Awesome and wondrously made...

For most of my life - young and older - I have "known" the love of God from the inside out. Like Richard Rohr suggests, this is less about linear, scientific knowledge and information and more about intimacy. Wisdom in the spiritual realm never overlooks the way the world works; after all we've been counseled to become "wise as serpents and gentle as doves" by Jesus. But as Rohr write: "wisdom...is not the result of mental effort... words can't get you there...only the experience of love can bring this transformation (within.)" Of course, there have been a few times when I did not sense God's presence within - dark nights, to be sure - where all I could do is trust the promises of baptism to be true: I am the Lord's beloved. It was a grim and terrifying time for me to live without inner consolation. Like Barbara Brown Taylor notes, it was a time to learn how to "walk in the dark."
At midday Eucharist this week, we spent some time with Psalm 139 - "Lord, You searched me and You know..." - long a favorite of mine for many reason. Because this is not a Bible study, but a contemplative time of lectio, I had not reviewed the prayer. In fact, I was caught off guard when we spoke of words that don't make any sense to us. What does it mean to be 'hemmed in? I had no idea.

Lord, you have searched me and known me. 
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
   you discern my thoughts from far away. 
You search out my path and my lying down,
   and are acquainted with all my ways. 
Even before a word is on my tongue,
   O Lord, you know it completely. 
You hem me in, behind and before,
   and lay your hand upon me.
 
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
   it is so high that I cannot attain it. 
Where can I go from your spirit?
   Or where can I flee from your presence? 
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
   if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. 
If I take the wings of the morning
   and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, 
even there your hand shall lead me,
   and your right hand shall hold me fast. 
If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me,
   and the light around me become night’, 
even the darkness is not dark to you;
   the night is as bright as the day,
   for darkness is as light to you. 
For it was you who formed my inward parts;
   you knit me together in my mother’s womb. 
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
   Wonderful are your works;

Peterson renders the fourth line like this: I look behind me and you are there; then up ahead and you’re there, too—your reassuring presence, coming and going.This is too much, too wonderful—I can’t take it all in! That's a little clearer, but what else is going in here in this grand song of trust and inner wisdom? The scholar and poet, Robert Alter, is my go to resource - and he didn't let me down. Let me summarize his insights like this:

+ The poem/prayer begins with the affirmation that because God has searched me, God knows... The searching has taken place and now God grasps the essence of my being. Alter suggests that God's searching is akin to Job's aching lament in chapter 10. Or, at the very least, from a time when the concerns of Job are being explored by Israel. This knowing is deep and complete - not a sentimental or sweet visitation - but more a moral and emotional inventory and confession.

I loathe my life;
   I will give free utterance to my complaint;
   I will speak in the bitterness of my soul. 
I will say to God, Do not condemn me;
   let me know why you contend against me. 
Does it seem good to you to oppress,
   to despise the work of your hands
   and favor the schemes of the wicked? 
Do you have eyes of flesh?
   Do you see as humans see? 
Are your days like the days of mortals,
   or your years like human years, 
that you seek out my iniquity
   and search for my sin, 
although you know that I am not guilty,
   and there is no one to deliver out of your hand? 
Your hands fashioned and made me;
   and now you turn and destroy me.* 
Remember that you fashioned me like clay;
   and will you turn me to dust again? 
Did you not pour me out like milk
   and curdle me like cheese? 
You clothed me with skin and flesh,
   and knit me together with bones and sinews. 
You have granted me life and steadfast love,
   and your care has preserved my spirit. 
Yet these things you hid in your heart;
   I know that this was your purpose. 
If I sin, you watch me,
   and do not acquit me of my iniquity. 
If I am wicked, woe to me!
   If I am righteous, I cannot lift up my head,
for I am filled with disgrace
   and look upon my affliction. 
Bold as a lion you hunt me;
   you repeat your exploits against me. 
You renew your witnesses against me,
   and increase your vexation towards me;
   you bring fresh troops against me.

+ Alter goes on to note that both the Psalmist's path and lair have been "winnowed" - that is, analyzed and critically assessed. So much so that the ancient poet feels "besieged" - shaped from behind and in front like a potter creating a vessel. Hemmed in, it seems, is less an agricultural term and more a description of formation, not unlike an embryo being formed within the womb. And while such formation is complex and challenging, there is also the comfort known when the Holy "sets Your palm upon me." There is solace as well as winnowing.

+ Two other thoughts from Alter's work seem important. One has to do with the imagination; the Psalmist suggests the he/she could soar to the heavens on the wings of the dawn in the East, rising like the sun in the West before racing towards the sea, and never be separated from the love of God.  Even the terrifying darkness of Sheol - or the dark night of the soul - is not the end of the story because from deep within there is always the "illumination" of God's guidance. We don't always feel it, but the Divine is not limited to our feelings, right? The other is that because the Lord has created "our innermost parts" - literally our kidneys where the ancients believed our conscience resided - we are intimately embraced from the inside out by grace: awesomely set apart. Made holy. Created in the womb by the essence of life itself.

This is a psalm of humbling assurance: it, too, is awesome and wondrously made and I am grateful. Whether I am up or down, aware or ignorant, filled with joy or saturated with fear I am the Lord's beloved with whom God is well-pleased.

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