Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Column: Out of the depths

The venerable
Catholic Standard & Times' last issue was published at the beginning of June, and with it, perforce, my last column. (You can read about the challenges the paper faced here.) The CatholicPhilly web site continues the paper's mission to inform Philly area Catholics about what is going on in the Church local and global. My next column, intended for the Standard's July issue is posted there, and God willing, I will continue to write regular reflections for them.

Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord,
Lord, hear my voice!
— Psalm 130:1

I huddled in my sweatshirt in the garden of my tiny hermitage, as the dawn cautiously crept over the Santa Lucia Mountains behind me. Steam swirled over the cup of tea cradled in my hands, a tiny mirror of the roiling mass of gray fog that lay before me, cupped in the basin formed by cliffs that dropped a precipitous 1,400 feet down to the Pacific.

Echoes of the opening words of the final psalm from last night’s prayer rose up from the mist, “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord ….” Suddenly I had a sense of just how deep are the depths that stretch out before me, down to the water, and beneath — almost 7,000 feet.

That God could hear my voice from such a distance, could find me in the darkness that holds sway so deep in the abyss, hidden even from the rising sun, took my breath away.

In his commentary on this psalm, St. Augustine reassures us that God’s ear is truly in the hearts of those who pray. God is never far from us in these interior depths, even in the darkest of spaces and times. Still, he says, “we ought to understand from what deep we cry unto the Lord.”

From my aerie, I can barely hear the crash of the waves on the rocks a quarter mile below me. Yet Augustine says that our prayers can penetrate anything, burst through any barrier, pierce depths of sin or despair greater than any I can imagine. Somehow God, in His mercy, lends His strength to my voice.

Part of what gives a laser beam its ability to penetrate unlikely targets is the way in which the waves of light are pulled into step with each other. The psalmist sings of God’s mercy and redemption, which similarly pulls us into step with Him, giving a sharp strength to our pleas. Much like the photons in the laser, we don’t fall into step by what we do, but by how we are created and by the community in which we dwell.

The psalmist counts on this strength, longs for it, as for the dawn: “My soul is longing for the Lord more than those who watch for daybreak.” In these days where I can have light with the flick of a finger, I admit that I sometimes greet dawn with a groan, rather than waiting gratefully upon a light that is not wrung from hard-hewn wood or precious pressed oil, as my great-grandmother did.

So in these days of retreat, I am surprised to find myself aligned with the psalmist, a dawn-watcher. I am drawn from my bed before sunrise, awakened not by the monastery bells, but by a longing to join my voice to the psalms arising from the depths of our tradition, to offer my very self to God’s Being. As Robert Alter’s powerfully spare translation of this line cries, “My being for the Master — more than the dawn-watchers watch for the dawn.”

In the chapel, a monk in his white habit stands at the ambo for the first reading, a glimmer of light against the profound darkness of the sanctuary. Our voices, still creaky from the night’s silence, slowly find their way into step with each other, as we pour psalm after psalm into the abyss before us.

The second reading follows and I look up to find that the dawn has come, the walls of the sanctuary glow with its warmth, the cross hidden from sight moments before is now clearly visible before us. From the depths I can see what my being longs for more than the dawn — my God.

Lord, hearken to me, and have mercy on me, O Lord my God, at once light of the blind and light of those who see, so too, strength of the weak and strength of those who are strong. Give ear to my soul. Hear me as I cry out of the depths. Amen. — St. Augustine in
The Confessions

The photos are from the back of my hermitage, just after dawn. For a photo of the chapel rotunda in the brilliant light of day - see this photo at Flickr.

1 comment:

  1. It's so important for me to take the time during the day, when the waters are calm, when my life seems "okay" to remember that God can and does hear me from the depths.

    Without this kind of practice I will be unable to remember that God is close and that He can, and does, hear me.