One of the dominant emotions present in Psalm 8 is that of being overwhelmed. I imagine the poet stepping out into the night, the cooking fire having died down for the evening, the sky glowing with stars and planets, and experiencing a deep sense of being overwhelmed with the immensity of the universe in which she finds herself. Even before telescopes, theories of a heliocentric solar system and the Big Bang, photographs from the Hubble spacecraft, it is clear to the observer that the human person is dwarfed in comparison to all that is. The poet composes, “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” Without the drowning effect of city lights, it might have actually been easier, rather than more difficult to maintain this sense of wonder.
Rather than taking her in the direction of meaninglessness, being adrift in a cold and utterly chaotic cosmos, the psalmist finds significance and great honor in the humble task given to the mortals of the earth. “Yet you have made them a little lower than the gods, and crowned them with glory and honor. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the seas.” This task, also, could be overwhelming in its scope. The tiny human dust creatures are given charge to care for this warm, green, planet that thrives with all life forms on land, air, and sea.
Given the scale of what is being observed, the magnitude of the freedom and responsibility given the human race, the psalmist feels like an infant, just emerging from the safety of the womb that guarded her from these greater realities. Just waking up to life, her eyes just now gaining focus, taking it all in. This is how it is. The poet composes: “You have set your glory above the heavens. Out of the mouths of babes and infants you have founded strength on account of your foes, to put an end to enemy and avenger.” When infants are allowed to be heard, the enemy, the avenger, the forces of chaotic destruction, are silenced and all is praise and wonder and majesty. In its finished form the Psalm begins and ends with the same refrain, “O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth.”
The sense of being joyfully overwhelmed with all that is is one of the original emotions of the human creature, coming fresh into the world with infant eyes. Not always joyfully overwhelmed. We know that shouts of joy aren’t the only sounds that come out of the nursery. But the cry, the calling out for help, is another pure emotion not too far from the feeling of the Psalmist. Babies shift so easily and rapidly between shouts of joy and cries for help that they have to be more closely related than what adults have made them out to be. The Psalmist could just as easily have said, “I’m living and breathing in a rapidly expanding universe beyond my ability to comprehend. Dear God, Help.”
When’s the last time you felt joyfully overwhelmed?
I don’t think we’re all that unique in our era of history, but my sense is that we don’t live in this reality all that often. My take on life in 21st century America is that we suffer from a constant state of being underwhelmed. We have vague expectations and hopes for an exulted life of being overwhelmed with positive emotion and fulfillment, but reality just about always lets us down. The product is never quite as effective as advertised, the clothes never quite as glamorous as they were on the model, the career never quite as fulfilling as we had planned for, the friendship rarely as intimate as we long for. We suffer from being chronically underwhelmed with life.
As adults we might learn to accept this fate, but youth won’t put up with it. They still hold on to the wild belief that we were created to be overwhelmed with the wonders of life. Sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll aren’t exactly on the list of classical spiritual disciplines, but they are deeply connected to the spiritual longing for ecstasy, for transcendence, for being carried away by the fullness of life and the power of moving beyond ourselves in connection with something larger. It’s a thinner line than we care to admit between the person standing at the concert, swaying with all the others, body taking in the pulse of the music; and the person standing in the pews, raising their voice in praise, harmonizing with all the others present. Or the person getting high and the person meditating in prayer. As U2 sings, “The goal, is elevation.” After which they also sing, “Love, lift me out of these blues, Won’t you tell me something true, I believe in you.” If one has not been given the tools, the discipline, the challenge, of being overwhelmed with the goodness of creation, one will find a path toward transcendence. And it can either be spiritually destructive or enriching. Just for the record, my personal opinion is that a U2 concert is undoubtedly in the category of enriching. Unfortunately, the paths taken are too often quite destructive. And when it’s destructive, it develops into addictive patterns. Alcoholism, drug addictions, pornography, materialism, and other addictions each carry the same pattern and are each manifestations of the deep spiritual longing for transcendence, the quest for being joyfully overwhelmed, even if it’s short lived. And so we keep searching. We might not know what we’re searching for, but part of the quest is connected to that experience of the poet of Psalm 8. To encounter the world in such a way that brings us into deeper communion with God. To remember the gift of being joyfully overwhelmed.
Maybe one of the key missions of the church is to channel the energy behind this quest in ways that are healthy and life giving rather than destructive.
I’ve heard a good suggestion for what to do about so many people using the destructive paths to escape reality. The suggestion was: Maybe we should improve reality. Sounds reasonable.
In regards to being overwhelmed, it’s interesting how the gospel reading connects with this theme. In the parting discourse to the disciples in John’s gospel, Jesus says this: “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”
“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” Jesus appears to be cautious of completely overwhelming his companions with what he could tell them. Delivering the entire trajectory of the gospel, the full package of the significance of his life, all at once. If it was all there, like the naked night sky plus all that we’ve come to know with our special instruments of technology, plus all we’ll get to know in the future as these instruments improve, it might blow their minds. It would be more than they could bear at the time. But there was more to come. And it would come, over the years, over the centuries and millennia, through the presence of what he calls “The Spirit of truth,” the ongoing presence of Christ still speaking to creation. Over the course of the following years, the disciples would be slowly converted toward communion with the living God through this Spirit of truth. Having their misconceptions of God and gospel and truth and love slip away, transcended by the Christ Spirit which consumed their lives and shaped more and more of their thoughts and actions and words. The gift of the Spirit at Pentecost was experienced as a universal outpouring from which no culture, no language, no geographic setting, was exempt. The Spirit of truth has something to say to all people everywhere, all of us camping out under the same big sky.
