08 March 2010

Psalm 22

I met last week over coffee and cigarettes with my Psalms professor, the one who hosts an Old Testament beard on his face and muted Lutheran convictions; the one always terribly interested in the lives of his students and always open to their often incoherent questions and pondering. We talked a lot about art since I was there to get his approval to start work on a large canvas depicting the 22nd psalm. His response to my sketch was enthusiastic, so I more or less went out right away to pick up the canvas and get the thing started.

Psalm 22 falls under the personal lament category. It was made famous in Christian circles by Jesus' use of it from the cross, the whole why-have-you-forsaken-me? outcry. I thought to use this psalm because of its overwhelming visual imagery: the speaker, bereft and shrunken to the point of counting his own bones like a man counts change, is surrounded by bulls and dogs and enemies of sundry class. His tongue, clinging to the inside of his mouth, is as dry as baked clay. And if things couldn't get worse, he makes note that his enemies are casting lots for his clothing. So there he sits, naked and emaciated, surrounded by the beasts of the earth and their opened jaws.

And yet, the psalmist winds up singing the praises of the Most High. Nowhere in the psalm does he indicate in any explicit term that his suffering has been lifted. There is no reason to suspect the wicked beasts have taken to their hooves and fled into the night. The psalmist turns to praise simply - and I think only - because God listened to his plight. I am no exegete, but it seems to me the only thing the psalmist ever requested was nearness and a listening ear. "Why are you so far from the sound of my groaning?"

When you get down to it, I think this goes for human relationships, too. I can think of many friendships in my life in which silence meant more than words, where nearness took on its own power to heal. And just as true, when separation creeps in I have not a few times echoed these same words of the ancient, suffering psalmist: "I cry out by day but you do not answer; by night but I have no relief."

We people earn our lines and scars, our crows' feet and wrinkled necks. We are right to sit in the ash pit, counting our bones. And we are right, too, to keep one hand extended upwards. We are too engrossed with alleviation of our sorrows and too forgetful of simple presence.

I think of the wake of bodies I have in my past, the many faces of those who, since childhood, I have pushed beyond my rudder. I think of the many memories, the inexplicable moments of grace and joy and shared anguish. I think of the nearness and distance; the many things spoken and the rhythm of silence that held it all together.

And like the psalmist of that 22nd poem, I run a hand against my ever-extending ribs, counting them to keep me occupied. I take notice of the bulls of Bashan and can smell their fetid breath; I cringe. I am all-too aware of my nakedness, the vulnerability that comes with close friendships against which I rebel and reject. Finally, I see, as if suspended in the air despite every effort I have to pull it down, my extended arm and forefinger pointing ever upward, pining for that distant ray of light.

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