Writing out of the Box

After many months away, I am somewhat ambivalently trying to reenter the blog world. I feel sure I am not the only one who asks the question, “Is there anything I need, or even particularly want to say?” This is my excuse or rationale for posting so infrequently. On the other hand, I have thought it might be somewhat enjoyable for me and perhaps for the person who happens to land here, to post some visual stuff, with a little commentary. Blocks of black type on the computer put me to sleep–reading them or writing them. If our blogs were lifted out of those visually r e p e t i t i v e and m o n o t o n o u s boxes, illuminated (decorated? brought into the light), written in COLORS in a variety of fonts and sizes, I believe it would be a different and much more interesting/compelling/engaging story.

One of the ways I have found to break out of the box is writing, drawing, and illuminating text with multi-colored threads. Having worked at memorizing scripture, including the Psalms, most of my life, I have a distinct sense that they are physically imbedded in my body. So in my way of thinking, it makes sense to render that inner reality in some visible, tangible form. The embroidery below is one of several of Psalm texts with which I have engaged in my hobby–exploring historical traditions in embroidery while recasting them according to my personal artistic ability and sensibility. The Book of Psalms has become my designated arena. I hope that this give and take between the craft, the text, and my personal experience of them may perhaps serve others to bring the Psalms into a form that more truly conveys their timeless spiritual gifts than what is possible through the undifferentiated blocks of black and white in just about any Bible available post-Gutenberg.

This piece is done on an open-weave linen using drawn and pulled thread embroidery with cotton stranded floss, with cross stitch letters varying somewhat in tonality to emphasize certain words. My alphabets are usually, of necessity, my own design, or modifications of the nearest thing I can find to fit the constraints of the thread count and length of the quotation. I nearly always end up liking my version better. Designing the letters and arranging the text in the space is usually the biggest technical challenge in these pieces.

I have recently uncovered a fascinating, engaging and beautiful book that has given a sort of authenticated coherence to an assortment of my practices and inclinations that I had only vaguely sensed were not purely random and and idiocentric. The writer/designer of Goodbye Gutenberg is Valerie Kirschenbaum, a teacher in an inner-city New York high school. Her bold postulations–considered by critics alternately regressive or outrageous–somehow lend validity to my own precious compulsion to transcribe large excerpts from what I read through my own hand into journals–a way of owning and incarnating the text. I have at times, used different colors of ink to differentiate various aspects of the text according to a variety of criteria. This may change based on such factors as running out of a color or starting a new journal. It often happens, in this process, that the unbidden resonances stirred up in the juxtaposition of various “unrelated” texts I am reading shows them to be, after all, profoundly related to each other, and to what is going on in my life at the moment. I don’t consider this experience unique to me, but still, always a source of great wonder. When I feel more playful, I enjoy transcribing the words into shapes (other than rectangles of consecutive horizontal lines) to find and show relationships that are not necessarily apparent in the printed text. The process of transcription is above all one of discovery.

And another thing Kirschenbaum’s eye-opening treatise has helped me articulate is the underlying impetus for my unrelenting desire to draw, paint (watercolor) and stitch these Psalms, in a way that reflects their incarnational nature and purpose and helps make it possible to stand in that reality. I believe and firmly hold that understanding/knowing the Psalms is increasingly possible when we experience the word in the most palpable physical way–with our senses, hearing them, seeing them–breathing their incense, tasting their “finest of the wheat”, which reading black and white text alone can never provide.

If you get hold of Ms. Kirschenbaum’s book (see at Amazon.com), you will be treated to an amazing sampler of pre-Gutenberg delights–including illuminated manuscripts from all over the world and history. You may even, as I am, begin imagining where the colors might be in what you read, and wondering why, in a time when color printing is no longer technologically complicated or prohibitively expensive, we continue to settle for the default and endless black and white rectangles of type, which hold sovereign sway on our bookshelves and in our consciousness.

I just bought my own copy of Goodbye Gutenberg, Global Renaissance Society, LLC, New York 2005, for $.01 + shipping. It is hardcover, 400+ pages, mostly in unabashed COLOR.

