Psalm 131

Psa. 131:0   A Song of Ascents. Of David.

1 O Lord, my heart is not lifted up,

my eyes are not raised too high;

I do not occupy myself with things

too great and too marvelous for me.

2 But I have calmed and quieted my soul,

like a weaned child with its mother;

my soul is like the weaned child that is with me.

Psa. 131:3    O Israel, hope in the Lord

from this time on and forevermore.

Once again, I find the subtle shifts in translation made by Robert Alter to be compelling. He renders verse 2 as:

“But I have calmed and contented myself

like a weaned babe on its mother —

like a weaned babe I am with myself.”

Alter’s translation thus avoids the silly mis-translation of nephesh as “soul.” As my old testament mentor said many times to me, “Nephesh is never ‘soul.’ Hebrew people had no concept of the body/soul distinction! That is a Greek thing.” But more than that I like Alter’s translation because the phrase, “like a weaned babe I am with myself,” both preserves the poetic parallelism of the Hebrew and it is clearer in English too. The point is that the psalmist is internally content. He/she is with themselves and they are calmed as in a way parallel to a babe calmed with/on its mother.

I love this psalm for its tight simplicity. One simple thought. One compelling image.

The thought — I am humble. I do not let hubris rule my life and guide my impulses.

The image — a newly weaned babe who is, perhaps surprisingly, at peace with its new identity (weaned child).

But let me not get ahead of myself. A word about the nature of pilgrimage as a liminal movement is needed. Lately I have been wondering about a series of words. They are these:

Someone — No One — Someone Else/New.

I was first drawn to this set of words as I read the epic-novels of George R.R. Martin — popularly shortened to the Game of Thrones, and in particular, the narrative arc of Arya Stark. Arya, finds herself wildly displaced from her family of origin and literally on the other side of her world and in the service of the Many-faced God. Throughout her novitiate she is asked repeatedly, “Who are you?” She persists in claiming, “a girl is no one,” eschewing the definite article and even the pronoun “I” in her pursuit of becoming no one and then a “many-faced” person. She has intuited that the path to becoming some one new is through the wilderness of being no one.

This movement from being Somebody, to Nobody, to Somebody new is found all over scripture once you have the eyes to see it. For example, The “someone” of Jacob, becomes the “no one” of being estranged from his family and traveling through the wilderness, and he becomes “someone else/new” in his encounter with God at the Jabbok river. The “someone” of Saul becomes the “no one” of being knocked from his mount and blinded, only to become “someone else/new” in the person of Paul.

The thing is, if scripture is to be trusted, everyone resists the movement from being someone to becoming no-one. That is articulated over and over by the prophets who understand that whatever future is possible for the people of God — it is only going to be found through the crucible of exile. It foreshadows the primary narrative for Christians whose Lord is the “someone” of Jesus, who has to become the “no one” of crucified criminal before he finds new life as the “someone new” of the resurrected Lord.

But “what is the connection of all of this to Psalm 131?” you might rightfully ask. The connection is this. Our hubris makes it very hard to practice the kind of honest self-assessment which leads to becoming “no one.” Pride wants to deny our need to become no one in pursuit of becoming someone new. And this denial of the need to die to our old self precludes the possibility of our becoming the new self which is our truest-self. Henri Nouwen has written of this more eloquently than I can so let me quote him briefly. He is writing about the discipline of Solitude when he writes:

In solitude I get rid of my scaffolding: no friends to talk with, no telephone calls to make, no meetings to attend, no music to entertain, no books to distract, just me— naked, vulnerable, weak, sinful, deprived, broken— nothing. It is this nothingness that I have to face in my solitude, a nothingness so dreadful that everything in me wants to run to my friends, my work, and my distractions so that I can forget my nothingness and make myself believe that I am worth something. But that is not all. As soon as I decide to stay in my solitude, confusing ideas, disturbing images, wild fantasies, and weird associations jump about in my mind like monkeys in a banana tree. Anger and greed begin to show their ugly faces. I give long, hostile speeches to my enemies and dream lustful dreams in which I am wealthy, influential, and very attractive— or poor, ugly, and in need of immediate consolation. Thus I try again to run from the dark abyss of my nothingness and restore my false self in all its vainglory. The task is to persevere in my solitude, to stay in my cell until all my seductive visitors get tired of pounding on my door and leave me alone. The “Isenheim Altar” painted by Grünewald shows with frightening realism the ugly faces of the many demons who tempted Anthony in his solitude. The struggle is real because the danger is real. It is the danger of living the whole of our life as one long defense against the reality of our condition, one restless effort to convince ourselves of our virtuousness. Yet Jesus “did not come to call the virtuous, but sinners” (Matthew 9: 13).

[taken from — The Way of the Heart: The Spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, by Nouwen, Henri J. M.]

The psalmist is rejecting the false-self, propped up through hubris, in favor of a relationship with God which recognizes the need to be comforted, encouraged, calmed by God as we become someone else/new. The movement from “no one” to “someone new” is a movement of trust in the possibility that the “dreadful nothingness” through which we journey is not the last word — but is, in fact, the path of becoming someone new. The journey of faith through the season of Lent is a good time to pay attention to the cycles of being someone called to become no one in trust that in the end we will discover that we are becoming someone new.

Daily Collect:  God who sent Moses to the brickyards of Egypt to invite people into a long journey through an uncertain wilderness in pursuit of becoming a new people — you are the God who goes with us as we journey toward newness.  Help us, Lord, to trust in you as we navigate the discomforts and uncertainties of leaving an old identity behind and make our way to become our truest self.  Comfort us that we might join the Psalmist in professing: “I have calmed and contented myself like a weaned babe on its mother — like a weaned babe I am with myself.”  We ask this in the name of our Lord and Shepherd, Jesus the Christ.  Amen.