Saturday, July 17, 2021 (Day 47)
Katie Snipes Lancaster
Psalm 47 (from Robert Altar’s 2007 translation)
All peoples, clap hands,
shout out to God
with a sound of glad song.
For the Lord is most high and fearsome,
a great king over all the earth.
God crushes people beneath us
and nations beneath our feet.
God chooses for us our estate,
pride of Jacob whom God loves…
Hymn to God, hymn, hymn to our king,
O hymn… joyous song…
Much exalted is our God.
An Opening Word
Is it possible to study with enough rigor to finally “know” God? Is there some perfect “spiritual practice” that will finally, completely, bring you into the presence of God? These questions pervade the mystic approach to spiritual life and are articulated by Aquinas who says that there is a “poverty of our vocabulary” about our knowledge of God, to Augustine who says about our spiritual seeking, “if you have understood, then what you have understood is not God.”
In that way, impossibility of knowing or experiencing God can put you in tune with the nihilists—“it’s impossible.” And yet the mystics have hope. And that is where we get the mystic contemplative text called “The Cloud of Unknowing.” The author is unknown, but it was written in the late 14th century in Middle English (original text can be seen here), and has impacted countless generations of theologians, mystics, and people generally seeing the divine. The prayer below is from the opening words of “The Cloud of Unknowing,” and has that urgent yearning for the gift of God’s presence, so much so that the author prays that even their heart’s purpose might be cleansed so that their intention in seeking God is pure.
Today’s Psalm takes on an entirely different theological tone: one that uses the metaphor of royal life to understand the Lord. It has a cheerleader, pom poms, “go, rah!” kind of feel to it, and God-as-king might today be replaced by God-as-president, to help us imagine the kind of theologically-savvy picture the Psalmist is trying to paint. With that language of crushing people and nations beneath “our” feet (“our” being of course, those who are offering up this prayer) it is a Psalm with harsh language to be sure and grim to our 21st century ears. It may have been used in an ancient celebration ceremony lost to us now, and I can imagine it being used in a crowd, with cheering and festivities. Imperfect as our metaphors might be for talking about God, I know that celebration functions to bring communities together especially after a long season of hardship (which is how I read the celebration of “crushing people…”, that there is gratitude for enemies being vanquished because it means some semblance of peace and “normal life” might return). As we emerge out of the many restrictions of the long, hard COVID-days, may we be people who find robust ways to celebrate and praise God that authentically put us in touch with God at work within us.
Prayer from the Mystics: The Cloud of Unknowing (14th Century)
God, to whom all hearts are open,
and to whom all desires speak,
and from whom no secrets are hidden,
I beseech you to cleanse my heart’s purpose
with the inexpressible gift of your grace,
so that I may perfectly love you and worthily praise you.