Saturday, February 26, 2011

I’m starting to get a little feedback from people who have read my latest book, Walking in Valleys of Darkness. It’s not surprising, I suppose, that people seem to be able to see in my experiences of “troubled times” some of their own struggles and emotions. A reader looks at the storms in my life and recognizes something of his or her own human experience.

Yesterday I happened to meditate on Psalm 29, in which the psalmist praises the power of God displayed in a thunderstorm that rolls in off of the “mighty waters” of the Mediterranean and crosses into the mountains where it “splinters the cedars of Lebanon.’ Here’s the entire psalm:

..........................................PSALM 29
Give to the LORD, you heavenly beings,
give to the
LORD glory and might;
Give to the LORD the glory due God's name.
Bow down before the LORD'S holy splendor!

The voice of the LORD is over the waters;
the God of glory thunders,
the LORD, over the mighty waters.

The voice of the LORD is power;
the voice of the LORD is splendor.

The voice of the LORD cracks the cedars;
the LORD splinters the cedars of Lebanon,

Makes Lebanon
leap like a calf, and Sirion like a young bull.
The voice of the LORD strikes with fiery flame;

the voice of the LORD rocks the desert;
the LORD rocks the desert of Kadesh.

The voice of the LORD twists the oaks
and strips the forests bare.
All in his palace say, "Glory!"

The LORD sits enthroned above the flood!
The LORD reigns as king forever!

May the LORD give might to his people;
may the LORD bless his people with peace!


The psalmist sees God present in the darkness and in the frightening, destructive chaos of the lightening, the wind, and the crashing thunder that he refers to seven times as “the voice of the Lord.” One lesson to draw from this psalm is that I have to learn to recognize and appreciate God’s powerful presence in the dark, deafening, frightening summer thunderstorms that we get here in Newark. Piece of cake.

The second, spiritual lesson is much more difficult. After recognizing the presence of God in those storms, I then need to recognize God’s powerful presence in the dark, deafening, frightening storms of my own life: grieving for a loved one who has died, facing the loss of my job, sudden illness, and so on. Recognizing and appreciating God’s presence in those storms is a life’s work. That’s what I reflect on in my book.
It occurred to me as I meditated on Psalm 29 that there is a great difference, however, between watching a storm from a distance and actually being involved in one. My memory took me back to an incident thirty-five years ago...


I was staying as a guest in the beautiful monastery of Montserrat in northeastern Spain. My most striking memory of that visit is the immense popular devotion to Our Lady of Montserrat centering on her statue, a black Madonna. I bought a replica of that statue at that time which still graces our abbey church.

The second powerful memory is that of standing at the open window of my room in Montserrat late at night and watching the distant mountains as banks of clouds kept flickering with bright white flashes against the black sky. The storm was so far off that not even a whisper of thunder reached my ears, but it was a magnificent display of nature’s beautiful, awesome power all the same. I stood there entranced for many minutes, observing from a great distance. I finally went to bed, and the storm never came any closer.


My room at Newark Abbey faces east. Although most of our storms roll in from the west, I often get to watch thunderstorms passing over Staten Island several miles away. I sometimes count the seconds between seeing the flash of lightning and hearing the sound of thunder. One summer afternoon I was watching such a light show when suddenly the sky overhead became ominously dark. Then BLAM! The flash of light and the boom of thunderclap were simultaneous. The fire alarm sounded immediately as if it, too, had been frightened by the storm’s sudden attack. Lightning had struck the church tower at the other end of the monastery. That was a whole other experience of a storm!


The difference between the storm I saw near Montserrat and the storm I experienced in Newark is obvious. Like the difference between reading about someone else’s struggles and actually being engaged in your own struggle. That’s the dynamic I see at work when listening to folks tell me that they enjoyed reading my book.

I realize that having experienced some personal storms myself, I can be a lot more sensitive to the storms and struggles of those around me. I’m thinking of one of my sophomores who sits toward the back of the classroom and is always nodding off. It’s not a sleepy kind of dozing, it’s the depressed kind. I can recognize that kind of storm cloud from a distance. I’ve been kind enough to him, and I know he’s receiving counseling, but my meditating on Psalm 29 is encouraging me to draw a little closer to him and give him a bit more support during whatever personal storm he is going through.


Now I’m starting to think of other storm clouds I’ve noticed among other students. Distant, powerful flashes against a night sky. One kid's parents are getting divorced and the stress is starting to show in his behavior. There's another one; I don't know what's going on with him, but I can see the clouds from a distance. I know what it feels like to be frightened in the middle of a storm; maybe with a few kind words I can help him to weather the storm. Or at the very least I can try not to become part of the bad weather.


There is an important lesson in the way the psalm ends:
All in his palace say, "Glory!"
The LORD sits enthroned above the flood!
The LORD reigns as king forever!

The image is of all the heavenly beings (angels or pagan gods) bowing down in homage to this God who has now overcome the chaos of the storm and who victoriously reigns enthroned above the waters. This is the God who overcame the chaos of the waters on the first day of creation. The great scholar of the psalms, Water Brueggemann, in The Message of the Psalms says of our psalm "The action of the psalm is to sing into place the new order that overcomes chaos." And that's what I'll try to remember each Tuesday morning as we sing Psalm 29 in our monastic liturgy; it's what I'll try to do whenever I notice the distant storms flickering in the night sky of Room 23 during sophomore Religion class: "sing into place the new order that overcomes chaos."

The psalm ends “May the LORD give might to his people; may the LORD bless his people with peace!” May each of us receive some of God’s awesome “might” displayed in thunderstorms, enough to overcome the chaos caused by the tempests of our own lives.
...."May the LORD bless his people with peace!" (Ps. 29:11)

1 comment:

  1. Thank you Fr Albert. As someone who is being made redundant at the end of next week, this is a wonderful piece of writing to read and meditate on.

    I pray for all those around the world facing similarly challenging times.