Q: What is the most frequently read book of the Bible?
A: The Book of Psalms. It is read at nearly every liturgy in nearly every church, at Holy Eucharist, Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer, Noonday Prayer, Compline. Monasteries and convents use the psalter four or more times a day. And since the Psalms belong to both Jews and Christians, it is quite likely that no other book is quite so widely read the world over.
Strange, then, I say to myself, that in nearly forty years I cannot remember ever preaching a sermon on the psalms. But today I break with precedent and offer to guide you in reflecting on one of the most beautiful poems ever crafted, and hands down my favorite psalm of all the hundred and fifty: Psalm 139. Some years ago I spent something like a month daily poring over the verses of Psalm 139, savoring them, using them as grist for meditation, as launching pads for journaling. As I frequently do when I find myself attracted to a poem, a song, an object, a place, or a person, I wonder what it is that my soul is rising to respond to. What do I see there, feel there, hear there that speaks to me deeply and powerfully?
It is a profound sense of Presence. We have no way of knowing just how or when the consciousness of humans developed to the point of imagining that the gods were not remote from human life, or localized in some particular place, or capricious deities that darted in and out of human experience leaving us baffled and fearful. But the composer of Psalm 139 clearly has grasped the idea that God is spirit, unlimited by time and space, pervading all creation. God is closer to us than the air we breathe.
That is not necessarily good news for those who believe that “God” is purely a convenient construct with no objective basis in reality. Nor is it especially happy news for those who imagine that God is essentially a moral police officer interested in keeping score of all the good and mostly the bad things that human beings do. Having God pressing upon us behind and before, laying a hand upon us could be a terrifying thought. (Which is enough to nudge the skeptical into the camp of thoroughgoing unbelievers.) But for me, and maybe for you, it is good news that the universe is not just the physical world. There are other dimensions of reality, too––probably more than we can count. And at least one of those dimensions we may call “presence.” There is something intensely personal that responds to us out of the vastness of the universe.
I am not asking you to believe that if you already don’t. Or at least I don’t think I am. Some of us seem to have receptors for such a Presence and some of us clearly do not. A few years ago I read The God Gene, by Dean Hamer. His and a book by Nicholas Wade called The Faith Instinct both discuss the possibility that human beings have a certain genetic predisposition to religion. Hamer had to admit that there is no conclusive evidence for a “God gene,” but that there is plenty of reason to suppose that there might be. It could be that, if there is such a gene, religious meaning might be limited to those human beings who carry the gene. Exactly what the gene does or might do is not at all clear. Wade, on the other hand, sees that religion has a kind of utilitarian purpose in the whole evolutionary scheme of things. He argues that we are social because we are religious, not religious because we are social. In other words, religion helps people get over things like selfishness in order to live in community. Whether he is right or not, his arguments certainly seem to occupy a very different space from what we believers would say we experience, both negatively and positively. All this is very interesting, but what is the point? The point is that if our minds and eyes are open to the possibility of the Presence of God, we can begin to understand and to appreciate that that Presence is at once something that far transcends our individual selves and is also something quite intimately connected with us.
Like the Bible, I am not interested in asking the question of whether God exists. I am interested in asking this question: God exists; so what? If God makes no difference, I cannot see the point in wasting time worshiping, pondering, worrying about, musing about, imagining God, any more than I could justify inventing the notion of a Great Big Rabbit, let’s say, and building one’s life around something that is fundamentally optional to say the least. But in fact, the God that exists is not a million light years remote from my world; God is in my very being. And yet God is not just another name for the stuff of which I am composed. God is Presence. “Lord, you have searched me out and known me,” says the psalmist. The older I get, the more I know that there is something at the bottom of my being that is the bedrock of my spirit, my soul, my personality. And I’ll bet that is true for you, too, be you believer or skeptic. When we are young, we imagine that we know a good deal about ourselves (I seem to recall). When we grow older, we become at once more familiar with ourselves and simultaneously more surprised at parts of ourselves which surface unexpectedly. (I’m thinking of the mid-life crisis, which is no more a joke than adolescence is a joke.) Thus the notion charms me that there is a Presence so thoroughly knowledgeable about and conscious of me that I can say of that Presence, “you have searched me out and known me.” I do not know myself all that well; but you, Lord, know me perfectly. You see the coherence of my various parts, often clashing discordantly, that leave me confused and bewildered. “So what?” is a question that has an answer. And the answer is: so there is a Presence that understands me. And thus there is the possibility that I might come to understand myself, or at least live with myself in a more or less peaceable way.
