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)

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2 Responses to “Wisdom in the Secret Heart”


  1. 1 Mark Downham July 28, 2009 at 4:25 pm

    Some of this writing is bordering on poetry, genius and the prophetic simultaneously – a great unfinished pneumatological voyage across the sealanes of the human heart – afascinating dialectical exchange between psychology ad pneumatology.

  2. 2 New healthy man November 11, 2016 at 5:20 pm

    Thanks meant for offering this type of substantial information. http://bit.ly/2f0xJ92


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