. (Isaiah 25:6-8)

Even more profoundly perhaps, in that moment of supreme sublimity, the Son of God and the Son of Man cried out, 'I thirst' (John 19:28)—revealing the consuming Love and naked Jealousy that thirsts for us, and the corresponding thirst for Him who alone satisfies. It is at that moment that the primordial thirst of man becomes one with the divine thirst of God.

Psalm 42 is surely right in describing how the journey to God, this journey fired by an implacable flaming in one's thirsting heart, is one of spiritual night and day--of the Cross and the Resurrection. When 'deep calls to deep', when aspirations wing upwards in prayer and call, sometimes only dreadful silence sounds. No rain of fire falls, the voice of consolation is mute, and there is no light or power or vision or love--just dryness and an endless desert, where we ask together with the Psalmist, 'When shall I come and appear before God?" And if we are brought to the uttermost abyss, then even Christ's desolate words, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Mark 15:34), must be our own.

In the spiritual nights sustained only by the song of God, "a prayer to the God of my life", the Christian, like the Psalmist, must continually seek the grace to manifest one's faith, ceaselessly urging oneself to believe, to hope and to persevere:

Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my salvation and my God.

Your will, not mine, be done (Matthew 26:39)—in the dark night, Christ’s sublime prayer in Gethsemane must become the soul's own anthem. In utter dryness, one must cling on to God with a burning heart and will, not running far as we are tempted to do, but staying close to Christ crucified, seeking him still and fulfilling his will. For when night falls, the light of God dims, but still burns hidden-- an occult but sovereign Presence in our inner parts.

Yet as almost every seeker of God eventually discovers, the Divine and his servants are unfortunately not our only companions in the night. Instead the night can be full of claws, possessed of menacing dreams and fatal emissaries from shadowy kingdoms. The Psalmist laments his 'deadly wound', the 'oppression of the enemy':

My adversaries taunt me,
while they say to me continually,
"Where is your God?"

This refers superficially to the voice of unhelpful men but from a spiritual perspective, our real adversaries could only be the "the rulers..the authorities...the cosmic powers over this present darkness...the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places" (Ephesians 6:12), that stalk the manifold worlds behind the physical veil. These forces vehemently resist every step towards God and figure in various incarnations in diverse religions and mythologies. In a type of modern mentality, scoured clean by an austere materialism, belief in the existence of these beings is seen as a foolish conviction born of archaic superstitions.

If only this were so. The truth of the matter is quite otherwise, and the dawn of the spiritual sun in one's heart quickly attracts not only God's grace, but also the hostile opposition of dark beings who seek through temptation and falsehood to overthrow us. In the Psalm, the temptation is towards despair and doubt; in our moments of frailty, in a lonely quest through an interminable desert, these false lights whisper, touch or even enter into our beings, implanting tendencies and suggestions that bear fatal fruit if they are not firmly rejected. The archetypal accounts will be Christ's temptation in the desert, where he withstood evil, and the fall of Adam and Eve, where they yielded to the serpent's deception.

In its full extent, the power of evil is enormous, even having a seeming semblance to infinity-- and it seems strange that mere human beings can withstand the assaults of this mighty empire(s). Yet as the gospels clearly show, Christ has full sovereignty over the forces of evil, and this authority is to some degree transmitted to his disciples. The twelve apostles were actually given "power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases" (Luke 9:1). And later to the seventy-two disciples who were sent out before him, they were promised the authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy' (Luke 10:19).

Clearly the power to resist the infernal hosts resides in those with faith in God. The quotes above probably refer mainly to the gift of exorcism, which is perhaps quite rare. But in most circumstances, victory in spiritual warfare does not involve words of power, blasts of mighty energies, extravagant explosions and fierce sword fights in the ether--instead the main power needed is something more humble, yet no less potent: a true and sincere heart. Ultimately all temptation tests our loyalty to God's will and our sincerity in moving towards Him. We can see this most clearly in the temptation of Christ:

"Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. 3And the tempter came and said to him, "If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread." 4But he answered, "It is written,

"'Man shall not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.'"

5Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple 6and said to him, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written,

"'He will command his angels concerning you,'


"'On their hands they will bear you up,
lest you strike your foot against a stone.'"

