A Quiet Soul
The evening prayer in my lectionary last night had a selection from a very short Psalm near the end of the Psalter. Because I don’t live with the Psalms with the same depth as my monk friends, I still feel like I have often encountered a particular Psalm for the very first time. I know I have read Psalm 131 before, but it felt like I had engaged it for the very first time.
As I often do, I compared two different translations of the Psalm. The Jerusalem Bible begins by the Psalmist saying, “Lord, I do not puff myself up or stare about…” The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) puts it similarly; “O Lord, my heart is not lifted up, my eyes are not raised too high…” In this case I prefer the first option. It seems to warn against feeling pride when it comes to spiritual things.
It makes me think of the old sports’ adage to “keep your eye on the ball!” Perhaps if I were to put it spiritually, I would suggest that much of the spiritual journey is simply paying attention. If I pay attention, then I am not likely to be filled with pride in my achievements. Dealing with a God who is often experienced as mystery and in mystery leaves me with little reason to feel pride. I do have reason to be comforted, consoled, and grateful to that God who covets and cares for me.
The rest of the first line of Psalm 131 has the Psalmist saying that he does not “walk among the great or seek wonders beyond me.” I actually prefer the NRSV translation on this one. That translation has the Psalmist saying, “I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvellous for me.” That seems very clear to me. It actually sounds like wonderful spiritual advice to beginning and sage alike.
Again I think of some of the things I have heard when I was growing up. I think of the one-liner my grandpa used to say: “Keep your britches on!” When I was young, I don’t think I understood what this meant. As I understand it now, “keep your britches on” means to be patient. It means that we should not get overly excited. If I put it in spiritual terms, I suggest it means stay with the discipline. Keep your journey simple. Being spiritual is a life-long journey.
The whole thing is God’s show and we are all actors with bit parts. Why bother seeking to walk among the great. Most of the great ones are folks lifted up by our culture. In most cases there is little reason to idolize them, much less to model our life and behavior after them. In fact the early church offered an alternative to their Roman culture. That alternative was what the Latin writers called imitatio Christi---the imitation of Christ. Certainly this is what the monks seek to do. And in my own way, I try to follow suit.
By doing this, there is no reason to seek wonders or occupy myself with things too marvelous for me. Stay simple. There is no need to call attention to myself. Spiritual living is not an achievement; it is a gift. I just need to remember that I did not create my own life. And I cannot prevent my own death. I have choices, but they are choices on the way. And I know that I have chosen the way which I am told is also the truth and the life.
I like the next line in Psalm 131. The Jerusalem Bible puts it this way: “Truly calm and quiet I have made my spirit…” The NRSV is nearly identical. It reads thus: “I have calmed and quieted my soul…” Maybe I like this so much because it resonates with my personality style, as well as my own religious tradition. To calm and quiet my spirit seems like good advice, as I try to live spiritually in a noisy and chaotic world.
I wonder whether I prefer the option of a calm and quiet soul (as the NRSV) has it is because by nature I am an introvert? Would an extravert prefer less calm and quiet and more action? I don’t think so. I don’t think the Psalmist is writing a Psalm for introverts. I think the Psalmist is writing for all of us who tend to get caught up in the turmoil of our own little worlds.
We all know the demands on us. Even if we are retired, those demands seem to lay claim to our time and talent. I do think we live in a noisy culture. And even if I am alone at my house with no external noise that does not mean it is calm and quiet in my head! In fact, it is frequently when I am by myself that I notice the noise and tumult in my own brain. Henri Nouwen famously talked about all the monkeys running around in his mind!
A calm and quiet soul is a soul that is centered, to use some of my favorite spiritual language. Quakers talk about “centering.” There is a significant tradition within Catholicism that talks about “centering prayer.” Centering is a good way to describe what happens with a calm, quiet soul. To be in the Center is to be with God. It is a place---a quiet place---where we listen to hear God’s call and then are free to obey.