He guides me along the right path;
He is true to His name.
If I should walk in the valley of darkness,
no evil would I fear.
You are there with your crook and your staff;
With these you give me comfort.
Reflection - I'm taking a few days to look at Psalm 23, this most beloved and familiar of the psalms. My contention is two-fold: that it contains a whole summary of our Christian faith, particularly because Jesus took it into his own self-revelation by calling himself the Good Shepherd; that it can be read on a simple level of childlike trust and faith, but also at a very deep mystical level.
I think this two-fold level is nowhere more visible than in this stanza of the psalm. There is an obvious reading of these words that is quite true and very lovely... and then look again, look deeper, and it pulls you into this other level of reality, this profound reflection on the ways of God with us.
He guides me along the right path - Well, God teaches us the moral law. This would have been, and doubtless still is, the clear reading of this passage for a Jew. God's law is the path of life, the path of righteousness. And we have to remember that in Jewish thought this is not especially tinged with sanctimonious self-righteousness. The path of the law, the way of righteousness, truly is a way of life and of joy. To live morally is to live a good happy life, and God makes this possible by teaching us this way.
But of course it goes deeper. We never leave morality behind, never become 'free' wrongly of the demands of just behavior, but we do transcend it. And God leads us on this right path, too. This path into communion with Him in Christ by the Spirit. The path that leads us, not simply to a good human life, but into the very heart of the Trinity. The path walked by the saints, by Teresa of Avila, Therese of Lisieux, by Francis and Dominic and Kolbe... moral life, yes, but that path terminates in mystical union.
He is true to his name. God is faithful. God is God, and that means goodness, justice, truth, love. Such is our core basic faith--and don't we have to struggle with it sometimes! But there it is. But then, this name... for Christians it is not simply YHWH, but 'Father.' 'Jesus.' A personal love, a personal salvation. There is a depth here again that the psalm leads us into. What is God's name, and what is his 'trueness' to it?
If I should walk in the valley of darkness, no evil would I fear - oh, we do love this verse, don't we? We all have our time to go down into the valley, to enter into darkness. Times of tribulation and affliction, times of deep uncertainty and confusion, times of immense sorrow and grief. Darkness--and it awaits us all. Praying this verse has been for countless millions of Christians a grace and a strength to confront the pain and sorrow of life - no evil would I fear.
But... again, there is more. The valley of darkness in Hebrew is 'the valley of the Shadow of Death' - the good old King James version was literal in its rendering. And this is, in a certain sense, our human condition. We live in the shadow of death continually. I could die today; you could, too. We don't really know, do we? And so the psalm beckons us to a way of life that is truly fearless, to live in an awareness of death that is not morbid but intensely real, to live knowing the fraility and transience of our life here and march forward through this valley with unshaking faith and fearless love.
You are there with your crook and your staff; with these you give me comfort. Again, I guess it is natural for me to hear 'the Church' here. Bishops use crooks as symbol of their shepherding role, and it truly is the Church itself which shepherds us and ushers us through this valley safely. Do you know what a crook is for, and why it is shaped that way? It is to snag the sheep when they run away - the curvy bit is designed to catch the sheep's hind leg and drag it back to the shepherd. We go running off in all sorts of directions; it is our choice to stay in the Church, in communion with the apostles and their successors that catches us up and stops us from getting too far away from the Shepherd.
But of course we are living in a most painful age of ecclesial failure and scandal, and so this reading of the psalm is somewhat anguished for us. It certainly is for me. But, beholding the 'sins' of bishops and of priests and the shame of our failures, we are called to a deeper mercy yet, a deeper forgiveness, a deeper faith. And this is truly God's 'crooking' us, his pulling us to Himself in a strong, even violent way. Comfort today comes from God, but this comfort does come as we struggle and strive to live our Catholic lives in fidelity and loyalty to His Church. And that's quite enough to ponder for one day - it's time for me to go get ready for Mass.