Speaking of which, Please forgive these very black and white rectangles, which I am not blog-savvy or financially able to circumvent at this time. If I continue to write here on a regular basis I may invest in some program which will give me more sovereignty over the shape and color of my posts. In the meantime, I’m determined to learn the available techniques for making my blog more visually engaging with photos, drawing, etc. If you like it, let me know. If you have any help to offer, please do.


Vertigo: An Acquired Taste

On this lazy afternoon I am reading Short Trip to the Edge (HarperSanFrancisco 2007), the Orthodox poet Scott Cairns’ account of his spiritual journey to the mystical Greek peninsula of Mount Athos. The following passage has me reeling. Must share. (You can hear Scott’s poetry readings here.)

I have often startled to a fleeting sense–either within an expanse of landscape or, for that matter, while poring over a written page–that there dwells before me an excess, abysmal, roiling beyond what can be grasped. Such a sense is what first led me, even as a child, to savor the language of the Bible.

It is what first led me to the language of poetry as well.

Along the way, I’ve come to the opinion that the real–whatever that may eventually prove to be–will appear, inevitably, as abysmal.

From what I gather, I’m not alone. The consensus of modern philosophy is that the human circumstance–duly appraised–is unquestionably abysmal. Where I might tweak the consensus view is simply here: I’m guessing that our circumstance–the abyss in which we live and move and have our being–need not be apprehended as an abysmal emptiness so much as an abysmal fullness.

An Enormity, I’d say.

Of which, incidentally, the human person is to become a part, a member. Appalling, yes? And abysmal. Cheerfully so, I think.

Still and in the meantime–however one might choose to speak of the accompanying sensations–our glimpses of the real are pretty much guaranteed to be vertiginous; and any taste one might have for that sensation is admittedly an acquired taste.

I have been working to acquire that taste for a long time now, going on most of thirty years.

Poetry, when it is actually poetry, suits that taste. Sacred texts, when they are pored over and pressed for unexpected and generative meaning, also serve. An expanse of landscape–whether scored and moved by human agency or by more natural activity–can also provide a savory moment availing what cannot be held.

The Illusive Vision

Here is another passage from The Writing Life by Annie Dillard–the impossibility, the cross, perhaps, of the artist/ writer:

…you are wrong if you think that in the actual writing, or in the actual painting, you are filling in the vision. You cannot fill in the vision. You cannot even bring the vision to light. You are wrong if you think that you can in any way take the vision and tame it to the page. The page is jealous and tyrranical; the page in made of time and matter; the page always wins. The vision is not so much destroyed, exactly, as it is, by the time you have finished, forgotten. It has been replace by this changeling, this bastard, this opaque lightless chunky ruinous work.

Then why…? How does this sinner dare…?

All Poetry Is Confessional

I have recently begun what I hope is an authentic endeavor to immerse myself in the study of poetry, with the hope that as I write, a consciousness will begin to take shape of how I am oriented and inclined in terms of tradition, intention, purpose, aesthetics, etc. The book I’m pondering over now is Contemporary American Poetry: Behind the Scenes (ed. Ryan van Cleave, Longman, 2003).

One thing I’m learning is that there is an infinity of angles from which poets might view any particular thing, a universe of personal, historical, social, sensory, emotional, imaginal, and spiritual events and experiences to explore, as well as innumerable ways not only of conceiving and shaping poems, but of describing and analyzing and rehearsing what it is one is doing or trying to do. For example:

Most important to me is that the poem not be “confessional”, that the poem be fiction and relate directly to a wider audience even while containing some personal elements.

This is a quote from the poet Dick Allen. I guess it caught my attention, because for me confession with its nuances and ramifications has been about as animating and disturbing an issue in my life and my writing as any I can think of. It seems vital to discern how and why it might be working in what I write. More from Allen:

When my poems start to become self-pitying or too self-conscious, or want to turn into home movies, or are more interesting to those who know me personally than to strangers, I abandon them, for I have failed to listen to the world and to write at my best.

I think I understand what he means, and I am pretty sure I agree with him.
A sappy, whining poem–one with a big mouth and no ears– is an immediate turnoff for me.

