Monday, August 27, 2012

Psalm 119 stomps on "Spiritual but not Religious"


Did you ever wonder why the psalter for daytime prayer during the week seems to be obsessed with God's law? 22 days out of 28 the psalmody is partly or fully drawn from Psalm 119, a veritable eulogy to God's law. The remaining days (such as today) include other psalms that speak of God's law in the same vein.

Face it, ours is a culture where rules and regs are not the stuff of which poetry is made. And even those of us, say, devout Catholics or observant Jews, who willingly practice some fairly strict, detailed precepts of morality, liturgy, or diet--do we always find it a sheer delight to do so? Or is it sometimes  a grit-your-teeth act of will to follow through on a religious way of life?

Take that word, religious. From the Latin religare: to bind, fasten, tie down. No wonder we hear "I'm spiritual but not religious" quite a bit these days. It's a tempting point of view. To feel awe at the beauty of the universe and to ponder its suggestion of the Transcendent. That's the fun part. But the idea that the Transcendent might make demands on you? Not so much.

Enter the psalmist, who declaims Psalm 119 not like a stern Moses with stone tablets, but like a love sick poet who can't stop thinking and talking about his grand affair. With religion. With rules and regs. Heedlessly he tramples all over the "spiritual not religious" zeitgeist. For him, religion is precisely what makes the spirit soar:

I rejoice in the way of your precepts,
as though all riches were mine.(verse 14)
My soul is consumed with longing at all times for your decrees.(verse 20)
I will run in the way of your commands;
you open wide my heart. (verse 32)
In your commands I have found my delight;
these have I loved. (verse 47)
-(Revised Grail Psalm translation)

And he continues, like a lover, to express grief and anger and even vengeance  towards anyone who doesn't agree that the object of his love is perfect and beautiful and to be obeyed at all costs. 

So why are Psalm 119 and other I 'Heart' God's Law psalms always on the menu for daytime prayer?
Because daytime prayer is the prayer of our lunch break. The prayer that comes in the middle of our workday. And what do we most need to get through our workday (whether in an office, a factory, a home with a bunch of whining preschoolers,on  an oil rig, or in a monastery)?  

We need help in remembering to do the right thing. Don't cheat your employer by slacking. Don't gossip by the water cooler.  Don't resent that you are stuck at home with the children while your spouse enjoys witty repartee with other adults at business luncheons. Do treat annoying co-workers with all the kindness you can muster. Do love your children even when they are acting momentarily unlovable. 

And above all, be glad that you have that guide to Doing the Right Thing known as God's law. The Ten Commandments. The moral law written in our hearts. The precepts of the Church. The ties that bind are the ties that free us to do good and reject sin. So, we pray along with a Jew from thousands of years ago, trying to adjust out attitudes on this "spiritual not religious" business.