7Jesus said to him, "Again it is written, 'You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.'" 8Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. 9And he said to him, "All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me." 10Then Jesus said to him, "Be gone, Satan! For it is written,

"'You shall worship the Lord your God
and him only shall you serve.'"

11Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and were ministering to him."

(Matthew 4)

Temptations are often made palatable with fragmented truth and spurious justifications, as could be seen in how the devil twists even the word of God into an instrument of evil. Worse, temptation occurs often at our weakest points and moments, where our desires are already half-inclined towards doing what evil suggests: notice the devil tempting Christ to create bread only after a 40 day fast. In the case of the Psalmist, the temptation towards doubt and despair is in a situation that is probably extremely bleak--the equivalent of a spiritual fast.

And temptation often starts small, in a seemingly reasonable way, where the sinfulness of the proposed course of action is often far from obvious. Satan did not descend with his full infernal glory and boom at Christ to 'WORSHIP ME!'--not at first anyway. Instead, he counsels, like a good friend, the perfectly reasonable course of eating when you are starving. After all, he seems to tell Christ, in addition to your obviously groaning stomach, if you are truly the sovereign Son of God, the Word above all things, what can't you just do what you want? Surely it is your imperial right? Yet if Christ, like us in many situations, were to yield to the smaller temptation, he will be in much poorer position to face off the rest. It is a terribly slippery slope, and utmost vigilance is necessary in the spiritual life where it is unfortunately true that "the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few" (Matthew 7:14).

Yet despite all the difficulties, a sincere heart true to the will of God, something that all human beings potentially possess, is the main thing that allows Christ to fend off the devil. Being the supreme Word, he no doubt could have exorcised the devil with a glance, but he chose to defeat the devil as an ordinary man, not as God. In all three temptations, he refers with full faith and sincerity back to the fundamental truth that the duty of all human beings is to trust God totally, to serve him, worship him and love him only. It is his total commitment to the divine will, echoing and completing the 'fiat' of Mary, his mother: "Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word" (Luke 1:38), that allowed his Mission to be founded on eternal Rock.

And ultimately that is what God asks for, and that is what will tide us through every temptation and night. Far from demanding the impossible, God asks for something much simpler, a fidelity and courage and truth well within our capabilities, and gives all the grace necessary for victory. And despite all the inevitable hardships, battles, terrors and wounds of the spiritual war, God who is love permits all these only because the gain is eternal and totally exceeds the transient suffering. Nothing is more certain than that the Father of all love does not pile on heavy burdens, scorching thirst, manifold weaknesses and terrors if they do not lead to a far surpassing joy.

As St Paul points out, 'the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us' (Romans 8:18). Indeed the nights of sufferings and temptations are but transient: curative and creative, they constitute the crucifixion and mystical death necessary to destroy 'the body of sin', one's old and corrupted being, so that 'we would no longer be enslaved to sin' (Romans 6:6). On the other hand, the growth and perennial resurrection of our immortal spirit and inner being, of 'the inner man that is renewed day by day' (2 Corinthians 4:16) is an everlasting daylight never to be taken from us, a ‘pearl of great price’ (Matthew 13:46, KJV) worth all sacrifices.

Moreover, the deeper the Cross the greater the Resurrection: "everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more" (Luke 12:48). God bestows exceptional crosses on those whom he chooses to give his greatest and rarest gifts. Reassured of this, even in the darkest night, we can say with St Paul that 'neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.' (Romans 8:38-9). Every night leads to a greater day, and even in the 'valley of the shadow of death' (Psalm 23:4), God walks close.

Thus if we cling on in faith, trusting inexorably like the farmer that 'waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains' (James 5:7), there will be an increasing and transfiguring union with God in one’s immortal parts. This can take many forms, for the Spirit of God manifests differently in each person, depending on one’s nature and destiny. We have this classic summary by St Paul:

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; 5and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; 6and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. 7To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. 8To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, 9to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. 11All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills. (1 Corinthians 12)

St Paul also ranks the importance of the various gifts:

28 God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues. 29Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret? 31But earnestly desire the higher gifts. (1 Corinthians 12)

It is beyond the scope of this article and the ability of the writer to describe all the gifts named here. No doubt as St Paul points out, no one will have the same gifts, or the same ways of manifesting God. Those with a contemplative bent will probably be given the gift of prophecy--in the wider sense of being empowered to hear the word of God, see visions, and indeed sometimes to develop an inner touch, taste and smell as well. This gift is by definition well developed in the prophets of Israel, and the faculty of vision appears to be more prominent in some (e.g. Ezekiel and Daniel). St Paul also seems to describe the gift as being a faculty of general supernatural knowledge: "And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge..." (1 Corinthians 13:2). In the widest sense, this gift can be described as a sharing in 'the mind of Christ' (1 Corinthians 2:16).

