How many times have you heard the Twenty-Third Psalm? I probably have heard it several hundred times in my life, but I never really heard it until the day of my father’s funeral. Standing in the cold, damp cemetery that January day, a few days into the new millennium in which no planes fell out of the sky as so direly predicted, the rabbi’s words began to defrost my terrified and frozen heart. Touched deeply, I nevertheless filed the words away and continued slogging alone on my path, forcing myself onward. Six years later, standing in the same spot at my mother’s funeral, the same words again found my heart. This time, however, they took root; they landed.
Returning home after my mother’s funeral, I felt upended, lost in space. Although my mom lived a long life and we had no unresolved issues, losing her everything changed. Even walking felt new, different, unknown. As I prepared to return to work, a twelve-minute drive from my house, I felt overwhelmed. Driving that first day after the funeral, alone at sea, the Twenty-third Psalm was somehow there for me in the car: “The Lord is my shepherd….”. It repeated itself in a loop in my heart, in my head, between home and office, for those twelve minutes of driving. And for those first empty, disorientating months, walking on the earth without my mom’s footsteps also walking, this prayer carried me forward. During my commute, it repeated itself over and over. It carried me forward, into this mother-free world. Then one day, months later, the prayer was gone, the words no longer needed. The immediacy of grieving shifted, yet another layer of letting go was requested of me.
Since then, these eleven years (good news/bad news: life goes on), this prayer has traveled with me, in walking, in sitting, in praying, sometimes more distinct and louder, sometimes more a whisper, at other times, a hushed background. Sometime in its entirety, sometime a word or phrase, this prayer, these mere fifteen lines, have offered me a flashlight, a beacon, guiding my way home, outside home and inside home.
Here is a profoundly unorthodox, simplistic explanation of several major lines of the psalm, researched through my life. (Keep reading—there’s a great Bobby McFerrin link lower in this post.)
“The Lord is my shepherd.”
Shepherd? Why would I need a shepherd in 2017? I have a Prius. I have an iPhone. I have a GPS. My schedule is consistent-enough; I know where to be and how to get there. Or do I?
Shepherd– one who ushers, steers, leads, escorts, guides
To imagine that there is something else with us, something else accompanying us along the path—an energy, a spirit, a supportive flow. You decide what to call or— call it nothing. No matter what is happening, and quite a shitload of life happens, what would it be like to imagine there is a guide, to usher us onward? Even if I can’t feel this, its concept is deeply comforting.
“I shall not want.”
I shall not want? What? Really? You are speaking to the queen of the hungry ghosts, to use the phrase of Gabor Mate, the Canadian addictions expert. Even the hungry ghosts of caffeine haunt me; once welcomed in, they taunt me with the mantra of “more”, the doorway to endless wanting and aggressive denial of the moment. I shall not want. This is a promise, a pledge, a possibility, that I choose to sign up for, one day at a time.
“He restores my soul.”
No matter the crisis de jour, no matter the newest tweet from the Tweeter-in-Chief, no matter the face of the struggle, always, as I outlive the feelings, I am restored—to what? To balance? Maybe. To harmony? Perhaps. To equilibrium. Yes.
“And I shall dwell in the house of Grace forever.”
No matter what. There is always Grace. What if this was true? How might our lives be different?
Enough for now. A mid-October-cold is making its way into my sinuses. For no particular reason, I am heavy-hearted; yet my cup overflows. I will continue to practice.
Here is a stunning Bobby McFarrin rendition of the 23rd Psalm. Let me know how this lands for you.
May we find our way, one step at a time.
May we imagine the best unfolding, no matter the tweet.
May we breathe and relax into the journey.
And when we can’t, may we accept ourselves as we are.
May we relax into the arms of practice. .
*title from The Twenty-Third Psalm