I seem to have inadvertently wandered into the Psalms on this latest bout of hymn exploration. It wasn’t intentional, but it might be a path to follow for a while. When I think of Psalms, I think of several things – our prayers, our praise – our need for comfort. Through words and poetry, we find much in the Psalms: guidance, desperation, joy, hopefulness, suffering and peace. Psalms are our sacred songs, offering us a way to sing the experiences of our souls.
Teach me, O Lord, thy way of truth, and from it I will not depart;
That I may steadfastly obey, give me an understanding heart.
In thy commandments make me walk, for in thy law my joy shall be.
Give me a heart that loves thy will, from discontent and envy free.
Turn thou my eyes from vanity, and cause me in thy ways to tread.
O let thy servant prove thy word, and thus to godly fear be led.
Turn thou away reproach and fear. Thy righteous judgments I confess.
To know thy precepts I desire. Revive me in thy righteousness.
This hymn is about learning. About finding a way to walk fully in line with God’s commandments. These words may seem a bit extreme in their use of concepts like obedience and righteousness – ideas that make us bristle in our era of self-care and individualism. But, for me, there’s more to this poetry than the negative associations we can sometimes carry of religious imposition and rigidity.
These words are about the lifelong endeavour of being true to what one believes. They are about learning to be driven by the integrity that keeps us on the path we choose to walk. For some of us the struggle to find what we believe occupies a big chunk of our lives. If we manage to find it, we are then challenged to live accordingly. Both of these pursuits are hard. It is clear from these words that the Psalmist also struggled, carefully outlining the challenges. Seeking an understanding heart, anticipating joy that has not yet arrived, removing envy, avoiding vanity, releasing fear and being revived. These are not the requests of someone who has found their way easily. These are the requests of someone who understands the need to be constantly vigilant, constantly working.
It is this humility that I appreciate in these words. Yes, they are in a context of a specific belief and reflect a particular set of guiding principles that we may or may not hold to or agree with. But they are also encouraging in how they acknowledge both our weakness and our strength. We can learn and grow if we choose to, if we seek ways to do so. People have turned to these words for a thousand years – perpetually knowing that we must keep trying. We must continuously seek knowledge and ways to live our beliefs; ways for our hearts to understand and our paths to be clear.
We live in a time when focus on our own thoughts, views, experiences and beliefs is constantly present. We surround ourselves with like-minded people, we criticize others intensely. We desire inclusion, but are masterful at excluding with our well-honed skills of judgment. We are both vain and jealous, fearful and bold. It is a strange time.
And yet, we can become much more. These words remind me that when we commit to being taught, we open ourselves up to learning the vast wisdom that exists beyond ourselves. Be it the wisdom found in faith or elsewhere, the act of seeking brings us closer to truth. The act of seeking. The knowledge that we do not have all the answers nor have we arrived, is powerful. It requires us to learn. It requires us to move. It requires us to relinquish our fears, our envy, our vanity and our judgment. And then, it revives our souls and opens our hearts.