The prophetic gift is primarily useful in revealing God and his will more and more--to know "the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ" (2 Corinthians 4:6). The more common results include a serene Love and Presence that guards one's heart, a blissful Light and Truth that blazes in fire, raining from above, of the Face of Christ revealed in humility in the Bread of Communion and in the heart of all things. Through all these, "we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit." (2 Corinthians 3:17-18)

We see in the prophets of the Old and New Testament how this gift can also involve a supernatural knowledge of all things in general, and thus the gift of the 'distinguishing between spirits' could perhaps be considered a narrower variety of the prophetic gift. Probably this talent mainly involves the revelation of the nature of spiritual beings, their characteristics, allegiance, functions, powers and names. Thus for some, the inner vision will reveal not only God, but his ministers: the winds and flames of fire (Heb 1:7) and messengers of the Holy Spirit--their splendid, humble and mysterious actions, their hidden commerce with our bodies, minds and innermost beings, their potent presence that moves the tides of the ages. In the most unlikely places, one will find them, these wondrous fingers of the Hand of God, and behold their diversity, unity, wisdom, power and love.

If this faculty is well developed, it could be a very powerful aid in spiritual warfare--incidentally it will go very well with the gift of exorcism for it reveals not only angels, but also their opposites.

Yet whether it constitute the full gift of prophecy or not, most seekers of the invisible God will tear more and more the veil shielding the supra-physical behind and above the physical. For a rare few, what is unveiled is what was seen by Jacob, who 'dreamed, and behold, there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven. And behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it!' (Gen 28:12). Christ, who is the Way (John 14:1) to the Highest, incidentally appears to identify this ladder with himself, when he told Nathanael that "you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man." (John 1:51).

These fortunate souls are the high contemplatives of Christian history, who like St Paul (see 2 Corinthians 12), somehow become aware of the seas of splendor that mysteriously reside above our inner beings—and through grace, ascend. From the mountain of mystical literature, I will quote only St Augustine's famous account:

'And I entered and beheld with the eye of my soul (such as it was), above the same eye of my soul, above my mind, the Light unchangeable...He that knows the Truth, knows what that Light is; and he that knows it knows eternity. Love knoweth it. O Truth who art Eternity! and Love who art Truth! and Eternity who art Love! Thou art my God, to Thee do I sigh night and day.' (Confessions, Book VII)

Such ecstatic visions, where one feasts in full resplendence at the table of God, beholding in clarity "the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ" (2 Corinthians 4:6) can be part of an intense spiritual day. Yet when we come down to it, every Christian should know that the primary goal of the spiritual life is increasing oneness with God; the ultimate goal is to abide wholly in God, and as St John puts it succinctly, "God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him" (1 John 4:16). Love must grow towards perfection if we are to fulfill Christ's supreme commandment to love one another as he has loved us (John 13:34) and to love the divine Father with the love of his Son.

To be spiritually fruitful, every gift, spiritual or natural, must be exercised more and more in love and for love--the greatest of God’s gifts, and the primary goal of every action and every thought should be for the service and growth of the Flame of Christ that must increasingly alchemize, penetrate and divinize our whole being. Thus as St Paul puts it in his immortal words:

1If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned,[a] but have not love, I gain nothing...13So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13)

Love is "the alpha and the omega" (Revelations 1:8) of the spiritual quest. It is the flame of thirst that goads us, the cross that kills and transfigures, the glory and resurrection that renews our being with eternal life. God is a banquet of infinite perfections: the highest wisdom, power, beauty--whole universes of riches, but the heart of them all is love. In love, we lose ourselves and find ourselves anew. Only in Love can we know who Christ, and we ourselves, truly are.