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Reflections

Psalm 42

Psalm 42

Even though this is the June edition of SSH, I am writing this article on the anniversary of the publication of Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’ encyclical. Laudato Si’ reminds us that our common home, as St Francis said, is “like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us.”  Pope Francis weaves together our care and responsibilities toward our God-given home with the grave ecological situations that confront us. All of us have strong reminders every day of the ecological crisis we are facing.  Continents and oceans, mountain ranges and rivers might divide nations and geographic regions, but our concerns for the health of Mother Earth–our common home—are the same.

Here in Northern California, we have daily reminders of our changing climate conditions.  Fire season began early this year.  Red flag warnings were raised in May. The levels of reported rainfall are gravely less than normal.  High winds continue to dry the already thirsty countrysides.  Plans for new housing developments have been thwarted because of a lack of water.  Our daily household water consumption is monitored and rationed. And it is only May!  I’m sure you could name climate changes and concerns for your own geographic area, as well as those in so many other places in the world.

It was this awareness of our thirsting Earth and the celebration of the publication of Laudato Si that I began to pray Psalm 42.  The thirst the psalmist speaks of is her/his deep thirst for God’s presence.  This thirst, that expresses mine and all of ours, is made even more immediate as we visualize the many waterless deserts throughout the world, the dried mountain rivers, and the loss of clear flowing spring water.  Psalm 42 opens with a desert scene. “As a deer thirsts for running streams, so does my soul thirst for you, my God.”  It’s easy to imagine an early morning scene in the drylands of the Middle East where these poems/psalms were written.  The psalmist sits to pray and in the morning silence, a doe cautiously approaches a small pond or shallow river.  Thirst compels the animal to risk its life as it deliberately moves towards the water source.

The deer’s thirst is a metaphor for the psalmist’s thirst for God.  Psalm 42 is not a psalm of “waiting.”  There are other psalms that speak of waiting.  This psalm speaks of yearning and thirsting for God’s presence.  The psalmist knows the source of her/his life and desires a fuller experience of the Divine life-giving waters.

For many of us this time of the pandemic has felt like a dry desert.  It has been difficult for everyone.  No matter how we have moved through it, all of us have changed.  As I begin hearing the untold stories of anxiety, loneliness, and fear, I also hear in these same stories God’s reassuring presence.  Words of gratitude and appreciation for even small favors tumble from the lips of the storytellers. Many people speak of a new awareness of God’s Spirit acting in their lives. It is not only because people have reached out in kindness.  Strangers have delivered food and offered to do the weekly shopping or neighbors have volunteered to routinely check on their senior neighbors.  Many people have expressed that they have felt the presence of God in a new way.  There’s a sense that God has done and is doing something new in the midst of so much pain.

Soon we will be able to open our doors and welcome our families and friends. Even though some things will seem the same, don’t be fooled by appearances.  It’s important to remember our own times of grief and joy, surety and doubt.  As we share our stories, we will become even more aware of how all of our lives have changed.  Because of this, many of those with whom I have spoken are intentionally spending more time in prayer in order to receive and be attentive to these significant conversations.

Psalm 42 is a good way to prepare.  It’s a mature person’s prayer.  We can hear it as it charts the rugged journey of a person of faith.  And it is here that we can enter the psalm because the exile and isolation the psalmist speaks of is more than just physical separation.  It’s a deeper exile. It’s the exile that each of us feels within our hearts, knowing we are still God’s work in process.  God is not finished with us yet.  God has more to offer us: more insights, growth, love–more grace.

Exile comes in a variety of ways and the enemies we encounter are not always outside ourselves. During this last year some of us have heard those inner voices that have disturbed our peace as we experienced unexpected losses.  Others of us continue to journey into unknown territories called aging and limitation.  As we sift through unfulfilled dreams searching for life among the broken chards, we long for life-giving water: water that will sustain us as the mystery of our lives slowly unfolds.   These experiences lead us to prayer. We thirst for the living God, not the God of past ages, but the God who is new to us every second of each day.  Teilhard de Chardin, the great Jesuit scholar and theologian said, “God is newness.”   In other words, God is always new. Centuries before Teilhard, Meister Eckhart, my favorite Dominican mystic said, “We thirst for God who is the newest, youngest thing there is.  God who is the beginning…. And if we seek this God and are united to this God, we will become new again.”

God reaches into the places that mystify and/or confuse us and floods those places with love.  In a way we could say our lives are microcosms of the one who wrote this psalm and of the Israelites who traveled through the unknown desert territories.  It has taken us years to learn that God is a God of love and mercy “slow to anger, rich in kindness.”  Our understanding of God changes as our experiences change. Through prayer, reflection and remembering, we come to a deeper level of understanding and faith. With new knowledge and insights, we remember past events and by remembering past events our present lives are enriched. No doubt that’s why there’s so much emphasis in scripture on remembering.  Hope comes alive through prayer, meditation, and our memories.  “These things I remember,” the psalmist says, “even as I pour out my soul, I remember the glad shouts and songs of praise as I celebrated the festivals.”

Psalm 42 is a bittersweet psalm that reflects the reality of our lives: joy and sorrow, love and pain.   Mary Oliver puts it this way:

We shake with joy, we shake with grief.

What a time they have, these two

housed as they are in the same body.  (Evidence)

It’s these two diverse emotions that the Psalmist weaves together.  Psalm 42 might be a psalm of lament, but we also hear in it a profound hope.   We pray that like the psalmist, our days are “days of steadfast love and nights murmuring songs of praise.”

The psalms are extraordinarily prayers that help us express thanksgiving, praise, and lament. Because they are also poems, they shake up our usual way of thinking: our linear way of thinking.  They present us with images and metaphors that open our minds and stir our imaginations.  So let’s see how this psalm might help us pray today by using some of the metaphors.

The waters in this poem morph from shedding tears to memories of flowing streams.  They are both the voice of grief and the cry of love.  Deep waters insinuate a mysterious calling.  The roar of waterfalls and the breaking waves release delight and joy.  Water witnesses to the power of God and fill the psalmist with hope.  Water flowing crystal clear and free reminds us of baptism and our continual discovery of streams of grace throughout our lives.  Powerful waterfall, rushing rivers, spring-like streams spill over into prayers of gratitude to the God of life.

Poetry and especially the Psalms are meant to stimulate our imaginations.  Because of that, there are many ways we can pray this psalm. We could incorporate into our prayer the water images, the desert starkness, or even the doe that comes to drink.  We could ask ourselves some questions.  For what do I thirst?  Where do I find life-giving water?  Or perhaps we might think of the deer as a mirror image of God: the God who thirsts for us and seeks us out.  This is the God we meet in scripture.  In Genesis, God sought out Adam and Eve in the garden calling, “Where are you?”  In the Book of Esther, God strengthens Queen Esther so she can lead her people in prayer and fasting.  In the Book of Isaiah, this is the God who knew the answer to the question, “Whom shall I send?”  This is also the God in whom we believe: the God who embraces our pain and gives meaning to our countless dyings.  This is the thirsty God whose voice cries from the cross, “I thirst.”

#justiceOPportunity Thursday—June 17

Sr. Judy Lu McDonnell, OP
Ms. Lyn Kirkconnell

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Preachers of  Truth • Love • Justice