Nighttime Wisdom


I read a wide range of material.  Some of it has to do with things I teach.  Some of it has to do with the process of innovation, which fascinates me and which is necessary for every kind of institution to do in these challenging days.  It does not matter whether you belong to a business or a church.  If that organization is not thinking innovatively, then it is flirting with doom.  And then I read a great deal of current news.  It is remarkable in our technological world how easy it is to stay connected with news around the world. 

Not all reading is equal for me.  Some is for my job.  Some things I read simply because I am interested or curious.  There is no reason in my job to know as much about sports as I do.  But I am interested.  Ever since I was a little boy, I loved reading about other people in other places.  When I was able to travel, I enjoyed buying a local newspaper and reading it cover to cover.  I would even read the obituaries!  I was fascinated with how people’s lives were described, even though I clearly had no idea who they were.

Yet another level of my reading would qualify as spiritual reading.  As some would know, I try to spend some time with the daily lectionary---in my case, the readings chosen for everyone following the Benedictine monks through their day.  There are a variety of readings that match the various times throughout the day when the monks gather for worship.  I can’t do all of them.  But I do try to check in with the morning prayer and the last gathering time of the day, called Compline.

Every one of these appointed times for reading has a selection from the Psalms.  I especially like that because in my growing up days, I hardly ever was exposed to the Psalms.  Apart from the twenty-third Psalm (“The Lord is my shepherd”), I don’t recall much exposure to any other of the 150 Psalms.

When I turned to the reading for Compline last night, I began reading the assigned Psalm, namely, Psalm 16.  It was not a familiar one to me.  I read through the Psalm and reflected a bit on it.  One line stood out and that is where I focused my reflection.  The version of Psalm 16:6 that the Benedictine lectionary used reads like this: “I will bless the Lord who gave me understanding; even in the night my heart will teach me wisdom.”  As I sometimes like to do, I checked out another version.  I looked at the New Revised Standard Version translation.  That version reads, I bless the Lord who gives me counsel; in the night also my heart instructs me.”  Clearly, the two versions are similar, although I like the first one better.

In the opening line of Psalm 16, the Psalmist asks God to preserve him.  The Psalmist further says that he puts hope in God.  I smiled at this thought.  I wondered about my own going to sleep.  Do I have a prayer?  In whom or what do I put any hope?  Sadly, I realized I don’t think much about this.  It all seems pretty simple.  You get tired; you go to bed; you go to sleep.  What an act of courage, I thought.

What’s to say I won’t go to sleep and never wake up?  Am I on my own through the night?  Not in the theology of the Psalmist.  Clearly the Psalmist understands that he is a child of God.  As such, God cares for him, watches over him and will protect him.  Of course, this does not mean the Psalmist never will die.  But it does mean he will be preserved until he dies (and then beyond?).  I think this is exactly why he asks God to protect him. 

And then, in a spirit of gratitude I think, the Psalmist says he blesses the Lord who gave him understanding.  It would take much time to unpack what the Psalmist means by “understanding.”  Essentially, I believe it is the understanding the Psalmist has of himself, his own human nature, and of God and his basic relationship to God---the God who preserves him.  His understanding is both profound and touching.  It is a kind of bedrock understanding that I admire.

At that point, the Psalmist offers my favorite line.  “Even in the night my heart will teach me wisdom.”  I love this line, but I am not at all sure what it means!  In a short space, let me offer a couple perspectives.  It is insightful to hear that we can be taught in the night---even as we sleep.  According to the Psalmist, we are taught wisdom.  I wonder if this does not contrast with knowledge, which we are taught during the day?  Perhaps during the day, our heads absorb knowledge and at night our hearts deal with wisdom.  I would love to run with this idea.

It intrigues me that the Psalmist says his heart teaches the wisdom.  Why not God as the wisdom teacher, I wonder?  Perhaps, the key is to understand that for writers of the Bible, the language of “heart” was the language for the “person.”  To understand we might say that “I am a heart” rather than “I have a heart.”  My heart is the core “me,” my true self. 

That is the self made in God’s image.  That is the deeply spiritual aspect of who I am.  That is the spiritual teacher at night.  That is the part that knows and loves God.  So that is the spiritual, nocturnal teacher---imparting nighttime wisdom.

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