However, the question occurred to me whether poems may not be confessional in another sense–covertly, in a way perhaps hidden even from the poet. I am going to make some assertions which, in my limited literacy, I can’t support. But I would like to try them out and perhaps discover at some point whether they might at least have a useful function in deciphering poems.

Assertion: Poets write about what turns their heads, about what leads them into temptation.

If this is the case, the poem must reveal or uncover something about why this particular thing matters or how it matters–in relationship to what. Writing, like confession–or maybe, as confession–is a way I can find my way through whatever it is, while acknowledging and intensifying (intrinsically) my implication, my participation in it, beginning with the very act of choosing it.

Assertion: All poetry is confessional.

How so, and how can this be deciphered ? Is the writer aware of it, or is he “above” the subject, standing aloof from it (the Pharisee), or is he acknowledging his participation in the human race, and his culpability, by humbly taking his position in the middle of it (the Publican)?

I want to make a decision about my intention in writing–in a road map sort of way. What are the signs, the legend I can use to help plot out the “right” or best way to get where I am going? Where am I going? I don’t want to be a critic or a mere reporter. I imagine inhabiting my poems as an sort of invisible intercessor, not pedantically or explicitly, but by standing with, laughing with, weeping with. This might be one vantage point from which I can decipher what is taking place as I write and as I read the work of other writers. How do poets, writing in a vast variety of forms and styles, reveal their attitude or stance, through their explicit or implied subject(s), in relation to their fellow human beings and the creation?

Back to the notion of confession. If I posit salvation as a highly individual affair–just between me and You, God– with my sins as my private business, and their sins as theirs and not mine, then my confession and poetry would most likely have a “them and me” undercurrent, perhaps self-justifying, self-preoccupied, maybe as the angry or self-pitying or self-vindicating victim– indignant, vitriolic, sarcastic. On the other hand, if I see my brother, sister, daughter, neighbor, spouse, adversary) as my life, then my confession will have quite a different character– not something overt, but more like a deep, quiet stream running through my poem–of recognition, even, in a sense, of celebration in the midst of the fantastic impasses and entanglements in which I live with my fellow falling and sometimes irritating or despairing brothers and sisters–or with the physical world which often, with no intention whatever, trips me up and makes me forget or deny or ignore God.

Along with this perspective on confession, I am also proceeding with the understanding that the very nature of the (Orthodox) Christian life is perpetual and unceasing turning (around) towards God, which is repentance. In that light, the question I want to explore for and through my writing life is this: How shall I go about crafting poems that best use the circumstances in which I stand, my unique personal attributes, thoughts, impressions, and understanding to accomplish this turning, this blazing the way in my heart toward God?

The Old Man and His Puzzle

This is my latest little poem. It is really a collaboration, as it has been pulled out of my earlier more wordy and less focused version, by my friend, a poet of rare gifts, who is encouraging me and nudging me in my writing life, and has inspired me to return to my neglected blog. We’ll see how this goes. I need someone to teach me how to put drawings and photos into my blog.

The Old Man and His Puzzle

Hour upon hour most days,
with no picture to go by,
he shuffles, shifting and selecting,
rearranging and regrouping,
making multiple minute modifications
scouring for clues that may converge,
allotments of decipherable witness
to the image that might be there,
or that has always been there
biding its time.

I found some wonderful words today in The Writing Life by Annie Dillard. As I’ve mentioned before, I own things by copying them. This is from today’s journal entry. She is talking here about the lines that the writer is writing.

The line of words fingers your heart.
The line of words feels for cracks in the firmament.

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.

I was sort of startled when I read the second quote, as I recalled clearly having copied it into a journal several years ago. Lately I’ve been rereading some books I’ve read in years past, and find it a strangely encouraging phenomenon, that in revisiting them, I find them so familiar, so like the shape of my own experience, it is like a homecoming. This reminds me that we do ineffably become what we ingest.

I am trying to articulate what it is I want, expect, hope, or intend to do as a writer/poet, looking for the kind of poetry that does something like what I want to do. This is a wonderful sort of new adventure for me, which I hope to explore here. I am eager to hear from other Orthodox poets. I am thankful to Scott Cairns for his podcast: Flesh Becomes Word, that provided a key to a door I have been wanting to go through for years. The Word of God is surely the greatest poem, and so as creatures made in His image, let us also become poems!

