He brought me out to a broad place; he delivered me, because he delighted in me.
One of the things that I never tire of at my house is the continuing variety of the sunrises and sunsets as I look across my pasture. Every morning and evening that the sky is clear, sunrise and sunset are somehow different. In the same token, I never tire of reading the Psalms. A few years ago, when I started catering to my "inner monastic," it was the things I discovered through the repetitive parts of the monastic day that created a "center" for my prayer life.
Many of you know the "center" of my spiritual life is in the reading of the Daily Office readings. If I were to tell you what the "center of the center" is, it's the Psalms. That very tight center brings me time and time again to broad and open places in understanding my unique spot in the presence of God. It has helped me understand that things I thought were dark secrets heaped only on myself were more universal than I once believed they were, and special joys were also probably just as universal.
But what I become more and more awed over, is how "simple and short" can lead me to broad places.
I've been a fan of "repetitive prayer" since the early days that I started trying to embrace a spiritual discipline. Since my tendency under times of stress is to drill down into the underworld of obsession and compulsion--to suddenly need to control a situation to a point I obsess about the individual details--repetitive prayer has allowed me a way to release myself from those compulsions in a way akin to "the hair of the dog that bit me."
I have several individual verses of the Psalms memorized, not by study, but simply from having read the Psalms over and over in the Daily Office, day by day and month by month. I didn't try to do it; it just happened.
I got to thinking about how in the world of twelve step programs, "learning the slogans" are a crucial piece of it.
You've all driven behind a car that might have a bumper sticker that says, "Easy Does It," "Live and Let Live," or "Just for Today." It's a safe bet the owner of the car is a member of Something-or-Anothers Anonymous.
I have heard people who embrace twelve step programs talk about their experience with "the slogans." Their testimony often goes something like this: "When I first came to Something-or-Anothers Anonymous, I thought the slogans were bogus. How were these stupid little slogans going to help me get over my (addiction or dependency of choice)? I thought it was all bullshit. But then I actually started saying the slogans, and over time I found myself using what the slogans said, and one day I realized these stupid little slogans actually did change me!"
That is what I have experienced with the Psalms. Saying them over and over really has changed me, and my expectation is that they will continue to do so. To borrow from the world of twelve step slogans--"Keep coming back--it works IF you work it!"
But, of course, my suspicious nature about something so simple as a line from the Psalms changing lives kicks in, and I pondered, "Well, how can that be? Why is that so?"
What I've come to realize is this:
We learn all kinds of "slogans" growing up and even more "slogans" when we go through the hard periods of our lives, and they are very negative slogans. We come to believe in those "bad slogans."
I know you've heard them too. Slogans like:
"You are supposed to know how I feel."
"I can't believe you of all people would do this to me."
"If you really loved me, you would..."
"You think you're so damn smart, but you're not. You're nothin'. You're nobody."
"After all I've done for you, you turn around and..."
"I hope you're happy now."
"Do as you please. Don't mind me."
"If you really cared how I felt, you wouldn't do that."
Well, you get the drift. It's interesting which ones of those "bad slogans" we take to heart, and which ones we don't. But over time, all of us, in one way or another, become the "bad slogans" if we don't have a real reason not to--not always in a harmful or destructive way, but sometimes so, and it's simply part of the baggage we carry in our humanity. We are not unique or different in it, really, but we can start to believe we are, and that's a mistake. It keeps us from commending the good within ourselves.
Really, commending the good in others does not require squelching any thoughts of the good in ourselves. It's not an either/or proposition. But it's certainly true we have the ability to repeat the "bad slogans" about ourselves to ourselves, long after the person who originally uttered them is out of the picture. Really, that's quite sad, and it's the legacy of abuse vs. someone just being a jerk. When someone has truly been bullied and abused, the depth of the wound, in my mind, is often measured by whether the person simply trained themselves to repeat the bad slogan, and it no longer requires the presence of the abuser.
So if it's that simple to "get that way," then to me, it's not a crazy proposition, especially if one is a little on the obsessive-compulsive track anyway, to make a concerted effort to simply repeat the "good" slogans.
I decided some time back to simply change my focus on some things and "see what happens."
One of them was simply changing which words I emphasized in my most commonly used repetitive prayer, "The Jesus Prayer." It's the one from the Eastern/Greek Orthodox tradition that goes, "Lord Jesus Christ, son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner."
In the past, when I felt too bound up to pray anything beyond simple repetition, I have used that prayer--sometimes dozens and dozens of times over in one stretch. But I was saying, "Lord Jesus Christ, son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner."
After a while, all I heard was the word "sinner."
...which made me just repeat it more and more and more and, at times, even make me more agitated.
I simply switched to this mode: "Lord Jesus Christ, son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner."
Something surprising happened.
I could show more mercy to myself. It took far fewer repetitions to have a calming effect on me. I started realizing that although I did something "reliable"--repetitive prayer--I was creating a loop that was actually intensifying my feelings of self-denigration, and being frustrated over what usually "worked" for me didn't work. But when I switched the focus to the positive part of the "slogan," I began to feel relief.
I have since been changing my focus over the last several months with the Psalms in the Daily Office. The last half of the above Psalm fragment has been one I have used a lot. "He delivered me, because he delighted in me."
To hear the "positive slogans" in the Psalms has become a new joy. I always used them in the past to focus my anger and my righteous indignation and my rawness. I have discovered we can use these words to lead us to broad places--broad places where we can forgive the things others did, be more charitable to the quirks and weird places of other people's psyches, and let go of them, because we can let go of ourselves. I've discovered it could have been one of the best kept secrets of my friends who belong to twelve step communities. I've discovered the joys of (as they would say,) "Faking it till I make it"--with God's help.
It is, indeed, a very broad place.