Psalm 131

Psalm 131
Joanna Harader
March 21, 2015

If you had gone to the Museum of Modern Art in New York five years ago today, you would have seen a woman in her early sixties with jet black hair sitting in a simple wooden chair. She sat at a simple wooden table, and on the other side of the table was another chair. Who you saw sitting in that other chair would depend on when you went. Maybe, if you had been there, you would have taken your turn sitting in the chair across from performance artist Marina Abromovic.

She sat in that chair for 750 hours—the exhibit, called “The Artist is Present,” lasted over three months. First with the table between the two chairs, then with the table gone. Abromovic sat, and people came. They stood in line and waited for their turn to sit across from the artist. Some only sat there for a couple of minutes, others stayed longer. A woman completely veiled, except for her eyes, sat for 33 minutes. A teenage boy sat for 41 minutes. One man came to sit with the artist 21 times.

Person after person came and sat. They looked at the artist; they closed their eyes; their buried their faces in their hands; they cried. A lot of them cried.

By simply sitting with strangers, Abromovic created a sacred space. One simple wooden chair where people could sit and be seen and simply be.

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.

“I have calmed and quieted my soul.” This calm, this stillness, that the psalmist speaks of is a longing I have—probably a longing many of you share as well. Not just a chance to be physically still, but a chance for our souls to be calm within us. It is so hard to just be. Even in situations that are externally calm we can have a hard time quieting our souls.

Fred Craddock, a beloved pastor and preacher who just recently died, told the story of being a guest preacher in a big church. After he was done a woman came up and said, “What were you saying there at the end? It looked like people were listening.”

“Oh,” he says, “you weren’t able to hear?”

“Well,” she says, “I was on the phone.”

“I hope everything is all right.”

“Yes. We got to church a little late this morning and my daughter and I couldn’t find any seats together so we were just text messaging each other on our cell phones. It’s the only way we could talk during the service.”

I have calmed and quieted my soul.”

It is so easy to be distracted. So easy for our souls to flail about, even if we are in a calm, worshipful space. Even if we are laying in a warm, comfortable bed. Externally, it doesn’t get much more calm than a cozy bed in the quiet of dawn.

But yesterday, just for example, I woke up before six from a dream where I had tried to get into an elevator the size of a mailbox so I could go see someone from church whose mom had died. Then I started thinking about this sermon and a retreat I’m leading next weekend and the Holy week and my kids and the menu for the week and . . .

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.

External factors can help with the calm; entering into a worshipful space, resting our bodies, breathing deeply . . . a calm environment is good, but it is no guarantee of a calm soul. There is something more here, a spiritual maturity that allows us to enter into the worship, the rest, of holy spaces; and even beyond that a true calm that some people can enter into even in the midst of the most chaotic circumstances.

I think of people like Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Theresa, Oscar Romero, Dorothy Day—many of the early Anabaptist martyrs and current peace workers. Some of you met John Bergen when he spoke here several months ago. He is still in Israel/Palestine with Christian Peacemaker Teams, and this week he shared a reflection from Adriana, one of his teammates. She and another CPTer were walking Palestinian kindergarteners to school to try to protect the children from harassment from the border police. There was a confrontation between the CPTers and the police about which route the children could take to school—the route on the “settlers’ side,” which is clean and paved, or the route on the “Palestinian side,” which is uneven, rocky, and littered with debris. While Adriana’s teammate was engaging with the border police, she pulled out a pen and notebook and began drawing silly pictures for the children. Even as the police demanded her passport and asked for her “number,” she kept her focus as much as possible on the children.

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.

The vision is lovely. The question is: How? How do we calm and quiet our souls, even in the best, most calm circumstances? Let alone in the chaos that often is our lives.

I wonder if the psalmist’s metaphor can be helpful here: “Like a weaned child with its mother.”

For one thing, a weaned child has reached a certain level of maturity; in the psalmist’s day, a weaned child was most likely a toddler—able to talk, walk, eat on her own. A weaned child still needs his mother, to be sure, but it is a different kind of neediness than that of a nursing infant. You may have experienced yourself—or seen—a nursing infant in her mother’s arms; you think she is resting peacefully, and then the nuzzling starts; the baby was content, but suddenly she wants the milk she knows is nearby, and she becomes restless. That doesn’t happen with a weaned child.

I’ve been thinking: If God is the mother and we are the children, what does it mean for us to be weaned?

Maybe that we can rest comfortably in the presence of God, without a sense of restless neediness.

Maybe that our prayers are not always cries for milk, for sustenance. We choose to be with God simply because we want to be in our Mother’s presence, not because we need some particular from her.

Maybe that our bond with God is deep and sometimes invisible; it doesn’t depend on external, surface connection.

Maybe being weaned means that we can sit down in that chair across from God and stay within the Divine gaze for more than two minutes.

I don’t know exactly what this metaphor means. And I certainly don’t know how to reach this state of being “like a weaned child with its mother.”

But one thing certainly seems clear: the stillness that we desire–this calm and quiet soul—is not the product of a perfectly ordered environment. It is not even the result of a fully evolved or actualized sense of self.

The psalmist’s metaphor suggests that the calm and quiet soul is dependent upon having a right relationship with our Divine mother.

The calm and quiet soul comes from being able to rest in God’s presence; to sit in the Divine gaze and know that we are being seen as beloved children. Amen.

One thought on “Psalm 131

  1. Pingback: Reflection on Psalm 131 | Spacious Faith

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