Wisdom in the Secret Heart

I don’t forget writers who have befriended me and held my hand, so to speak, through dark places and stormy waters, and occasionally I revisit them to see what I will find. One of these is Kathleen Norris, whose writing Dakota and A Cloister Walk found me dwelling “in the uttermost parts of the sea” (Psalm 139:9 RSV)) and, I can say gratefully, turned me around and pointed the way home. Recently I have been rereading The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy and Women’s Work and Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith. From the latter the following excerpt has especially lit up my synapses and gotten me stirred up to post after over a year:

In ancient monasteries, novices were often asked to begin their life in the community by memorizing the psalms and the gospels…To have literally learned it by heart would also mean that one was allowing the scriptures full access to the unconscious [my emphasis].

I would not usually choose to use the terminology of psychology to describe the effect of learning scripture “by heart”, but I think I know what she is referring to, and find it helpful on some level. I believe exploring the actual texts, however, can take us much closer to the heart of the matter–to what is really happening as the words–the Word–are incised in our hearts. The first text that always spring to my mind in this regard is from Psalm 51:

Behold, thou desirest truth in the inward being;
therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart. (v 6 RSV)

It seems to me that “the secret heart”, unlike the come-lately notion of the “unconscious” cannot be scrutinized or analyzed. What is being wrought by God in the heart and how is always a mystery. I have grown to love this prayer, as it speaks of the Holy Spirit insinuating Himself into the mind of our heart so that we are changed ineffably and imperceptibly–given a wisdom of a kind and in a way that are opposite of our self chosen and inflicted delusions. I am reminded of a teacher of mine who recounted how, in a time of discouragement, she decided to embark upon a rule of daily prayer. After many months she became exasperated, wondering why it wasn’t “working”. Then this word came to her: “But don’t you see that every day is different?” In memorizing the Holy Scriptures–taking them to heart, as in faithful prayer, we may be allowed to see, little by little, that things are indeed shifting, that something new is afoot.

In the tradition of the Orthodox Church we are taught that the scriptures of the Old Testament are always and entirely about/pointing to Christ. And more than that, even. In the course of my studying various recent (heterodox) writings on the Psalms, one writer mentioned that Jesus, because of his upbringing and immersion in the Hebrew scriptures, was able to quote Psalm 22 from the Cross (“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”). I had a double take. It should not escape our notice that one of the names or titles of Christ is “Word of God”. So was Jesus “quoting” the Psalms? There is an essential unity in the Holy Scriptures. Seeing Christ in the Psalms is not a matter of determining in some literal sense how all the words of the Psalms are about Christ. He had become the living embodiment of them. They were always His words–that is God’s Word, even at the same time they issued forth from the crucible of the personal and ritual life of ancient Israel. I have found scholarly theories on the historical origins, uses, structure and linguistics of biblical poetry to be alternately intriguing, instructive, inspiring, infuriating and, sometimes, inconsequential. Whatever the “facts” may be–and that we can never be sure of–one thing we can be sure of, is that none of these theoretical notions, however substantiated, can in any way reduce or circumscribe the mysterious presence and inscrutable working of the Holy Spirit in and through the words of the Holy Scriptures. I am convinced of this. And I believe that this really gets to the heart of why as followers and lovers of Christ, we would have an insatiable longing to imbibe them–and Him–as our very life, our eucharistic being.

I have noticed that while reading the Psalms, I sometimes experience a shift. In one moment the words may seem to be my words, then all at once I realize how far beyond me they are. For a moment I understand the petitition from many of our Orthodox prayers, “Pray yourself in me.” Deeply embedded in these texts is the Mind of Christ, urging us, leading us toward the mind that might grow in us when our heart is pure–giving us the grace that increases our yearning for God. As I memorize these texts, I trust that they are shaping me–changing how and what I see, how I describe my life, what I find desireable, what moves me from one place to another. I can’t see the movement. I think this is what Kathleen Norris meant by “allowing the scriptures full access to the unconscious.” I would like to explore later how In the context of the Psalms the one speaking never does so as an individual, but always as a member. This is where the mind-set of contemporary psychology is off the beam. We can say it no better than the Psalms as they seem to have a way of speaking for themselves and for us:

Thy way was through the sea,
thy path through the great waters;
yet thy footprints were unseen.
Thou didst lead thy people like a flock
by the hand of Moses and Aaron.
(Psalm 77:19-20 RSV)

Not so much to press the point, but more for the joy of sharing it, I can’t resist including a few more verses from the Psalms that seem to say what is such a strain to say in my own words. I preface with a little explanation concerning a recent discovery that has given me great delight. The quotations below are from a new translation (Norton, 2007) by Robert Alter, a Jewish scholar of Hebrew who has tried to recapture the spirit of the original Hebrew, while eschewing certain scholars’ “odd little Christological flourishes” in interpretation. Ironically, perhaps, I have been led to a greater awareness of Christ in the Old Testament through his amazing books The Art of Biblical Poetry and The Art of Biblical Narrative (Basic Books, Harper-Collins), despite his stopping short of Christ. “Whatever the Lord pleases he does…” (Ps 135:6 RSV). I had resisted getting this translation because of his highly publicized bias, until I recently reread The Art of Biblical Poetry. I wondered how could this not be good, and besides, how could he possibly take Christ out of the Psalms? So I relented. I have not been sorry. It has become my favorite, next to the RSV. It is quite similar in spirit and specifics–a little more stark and spare, and without the thees and thous. It is liberally annotated regarding Hebrew meanings, technicalities and difficulties of translation, explanations for his choices with many helpful insights.
With these verses from Psalm 119, I hope to give you a taste of his translation. But more than that hope that you will “taste and see that the Lord is good (Psalm 34:8a RSV).

I recalled your laws forever,
O Lord, and I was consoled. (v 52)

I recalled in the night your name, O Lord,
and I observed your teaching. (v 55)

Better for me Your mouth’s teaching
than thousands of pieces of silver and gold. (v 72)

Never shall I forget your decrees,
for through them you gave me life. (v 94)

My life is at risk at all times, yet your teaching I do not forget. (v 109)

The portal of Your words sends forth light,
makes the simple understand. (v 130)

I rejoice over Your utterance
as one who finds great spoil. (v162)

I have wandered like a lost sheep.
Seek Your servant, for Your commands I did not forget. (v 176)

I have to close with this:

Blessed are the men whose strength is in thee,
in whose heart are the highways to Zion.
As they go through the valley of Baca
they make it a place of springs;
the early rain also covers it with pools.
They go from strength to strength;
the God of gods will be seen in Zion.
Psalm 84:5-7 (RSV)

Memorizing the Psalms: Introduction and Psalm 9

Your word have I hid in my heart that I might not sin against You. (Psalm 119: 11)

I was at home from church today, with the beginning of a cold. Just the kind of time I need to spend with the Psalms. Over a period of many years, since about age ten, I have committed many of them to memory. Now, when I set out to fix one more firmly, I find it helpful to analyze it by making notes about its structure—primary themes and motifs, repetition, reiteration and intensification, segues from one section to the next,returns and affirmations, along with the inversions and turns of phrase that serve to clarify and deepen my understanding of the whole.

The sources that have been most instructive and inspiring to me in exploring the underlying structure of the Psalms are Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Poetry and Fr John Breck’s The Structure of Biblical Language. There are generally accepted technical terms and methods of analysis among scholars for this kind of study, but I don’t trust myself to use them accurately. Although I don’t approach this as a technical exercise, but rather a way of forging “highways in the heart,” the technical explanations have helped to crack open this world of poetry for me.

I like to use the text of the Revised Standard Version for most Psalms. I find it holds together structurally, with a minimum of confusing switches of voice and awkward and strangely wrought phrases that don’t make sense to me. The translation seems consistent within each Psalm and from one to another. It flows well, has its own poetic rhythm in English, and is not unnecessarily archaic and obscure. This is of course, my personal take on it. For my personal use I generally substitute You for Thou and Thee, with accompanying grammatical adjustments. I hope not to be a grammatical snob in daily life and conversation, but “You art the God who workest wonders” seems unfitting for the Holy Scriptures. I don’t hold a translation, per se, sacred, but don’t make alterations that would require understanding of the original text and language. When reading in church, I try to stick with the form designated by the bishop.

