September 5, 2014 admin

Light and salvation

During these weeks of Elul, the month of preparation before the New Year, it’s the custom to say Psalm 27 every morning and evening. I feel attached to this Psalm and I sometimes find myself saying its words on long lonely walks, or, like last night, when the dog barks at a fox at two in the morning and I can’t get back to sleep. 
It begins: ‘God is my light and my salvation, of whom shall I be afraid?’ (Verse 1)  Light and salvation sound like weak protection against the terrors of the world. Yet what would we wish for a hostage, like the British aid worker David Haines held by IS? What do we ask from God on his behalf? Of course, we pray that the best and swiftest way is found to gain his release, that his captors should not treat him, or any other hostages, with cruelty in the meantime and that he should be enabled to re-join his anxious family in safety and good health.  But we would also wish that God should be with him in his heart, as his light and his salvation, to bring him inner strength and peace. Whatever troubles we ourselves may have to pass through, however minor in comparison, or however serious, I believe we would say the same prayer for ourselves, that something steadfast should dwell within our heart, a presence which, without promising anything other than itself, so that it cannot disappoint us, is sustaining, irremovable and silently luminous.
Later in the Psalm the heart speaks in response. ‘On your behalf my heart has said: “Seek my presence”; that presence, God, I shall indeed seek. Don’t hide it from me…’ (Verses 8 and 9) Judaism generally takes an unromantic view of the human heart*. The heart is conflicted; it is the place where desire and willpower, passion and reason, meet. Will it prompt us to act rightly, or drive us into wrongdoing? Jeremiah records a moment of despair: ‘The heart is deceitful and weak; who can know it?’ he asks. Only God, he responds, in words which have made their way into the confessional prayers for the Day of Atonement: ‘I am the Lord, who searches the heart and tests the conscience’. (17:9-10)
But this Psalm offers a gentler and more generous account of the encounter between God and heart. God may search the heart, but the heart also searches for God. The heart is inwardly attuned to the resonance of God’s presence and, despite all the noise of the world around it, hears God’s words within its chambers as if it, the heart itself, were the speaker: ‘Seek my face’.
This is not a moment of transcendent revelation in which God addresses us from heaven. It’s more a moment of togetherness and recognition, a moment of awareness of the presence of God within all life, in the vitality of trees, the vibrancy of music, the stillness of thought itself.
To hear this voice is the heart’s deepest passion; it longs for connection with the life which animates all vital being, as the pool in the rocks below the waterfall needs the stream which feeds it living waters. The heart seeks God as the source and essence of its vitality and, in that longing, knows that it must be pure and honest and closed off by no wrongdoing. ‘Your presence, God, shall I seek’.

* A better translation might be ‘consciousness’ since biblical and early rabbinic Judaism don’t separate between the heart as the centre of feeling and the mind as the locus of rational thought. Both are included in the word ‘heart’. 

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