Here is my final calendar for Lent. Some days I worked the program as I had planned–a full blown meditation and prayer on each word. Other days I chose a word and drew hastily with a scattered mind and spirit. In spite of my inconsistent discipline, I learned at least one thing about Psalm 51: It is full of rich, multi-textured words. There were so many words to choose from, I made it through only fifteen of the nineteen verses.
I think I understand why this Psalm is quoted, sung, and studied so often. The wide variety and depth of words form a lexicon of our salvation history. Even with just the forty-six words on my calendar, I could tell a version of my story and the Great Story all culminating in the only missing word–JESUS.
Writing when I’m in a dark soul-space is not easy. So much energy goes into the obsessions of my mind and heart; little is left over for connecting to the outside world. My inner judge delights in my dour moods. It loves to throw self-righteous platitudes at me: “Christians are supposed to be happy.” ” If you just had enough faith, you’d trust God more.” “What do you have to be blue or down about? Just look at everything you have.” “Your relationship with Jesus is really puny.” Maybe all of those things are true (I hope not), but those words do nothing to lift me out of the morass I’m in. They just exacerbate my feelings of despair and magnify God’s apparent absence.
This morning I re-read a Parker Palmer book called Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation. Parker Palmer is a Quaker writer, activist, and educator. In this almost pocket-sized 109-page book, he tells about listening for the interior voice of the authentic Parker, the one created as the unique image of God.
During a time of clinical depression a therapist said to him, ” ‘You seem to look upon depression as the hand of an enemy trying to crush you,’ he said. ‘Do you think you could see it instead as the hand of a friend, pressing you down to ground on which it is safe to stand?’ ” Palmer says, “I started to understand that I had been living an ungrounded life, living at an altitude that was inherently unsafe.” (page 66)
An unsafe altitude might mean my ego is too big, floating in the upper stratosphere somewhere. But it could also indicate I’m in some kind of psychic outer space. My legs and arms flail as I try to find some ground to stand on. It feels like I’m floating in someone else’s orbit. Being pressed to the ground gives me the chance to look inside and see whose life I am leading. The reframing of depression as the intervention of a friend and not an enemy reminds me of Psalm 139:8. “If I climb to the sky, you’re there! If I go underground, you’re there!” (MSG) God could just be the friend pressing me down and saying “Ground to Sybil, ground to Sybil. Come back to the you I created.” These occasional episodes of darkness are painful and no fun. I want to escape them as fast as possible. The question for me is: How do I stay in that dark and scary but fertile place and listen to the Voice I need to hear? What feels like the “slough of despair” just might be Holy Ground.
Praying Psalm 51 has been a great way for me to focus my Lenten attention and intention. I like honing in on one word a day. Many of the words convey my/our alienation from God: transgressions, iniquity, sin, evil, sentence, guilt, judgment, guilty, sinner…. Other words focus on God’s graceful removal of those things: cleanse, blot, wash, love, mercy….
Another benefit of sticking with one psalm is memorization. The words on the calendar are like a prompter on the side of the stage reminding me of my lines. Psalm 51 is not one of the psalms I know by heart, but I can almost recite the first six verses now. 1 Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. 2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. 3 For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. 4 Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment. 5 Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me. NRSV
For this year’s calendar I decided to use only gray, black, red, and purples–colors I associate with Lent. The limited number of colors prevents me from getting too hung up about the product rather than the process of prayer.
P.S. Nap count 3.5 /24–ugh!