Wednesday, September 1, 2021 (Day 88)
Katie Snipes Lancaster
Psalm 88 (from Robert Altar’s 2007 translation)
Lord, God of my rescue, by day I cried out, by night, in Your presence. May my prayer come before you. Incline Your ear to my song… My eyes ache from affliction. I called on You, Lord, every day. I stretched out to You my palms… You distanced lover and neighbor from me. My friends — utter darkness.
An Opening Word
Psalm 88 is a true Psalm of lament. It ends simply “utter darkness.” Robert Alter even suggests that maybe now “the only ‘friend’ the Psalmist has left is darkness” (and of course I can’t help but draw to mind Simon and Garfunkel’s “hello darkness my old friend”). The Psalmist has no strength, is like one who lies “in the grave,” in the “nethermost pit, in darkness, in the depths.” The Psalmist is “imprisoned, I cannot get out.” It seems a miserable existence and here there is no turn to praise, no return to hope. Here it is just a claim on the worst kind of suffering and then darkness. It is a crying out to God, a body exhausted and “stretched out” to God, who finds no relief.
This kind of Psalm brings us only to silence. To wait. To want. Today’s mystics the Desert Fathers do just that, seek out such silence, longing for a Christ-shaped world and finding it otherwise, retreat to the desert. The Desert Fathers (and Mothers) were 4th and 5th century mystics and their lives serve as the model after which so many monastic communities were formed. Names like Anthony, Agathon, Macarius, Poemen, Theodora, Sarah, and Syncletica became spiritual leaders, desert dwellers to whom seekers flocked for wisdom and a personal encounter from within the solitude of the desert. Anthony for example, is considered the “father of monks” and was born in 251. He heard and followed Matthew 19:21 at the age of 18, “Go and sell what you own and give the money to the poor… then come, follow me.” He gave everything up and became a day laborer at the edge of a desert village until he settled in the desert itself, spending twenty years in complete solitude. It was terrible. Adversity. Difficulty. He emerged and the sanctification of the desert led people to flock to him for healing and wisdom. He eventually retreated again to the deep solitude of the desert seeking a direct, intimate connection with God. The Desert Fathers left behind short sayings like the one below, that help shift our heart toward the divine within, and the divine within one another in ways that are challenging and inspiring.
Of the Desert Father’s search for God in the desert, Henri Nouwen says “Solitude is the furnace in which transformation takes place.” Of the radical path the Desert Fathers took Thomas Merton says, “They sought a way to God that was uncharted and freely chosen, not inherited from others who had mapped it out beforehand.” From these ancient Christians we have much to learn.
Prayer from the Mystics: Abba Zeno of The Desert Fathers
If one wants God to hear their prayer quickly,
then before they pray for anything else,
even their own soul,
when they stand and stretch out their hands towards God,
they must pray with all their heart for their enemies.
Through this action God will hear everything that they ask.