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Good Letters

by-david-bergin-emmett-and-elliott-on-flickr“You are my light and my help / Whom should I fear?” Thus begins Norman Fischer’s Zen-inspired translation of Psalm 27.

Right now, at this very moment, Shabbat morning, the 14th of Elul, 5776; Sept. 17, 2016, these verses don’t resonate with me. Fear: yes, I am afraid, afraid, at the moment, that I won’t finish this essay by the deadline, two days from now, for my next contribution to “Good Letters.”

Whom do I fear? The “Good Letters” editor, a kind woman and talented writer who generously works with a group of writers for the blog? The editor-in-chief of Image, the extraordinary journal that is at the heart of an equally extraordinary community of writers, artists, musicians whose work engages, one way or another, ultimate questions of “art, faith, and mystery”?

What about the Divine, YHVH, whose commandment to observe the Shabbat I am breaking by writing this piece this morning, is that who I fear? Or is it some internal judge who took up residence within me, probably so early in my life that I can’t remember when.

Nor can I remember the first time I experienced fear of failing to live up to others’ expectations of me—even if the “other” is merely internal, probably a phantom in whom I’ve vested all the authority of the state, the universe, the cosmos, ultimate judge. Dreaded witness to my life always lived on the edge of failure to please others.

I said “these verses don’t resonate me.” That’s what I thought, that’s what I felt just after I typed them, before I lingered on them and discovered that fear is always with me, it never forgets me, it never slumbers. It might as well be a god; it might as well be my god, my god!

A few verses later in Psalm 27: “When the narrow ones gather their strength to / devour me…even if a royal army were camped outside my gate…when they struck out with terrible weapons / against me.”

Fear, a narrow one, narrows my inner experience. Panicked, I make myself a fortress to protect myself from the royal army of fear that first encamps and then strikes out. To be clear, it’s not that the enemies poised to attack me trigger fear. Rather, I experience fear itself as the troops gathering strength, camping nearby, and then striking out against me.

The psalmist declares that it is they, the narrow ones, “who stumble and fall.” If an army were to encamp outside his or her gate, the psalmist confidently declares: “My heart would not fear.” And if, finally, the army attacked, “Even then I’d trust.”

Me, I’m not so sure. For as long as I’ve been aware, I haven’t defeated the fear. And the fear hasn’t been destroyed by some being, divine or otherwise, that has come to my aid to protect, rescue, save me.

Maybe it’s time for another approach. Maybe it’s time to open the gates, to take down the walls, to soften and invite fear in, to receive it like a welcome guest.

A few verses later, the psalmist says, famously, “One thing I ask for, one thing I hope— / To live in your house / All the days of my life.”

“What or who is God?”, Fischer, a renowned Zen priest, prolific poet, writer, teacher and all around kind and wise man, asks in his introduction to Opening to You: Zen-Inspired Translations of the Psalms.

The word God, with all its synonyms and substitutes as they appear in the Psalms, presents a serious problem for many…. For many of the religious seekers I encounter, the word God has been all but emptied of its spiritual power. Even where it is taken in a positive light it seems often reduced and tamed, representing some sort of assumed and circumscribed notion of holiness or morality. For me, what is challenging about “God” is exactly that it is so emotional, metaphysically emotional. The relationship to God that is charted in the Psalms is a stormy one, codependent, passionate, confusing, loyal, petulant, sometimes even manipulative.

I wanted to find a way to approach these poems [his translations of the Psalms] so as to emphasize this relational aspect, while avoiding the major distancing pitfalls that words like God, King, Lord, and so on create. My solution was simple. I decided to avoid whenever I could all these words and instead use the one English word that best evokes the feeling of relationship, the word you.

I’m reading Psalm 27 every day now, during the awesome period of introspection and reflection that for Jews begins with the Jewish month of Elul and continues through the High Holidays (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) and concludes with the holiday of Sukkot. This is one of the practices offered by Jewish tradition. So I’m reading, sitting with, writing with, praying with Psalm 27 in the hopes of seeing more clearly where I’m aligned with my highest values and where I’m out of alignment, where I’m defensive and where receptive, where I’m closed and where open.

Whose house do I long to live in all of my days? How about the house of this body, this mind, this heart? Maybe this, too, is God’s house, a house in which anything and everything can and does happen. This body offers me the opportunity to learn to be a good host, to learn how to welcome, with kindness, compassion, clarity, and wisdom, whatever enters, even that which may appear from the outside as an enemy.

My challenge is to create conditions that will reveal the divine hidden behind the mask of danger or trouble—or should I say release the divine, release you from whatever you’re trapped in, whatever I locked you in, so that you and I may meet, as if for the first time—or the first time after a long separation—and together we may speak, sing, and shine.

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The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: Richard Chess

Richard Chess is the author of three books of poetry, Tekiah, Chair in the Desert, and Third Temple. Poems of his have appeared in Telling and Remembering: A Century of American Jewish Poetry, Bearing the Mystery: Twenty Years of IMAGE, and Best Spiritual Writing 2005. He is the Roy Carroll Professor of Honors Arts and Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. He is also the director of UNC Asheville’s Center for Jewish Studies.

The above image is by David Bergin Emmett and Elliott on Flickr, used by permission of a Creative Commons license.

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