Introduction to Shafts of Light: Exploring the Psalms

Canon John Udris of Northampton Diocese explores the power of the psalms in all of life’s complexities with this exciting new series.

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To give this series of six reflections on the Psalms some shape, I’ve adopted the great Lutheran Scripture Scholar, Walter Brueggemann’s classification and divided these reflections into three types: 
Psalms of Orientation; Psalms of Disorientation and finally, Psalms of New Orientation.

Brueggemann helpfully identifies a development of faith in the psalms. He sees some of the psalms as expressions of a childlike, simple faith by which everything is ordered and in equilibrium. If you live according to God’s law this will be the outcome, if you don’t this will be result. It’s as simple as that. But, of course, we discover painfully that it’s not quite as simple as that. And the Psalms of Disorientation are the eloquent if sometimes uncomfortable, untidy and even at times rather ugly expressions of that. They are psalms of uncertainty. Psalms full of questions and emotions that perhaps we don’t associate easily or comfortably with prayer. But then these are followed by Psalms of New Orientation. These are the songs of those who have faced and outfaced the darkness. Those who have broken through to a deeper and more mature faith forged in the furnace of those trials.

This is not unlike the stages we experience in the deepening of any significant relationship or vocation. There’s the early enthusiastic days when everything is novel and perhaps a bit dewy-eyed, the honeymoon period. This can’t be sustained at that pitch and it has to encounter hardship and mystery for the commitment to mature. Only then can it break through to a new and deeper integration of things which are less black and white. But this call for greater agility and generosity to enable deeper union with God. This has parallels with the three stages of spiritual growth into the purgative, illuminative and unitive ways, and of how St Bernard sees them as the kiss of the foot, followed by the kiss of the hand, followed finally, by the kiss of the mouth. 

Breuggemann’s classification helps us to sense a similar narrative in our own journey of faith and prayer, in our own relationship with the Lord, reflected in the psalms. This is not always linear, leaving behind one set of images and words for another. Part of the grace of the psalms is that they articulate a language of faith for all of us at different stages of our journey. They both sustain but also call us beyond our present insights and immediate circumstances. They might well help us to identify with, and intercede for, those who find themselves in that particular situation as well. They are the songs of a pilgrim people who are always on the move. 

To the Pilgrim

Set out!
You were born for the road.

Set out!
You have a meeting to keep.
Where? With whom?
You do not yet know!

Set out!
Your steps will be your words,
the road your song,
the weariness your prayer.
And at the end
your silence will speak to you.

Set out!
Alone, or with others
but get out of yourself.
You will find companions.
You envisaged enemies –
you will find brothers and sisters.

Set out!
Your head does not know
where your feet are leading your heart.

Set out!
You were born for the road,
the pilgrim’s road.
Someone is coming to meet you,
is seeking you.
So you can find him
in the shrine at the end of the road,
in the shrine at the depth of your heart.

He is your peace!

He is your joy!

Go! God already walks with you.

From the Hermitage of St Honorat, Randa, Majorca.

Canon John Udris is parish priest of St Peter’s, Marlow. He is Amicus Clero (friend of the clergy and listening ear) for Northampton Diocese following ten years as spiritual director at St Mary’s College, Oscott, Birmingham.