Thursday, July 8, 2021 (Day 38)
Katie Snipes Lancaster
Psalm 38 (from Robert Altar’s 2007 translation)
Lord, do not rebuke me in Your fury
nor chastise me in Your wrath…
there is no whole place in my flesh through Your rage,
no soundness in my limbs through my offense.
For my crimes have welled over my head,
like a heavy burden, too heavy for me…
I grow numb and am utterly crushed.
I roar from my heart’s churning.
O Master, before You is all my desire
and my sighs are not hidden from You…
In You, O Lord, I have hoped
You will answer, O Master, my God…
Hasten to my help,
O Master of my rescue.
An Opening Word
Psalms of Lament bring a certain intensity, an urgency that cannot be ignored. If you read the whole Psalm, you will hear more descriptions of pain. The Psalmist sees the way their own wrongdoing, crimes, and faults have led directly to their own suffering and asks for mercy. There is not just physical pain, but an isolation and shunning such that not even the company of friends can bring distraction from ache and discomfort.
One of the more simplistic (and possibly problematic) readings of this kind of Psalm of Lament is that God causes suffering or is punishing the Psalmist for their sins. But as Walter Brueggemann points out in his commentary on Psalm 38, a deeper reading of this text, alongside texts like Job, give us reason to see a different, more nuanced view of suffering and sin. On the one hand God’s rules, articulated over and over across scripture, are ones that treasure the well-being of individuals and communities, and so living in line with God’s law has the capacity to order the world in the direction of well-being, goodness, mercy, love, etc. Many things that are labeled “sin” in scripture can lead to suffering, not because God is punishing someone, but because we label destructive, unjust or thorny human behaviors “sin.” In that way, confession and forgiveness can lead to healing because, as Brueggemann says, forgiveness “breaks the cycle of deathliness that it is set in motion by disregarding YHWH’s given order of life.”
Today’s mystic takes a wider approach, beyond ethics or personal suffering, and looks instead at the eternal, perpetual presence of the divine. On July 2, 2021, I wrote about Hadewijch of Antwerp. Among her writings are 13 poems which scholars believe to be written by a separate poet who has been dubbed Hadewijch II. The poems by Hadewijch II follow distinct themes, and feel more intensely abstract, and philosophical than Hadewijch of Antwerp.
Jane Hirschfield, in her book, “Women in Praise of the Sacred,” names two ways Hadewijch II stands out. First she is thought to have influenced later mystics like Ruysbroeck and Eckhart, meaning her writings were well distributed, and available to scholars in centuries to come. Second her writings are very akin to Buddhist and Hindu poets which could indicate some poetic and religious cross-fertilization.
I love this poetic address to the “Infinite” below, especially the phrase “it undoes me wider than wide,” suggesting that encounters with the divine can unravel our very sense of self, putting us in touch with a truth that is beyond, that beckons us deeper, that pushes us to confront what is most tender, and palpable about being human.
Prayer from the Mystics: Hadewijch II (13th century)
are too small
to hold me,
I am so vast
in the Infinite
for the Uncreated
I have touched it,
it undoes me
wider than wide
is too narrow
You know this well,
you who are also there.