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All we, like turtles: my journeys with Psalm 23

Just like it is for the rest of the animal kingdom, if our human bodies sense danger or distress, they don’t want to let us do anything that will make us vulnerable. And this benevolent instinct can keep us from performing vital functions — even ones as important as eating and sleeping. Maybe no predator is chasing me in hopes of eating me up, but that looming deadline or that unresolved conflict sure is. And try as I might, I haven’t managed to explain the difference to my endocrine system.

While I struggle to sleep when I’m feeling stressed, my dog’s problem is eating. Normally, nothing attracts Wilby’s attention more than a crumble of imitation bacon. But if we attempt to go on a walk in our neighborhood full of dogs he doesn’t know, we barely make it six houses down before he starts to panic. And he will do then what is otherwise unthinkable: drop a training treat straight out of his mouth. When I consulted a behaviorist, she told me that once he gets to that point, I just need to give up for the day. If he’s so far gone that he rejects food, he’s definitely too distressed to learn anything.

The next time I read Psalm 23, that’s what I thought of. David is imagining himself in the place of a different animal: a sheep. Maybe my healthy, 60-pound Australian shepherd has questionable justification for growing anxious around other dogs, but surely no one would blame the sheep for feeling terror. So after watching my dog ignore bacon when he was afraid, it struck me as all the more surprising that the shepherd would choose to feed his sheep “in the presence of my enemies.” Could the poor things even swallow, let alone digest anything?

Another piece of advice the behaviorist gave me puts things in a different light. If I see something coming that Wilby will perceive as a threat, I can head off the anxiety by giving him some food before he notices. Even one bite of food will trick him into feeling at ease and will reduce his stress response. Is something like this happening in Psalm 23?

There have been two seasons in my life when Psalm 23 was my mantra. In the first, I felt like I was trapped “in the presence of my enemies,” and in the second, nothing felt truer than that “he restores my soul.” Both experiences make a lot more sense in context: if you count college residences, I’ve moved 20 times in the last 13 years. The first several moves were full of adventure, and I shared homes with people who became dear friends. But the 13th house was a nightmare, a community house gone toxic, and sometimes eating, and sometimes sleeping, were beyond me. That year in my master’s program I had the assignment of memorizing Psalm 23 in Hebrew, and I found myself repeating over and over, “Adonai ro’i, lo eksar” as if my life depended on it. Even though I knew that “he prepares a table before me in the presence of my enemies,” when I said it, my enemies seemed much more real than that table.

I moved out after a year and experienced much healing, but it was not until a couple of years later, when I came back to my childhood home and then bought my own house (the 15th and 16th moves) that I truly felt the opportunity to regain enough of a center to take on new challenges. The “green pastures” and “still waters” were all around me, and I basked in the “goodness and mercy” of the Lord. My old creativity and taste for adventure were coming back. My soul, and my resilience, were being restored.

In my early years of moving — for college, study abroad, missions, and my master’s program — I had thought there was no end to my emotional and spiritual reserves. I would have thought of myself much like a turtle: all the home I need, I bring with me. And the more I spent time with a migrant class of graduate students, the more I heard this idea affirmed through spiritual imagery. We were “on pilgrimage,” or we had “left Ur without knowing where we were going.”

But I underestimated the depth that had to accompany distance. And I overestimated the pace I could take on my own. There is a story of an Englishman who, traveling across Africa in the 19th century, hired some local men to come along as assistants. After a few days of fast-paced travel, the Africans sat down and refused to go any further. The Englishman was impatient and demanded an explanation, to which the translator replied, “They are waiting for their souls to catch up.” The story might be apocryphal, but it does justice to that season back in my hometown, where I made little ostensible progress but delighted in my home and a blossoming community. It felt like my soul was catching up.

Once we have stopped and been restored, what have we learned about moving on again? After all, most of us can’t stay in Rivendell forever. It is usually necessary to go on to new joys and challenges. (It was true enough for me: for work and my next degree, I’ve already moved four more times since I lived in my own home.) How can we live well when we truly are on pilgrimage, when no permanent safe haven presents itself?

There is something to be said for the idea of Christians as turtles. The funny image came back to me when I read Sr. Mary Margaret Funk’s book Discernment Matters. She speaks of her cell as the place that anchors her constant connection to God. Whenever she is in it, she is in prayer. She takes seriously the connection between a place and a state of mind — she would not be surprised in the least by the spiritual fatigue my history of moving has sometimes induced — and for her it is the cell that becomes the center of spiritual stability. Yet even in monastic life, she cannot always be in one place, whether it is routine daily activity that calls her to the refectory or chapel, or speaking engagements that call her farther afield. And for those times, she imagines that she brings her cell with her by wearing her habit. Her habit is an extension of her cell! It really is as if she is a turtle, carrying her home — her spiritual center, her place of connection with God — wherever she goes.

What about us? Should we be wearing rooms for clothes, too? Possibly. But maybe the imagination is enough. I think the real call here is to “let every heart prepare him room.” Like St. Augustine prayed, “My soul is like a house, small for you to enter.” It is this metaphorical house in which St. Gregory Palamas lived, as he devoted his life to constant prayer called hesychasm, or “prayer of the heart.”

Perhaps as we spend enough time in this room, sharing company with the Lord, it will begin to make sense how we could feel at home enough in the presence of our enemies (whatever the threats we feel) to commune fearlessly with the Lord even there. And how can we not dwell “in the house of the Lord” forever — including now — if our spirit has become God’s home?


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