Sunday, July 18, 2021 (Day 48)
Katie Snipes Lancaster
Psalm 48 (from Robert Altar’s 2007 translation)
Great is the Lord and highly praised
in our God’s town, God’s holy mountain.
Lovely in heights, all the earth’s joy,
Mount Zion, far end of Zaphon,
the great King’s city.
God in its bastions is famed as a fortress.
Look, for the kings have conspired,
passed onward one and all.
It is they who have seen and been so astounded,
were panicked, dismayed.
Shuddering seized them there, pangs like a woman in labor.
With the east wind You smashed the ships of Tarshish.
As we heard, so we see in the town of the Lord of armies,
in the town of our God. May God make it stand firm forever!
An Opening Word
Psalm 48 is another Psalm celebrating military victory. This time, it seems, the fight never even happens: the approaching sea faring military makes it to the shores but becomes astounded, panicked, dismayed, shuddering. The ships are destroyed by the wind. Scholars cannot connect this Psalm to any specific historical event, so it could be an imagined possibility (if enemies did try to approach by sea, our God could easily send a wind to destroy them), or maybe it celebrates a historical even that never made it into the historical record because it was a non-event (no battle ever occurred because the winds destroyed the approaching armies before they could set foot in Jerusalem). Walter Bruggeman points out that the comparison to childbirth may be meant to chide or ridicule the approaching navy who “shuddered” in fear. I see how this kind of Psalm might function in a time when a near-threat subsided, and I’m not sure we make much room in our own religious landscape to celebrate those times when disaster was near, and abated (I’m thinking, for example, of the near-miracle after the tornado last month that destroyed so much property, injuring eight but killing no one). How might we recognize these kinds of things in our own prayer practices and spiritual lives?
Today’s mystic is far from today’s Psalm, maybe because military victories are not often touted as things to celebrate by mystics, and maybe because Emily Dickenson would have hated the kind of pomp and circumstance that probably accompanied celebrating such military victories. She spent much of her life secluded in what she called “her father’s house” and wrote more than seventeen hundred poems from that safe shelter, bucking poetic trends, abandoning poetic form, and creating her own path toward expressing herself. Emily Dickenson might not always be considered a mystic, in fact when the Christian revival movement of the 1800s swept through Amhurst, Massachusetts she watched her loved ones come home changed, but herself said in a letter “I can’t tell you what they have found, but they think it is something precious. I wonder if it is?” She was skeptical, to say the least. But the Poetry Foundation describes her poems as attempts “to make the abstract tangible, to define meaning without confining it…creating a distinctively elliptical language for expressing what is possible but not yet realized” That seems like a mystic sensibility to me. Below is a poem-prayer that seems rightly down to earth: she is calling us to make room for and enact heaven on earth (very Lord’s Prayer adjacent), for that is where we begin to know God.
Prayer from the Mystics: Emily Dickenson (1830–1886)
Who has not found the Heaven—below—
Will fail of it above—
For Angels rent the House next ours,
Wherever we remove—