Opening: 100 Days of Psalms and Prayers

Wednesday, June 23, 2021 (Day 23)

Katie Snipes Lancaster

Psalm 23 (from Robert Altar’s 2007 translation)
The Lord is my shepherd,
I shall not want.
In grass meadows
the Lord makes me lie down,
by quiet waters guides me.

My life the Lord brings back,
leading me on pathways of justice
for the Lord’s name sake.

Though I walk in the vale of death’s shadow,
I fear no harm, for You are with me.
Your rod and Your staff it is they that console me.

You set out a table before me in the face of my foes.
You moisten my head with oil, my cup overflows.
Let but goodness and pure kindness pursue me all the days of my life.
And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord for many long days.

An Opening Word
Nothing accentuates the task of translation more than Psalm 23. It takes less than ten words to collide with the freshness of Robert Altar’s attentiveness to the task of moving from Hebrew to English. Even though we have had the NRSV translation in our pews at Kenilworth Union for decades now (it was published in 1983), and possibly other translations for years prior to that, we all innately hear Psalm 23 in its 1611 King James Version. Two spots of difference stand out to me: “Leading me on pathways of justice” seems very evocative, more so for whatever reason than “paths of righteousness,” because the word “justice” seems to have more grit and impact: I associate justice with action. “Let but goodness and pure kindness pursue me” jumps off the page at me too. I think “pure kindness” seems more close to home than “mercy,” which has the tone of a “churchy” word (though to my ear, “mercy” also has a tone of “undeserved abundant kindness” which seems slightly more specific, generous, and expansive than “pure kindness”).

Today’s mystic is almost as well known as Psalm 23 (not quite as ubiquitous I’d guess). Anselm was born in Italy in the middle of the eleventh century to a family of nobility. His father was known to have a violent temper, so when Anselm wanted to join the monastery when he was 15, his dad said “no,” with the strictness of an authoritative parent, and so Anselm ran off to hike the Alps and wander France. He finally joined the monastery at age 27, and was quickly promoted to leadership roles, first in France, and then later in England as the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Anselm’s theology has likely impacted you whether or not you’ve heard of him. He is known for promoting the idea of “faith seeking understanding,” about which he says, “I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe that I may understand. For this too I believe, that unless I first believe, I shall not understand.” He was deeply influenced by the monastic rhythms of prayer and the comfort and structure of the faith tradition he inherited. When thinking about what it would be like to be a philosopher outside the rigors of Christian tradition, he suggests it is impossible to pursue the deep questions of human life without the edifice of faith. I love his analogy. “It is as if bats and owls, which see the sky only at night, should dispute about the midday sun with eagles, who behold the sun itself with unflinching eyes” (from “On the Incarnation of the Word”).

His theological reflections are not written for the sake of the academy but for the sake of those who might be drawn closer to God. He writes in order to move people to prayer and faithfulness. In that way he has been called a “rational mystic,” seeking to connect body and mind to the depth of divine love. I love how the prayer below is psalm-like, oscillating between seeking God, trusting God, and not-yet knowing God. It makes room for doubt in such a beautifully faithful way.

Prayer from the Mystics: Anselm of Canterbury (1033–1109)
GO my God, teach my heart
where and how to seek you,
where and how to find you…
You are my God and you are my all
and I have never seen you.
You have made me and remade me,
You have bestowed on me
all the good things I possess,
Still I do not know you…
I have not yet done that for which I was made…
Teach me to seek you…
I cannot seek you unless you teach me
or find you unless you show yourself to me.
Let me seek you in my desire,
let me desire you in my seeking.
Let me find you by loving you,
let me love you when I find you.

June 23, 2021

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