The Psalms

“The Good Shepard”
Henry Ossawa-Tanner (1859-1937)

The Psalms

The other day, and night, I was having a

dark night of the soul.

It was about A Good Look at Evil again, and the recurrent struggle to get my book shown correctly on Amazon.  My patient readers will recall that, although Wipf & Stock’s expanded paperback edition had a pub date of February 2018, Amazon at first featured, more prominently — and sometimes exclusively — the shorter, hardback Temple U Press edition of years ago.

To correct this error, I had pressed my editors at Wipf & Stock endlessly to prevail on Amazon, pressed them without letup, going way outside my comfort zone to do it.  By the time we left for California, it appeared that the whole problem was finally cured.

I was just about to email my editor to thank him, when I thought to check Amazon one last time.  Et voila!  To my bottomless horror, the problem was B-A-C-K!

Actually, as one of my great research helpers pointed out the next morning, I’d been using the wrong procedure.  The seeming relapse was not one.  But all during the first day of our return and the long, dark first night back, I could see no way out of the maze.  It seemed I had tried everything.  Nothing worked.

We don’t talk politics on this site, so ordinarily, I wouldn’t go there.  But the example that comes to mind is from the pre-presidential career of Donald Trump.  I have the story from an English friend.  Since nobody, not even Trump’s staunchest supporters, thinks him an embodiment of the virtues, no one should take offense.

The story goes that he went up to Scotland to buy a golf course, browbeating and cajoling the locals into selling their properties to make way for it.  At last, he had all the acreage he needed save for a plot of land on which lived a Scottish widow woman, stalwartly holding out.  Possibly her home, which included a waterfront view, had been in her family for generations.  When he could not break her will, he bought the shore strip and erected a barrier on it high enough to close off her waterfront view.

Anyway, that’s how I felt.  Like that widow woman.  Completely blocked.  I had the book, but nobody could see it.  The way the widow woman had her house, but was walled up inside it.

When that’s how you feel, finding “a good book” to read at bedtime is of no interest.  What could a good book tell me?  Good for what?

Some months back, Christian friends had told me that I should read the psalms before turning lights out.  Yeah, I know, but they had leaned forward to say it earnestly, as if it were a packet of letters addressed to me in particular.

Well, I thought, when all else fails …  I’d never really read them sequentially and recalled an orphan in Jane Eyre being admonished by a pompous philanthropist to read the psalms and  answering — with  impudent frankness — that she found them “boring.”

On the other hand, what the heck.  I had no interest in another “interesting” book.  Jerry has a King James Version upstairs.  That seemed about right for my purposes.  I had no inclination to read a translation with a closer match between words in Hebrew and  English.  My father could read the Hebrew all right but, born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky, he used the King James in English, finding its rhythm, significance and weight equivalent to the original, as the modern, more literal translations were not.

I started reading the psalms.  The effect was startling to me.  In three thousand or so years, nothing has changed.  We are still in the same human condition!  We still go through the dark times feeling abandoned, overwhelmed, like a drowning person.  We press to our hearts an invisible God – it’s the strangest thing! – and speak to Him heart to heart with nothing held back because – where? behind what? — would we hide it?

That the civilization we English speakers inherited is threaded through and through with the language of the psalms is an exciting fact.  As information, I’d known the fact, but had not previously come up against it as an encounter.  The last words of Jesus,

Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?

My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?

are the first words of Psalm 22.  So many of the familiar words we speak are likewise quotations from the same source.

The unconcealedness, the truth that we greatly care about ourselves – we are not above it, not detached, not sublimated, not about to be someone else – is what shines forth.  The God one turns to because, What else is there?, the person who turns thither because, Who else can do it? – are wholly recognizable:

long lost intimates.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Her next book project will be Conversations with My Father, the "Genius" Among the Giants. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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