Saturday, November 15, 2003
How can one read the psalms from the perspective of non-duality ? They are, after all, songs that explore the Man-God relationship. Are they dual/non-dual "like box and lid joining" ? Zen teacher Norman Fischer has produced his own "translations" of the psalms which I find less pleasing than the BCP psalter's wonderful poetry, but the fact that a Zen teacher is drawn to them makes me feel that the question has some intellectual validity.
Today I thought of psalm 107 which I read one morning last summer on our vacation, literally seaside, as DK was off bicycling. It's the one with the famous "down to the sea in ships" line. I was instantly struck by its serial descriptions of various mental and spiritual states. Depression, spiritual accedia, refusal, rebellion -- states familiar to all humans. And all are resolved, anaphorically, as follows:
Then they cried to the Lord in their troubles
and he delivered them from their distress
There are four sections. The middle two posit "rebellion" as the cause of the distress. But the first simply describes wanderers:
Some wandered in desert wastes
they found no way to a city where they might dwell
they were hungry and thirsty
their spirits languished within them
These are the exiles, the homeless ones, the alienated, the marginal. The people who find no sustenence in what the Usual City offers: mindless work, ceaseless consumption of goods and entertainments, competition for wealth and recognition and power, visual ugliness, moral lowness, spiritual crassness and mendacity. Wherever they are within this city, it is a desert. Or, perhaps, they have sought a literal desert, turned away, self-exiled, turned outwardly eremitical, sought inner emptiness. They are the blessedly empty ones of the beatitudes, the hungry and thirsty who are fed by the plenum of true emptiness.
form is emptiness, emptiness is form
The next group of the afflicted have rebelled against the "word" of God. One could read them as literal law-breaking prisoners, enjoying what our former Governor, the reactionary William Weld, once called, prescriptively, "the joy of busting rocks." I read them as depressed, as refusing, as self-enclosed, withdrawn, disconnected. Bartlebies, preferring not to. How is this against the "word of God" ? I hear "word of God" as more "nature of things," or the Way, the Tao. In denying or rejecting one's connection with the web of existence, one becomes as the psalmist describes:
Some sat in darkness and deep gloom
bound fast in misery and iron
because they rebelled against the word of God
so he humbled their spirits with hard labor.
In such a state, everything becomes "hard labor." The body itself seems leaden. Thinking is an effort. As GM Hopkins said, "Self-yeast of spirit a dull dough sours." If one of the Three Kilesas is operative, it is hatred. Rejection. Pushing away.
The third group are also rebels, but of a different sort.
Some were fools and took to rebellious ways
They were afflicted because of their sins
They abhorred all manner of food
And drew near to death's door
"Fools" and "rebellious ways" imply more active deviation from the Word, or from the Way. These sinners become "afflicted" unto "death," unable to take in that which is essential for life, be it literal nourishment, or figurative. Perhaps what they HAVE taken in has made them ill, nauseated, self-disgusted. Greed leading to hatred. All for delusion's sake: this will make me strong, wealthy, important, holy, powerful.
Finally, we have the last group, and, to my reading, the strangest. On the face of it, they are honest workmen going about their business, recognizing the "works of the Lord/and his wonders"
Some went down to the sea in ships
and plied their trade in deep waters
They beheld the works of the Lord
and his wonders in the deep
when suddenly a huge, God-inflicted storm overtakes them, and they are in tremendous peril and fear.
Who are these people ? Church-going citizens, productive, law-abiding, religious, good -- complacent people. People going through the spiritual motions, half-asleep. Vaguely comforted by their religion, unquestioning. Then, suddenly, they are up-ended, rocked to their depths by existential peril of the most harrowing kind.
Each of these four groups, in extremis, "cry to the Lord in their troubles," and are "delivered."
There it is again -- the "appeal," the great "de profundis" cry that Christianity articulates so brilliantly.
I think that in the crying out, in that moment of awful submission and recognition of one's fundamental, naked afflicted reality, in that excruciating moment, is where deliverance begins.
Artist/Maker William Bradford (1823–1892) Title/Object Name Shipwreck off Nantucket (Wreck off Nantucket after a Storm) Date ca. 1860–61 Medium Oil on canvas Dimensions 40 x 64 in. (101.6 x 162.6 cm) Credit Line (Accession No.) Purchase, John Osgood and Elizabeth Blanchard Memorial Fund, Fosburgh Fund Inc. Gift, and Maria DeWitt Jesup Fund, 1971 (1971.192)