What I write here is based on my own best understanding, which I present as a personal exploration. I am an ordinary parishioner with an extraordinary love of the Psalms. I welcome any further insights, especially from others who love the Psalms or want to delve into them. I am grateful to Father Thomas Hopko in his many lectures about everything Orthodox, to Father Patrick Henry Reardon in his book Christ in the Psalms, and to St Athanasius in On the Psalms, as well as the writers mentioned above, for the many insights and the intensification of my lifelong relationship with the Psalms their work has given me.

Today I focus on Psalm 9, the first in the Kathisma 2 of the Psalter, designated for Sunday Matins in the Orthodox Church.

PSALM 9 A Psalm of Forgetting and Remembering and of Praise for God’s Righteous Judgment

The RSV divides this Psalm into ten sections of two verses each. This breakdown has been helpful to me in discerning the pattern of the poetry.


[1] I will give thanks to the LORD with my whole heart;
I will tell of all thy wonderful deeds.
[2] I will be glad and exult in thee,
I will sing praise to thy name, O Most High.

The poet opens expressing his intention to praise God and recount his deeds. He repeats his intention in a variety of ways:
In the first phrase he identifies the Lord as the object of his gratitude, then he begins to address the Lord personally. It helps me in memorizing to underscore and connect similar words and phrases and to note how the same thing is restated in a variety of ways. These are likely to become more specific or more intense, and to have subtle variations in order and grammatical structure. These shifts are like an undercurrent which carries the meaning below the surface. Exult might be a synonym for be glad, but is more intense, more specific. The use of Most High anticipates the image in later verses of God on the throne of his righteous judgment.

In the second phrase of vs 1, the writer points to what he will be doing in the rest of his poem: Unfolding the reasons for his great song of praise. The remainder of the poem is a sort of conversation among motifs: Identifying these and seeing where and how they are repeated and inverted and interwoven is very helpful in seeing the progression of the poets idea to its conclusion. To a weaver, these would be the warp, the foundational threads that hold the poem together as a whole piece.

I have identified these as primary:

(1) God sitting on His throne giving righteous judgment
(2) Remembering and forgetting–God’s (everlasting) and men’s
(3) The self-destruction of the wicked
(4) The vindication of the just
(5) The interaction of the righteous with God (his participation in the life of God)

It might be helpful, after having identified motifs, to mark them on a written copy. This will often uncover other relationships you might not have noticed at first. The purpose of all this is to open up the eyes of your heart to let the Holy Spirit speak through the poem. It is good if it is done with a prayer to the Holy Spirit.


[3] When my enemies turned back,
they stumbled and perished before thee.
[4] For thou hast maintained my just cause;
thou hast sat on the throne giving righteous judgment.

Notice the logical sequence of verbs in vs 3: turned back > stumbled > perished.
Here he contrasts the fate of the wicked before God (vs 3), with the faithfulness of the Lord’s judgment of the righteous (vs 4). The latter he states twice, but the second phrase intensifies the assertion with a clear visual image.


[5] Thou hast rebuked the nations, thou hast destroyed the wicked;
thou hast blotted out their name for ever and ever.
[6] The enemy have vanished in everlasting ruins;
their cities thou hast rooted out;
the very memory of them has perished.

Begin to note here, how throughout the poem the terms enemy, nations, wicked are used interchangeably. Such synonyms are threads that are woven through the warp threads to create the pattern.

The phrases and images in this section intensify until they seem to explode into an abyss of nothingness. I esteem this as one of the great moments in biblical poetry. rebuked > destroyed > blotted out forever and ever > vanished in everlasting ruins > the very memory perished. It’s not just one thing, but this and this and this, until there is no more that could be done–it is final, irrevocable, finished. Summarizing a passage in this way helps to personalize it, relate it to your own poetic sensibility. It is possible that you will discover new capacities in this exercise.


[7] But the LORD sits enthroned for ever,
he has established his throne for judgment;
[8] and he judges the world with righteousness,
he judges the peoples with equity.

