Psalms are the sung poem-prayers of ancient Israel. Most of them were composed and used for communal worship, but some, like Psalm 139 are very personal to each of us. Click on the photo above to listen as I read the Psalm. Some reflections follow here.
Verse 1. God knows me in the details of my life...even my thoughts...not to catch me out like a spy or to make me blush, but that my existence matters to God. God is interested in how I'm doing, much as a good parent would a child who's perhaps been away from home for a time: "What have you been up to?" "What have you been thinking these days?" Some of us were taught that God is an irritable and suspicious super spy. It isn't like that at all.
Verse 2. God knows my life is a journey where I stop along the way because the trudging is often difficult and tiresome. God is acquainted with my ways: my strengths and weaknesses, my shortcomings and gifts - everything that characterizes me in and out.
Verse 3. God knows the words that come from my lips before I speak them. I'm thinking of the little cross we draw on our lips before the Gospel at Mass: That I would speak the words of Christ. We live in talkative times. There's little silence. A priest from Ukraine said, "Where there are many words, sin cannot be avoided."
Verse 4. "You lay your hand upon me." I'm always within God's reach. God's gesture seems to say, "This one is mine." What a lovely thought - God doesn't just have an eye on me, but a hand.
Verse 5. "This knowledge is wonderful." I can't comprehend it, but we might try. We know so much about diets, TV shows, movies, politics, games, sports, where to find the best places to eat or shop, but so little knowledge of how God is with each of us.
Verse 6. "Where can I go from your spirit?" Sometimes we try to hide from God. Remember in school, hiding behind another student, to avoid being called on by the teacher? I wonder if we're afraid God will call on us. What might God ask? Maybe God would ask me to be better informed about what's going on in God's world? Or God might ask me to do something for someone else, something I'd rather not have to do?
Verse 7. "If I go up to the heavens, you're there. If I go down to the grave, you're there." God keeps popping up. Sometimes it's very inconvenient. We might prefer to keep God confined to the the one hour (or less) of weekend Mass or keep God confined to the tabernacle or the time it takes to go around a rosary. Can God appear on the television screen during the news?
Verses 8 and 9. "Wings of the morning" - going off to the farthest east, where the dawn of each new day begins for me. God will lead me and keep a hand on me in the far and wide of my life. Can you name that for your own life? Indeed, God holds me the way the Mother of God holds the Divine Child in the icon.
Verses 10 and 11. ""Surely the darkness will cover me." But for many people the darkness is interior: the inner darkness of depression, the dark cynical attitude, the dark view of other people, the dark view of the future. Christianity is all about light. The Christopher motto is: "Better to light a candle than to curse the darkness." Is it possible to discover God even in the inner darkness?
Verses 12 through 14. These are splendid lines telling of how we are made. What amazing cameras now take photographs of the baby's development in the womb: the teeth are formed as little buds, how the child's face takes shape, even the appearance of finger prints. We watch not only the physical individuation but when the baby begins responding to sounds outside the mother's body.
I was on the New York City subways a lot in the 1970's when the metal wheels of the train against the metal track made the most god-awful sound. I remember seeing a young pregnant woman standing on the platform and when the screeching train approached the station she took the sides of her open overcoat and folded them across herself and her arms to hold the coat in place so to protect her developing child from the unnerving sound. She seemed to know how marvelously we are made.
And I must remember that we are all marvelously made - not just the people I like, or who are like me, or who believe the things we believe.
Verse 15: God has my development in his book. This isn't a list of my good deeds on one side of the page and my sins on the other - ready to whip out on judgment day, so God can decide whether to admit me to heaven or punish me. This is naive. Maybe the book is God's mind, delighting in you (me) in our individuality and the uniqueness for which God created each of us. "You are one of God's thoughts; you are one of God's heartbeats," Pope John Paul II told a group of students while visiting a very gray part of the world.
We need to remember this - God delighting in us! A lot of people hate themselves because someone has told them they're not acceptable: your color, nationality, legal status, sexual orientation, religion, family history, athletic ability, physical beauty, sexy-ness, intelligence - is wrong!
Verse 16. Here the psalmist pays God a compliment: "Your thoughts are great, God." This is why in an icon, Christ's head is large (especially the forehead) - because it is filled with divine thoughts.
"What imagination created the trillion, trillion galaxies?" the astronomer asked his colleagues. And what imagination created the nearly 18,000 different species of birds, each with its own structure and color, voice, nest type, egg design, habits and habitat. What imagination created "that"?
I never want to tire of these things - our minds so drawn to and filled with worrisome things, foolish things, petty, angry, resentful, obsessive things. I want my mind filled with the imagination of God, the loveliness of God, the attentive care of God.
And the final verses 22,23. "Search me out...know my heart...look well...lead me." We invite God into the interior place of our hearts from where (biblically speaking) our thoughts originate. Is the door wide open? "Search...know...look...lead me in ways everlasting." And for the Christian these words, "in the way that is everlasting," are the way of Christ-love. Father Alexander Men wonders aloud: Is it possible when I am going up an escalator or walking along the subway platform, do I look at and love all the people I see coming from the opposite direction? The "opposite" direction? Get it?