The Psalms uniquely point us away from a life bound up, cut off from our deepest longings, as they reflect the full depth of human experience. The Christian and Jewish practice of meditating on their words as a way of turning to God in prayer is grounded on the idea that to be fully present with all of who we are and all of what we feel is necessary for a full and life-giving spirituality.
St. Athanasius, writing about the role the Psalms can have in our spiritual life, writes: “the Psalms thus serve the one who sings them as a mirror, wherein they sees themself and their own soul, they cannot help but render them in such a manner that their words go home with equal force to those who hear them sing, and stir them also to a like reaction”. (“To Marcellinus, on the Interpretation of the Psalms”).
The reason Athanasius says this is that in the Psalms, a book Christians say is inspired by the Holy Spirit, the full range of human emotion is presented. Examples Athanasius mentions are: Psalm 3 expresses your feelings “if you are persecuted by your own family and opposed by many”, as does Psalm 31. Psalm 5 reflects our feelings “when” we “see the wicked wanting to ensnare you”. When you have fallen aside from your best self, and long for forgiveness for what you have done, Athanasius suggests Psalm 51 as reflective of your feelings. The 65th Psalm is listed by him as an example of when you are grateful and want to thank and praise God. I could go on.
The Psalms even include prayers that question God and God’s justice. Words that are angry and we could never imagine being spoken in polite company.
The fact that they are Spirit-inspired prayers suggest we don’t need to fear any of our feelings, turn a blind eye to them, or push them away. As I suggested last time, in fact doing so only makes them stronger and will likely allow them to be expressed in some other way.
When some years ago I began to use the Psalms as sources to meditate on in order to open myself to God in prayer, I found myself confronting sides of myself that before I had been afraid to express. I saw myself also thinking of people whose feelings or behavior seemed too far out to be comfortable embracing. I did so because such wide range of emotions and responses are all described in the Psalms. Praying these in my life regularly, something all of us can do, forced me to open up to my own inner depths.
The picture of spirituality the Psalms paint for us is very close to what Amodeo suggests in his book Dancing with Fire, when he writes,
“A healthy spirituality includes accommodating our yearnings and emotions rather than pushing them away. By connecting intimately within ourselves, we begin to experience life’s bounty around us. We savor a deeper connection with our fellow humans, the myriad of creatures with whom we share the planet, and our precious environment.
“As our heart embraces living, we are touched by the quiet thrill of a spontaneously arising intimacy with life. As our familiar separateness dissolves, we register and receive others’ humanity. We relish moments of connection without eradicating differences and diversity, which adds richness to our lives. We embrace the dance of union and otherness – autonomy and intimacy – without getting lost in either.
“Living with spiritual depth invites us to be mindful of our feelings, dance with them skillfully, and share the rich texture of our felt experience with others. The gift o being human endows us with the creative capacity to convey the glistening nuances of our felt experience – perhaps through an expressive glance, a radiant smile, a gentle touch, our tone of voice, or resonant words. If our communication is graciously received, we may glow in a shining moment of loving connection…
“Finding inner freedom means integrating the personal with the spiritual in a way where the boundary between them gradually fades. A foundation for intimacy is forged as we allow ourselves to be as we are and be seen as we are. Spiritual growth happens as we relinquish clinging to” a rigid and disconnected “identity, freeing us to experience our inherent connection with ourselves, others, and life itself”.
The Psalms model for us making a spaciousness in our hearts, minds, and souls by which we can embrace without judgment the fullness of who we are and placing them before God. It gives us hope that each side of ourselves, even the parts we view as too ugly and unloveable, can be offered to God and be vessels of holiness.
As Amodeo points out, by learning to do this in our lives, we are freed to deeper connection with others.
This is, I think, why Jesus teaches us not only to love God with all we are but also to love our neighbor as ourselves. Learning to accept and embrace ourselves in all of who we are is the path that frees you to love them more fully. As mentioned by Pamela Cooper-White in her book Braided Selves, our refusal to accept that which is different, odd, or embarrassing in ourselves is a huge part of why as individuals and as a society we are so quick to alienate, discriminate against, and exclude people who are different from us.
So when we see the braggard, the bully, the abuser, we can know at heart a deep insecurity lies at the heart of their actions. To learn the opposite path of peacemaker, healer, and co-creator with God we are called to begin with learning the path of letting go that insecurity through coming to peace with who God made you to be.
Soren Kierkegaard puts the challenge the Psalms invite us to well:
“If anyone, therefore, will not learn from Christianity to love [her or] himself in the right way, then neither can [she or] he love[her or] his neighbor … To love one’s self in the right way and to love one’s neighbor are absolutely analogous concepts, are at bottom one and the same … Hence the law is: You shall love yourself as you love your neighbor when you love him as yourself.”
Your progressive redneck preacher,