Recently I conducted an Advent Quiet Time and used the four verses of Psalm 131 as the theme. It holds advice I keep peeling away like an onion, or maybe it’s peeling me away. The message is among the great spiritual treasures, my favorite Psalm for decades. In seminary the first line caught my attention as we regularly sang a now obsolete translation from the Hebrew: “Lord, I am not high minded, I have no proud looks. I do not exercise myself in great matters which are too high for me. But I refrain my soul.” Of course almost everything we studied at the seminary was “too high for me,” months of intellectual exercise that fed constant speculation and soul-searching. Over the years it’s been a struggle to heed the psalmist’s advice and “refrain my soul.” Most of the time I correct that word with its synonym restrain. But the older word is actually better. The first meaning, to stop oneself from doing something, is complemented by the now usual second meaning, for which refrain is the recurring chorus in a song that breaks up and slows the flow of verses. The word comes from Old French, literally to bridle, that is to take control of a horse. Refraining the soul is thus a more intense activity, at least for me, a more constant effort than the current translation, “I have calmed and quieted my soul,” would suggest. Inner quiet is a challenge for most of us, never in the past tense for long. I always think I know or should know, more than I need to or can know. After many years of refraining the soul, I am finally learning the necessity of being humbly silent before the Lord. Trying to understand, to second guess God can take much time and fruitless effort. To quietly trust in the Lord, to “wait upon the Lord” is easier when I frequently take a deep breath and just enjoy the inner quiet the author of The Cloud calls “unknowing.”
There is so much to mull over in this brief psalm. Surely the heart of it is adopting the attitude of “a weaned child.” Such a child is not a totally dependent infant, nursing with no mind of its own. A weaned child runs around getting into trouble (“Uh-Oh”), exploring with fresh eyes and returning to the mother for comfort and a hug before setting out on new adventures.
About seventy years ago and ready for the first grade, I remember snuggling on my mother’s lap for a bit after breakfast, and before walking the few blocks to school on my own. I can still tap into the warmth and security of that firm but not restricting hug, just the perfect touch. On reflection I’m surprised there was no sense of anxiety about taking those first steps into a brave new world. My mom was skilled and no doubt inspired. As children do, I took all this confidence for granted.
Yes, I really cherish this psalm, no doubt composed by a well-seasoned grandparent of Israel. I wonder if this is what Jesus was echoing from the tradition when his disciples tried to send the kids away so the grownups could experience the great teacher’s wisdom without distractions. No doubt there was astonishment in the room when Jesus placed a child front and center and said, “Unless you become like this little one, you cannot see, much less enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” It has never been easy to keep one’s inner child, the “child of God,” thriving throughout the many challenges of our lives. And so year after year Advent reminds us to be awake, to pay attention, to refrain the soul.
A few days before my wife died, the pastor of our local parish came to visit in the hospital room. He asked, “What’s your favorite Psalm?” I was shocked to hear her answer, “Psalm 131.” We had never discussed this question. The priest prayed and anointed her forehead with blessed oil, and then slowly read:
O Lord, my heart is not lifted up, my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me.
But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother.
My soul is like the weaned child that is with me.
O Israel, hope in the Lord, from this time on and forevermore.
While the priest read, her eyes were closed as she deeply absorbed the blessing. I wondered if she imagined herself snuggling warmly on God’s lap. Later I told her she reminded me of her precious little blond self in a vintage photo I still cherish. She smiled. We held hands. For me it was a moment of great intimacy after nearly fifty years of married life together.
This was the Psalm chosen for her funeral. And when the time comes it will also bring a blessing of wisdom for my homecoming celebration.
_____________________Here are some deep questions for a few days of Advent journaling:
- What am I waiting for this week, for the near future. for the longer term? What are my feelings about my answers?
- Is there something new coming to birth in your life? What do you need to do to make ready?
- How am I doing with the practice of quiet meditation?
- What do I need to do to prepare for the hour of my death?