Psalm 8 and Majesty
I’m employed as a writer, but the writing I do is scientific and business writing. It’s nice to help explain the science done by the researchers in the School of Medicine department of radiology, or to help communicate broadly about our department activities, but this doesn’t really scratch the creative itch. Over the decades, I’ve written short stories, a young adult novel, and some really bad poetry. The past few years as a lay Dominican, I’ve absolutely loved writing the reflections in this blog, although they are theological and academic rather than strictly “creative” writing.
So, the itch to write something purely creative – not didactic or instructional – has remained. At the same time, my path as a lay Dominican has winnowed my endeavors to ones that serve the greater purpose of bringing myself and others closer to God. Simply put, stories about the world seem weak and one-dimensional unless they probe our spiritual nature. It occurred to me that the psalms are perhaps the greatest poetic achievement in our faith tradition, and since we chant them throughout the Divine Office, it wouldn’t hurt to examine them more deeply and even use them as creative fodder for myself.
Thus, my psalm project was born. It’s been an interesting start. I have had some trouble breaking out of the Dominican pray-study-preach paradigm – not that I want to necessarily break out of the Order’s charism, but it made the resulting poetry too didactic and stiffly instructional. Recently, I’m finding that I still go through the reflection process, sometimes in verse, and then I try to write a poem after I’ve disgorged from my sometimes-too-analytical brain.
I thought I’d post one here. This is Psalm 8 – I mainly use the new, revised Abbey Psalms that are used for the Divine Office, but I also compare with Ronald Knox’s The Psalms, a New Translation (1947) and the Jewish collection of Torah translations (with side-by-side Hebrew) on sefaria.org. There are some turns of phrase (maybe 5% or less of the psalm) that I find really evocative from these texts and use accordingly. I also find the Interlinear bible on biblehub.com to be very helpful when trying to get to the bottom of a specific word or phrase. So, first, here’s the psalm itself:
(For the Choirmaster upon the gittith. A Psalm of David.)
2 O LORD, our Lord, how majestic
is your name through all the earth!
Your majesty is set above the heavens.
3 From the mouths of children and of babes
you fashioned praise to foil your enemy,
to silence the foe and the rebel.
4 When I see the heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars which you arranged,
5 what is man that you should keep him in mind,
the son of man that you care for him?
6 Yet you have made him little lower than the angels;
with glory and honor you crowned him,
7 gave him power over the works of your hands:
you put all things under his feet,
8 All of them, sheep and oxen,
yes, even the cattle of the fields,
9 birds of the air, and fish of the sea
that make their way through the waters.
10 O LORD, our Lord, how majestic
is your name through all the earth!
Next, the reflection. To me, the focus of the psalm is the majesty of God’s name. Not only God, but God’s name. Secondarily, there is a nice bit about how much honor has been given to humanity despite our undeservedness in the grand scheme of things. But the first point really grabbed me. Our God famously gives Moses a name that is not really a name when Moses asks (Exodus, chapter 3). A simple name cannot explain/contain/describe the Creator. A name would, in a way, enable us to put God in a box, make Him subject to or a product of our own minds. How is God’s name majestic? As I pondered:
What is in a name,
When you teach us your name is
No name as such?
Eh-yeh asher eh-yeh
You told Moses:
I am/will be who I am/will be.
For millennia, rabbis have discussed this proclamation, said in what is strictly the future form of the verb to be because that verb has no present tense in Hebrew. So, His name implies something not complete – I will be … This deepens the mystery, for how can our God, who is perfect and complete in every way, lacking nothing, imply that He is not completed in something? Christians can read great importance in this statement, for His unveiling of Himself to humanity isn’t complete until Jesus Christ is born, lives, dies, and resurrects. But Jews, too, could see that this meant He was caught up meaningfully with His People in time. He was leading them to the Promised Land – He was saying that His nature of love would be revealed to them over time.
And the next line in Exodus gives us what pretty much everyone sees as the proper name of the Jewish God, YHWH: “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘YHWH, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.'” Note that our Bibles say “The Lord,” not YHWH, out of respect for the holy name of God. Forgive me, here, for discussing it so openly, and let’s all proceed with appropriate reverence.
Why am I calling His name a “name-that-is-not-a-name” when clearly He provides a proper name? “YHWH” is used over 6,800 times in the Old Testament! And, apparently, it was commonly spoken by the ancient Jews – so much so that we have a written stone tablet dating from 840 BC called the Meshe Stele, written by a Moabite king, no less, who refers to taking back a city the Israelites had conquered, and plundering the “vessels of YHWH.” So the Jews spoke His Name so often and openly that even their enemies knew it. Nevertheless, it’s a historical fact that sometime after the destruction of Solomon’s temple in 587 BC, Jews stopped speaking the name except in rabbinic schools. Centuries later, we encounter a full ban on speaking the name, on pain of death. When encountered in scriptures, Jews automatically substitute Adonai (My Lord), Elohim (God), or HaShem (The Name). Today, there is debate on how to pronounce it because the exact pronunciation has been lost and it is written in “unpointed” Hebrew (without little points below the letters to indicate vowel sounds), although “Yahweh” is almost universally accepted (while “Jehovah” is another name we’ve used in Christianity).
