There are 64 books in the New American edition of the Holy Bible. One of these books is Psalms. The Book of Psalms consists of 150 psalms of which Psalm 22 is one. Yet this one psalm is a thorough presentation of Judeo-Christian spirituality and, by extension, theology.
The Book of Psalms is first and foremost a book of prayer. Catholic Christians especially are fond of saying lex orandi, lex credendi. Very loosely translated, this means that how we pray ultimately determines what we believe.
Logically, we might imagine that we would first develop a creed (via reason or revelation) and then fashion a prayer life based on that creed. This is certainly how an artificial intelligence would proceed.
But not us! We are human beings, not computing machines. We always begin from our experience of ourselves in the world (facticity) and it is that experience that leads first to prayer and only later to belief. There is no better example of this process than Psalm 22, excerpted below:
My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? Why so far from my call for help, from my cries of anguish? My God, I call by day but you do not answer: by night, but I have no relief.
Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One; you are the glory of Israel. In you our fathers trusted; they trusted and you rescued them…
But I am a worm, not a man, scorned by men, despised by the people…
Since my mother bore me you are my God. Do not stay far from me, for trouble is near, and there is no one (else?) to help.
My life drains away; all my bones are disjointed…Dogs surround me; a pack of evildoers closes in on me. They have pierced by hands and my feet; I can count all my bones. They stare at me and gloat; they divide my garments among them; for my clothing they cast lots.
But you, Lord, do not stay far off; my strength come quickly to help me. Deliver my soul from the sword, my life from the grip of the dog. Save me from the lion’s mouth, my poor life from the horns of wild bulls.
Then I will proclaim your name to my brethren; in the assembly I will praise you. You who fear the Lord give praise…For he has not spurned or disdained the misery of this poor wretch, did not turn away from me but heard me when I cried out. I will offer praise in the great assembly; my vows I will fulfill before those who fear him. The poor will eat their fill.
All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the Lord; all the families of nations will bow down before him. For kingship belong to the Lord, the ruler over the nations. All who sleep in the earth will bow down before God; all who have gone down into the dust will kneel in homage. And I will live for the Lord; my descendants will serve you. The generation to come will be told of the Lord, that they may proclaim to a people yet unborn the deliverance you have brought.
Psalm 22 begins with the Psalmist in the throes of an existential crisis. St. John of the Cross referred to this as “the dark night of the soul”. Where is God? (How often have we all asked THAT question?)
The Psalmist does not doubt the existence of God. He knows that God heeded the cries of his ancestors and rescued them. Why then is He not heeding my cries? Why is he not rescuing me?
Since God is not fickle, the Psalmist comes to the only possible conclusion: he himself must not be a human being, at least not in the way that his ancestors were.
Psalm 8 asks, “What is man that you (God) are mindful of him?” If God is not mindful of me, it can only be because he doesn’t care about me; and if God doesn’t care about me, it can only be because I am not a ‘man’, worthy of his care and attention. Whose fault is that? Mine, obviously!
Some philosophers deny the existence of God. Dostoevsky, Nietzsche and others proclaim his death. But the plight of someone who believes that God exists but doesn’t care about him seems much worse. I am unlovable, I do not deserve to exist in God’s world.
Yet the Psalmist cannot turn his back on this cruel, disinterested, absent God. He has believed in God from birth and, of course, there is no one else to turn to. The Psalmist hurls his prayer into the void, despairing of being heard…or hearing.
From ontological annihilation, the psalm turns to physical annihilation: death. The Psalmist does not sugar coat it. He expects a horrible death in which his body will be mutilated and all his ‘works’ destroyed. This vision of death goes beyond mere mortality; our Psalmist imagines that his very existence will be erased from the face of the earth.
Still, he cannot turn his back on God. (One is reminded of Job.) He is without hope, yet he clings to hope. (One is reminded of Abraham.)
And his ‘faith’ is rewarded; he is rescued after all. But it is important to realize that his faith is not a Sunday school faith. The Psalmist accepts that God has rejected him; he despairs. He clings to God merely because he has nowhere else to turn.
But God does hear…and intervenes. Now his horrible lament gives way to enthusiastic praise and he caps that praise with acts of social justice.
Then begins the eschatological phase of the psalm. At the outset God was spiritually and physically absent from the world; now the world lives only for God. Not only are ‘all the ends of the earth’ and ‘all the families of nations’ turned to God but also ‘all who have gone down into the dust’ and ‘people yet unborn’.
God’s eschaton binds the entire universe, past, present and future into one eternal moment of love and praise.
Finally and most importantly, the Psalmist declares, “I will live for the Lord.” The eschaton is realized one soul at a time.
As prayer (orandi), Psalm 22 spans the gamut of possible human experience. It moves from a recognition of ontological nothingness, through fear of death, into celebration and thanksgiving and finally into all-consuming and eternal love. Wow! Can’t wait for the movie!
What can we learn from this prayer (orandi) about our faith (credendi)? First, ours is not an incremental faith. God does not gradually infuse himself into our world; he does so suddenly (at the moments of creation and Incarnation, for example). God created the world and the world subsists in God; yet God is incarnate in Christ and subsists in the world.
Second, ours is not a compartmentalized faith. It is all or nothing. We cannot hang God on a wall or put him on a shelf; we cannot spend a few hours with him and take care of our other concerns the rest of the time.
As ‘nothing’ and without hope, the Psalmist nevertheless cried out to God; and when God, answered him, he began to “live for the Lord”. In the end the entire universe lives for the Lord; all the ends of the earth, all the families of nations, all people who ever lived, are living, or ever will live live for the Lord. And living for the Lord is not a part time job; it is an all consuming vocation!
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