Wednesday, June 30, 2021 (Day 30)
Katie Snipes Lancaster
Psalm 30 (from Robert Altar’s 2007 translation)
I shall exalt You, Lord,
for You drew me up,
and You gave no joy to my enemies.
Lord, my God, I cried to You
and You healed me.
Lord, You brought me up from Sheol,
gave me life from those gone down to the Pit…
At evening one beds down weeping,
and in the morning, glad song…
You have turned my dirge to a dance for me,
undone my sackcloth and bound me with joy.
An Opening Word
“Joy comes in the morning,” is a familiar Psalm to my ear, I can’t think of a time when I didn’t recognize this poetic articulation of sorrow-turned-joy. I love Robert Altar’s translation, “at evening one beds down weeping.” It sounds at once archaic and fresh. I know it’s not always true, that by morning, sorrow lifts, but there is something about the way sorrow drives deep when night draws round, and daylight even in deep sorrow, offers a reorientation to what might be ahead.
Similarly the last bit of Psalm 30 seems to have a long thread woven across the many seasons of my life. If you don’t know what sackcloth is, this might seem like a strange turn of phrase, but once you realize that sackcloth is the mourning clothes of the Ancient Near East, equivalent to wearing black to a funeral, then you can understand why the image of God removing our sackcloth might be powerful. And as if God were a royal valet, helping us in and out of our overcoats, the verse ends with God binding us up with joy (truly a coat of a different color). Wearing an outfit of pure joy would be a marked difference after wearing the scratchy sackcloth (which was of course, often accompanied with ashes). Oh and don’t miss the dirge-to-dance metaphor. This Psalm really does pull out all the stops to get us to understand the truly life changing turn around the Psalmist is trying to express.
Today’s mystic Mechtild of Magdeburg also articulates a life of pain-turned-blessing, or rather the nearness of God at the boundary of suffering. The prayer below is not quite asking anything of God, but instead serves more as a love letter, explaining how life intermingles with the presence of God. Her articulation of the sweetness of God seems to be a full-body encounter with God described by this bold metaphoric language of “falling toward” or “tasting” the divine.
Mechtild of Magdeburg was born in 1207, at the beginning of what many scholars consider a new spiritual age. Whereas the prior century was dominated by movements of austerity and monastic life was an attempt to escape “the shipwreck of the world,” the thirteenth century brought a new openness that suggested anyone, not just the elite or uber-religious, could achieve deep faithfulness. Mechtild joined a non-monastic order called the Beguines who did not take the irrevocable vows like nuns, but instead simply lived in community together for as long as they wished, able to leave to marry or return to family whenever they wished. Mechtild came from a noble family, and when she moved to Magdeburg, she felt like her isolation from family and friends helped her connect on a deeper level to God (would the modern day equivalent would be young adults heading off to college away from family and friends to focus on their studies?). Not only did she write devotional poetry like the letter to God below, but she also wrote folk songs, and some scholars believe her descriptions of the afterlife influenced Dante’s Divine Comedy.
Prayer from the Mystics: Mechtild of Magdeburg (1207–1282)
Ah blessed absence of God,
How lovingly I am bound to you!
You strengthen my will in its pain
And make dear to me
The long hard wait in my poor body.
The nearer I come to you,
The more wonderfully abundantly
God comes upon me.
In pride, alas, I can easily lose you,
But in the depths of pure humility, O Lord,
I cannot fall away from you.
For the deeper I fall, the sweeter you taste.