In the first few psalms, God comes across like a rogue cop in a James Ellroy novel. After clearing his Son to break the nations with a rod of iron, He claims His own piece of the action by breaking the teeth of the ungodly. All the while He’s sitting in the heavens and laughing in derision. True, the narrator doesn’t specifically mention His popping a fistful of Benzedrine or grinding up anyone’s hand in a garbage disposal, but that’s probably an oversight.
Psalm 88’s narrator finds no satisfaction in the rough stuff — he’s been on the receiving end of it too long. To hear him tell it, God’s put him in the lowest pit, overwhelmed him with His waves; now he’s numbered among the dead. He goes on like that in the same vein for a while, but you get the idea — it’s the flower of ancient emo civilization.
I don’t know what inspired me to make a Lenten project out of studying the psalms, but it’s turning out to be real winner. Absent are all the stupefying features found so commonly in spiritual writing. There’s no nagging — or, rather, the nagging proceeds in reverse. Man barks at God in the psalms like Don Escriva de Balaguer barks at man in The Way. Gone is most of the sappy, Peaches and Herb-type erotic imagery; instead, you’ve got a guy saying his enemies have throats like open tombs. That’s a better metaphor than the one Jesus came up with when He called people whited sepulchres, hubris-schmubris.
My introduction to these gems was a total miscue. Five years ago, in my last Lent before baptism, I signed up for something called “Thirty-minute Retreats with Fr. S.” These entailed my showing up at Father’s office once every week at 9:00 PM and helping him form a plan for my ongoing spiritual development. At the time, in my view, my biggest spiritual retardant was my job, in which I excelled chiefly by harnessing my most un-Christian qualities.
I was then working for a major bank’s home finance division. Our department contacted borrowers whose second mortgages had gone into foreclosure. Because ejecting people from their homes meant paying extra legal fees, and because vacant properties attracted looters, we agents were tasked with persuading these defaultors to buy their way back out of foreclosure by hook or crook, or failing that, to sell short. As you might guess, it was not a job that made a priority of customer satisfaction; here, the borrower was always wrong.
It was possible to take what for lack of a better word I’ll call a pastoral approach to the job. Some agents did milk their active-listening skills, clucking empathetically as borrowers wept over losing battles with spiking ARMs and plummeting market values. Me, I couldn’t see these people as innocent; I knew them too well. Years earlier, as a loan officer, I’d seen them prove quick studies when their immediate interests were at stake. If they could learn enough about front points to make us crawl for tiny commission checks, I reasoned, then their enduring dimness on the habits of interest rates and real estate prices was nobody’s fault but theirs, and they could suffer for it.
If they weren’t suffering already, I made them suffer. Cultivating an icy, forbidding manner, I built up a stock of phrases guaranteed to cut off the listener from his sense of entitlement. (My favorite, “You are in no position to make demands,” I cribbed from the villains in not one, but two, Indiana Jones movies.) Borrowers cursed, borrowers wept, but by gum, borrowers did as I told them, with the result that I was named Employee of the Month five times.
The laurels fit snugly on my brow, and the cash bonuses fit even snugger in my bank account. But even then, as an un-dipped catechumen, I could tell I was doing my soul no favors. The psychological gamesmanship was just too much fun. Few pleasures are headier than that of sitting in judgment of your social superiors — test-drive a tumbril and you’ll pay sticker price. When I explained this to Fr. S, he said, “Start saying the night prayer.”
“You mean the complines?” I pronounced the word to rhyme with combine, the harvesting machine. Not bothering to correct me — he was from Minnesota — Fr. S said, “Yes. I’ve always found those put me in a more peaceful state of mind.”
So I went to Unversalis.com and looked up the night prayer. I can’t find which psalm it included, but it was one of the nice ones, a regular James Taylor ballad. Today’s is psalm 15, the one where the narrator sings about how God won’t leave his soul in the underworld or let him decay. As I recall, that was the gist, and it fell absolutely flat. I was daily engaged in a struggle where I had to use my store of emotional sadism as a lever to pry borrowers out of their duplicity and inertia. No verses reflected that sense of all-round culpability, of fallenness pitted against fallenness. I gave up my complines after a week and kept the job for another year.
Maybe I’d have found something more relevant if I’d looked up sexts. They’re scheduled for noon, right around the time acedia, or the noonday demon, is supposed to be up to her dirty work. It stands to reason the breviary would include something that packed a wallop. Well, maybe it does, but judging by today’s offering, the wallop’s not precisely the kind I was after. Today’s is Psalm 118, the one where God has rebuked the proud and saved His servant from scorn and contempt because he’s kept His decrees. That’s fine for a paranoiac who’s also righteous, but what about one who isn’t? Isn’t there one where the speaker tells God, “I know I’m just as bad in my own way as the people who are up my ass, but could You still choose me over them?”
As I become more accustomed to psalmic imagery, it’s dawning on me that I stumbled by taking the words too literally. In The Cloister Walk, Kathleen Norris observes that the psalms’ chief advantage is their disregard of systematic theology. No, the reader may not be nearly so upright or humble of heart as the narrator, nor nearly so encircled by Gebal, Ammon, and Amalek, but he can still snap his fingers to it, as Ken Kesey liked to say. Or, if he’s feeling very scrupulous, he can use the psalms as a mirror, as Norris says Athanasius, the Desert Father, advised. If he notes that the reflection flatters him too much, he can let it prick his conscience. Yes, be a nice boy like the One who’s having his beard plucked. Or at least try.
Mirrors can relfect many images. As I look into the mirror of the psalms this Lent, I see myself most often in the images of the bad guys, the ones who sit in te lurking places of the villages and whose ways will be made dark and slippery. In Psalm 4, the narrator orders them; “Meditate within your heart on your bed and be still.” I’m finding it good advice.