Perhaps there is more going on with this name God provides. Let’s look at the Hebrew characters, known as the Tetragrammaton. The four letters that I have been representing as YHWH, are actually yod, he, waw, and he. They look like this (remember to read right-to-left): יהוה. So, yod is י, he is ה, and waw is ו. Let’s put on our linguist hats for a moment so that we can parse why our Bible notes that the Tetragrammaton “is connected with the verb hayah, ‘to be’.” The verb to be (hayah) in Hebrew contains three of the Tetragrammaton letters in the infinitive: he, yod, and he. God gives us a name that is indeed very close to forms of the verb to be, perhaps poetically inverted:
I will be
(plural things) were
So, about as far as I can get as a non-Hebrew-literate person is that the yod, he, and waw are all used in various forms of the verb to be. Why they are combined in such a way to form the Tetragrammaton, I cannot fathom, but linguistically, it is clearly tied up in forms of being. This is undoubtedly why Jewish and Christian rabbis, monks, and scholars all note this relationship while not exactly being sure what it signifies. God gave us a name that speaks of being, but in a mysterious way that we cannot quite comprehend. As I reflected:
Lord, our Lord.
And the Jews, unable or unwilling to pronounce the cipher,
Say “Adonai Adonenu,” multiplying plurals in an enthusiastic frenzy.
Perhaps John in Patmos best unravels
For our ears
The name that overflows time,
“Him who is and who was and who is coming.”
At this point, I think we’ve put off for long enough the great revelations that came to humanity in the Christ Event. St. John is the one who brings home the point in all of the “I am” statements made by Jesus. In particular, we hear: “you will die in your sins unless you believe that I am” (John 8:24b). Upon statements like this, the Christian faith stands: Jesus is God, co-eternal with the Father and the Holy Spirit. So, what does Jesus have to reveal about the name of God (other than referring to himself in the identical to be way)? “When you pray, say, ‘Our Father in Heaven, hallowed be your name” (Luke 11:2). This, I think, is more important than we might think.
But more simply, Jesus,
Master of complexity in the simple,
Says, Our Father in Heaven,
To show that being children
Is a holy call
And loving like the Father
Is the greatest glory.
This One you sent,
Son and Sanctifier of the earth,
Brings the divine into our grubby existence,
Infuses every person with the Holy Trinity,
Makes your name familiar and holy at the same time.
He removes the distance
Between YHWH and our mouths,
Prompting us to boldly and lovingly
Call out to you.
And so my reflection goes. There are more verses, but the question remains, is it a poem? It feels like instruction. Perhaps using some nice language or phrasing, but instruction nonetheless. I listened to some Catholic poets on YouTube, notably, Dana Gioia, a poet and fellow of the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology. Poetry, I began to think, might have to be incarnate in the things of this world (like Christ) before revealing itself to be something more.
So I gave it another shot:
Mountains, we feel, are majestic,
Scratching heaven’s floorboards,
Celestial dust coating every summit.
People, too, conjure a presence
Like my setter clothed in ermine fur,
Eyes locked on the distant grackle’s plummet.
They share a distance, an intensity
As striking as the single peal of the tower bell
Announcing matins to the frosted clover.
Their majesty is suspended like that ring
And our straining to hear its last echo
Lost somewhere in the fallow and stover.
This is majesty here on earth:
A moment defying words to capture the
Pure and giant thingness of being apart.
The potter’s genius inhabits the clay,
From slip to ash-blown kiln, his fire animates
Those crags and regal dogs who bear his art.
Generative, inexhaustible, massive presence,
So there we can’t bear, obsessing on costumes
While Olivier stuns in his final Lear.
As a sign, your artist’s mark compresses,
And by design, frees majesty in the world,
Its slipperiness is the very majesty we fear.
For your name, ever unpronounceable,
Is more than a riddle, as you explain –
“I am/was/will be what I am/was/will be”
Fashions the clay into being by threading
Himself into it all, connecting us more
Than the silty substrate could ever achieve.
Until, that is, you shattered the world,
Tearing the veil that obscured your face,
Unlocking your name to be prayed anew.
Majesty, it turns out, can be leaned upon,
Gazed at fully, by recognizing your paternity,
Our Father, if we but accept you.
Well, it’s a start, and it’s all about the journey. Let me know what you think. I doubt I’ll ever be a terribly great poet, but I hope that reading and thinking about these things can bring us closer to the beauty that comes from God.