Some years ago, I saw a Television programme which followed what happened when a group of what we might call ‘ordinary people’ took part in an eight-day silent retreat.
It was of particular interest to me because it was filmed at a Retreat House in North Wales which I have often attended, and one of the retreat guides is someone who has accompanied me on a similar occasion.
But what caught my attention, was one particular moment, where a young woman was having great difficulty not only with the deep silence of the place(!) but it was also becoming clear that she’d never really engaged in prayer that much.
So, she went and explained some of these things to the Retreat Guide whom as I say, I knew. And having heard this woman explain all that she was going through the Producer of the programme didn’t then show the Retreat Guide responding with all manner of clever answers to her problems. No, the next scene was simply the pair of them sitting together, silently in the chapel.
I found this really impressive; not to say quite moving. Because, again, rather than sitting there giving the woman instruction, the Retreat Guide metaphorically held her hand and simply led her into a place where prayer could happen. In other words, she created a space in which that woman didn’t have to worry about whether she was getting anything right or wrong. There was no talk of techniques and all the rest. What mattered was the space itself and being welcomed into it.
Now, I recalled that incident when I was reading this morning’s Psalm. Psalm 139 is a great favourite of many people and interestingly it’s among the texts which those who go on Retreats are often given to ponder as they arrive.
This is because as soon as you begin to read it you are immediately reminded of some foundational things. The picture that comes to mind is the way medical people sometimes draw attention to the essential shallowness of much of our breathing; a fact we notice once we take a deep breath in the great outdoors!
Well in the same way this text; is like taking a much deeper breath. When you read it slowly; making the words you own, you find yourself drawn us into an intimate space.
To some extent we might call it a rather exposed space; since what else can we say about words like “O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know…..”?
And yes the writer of this prayer IS of course, somewhat startled by the truth of being known so intimately, but notice, the upshot is not a metaphorical clutching at fig leaves… but actually a sense of wonder.
Because there is here a frankly awe-inspiring vision of our God as the one who formed us and brought us into being; one from whom we are never parted.
And the initiative is all his. The essence of those words, O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know is the truth that to get caught up in prayer is not to have ‘found God’ but to be found. It means to accept the truth that we are an all too prodigal people; that we are the ‘lost’ whom Christ has come to seek and to save.
But notice again, there’s no cringing sense of inadequacy in this prayer. The very notion that we are ‘formed’ by this God and ‘knit together’ in the womb (and no longer the ‘self-made’ creatures we aspire to be!) is actually seen as a cause for praise and wonder rather than diminishment.
So, putting it simply I’m trying to suggest this Psalm does for US what that retreat guide tried to do for that young woman. It comes alongside us as a companion; situates us in a different space where the truth of things; the truth of our life is revealed.
This Psalm creates a space in which the reality of who we are before God is laid bare. And it does so in such a way that this becomes a safe space. The truth does not condemn but as the Lord says, it “sets us free”.
In these few verses we’re offered a vision of human origins and purpose which is contrary to what many would think; it’s certainly hidden to those who are used to living in the shallows of life. And yes, for some of this is amazing; even baffling since the questions will keep coming. We are after all in the presence of the Holy One….(!)
But maybe we find ourselves in the shoes of poor Nathaniel; the one who asked if anything good could come from Nazareth? Somewhat exposed, he looked at the Lord and asked, “Where did you come to know me?” (John 1.48) I sometimes wonder if he wasn’t reading this Psalm while he was sat under that fig tree!?
Again, I think this is where that retreat guide got it right. Because in answer to that young woman’s questions, she knew that the only real response was not words but encounter; being in the presence of this God. And that’s where this Psalm leads us.
It teaches us the fundamental truth that prayer is encounter, a being present, a being aware; a laying ourselves open. It’s the kind of ‘being present’ which leads to the transformation of who we are and how we walk through the events of each day.
So, in other words, these are the characteristics of the prayerful life. If you will, it’s the posture of the person who knows that the initiative was never ours.
Instead, we are those who are sought and known… and once you know this… once really know this…. you’re not far from the Kingdom of God.