The book of psalms is filled with wisdom. The psalms are rich in time-tested truths, including bold assertions, agonizing supplications and often lengthy diatribes. Unlike lyrical and poetic spiritual writings, some psalmists will get in your face – and also in God’s face. Some are furious and vengeful and a few make threats. Psalm 88 warns God that, if He should let this psalmist die of his afflictions and the psalmist winds up as a corpse, it’s not going to look good for God. Not only would His failing to act damage His standing among the people who worship Him as a savior and a rescuer, but the dead don’t honor God with the conviction the living can.
This psalmist does not report how far this may have gotten him, but among all the psalmists, I’ll bet God prefers straight talkers best. He can be sure they’re not being pretentious.
I’m fond of Psalm 51. It speaks to my spiritual struggles. It’s not confrontational, but is an impassioned plea. The psalmist speaks to us in earnest about the state of his soul. He is painfully aware of his faults and shortcomings and, apart from wanting forgiveness, he wants something else; to be right with God and with himself. But how does he see this happening?
He puts it this way:
“You (God) desire truth in the inward being; therefore, teach me wisdom in my secret heart. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.” He sees these conditions as the terms for a right relationship with God . . . and I would add, a right relationship with the world including everyone in it.
To have a clean heart, to have a right spirit within and wisdom in the secret places of the heart, I believe looks like this: not prone to be suckered by illusions, but living by what’s true. In spirituality, the worst enemies we have are the illusions we cling to. They are like sea water to the thirsty sailor; momentarily satisfying, but ending badly.
I’ve grown more conscious of illusions recently. Twitter and email are in our faces 24/7. Today’s political rhetoric and marketing endeavors, whether it’s our president telling us who the liars are, or the automobile industry claiming their trucks come equipped with guts and glory, we are awash in images and verbiage designed to sell us just about anything.
Never in history has information, whether true or false, been so easily and widely distributed to a world electronically wired to consume it. It’s become a way of life, filled with illusions repeated over and over again to manipulate. Differentiating truth from lies can be an hour by hour challenge.
Plato’s timeless allegory of the cave explores how skewed our perceptions can become, and depending on what we accept as real, how misleading they can be.
The allegory tells about prisoners confined to one room. They don’t think of it as a prison since that’s all they’ve known from birth. They are shackled in such a way they can see only one wall of the prison. On that wall, they see the light reflected from the world outside, but only its shadows. Outside, people are walking by, talking with each another, carrying boxes, holding children or shouldering tools for their work; the prisoners perceive only dark phantoms in motion; shadows are their only reality.
One prisoner escapes.
He sees the outside world for the first time; he watches actual people, the places and the things he knew only by the shadows they cast. He sees them for what they are and returns to the prison to tell all his cell mates the wonders of what he has seen in the light.
The prisoners are incredulous; they’re frightened about what he is saying. He insists they too can see what he has if only they throw off their shackles and get out into the light. They refuse. Because his disclosures are strange to them, they’re confused and fearful about what he tells them, and they remain determined to stay just where they are. As the freed prisoner tells his former cellmates what he’s seen, they threaten him with harm and tell him to go away. Time has inured them to the shadowy illusions of reality. It’s the only world they know.
Writing in Politico in 2017, Maria Kannakova investigates the effects on our brains of lies and misleading statements that are repeated again and again: “As it turns out” she writes, “sheer repetition of the same lie can eventually make it true in our heads . . . Eventually, without quite realizing it, our brains just give up trying to figure out what’s true.”
Giving up is not going to gain us the wisdom we hunger for in our secret hearts and put us right with God or ourselves. It’s in quietness and reflection that our inner vision becomes clearer and less troubled. There, in that inner space, light illuminates everything and casts no shadows.
There is a prayer from the Book of Common Prayer that I believe has wisdom and meaning extend far beyond any sectarian boundaries. I have come to treasure it even more in these unsettled times. It is one way I try to stay focused on what the light is illuminating rather than the shadows it throws. It’s called a prayer for quiet confidence.
O GOD of peace, who hast taught us that in returning and rest we shall be saved, in quietness and in confidence shall be our strength; By the might of thy Spirit lift us, we pray thee, to thy presence, where we may be still and know that thou art God; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.