Once again as in SECTION 2, the poet follows the destruction of the wicked with the everlasting righteous judgment of God. Thus SECTION 3 and 4 are an expansion, development of the idea introduced in SECTION 2. Identifying such continuity is helpful in remembering the sequence of verses. Notice that he does not use nations, which in this poem always is synonymous with the wicked, but rather the world and the peoples.


[9] The LORD is a stronghold for the oppressed,
a stronghold in times of trouble.
[10] And those who know thy name put their trust in thee,
for thou, O LORD, hast not forsaken those who seek thee.

This segues or blooms from the Lord’s judgment to His steadfastness toward his people, and tells who they are. Vs 10 echoes vs 2 in mentioning not just the Lord, but the name of the Lord. Such phrases as these are part of the undercurrent that I referred to earlier. As the poem is about remembering God, let us consider that it is by His name, in His name, and according to His name, that is, according to His very nature, that this is possible. Those who seek Him are the ones who know His name and vice versa. “If with all your heart you truly seek Him, you shall every truly find Him.” This phrase in its musical setting pops up from my years in church choirs and relates this back to vs l.

If there is a repetition of a beginning letter it is often a helpful memory cue. Here the LORD has not forsaken. In SECTION 6, he does not forget.

It is easy at first to perceive the Psalms as overly repetitious. But often in the various juxtapositions of repeated phrases is revealed the beauty of the Lord, the poetry of His salvation.


[11] Sing praises to the LORD, who dwells in Zion!
Tell among the peoples his deeds!
[12] For he who avenges blood is mindful of them;
he does not forget the cry of the afflicted.

There is a wonderful sub-motif that I noticed today, which starts here: the mention of Zion. The next sections being to weave more intensely the conflicts between the wicked and the righteous (the poor, oppressed, the afflicted, those in trouble).
The second half of the Psalm returns to praise, but now as an imperative, rather than a declarative. He is now speaking to, and as part of, a company. It occurs to me that the mention of Zion is always about a company. This seems like a significant and highly fitting shift in perspective, as the poet is unfolding the awesome and pervasive nature of God’s judgment and power. Memory cue: Once again He uses tell (see vs 1). In this section, he who avenges, is at the same time he who does not forget. See in how many ways the opening of the Psalm echoes throughout.


[13] Be gracious to me, O LORD!
Behold what I suffer from those who hate me,
O thou who liftest me up from the gates of death,
[14] that I may recount all thy praises,
that in the gates of the daughter of Zion
I may rejoice in thy deliverance.

The cry of the afflicted concluding the previous section is exactly what we find embodied in this section. The poet is assured that the Lord will hear his cry. Memory cues: The pairing of these verses is particularly effective because of the contrast between the gates of death, and the gates of the daughter of Zion—the contrast of suffering and oblivion with rejoicing and deliverance—undeniably, exultantly Paschal. Another memory cue: recount > rejoice (a reiteration).


[15] The nations have sunk in the pit which they made;
in the net which they hid has their own foot been caught.
[16] The LORD has made himself known, he has executed judgment;
the wicked are snared in the work of their own hands. [Higgaion. Selah]

Here an answer is given to the poet’s cry. The nations have exchanged places with the poet at the gates of death. It is interesting, that though there is the theme of the Lord executing judgment on the wicked, it seems to be that their undoing is always their own mischief, not a punishment so much as an inevitable consequence. This is an expansion and clarification of the stumbling of the enemies in verse 3. The truth is out, the Lord has made himself known. In the light of His righteous judgment—His just being who He is, their ways are revealed for what they are. This reminds me of the story of Esther when the wicked Haman was himself hanged on the gallows which he had built for Mordecai (Esther 7:10). Sometimes connecting with a familiar story is a helpful memory aid. As you pray with the Psalm, these may arise unbidden from your own experience.


[17] The wicked shall depart to Sheol,
all the nations that forget God.
[18] For the needy shall not always be forgotten,
and the hope of the poor shall not perish for ever.

This reminds me of a reprise at the end of an epic opera. The wicked depart to their godless oblivion, and the needy and poor are justly remembered and delivered forever.


