A psalm is a song.
When I was a child, I loved Sunday School. I didn’t attend regularly as neither of my parents were religious in an organized or belonging way. What did I love? I loved the images…not images I believed or obeyed, but images that asked me questions, that took me on long wanderings through the mysteries of meaning and purpose, of love and kindness, of death and heaven, of miracles and admonitions. But I don’t remember too many specifics or details. I don’t remember rules, answers or certainties.
I do remember the 23rd psalm…not all the words of the song, but the feelings and images of comfort and courage that would pour into my young struggling soul. But it had been years since I thought about those images.
Then, recently, my work led me back to the 23rd psalm. I found surprising and helpful inspiration. I found questions.
The 23rd Psalm as Questions for Self-Imagining
Here is the King James text I learned as a child and below are the questions I found singing in my adult soul a few weeks ago. I hope you find yourself in them.
The Lord is my Shepherd.
I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: He leadeth me beside still waters.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointed my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
I have put some of the images in bold to separate and distinguish the images. I find the bold phrases the ones that live in my memory. I have been contemplating these one by one and asking myself what they mean to me. Of these strong images, which do I need now for comfort and courage?
I read each of the questions in an easy and trusting mood and one will strike my soul, call for my attention. Then I hold it gently and often write down what I experience in the mood of the image as a question.
- Do I seek my Shepherd and who would that be? (I wrote about choosing a spiritual companion for the Holy Nights here.)
- Who am I if I no longer want? If I no longer fear? Doubt? Demand? Desire?
- Do I need to lie down in green pastures? Feel the earth? Feel life?
- Do I need to walk beside still waters? Do they calm the chaos and whirlpools of my life and my soul? Is the surface of these still waters a mirror for soul reflections?
- What in my soul needs to be restored?
- What are the paths of righteousness I must follow to become worthy? Or can I just lie in green pastures or let my head be anointed with oil?
- What are the valleys filled with the shadows of death? What evil waits for me ready to grope my soul and destroy my sovereignty?
- What are the rods and the staffs that comfort my soul with their strength? How do they support my uprightness, keep me balanced and standing tall?
- What is the table that is being prepared for me? Am I willing to sit at and be served?
- Who are my enemies? How do I experience their presence?
- If I am to be anointed with oil, why am I being blessed, protected, chosen?
- What are the cups of my soul, my being, my life, that runneth over?
- Being anointed and having an over-flowing cup is a celebration of my soul. How do I celebrate myself?
- Which of my deeds bears goodness and which asks for mercy?
Can you print this post and place it in your journal and let these 23rd psalm questions inspire you to write about your soul life? Let these questions awaken new images and understanding of who you are and who you want to be. These questions can also be illuminated by creating a collage, a drawing or a painting.
I have begun asking my individual clients, “What do you need now: a shepherd, green pastures, a prepared table and so forth?” Their response always directs our conversation to just the right place.
I brought these questions to a workshop I was giving on Sacred Conversations here in Chapel Hill. An older woman who is in great physical pain found deep comfort in the image of lying in green pastures. She could feel the earth taking on the burden and weight of her pain.
Take the 23rd psalm away from the perspective of a child and bring to it the adult who seeks self-wisdom and a soul willing to be the dwelling place of the divine forever.
Questions and Other Verses
If the 23rd psalm fails to sing in your heart, take whatever verse you hold sacred or meaningful and turn it into questions. Let your soul dance with the questions. I feel that the adult soul is enlivened by questions and shows great courage and amazing wisdom by turning everything into a contemplative question. You will find yourself knowing yourself, knowing the world and knowing the future in deeper ways.
If you would like my support as you take up these questions, please schedule a session with me here. You will see a special appointment call the 23rd psalm available for either 30 or 60 minutes.
This season between Michaelmas and Advent asks us to spend time deepening our relationship to our spiritual companions: our own guardian angel, the spiritual hierarchies, the spirits of nature and the dead and yet-to-be-born. I have a four-hour self-study audio course, Engaging Your Spiritual Companions, available here.https://theimagineselfacademy.com/courses/8/about I also focus on the differences and purposes of prayer, meditation and contemplation in this course.