Sunday, June 20, 2021 (Day 20)

Katie Snipes Lancaster

Psalm 20 (from Robert Altar’s 2007 translation)
May the Lord answer you on the day of distress,
the name of Jacob’s God make you safe.
May the Lord send help to you from the sanctum,
and from Zion may the Lord sustain you.
May the Lord recall all your grain-offerings,
and your burnt-offerings may the Lord relish.
May the Lord grant what your heart would want,
and all your counsels may the Lord fulfill.

An Opening Word
Psalm 20 is considered a “royal psalm,” one written as a blessing for the King in need. I love the repeated “May the Lord…” implying the potential and possibility of God’s authority to bring about safety and sustenance.

Robert Altar notes that these first verses of Psalm 20 are also found, almost word for word in Aramaic, on an ancient Egyptian pagan papyrus from the second century BCE. He speculates that either the pagan scribes appropriated Psalm 20 for their own uses, or possibly both the Psalmist and the pagan writer adapted the text from an even more ancient Canaanite polytheistic poem. Both possibilities are interesting because they imply a borrowing of sacred language. Such borrowing itself, points to equally interesting possibilities: either a fluidity of faithfulness (which breaks down our own twenty-first century binary categories of either/or with regard to religious identity), or an intentional rewriting of texts (with the potential implication that rewriting and reclaiming the sacred language of foreign religious community doubly asserts the authority of “our” God).

I bring this up because today’s mystic also pushed back against the binary insider/outsider categories of religious authority in the 1300s and it got her killed. Born in the late thirteenth century in the county of Hainaut, in what was then the Holy Roman Empire, and is now a borderland between France and Belgium, Marguerite Porete grew up speaking French, and as a young woman joined the Beguine community of laywomen. The Beguine laywomen says one scholar, “sought to fill a spiritual void without putting their lives under the control of a religious order.” They practiced charity and were what we might today call social workers. Living together in communities of sixty to eighty women, they had mystic-sensibilities and pursued religious devotion together. Unlike nuns within religious orders who vowed life-long chastity and commitment to their community, women who belonged to the Beguine community could leave to pursue marriage, and the boundary between insider/outsider was more porous.

Marguerite Porete’s book “Mirror of Simple Souls” is both poetry and prose, and she was asked by religious authorities to withdraw her book from publication. When she would not she was imprisoned. She stayed in jail for 18 months at which point, in the summer of 1310, she was burned at the stake for being an unrepentant heretic. These were of course, publicly viewed executions, and one chronicler says “She displayed many signs of penitence both noble and pious at her death. For that reason the faces of many of those who witnessed it were affectionately moved to compassion for her, and indeed the eyes of many were filled with tears.” The following year in 1311, at the Council of Vienne, the religious authorities determined that all Beguine orders be dissolved immediately, since the church felt they posed a threat to theological purity.

It seems like such an ancient story—burned at the stake?!—and yet we are no strangers today to ideas of theological purity, or religious gatekeeping. Just open your newspaper (or rather your twitter feed).

I personally love Marguerite Porete’s words below, an open, tender, full-bodied attentiveness to the divine. That we might all be so in tune with God’s nearness.

Prayer from the Mystics: Marguerite Porete (birth year unknown–died 1310)
Beloved, what do you want of me?
I contain all that was, and that is, and shall be.
I am filled with the all.
Take of me all you please
If you want all of myself, I’ll not say no.
Tell me, beloved, what you want of me—
I am Love, who am filled with the all;
What you want
We want, beloved.
Amen.