I wonder if Jesus’ intention was that his followers live in a constant state of being almost overwhelmed. Never completely overwhelmed, more than we can bear, but near the edge. As soon as we find our footing, a solid place to stand, the Spirit of truth tosses one more thing our way that puts us back off balance. We sing out with praise one minute and cry out for help the next.
The very fact that Jesus would suggest there’s a lot more to say, more than we can now bear, hasn’t been lost on commentators. There’s a great parable that gets told in the middle of the Dostoyevsky’s novel, The Brothers Karamazov, called The Grand Inquisitor. The parable imagines Jesus coming to visit 16th century Spain during the height of the Inquisition, when hundreds of people are burning at stake, accused of heresy. The townspeople instantly recognize Jesus as he walks among them and he performs miracles for them, bringing a young girl back to life as she is being carried into the church in a coffin. The cardinal, the Grand Inquisitor sees all this from a distance and demands that Jesus be brought to him, with all the people and guards instantly obeying his voice. Jesus has not spoken a word yet and the writing says this: The Inquisitor asks him, “Is it you? You?’ but receiving no answer, he adds at once, ‘Don’t answer, be silent. What can you say, indeed? I know too well what you would say. And you have no right to add anything to what you did say of old. Why then, have you come to hinder us? For you have come to hinder us, and you know that. But do you know what will be tomorrow? I don’t’ know who you are and tomorrow I will condemn you and burn you at the stake as the worst of heretics. And the very people who have today kissed you feet, tomorrow at the faintest sign from me will rush to heap up the embers of you fire. Do you know that? Yes, maybe you know it.”
If Jesus’ words are frozen in an ancient text, the church can more easily control their meaning. But if he is still speaking, all bets are off. He might even be a heretic.
The Grand Inquisitor goes on to question Jesus and condemn him for answering the temptations in the desert the wrong way, the way that chose to give people freedom to love rather than what they really needed – bread and someone to worship. In refusing to turn stones into bread or seize control of the kingdoms of the world Jesus has condemned human history to continual suffering, so he is now condemned himself. Jesus never speaks a word, but when he is asked to answer for himself, gets up and approaches the Inquisitor, giving him a kiss. The Inquisitor goes to the door and opens it and tells him to leave through the night and never come again.
There’s an ambiguity about the parable that makes it appealing. Though he does not speak, does not counter the accusations, Christ is not silent. The Spirit of truth finds a way to communicate even in the harshest of times.
If there’s a steadying voice to be found in all this, something to keep us on an even keel and keep our heads out of the clouds from being too overwhelmed and out of the valley from being too underwhelmed, maybe it is the voice of Wisdom. Surely she’s a reasonable woman. Proverbs 8 gives her voice: “Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice? On the heights, beside the way, at the crossroads she takes her stand; beside the gates in front of the town, at the entrance of the portals she cries out: ‘To you, O people, I call, and my cry is to all that live.’”
Proverbs is a collection of wise sayings , much of it consisting of a series of one-liners on how to live well and avoid evil.
But in chapter 8 there is this extended meditation on Wisdom, personified as a vocal assertive woman – the force behind the wise sayings which lead away from death and toward life.
Like the Spirit of truth, wisdom calls out to all that live. There are no insider privileges for hearing the voice of wisdom. She has a very public presence, outside the walls of temple, synagogue or church – at the crossroads, and beside the gates in front of the town, the place villages held court to decide on matters of local justice. Now we might also imagine her voice in the downtown highrise, in the urban street and the suburban cul de sac, from the farmer’s field, wisdom calls out to all who would hear.
Further reading gives more insight into the Hebrew understanding of Wisdom. “The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago. Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth. When he established the heavens, I was there…then I was beside him like a master worker; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing before his inhabited world and delighting in the human race.”
Rather than being an aged man, sitting in motionless contemplation, pondering the finer points of aesthetics and truth, wisdom is more like a youthful woman, dancing and delighting in humanity and in creation. There before God established the heavens, that wide canopy that continues to delight us.
Wisdom speaks, the Spirit of truth speaks, everywhere, always, but receiving what they have to say isn’t an easy task. Nothing like instant gratification. We can’t inject wisdom directly into our veins and have her carry us away with her joyful bliss. It takes careful, disciplined, committed attention. All of the spiritual traditions teach us to watch, to wait, to listen, to pray and hope and learn to perceive the wonder and awe, the wisdom and truth that is always there in front of us. Even if we can’t remember the last time we have been joyfully overwhelmed, even if we have almost resigned to a life of being perpetually underwhelmed, wisdom calls. Christ has more to say. Do you hear it? Can you step out into the night and look for it?