The Latin Vulgate, incidentally, translates that first verse in a way that has been rendered into English as “thou knowest my death and my resurrection.” Imagine! God has in mind your death as well as your life, and already holds in the eternal mind, as it were, your own eternity, your own resurrection. The psalmist then builds on this experience of intimacy. “You trace my journeys and my resting-places, and are acquainted with all my ways.” He means that there are no back alleys that he can go down, no racetracks he can cut loose on, no secret passageways that are hidden from the all-seeing Eye. I used to think that such a thought served to put the so-called “fear of God” in me, to make me scared not to keep my nose clean. Now I understand that the “fear of God” is not at all about being afraid—it is about living in awe that this strange and wonderful Presence never leaves me. I am as close to God in the DC Eagle as I am in church, as near to the divine in Bed, Bath, and Beyond as I am in Sunday School. Why? Because there is not a word on my lips (including my curses as well as my prayers) that God does not know. And the Presence is the one dependable thing in the midst of so much that is undependable, a whole lot of which is fast passing away.
Such knowledge, I will admit, is too wonderful for me. It is high. I cannot attain to it. In fact, thinking about it moves me to tears. I cannot fathom living in the presence of such a Presence! And stranger still is the idea that I am living in the hand of One who, though knowing everything about me, loves me as if I were the only being on the entire planet. I cannot flee the Presence, because the Presence will not flee me. If I climb up to heaven, lo, God is there. And (as the King James Version puts it) if I make my bed in hell, God is there. That is an astonishing thought! Don’t you wonder what all the folks who are forever threatened by hell, and threatening others with it, make of that? Neither heaven nor hell, neither sea nor darkness, neither night nor day can separate us from the Presence of the one who created our inmost parts, who knit us together in our mothers’ wombs.
But, so what? To believe, or even to consider believing such a possibility as the psalmist’s sense of trust, is almost certainly to move towards seeing that we are as present to God as God is present to us. I don’t mean that as a simple tautology, but as a way of pushing the thought of the psalmist to a new level—one that I hope is not incompatible with his majestic poem. The psalmist edges beyond the comfort zone of his culture and his religion by seeing that God is both transcendent and intensely personal. But we now can see that ours is (if we allow it!) the consciousness gazing back at the Presence which is gazing at us. It is not unlike what we say about icons. They are windows through which the Divine beholds us and through which, just as really, we behold the Divine.
In their book entitled Presence: An Exploration of Profound Change in People, Organizations, and Society, Peter Senge and his fellow-authors play with the idea that the whole is manifested in its parts. A human organization is not a whole that is made up of many parts because living systems, such as your body or a plant or a river or an eco-system, create themselves. They are constantly growing and changing. They note that for the 19th century German writer and scientist Goethe, the whole is “something dynamic and living that continually comes into being ‘in concrete manifestations.’” That is not far away from Psalm 139. The Presence which we know as the all-embracing God is not apart from the creation, but dispersed throughout it. And we creatures, in turn, can practice that Presence by gradually opening ourselves to its gentleness and its power, letting go of our fears and defenses, and becoming more like the Presence that embraces and loves us.
Maybe that is what impels the psalmist to say, at the end of his poem, “Search me out, O God, and know my heart;; try me and know my restless thoughts. Look well whether there be any wickedness in me and lead me in the way that is everlasting.” The entire point of the Presence is that all the parts of creation, including you and me, can in fact become more and more like the one who made and knows and cherishes us through and through.
© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2010