Stories Seldom Heard
Sr. Patricia Bruno, OP
248th Edition March 1, 2020
One of my friends is a professor at University of California, Berkeley. She, like other professors, teaches, meets with students, prepares study materials for their department meetings, as well as writing articles and books for publication. The book she is presently writing is almost completed. However, as she says, the first chapter needs to be tweaked. Not a surprise. Many of us know the first chapter of a book or the beginning paragraph of an essay is often rewritten many times before publication. Even the best of writers has to rework the first chapter because in the writing of the book the topic develops and often unfolds in unexpected ways. The introductory chapter needs to be clearly presented so that the expectations that are raised will be met in the following chapters.
This is also true of the Book of Psalms. The psalms are a collection of independent poems, writings and mediations that weren’t put into one book, the Book of Psalms, until about the 5th Century BCE. In fact, the editors who arranged the placement of each poem/prayer carefully divided the 150 psalms into five different sections to model the Pentateuch – the five books of the Torah.
Psalm 1 only became Psalm 1 after the book was constructed. In other words, it isn’t the oldest of the poems, prayers or meditations, rather it was chosen as the first psalm –- of all the other 150 psalms — for the same reason an author would design the first chapter of a book. It was chosen because it captures, in a few sentences, the spirit of what all the psalms are saying about love, hope and trust in God. Psalm 1 focuses us. It sets us off in a direction, so to speak, so that we might be prepared to hear its unfolding wisdom and understand all of the psalms better.
In this way, it’s similar to the Beatitudes in Matthew’s Gospel: the Gospel we are using this year for our Sunday liturgies. It’s impossible to understand the richness of the Beatitudes without reading the whole of Matthew’s Gospel. Many people say that the Beatitudes act as an index or a table of contents for Matthew’s Gospel. Psalm 1 does the same thing for the psalms. It’s an abbreviated form: one prayer-psalm that is only fully understood by reading and meditating on the other psalms.
Psalm 1, in other words, sets the stage by turning our minds and hearts towards true wisdom. Wisdom in biblical language is a big word. What I mean by that is Wisdom has many meanings. First of all, it is a name for God, which we explored in a prior article (1). Second, true wisdom in biblical language is more than just human knowledge. It’s the ability to ponder the great mysteries of life and death, joy and sorrow. Wisdom’s goal is not to answer the mysteries that are unfathomable, but to open our hearts and minds to the Divine: the One who is beyond all knowing and has loved us into being. True wisdom comes as we offer God time and space to speak to us in the silence of our minds and hearts. As we sit in awe or reflect on our daily experiences and the situations in which we find ourselves involved, Wisdom offers us insights. In trust, we allow God to guide us in discerning what is of God and what is not.
We hear this pondering in the Book of Job which is wisdom literature. Job doesn’t answer the question as to why good people suffer. Rather Job’s conversations passionately invite us to think deeply about the problem of evil and suffering, and to rid ourselves of any easy answers. The questioning and discussion of serious situations and events are important. As Job’s questioners grew more intense, Job relied on his experience. Psalm I echoes Job’s faith and trust in God. “You, O God, guide the path of the faithful.”
Those who seek wisdom are rooted in the love of God: a love that springs from a holy yearning: a thirst that is unquenchable. Some writers imagine this deep desire for God as a “God size hole in our hearts:” In other words, even though God has created us and blessed us, we recognize our incompleteness and our limitations. We yearn for a wholeness, a completeness that only God can fulfill. Within each of us is a deep, holy yearning to know and experience the love of God more intimately.
Psalm 1 invites us into this stance of a seeker, as one who longs to meet God who is Love and Mercy. That is why we pray, go to Mass, meditate. We listen and invite God to open our minds and hearts so that we might feel and know God’s presence in our lives. In Psalm I, this yearning comes from an older person’s perspective who is firmly rooted. We can hear it in the psalm. The one who wrote this psalm, like us, has come to understand that, “A wise person who seeks God doesn’t nourish illusions.” They keep their “hearts open, day and night.”
Wise people have a spiritual maturity that comes with thoughtful living, trials and errors, successes and failures, which are always accompanied by deep humility. One of our sisters who is 101 years old states our experience clearly, “Becoming wise is a life-time process that can’t be rushed because were not in charge.”
The Wisdom that the psalmist speaks of is a grace, many small insights that have come with time and experience. I guess we could call this grace, a winter grace; a winter grace that comes as the fruit of years of striving to live life well; a winter grace that give us courage to live without illusions and to accept our own limitations and blessings; a winter grace that enables us to be surprised and relish in the good works we have done. All is “grace” from a God who created us out of love.
Our winter graces also give us a way of viewing the world and the limitations of others as we struggle with personal relationships, horrendous natural and man-made disasters that break our hearts every day, betrayals illustrated by the Vatican’s investigations of Women Religious congregations and the devastation that has come from clergy abuse. All of these try our faith. Each of these drains our energies and tempts us to give up or give in just a little bit to the status quo. But no matter what happens or how long it takes, our winter faith is firmly rooted. Our faith will not be shaken because our roots have sunk deeply into the life-giving waters that began long before the oceans and seas and rivers existed, as Genesis poetically says. Our grounding is secure because our Source of life is full and unquenchable. It’s this Divine Wisdom that we rely on each day and night, as the psalmist says, so that our hearts might stay open.
These are trying times that can darken our hopes and question the power of God’s promises to “guide the faithful and denounce the way of oppression.” Yet, in spite of the evidence, we say we will not be moved because as we have crossed deserts and climbed mountains we have met and trusted the Spirit – the Wisdom of God. God, Holy Wisdom has and continues to work in our lives. That’s why we can stand straight and strong – unmoved in our trust in the Divine. The Spirit, Wisdom, is holding us in place. Raising us up, enlightening our path; keeping us strong and faithful.
Like the psalmist, as we look at our own personal histories, we can “delight in the way things are” not because everything has been easy or perfect, or because we put on a happy face, but because we live without illusions. It is God who is the source of our life and strength every day. It is God on whom we depend.
In some ways it’s a blessing to be older, not the daily aches and pains or the trauma of disease, but we have a history with God. We can look back and give thanks for we, too, have grown beyond greed, and hatred to yet another place of grace.
Psalm 1 calls us to an openness today. A reflective time that draws from our years of silence and care for others, years of hopes and joys and sufferings as well.
As we pray this psalm today, Wisdom invites us to listen well so that we might delight in God’s ever-present molding and fashioning of our lives.
- Stories Seldom Heard, Sister Patricia Bruno, O.P., Lady Wisdom, #240, July, 2019
“Stories Seldom Heard” is a monthly article written by Sister Patricia Bruno, O.P. Sister is a Dominican Sister of San Rafael, California.