Friday, July 9, 2021 (Day 39)
Katie Snipes Lancaster
Psalm 39 (from Robert Altar’s 2007 translation)
…I was mute—in silence.
I kept still, deprived of good,
and my pain was grievous.
My heart was hot within me.
In my thoughts a fire burned.
I spoke with my tongue:
Let me know, O Lord,
my end and what is the measure of my days.
I would know how fleeting I am.
Look, mere handspans
You made my days,
and my lot is as nothing before you.
Mere breath is each person standing.
An Opening Word
Robert Alter describes Psalm 39 as a “haunting meditation on the ephemerality of human life.” And somehow, Alter’s translation help give that feeling that the Psalm was written, not centuries ago, but maybe weeks ago, from some ICU deep in the COVID crisis in India. “Mere breath is each person standing,” seems strikingly poignant after a year so in tune with the breathing issues of the virus (or the cries of “I can’t breathe” from those experiencing violence).
Today’s mystic might meet us there, in the breath-taking existential view of human life alongside God’s eternal lens. Pseudo-Dionysius was a theologian from the late fifth and early sixth century who wrote as if he were first century St. Dionysius the Areopagite, who was converted to Christianity by St. Paul. An equivalent would be if I were to write as if I were George Washington, who lived centuries earlier, and who already had an established authority. Pseudo-Dionysius was so good at imitating St. Dionysius the Areopagite that for many centuries after, scholars just assumed they were reading actual first century documents, and was treated with that kind of authority (as if in my example above, my writings were to be accepted as actually the writings of George Washington). Once scholars realized that Pseudo-Dionysius was actually from the 5th and 6th century, instead of calling him a fraud, they reframed his works in light of their deep theological impact.
Pseudo-Dionysius went to great lengths to articulate the nature of God by examining every inch of scripture, seeking out the many names of God, and then examining those many names of God in order to say who God is. Ultimately after seeing that kind of verbal, linguistic expansive understanding of who God might be, he decided that none of those names for God ever truly uttered the essence of God, and so he decided that silence and unknowing were a more authentic way to encounter and draw near to the divine.
Below is an excerpt from Pseudo-Dionysius’ essay, “Divine Names,” where he is still unpacking the many (many, many, many) names of God across scripture. It speaks of a God who is beyond, and ever more beyond. In relation to Psalm 39, it is a reminder of the stability and durability of God who we seek to name even amid our own human frailty.
Prayer from the Mystics:Pseudo-Dionysius (Late 5th–Early 6th Century)
The wise of God
themselves celebrate God
as Author of all things,
under many Names,
from all created things
—as Good—as Beautiful
—as Wise—as Beloved
—as God of gods—as Lord of lords
—as Holy of Holies—as Eternal
—as Being—as Author of Ages
—as Provider of Life—as Wisdom
—as Mind—as Word—as Knowing
—as preeminently possessing all the treasures of all knowledge
—as Power—as Powerful—as King of kings
—as Ancient of days—as never growing old
—and Unchangeable—as Preservation
—as Righteousness—as Sanctification
—as Redemption—as surpassing all things in greatness
—and as in a gentle breeze.—
Yea, they also say that God is in minds,
and in souls, and in bodies,
and in heaven and in earth,
and at once, the same in the same
—in the world—around the world—above the world
—supercelestial, superessential, sun, star
—cloud—self-hewn stone and rock
—all things existing—and not one of things existing.