[19] Arise, O LORD! Let not man prevail;
let the nations be judged before thee!
[20] Put them in fear, O LORD!
Let the nations know that they are but men! [Selah]

Echoing SECTION 2, there are now bookends for the main body of the poem.
This is also a sort of AMEN, a so-be-it, so-be-it, the poet praying in a spirit of solidarity with the LORD for what he has already declared that God has done and is doing, thereby aligning himself with the LORD and His righteous judgment.

Change and Loss

My mother had her 87th birthday this week. We had a long conversation. Two more of her peers–friends from my childhood, have fallen asleep in the past week. She is making plans to move out of the house we moved into just before my ninth birthday–52 + years ago, and into an elder community with provisions for graduated care as time goes by. Anticipating this, I wrote this poem some time ago.

You have always taught us that everything
in its earthly form will change.
So I am not surprised when I see it in a dream
But I wake up, if not weeping, still forlorn
at seeing my dead brother in a strange room
looking only vaguely like himself
and a beautiful tall and gifted young friend,
now with crippled, withered, truncated limbs.
But in the dream I am the lost one
and she makes light of the despair I feel
at having lost myself and my way out
of this dilemma.
I have again–as many times in dreams before,
lost my car–my means of transport, and as if it follows naturally,
my way in life.

Nothing is familiar.
Distances and obstacles grow before my eyes.
Friends are dying every week.
It is the old ones, dear ones.
When hometown friends are gone,
can it still be considered home?
Home is the place of being in communion,
and that is with persons.
It will be my mother some day–soon or later.
A call one day–your mother is ill,
is dying, has died. Come quickly.
And home–the house, the neighborhood,
still mine till now for walks,
for coming back to,
will lose its way of being mine–
No longer except in memory the place from which I went out
and to which I have returned
and gone out and returned again.
“My room” with the same paper on the walls–
and so on throughout the house,
the patterns I have followed without having to reconsider,
the habit of my feet, even in my mind a well worn path,
will be ploughed under for new paths to be worn
under the feet of strangers.

Do I weep now for loss that is to come?
Perhaps it has been happening all along,
and in this gradual way, will be a mercy.
The crossing from the substance which feeds but fades
to the communion that transforms us into its life
will always be saving us.

Fall 2004

About the Samaritan Woman…

and her meeting with Jesus at the well, where she was drawing water.
There is a moment I would like to hold up,
A point of light that has pierced the eye of my heart.
I know that I will have to be satisfied with walking around it,
as it is not the kind of thing that can be pinned down.
Here it is:
That Jesus saw her,
and when that dawned on her,
she was never the same.
In the light of His countenance she was undone,
unwound from her syndrome, wounded with eternity.
In a moment her desire was turned inside out, transfigured.
What possessed her now could no longer be her fragmented,
meandering and wandering ways,
but His seeing of her, and beyond all that she had been,
His showing her and freely offering her
what He knew she had always desired,
beyond her own knowing.
He was not looking at her askance to cast her down.
He was not rebuking her or taunting her,
not dwelling on her miserable failures.
In His knowing, He was turning a light on in her,
springing her out of prison.
The miracle is that she saw HIM,
and so, extricated from her shame,
shot full of wonder and expectation,
she bounded with joy into the town to share this news,
that she had found a man–the seventh one–
that knew her as she had never been known.

Christ God, my Lord and Savior,
I see that you come to me as to that woman,
that you can open my eyes and my heart as you did hers.
You offer me yourself even today
in the cup of Your Life.
As I approach and partake, may the light of Your Presence
pour into the dark well of my confused passions,
a provision of the Living Water
now and unto the ages of ages. Amen

May 6, 2007, The Fifth Sunday of PASCHA, the Sunday of the Samaritan Woman

Note: According to the tradition of the Orthodox Church, the Samaritan woman, who is commemorated on this day, bears the name of Photini: light. She is counted as the first missionary.

Write it on your life

I read this this morning and had to copy it into my journal. Maybe this is where the idea came from to begin with. Might not the sign upon the hand be the sign of the Cross? I like the idea of writing these words all over one’s life, so to speak. I am familiar with the impulse to make things real in my life by writing them down.

Deuteronomy 6
4: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD;
5: and you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.
6: And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart;
7: and you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.
8: And you shall bind them as a sign upon your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes.
9: And you shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.