Words that Settle Deep in the Bones
My parents made sure we four kids were dressed, fed, and ready for church Sunday mornings. Every Sunday we attended an Evangelical Free church morning and evening pretty much without fail. Sometimes during the evening service we got to choose favorites to sing. I remember raising my hand in the wildly waving way particular to wiggly 9-year-olds sitting near the front, and the joy of being called on, and getting to request my favorite, which might have been hymn #222, but certainly was Great is thy Faithfulness. I remember the resounding loveliness as my congregation sang four-part harmony using words and a tune that took root deep in my bones 50-some years ago. A lot of those years I didn't sing that song, but recently, when driving over Chehalem Mountain, they came to me, falteringly at first, but slowly and surely stringing themselves together:
Summer and winter, springtime and harvest
Sun, moon and stars in their courses above
Join with all nature in manifold witness
To Thy great faithfulness, mercy and love.
Pardon for sin and a peace than endureth
Thine own dear presence to cheer and to guide
Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow
Blessings all mine and 10,000 beside
Great is Thy faithfulness
Great is thy faithfulness,
Morning by morning new mercies I see
All I have needed thy hand has provided
Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord unto thee.
Those words are worth sitting with a moment. They weave a sort of mysterious alchemy that fortifies the soul.
Poetry does that, too, and written prayers, and sacred texts allowed to settle deep into ones bones.
When I am distant from the hope of myself, I can walk among the trees, who give off hints of gladness, and save me.(1) A particular big leaf maple at Fern Creek invites me to stay awhile, to be bathed in the light flowing from their branches, and to hear them remind me, "...you too have come into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled with light, and to shine." Thank you, Mary Oliver, for "When I Am Among the Trees."
When Jesus hung on the cross he cried out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" and those around understood him to be referencing the 22nd Psalm, which is full of the tension between feeling forsaken and yet claiming that God does not, in fact, forsake us, but is trustworthy. God will be faithful.
Similarly of late, I have used the first phrase of Psalm 121:1 to remember where I have placed my hope when I seemingly misplace it. "I lift up my eyes up to the mountains--from whence my help comes." When I need to look up instead of down, mountains are what I see in Oregon. They give and sustain life--storing carbon dioxide in their forests, holding snow for summer water, a source that provides homes to a myriad of land, water, and airborne creatures. I also know deep in my bones that the hope I claim comes from a source greater even than the mountain because my help comes from the Maker of the mountain--the Source behind the source--which the second phrase of Psalm 121:1 affirms. I am calling forth the whole of that good news, even if I only manage to whisper the first line, which is easy enough to recall on account of the word whence, the use of which rewards me with a bit of delight.
Every morning for perhaps four years now, I've started my centering prayer practice with a Peter Traben Haas prayer (2) that begins this way: "Living Life and Sustaining Love: Help me feel your attracting grace in the universe, which keeps everything from coming apart." Throughout the day when I need to be brought back to center, these words spill out almost without asking.
Most recently I've added a poem by my friend, Bethany Lee (3) to my list of growing grounding words. In "The Gathering" she references a coming storm and ends with these lines:
At some point you will have done
everything there is to do
and the only thing left
is to wait the wind out
let the waves roll over
shudder to the surface again
It's an uncertain
You're not doing courage wrong
if it doesn't feel brave.
The last two lines are all I need to bring the whole of these wise words to mind. To give me courage.
In moments of unrest or when I am about the busyness of living or when I should be sleeping but am not, words once seeded burble up through whatever troubles shake the ground beneath my feet, and they steady me. In the darkness one doesn't feel much like hunting down helpful words in books or on the internet and needs to rely on those just a breath away.
And so. May we ponder words thoroughly, and learn enough of them that they settle in our bones to emerge as guides when needed, to give us courage, and to surround our rumpled and unsteady selves with comfort. Mightn't that be part of what it means that the Word, that is, Christ, is in all things, holding all things together?
Mary Oliver, Thirst, 2006, Beacon Press, pg. 4.
Peter Traben Haas, Centering Prayers, 2013, Paraclete.
Bethany Lee, Etude for Belonging, 2021, Fernwood Press, pg. 89.