Monday, May 30, 2011

Recalling First Things

All winter I've been weeding through boxes of old magazines in the garage,   The glossy ones go in the trash or in recycling.  The more papery ones get the relative dignity of a pyre in our wood stove.   I can cheerfully resign the old Chess Lifes and Family Computers and digests of the proceedings of the Computer Game Society into the discard piles but when I come across old issues of First Things (which are papery, so they are repurposible as kindling) I find that I don't want to consign them to the flames until I look them over.  Titles like "Bonhoeffer and the Sovereign State"  or "Aquinas and the Heretics" or The Western Mind of Radical Islam always pull me right in, like an Agatha Christie I haven't read for 15 years, so it is like new again.   Reading these old First Things brings me back to the young years after conversion, when I read everything I could possibly get my hands upon about my faith.   I don't say I understood it, especially First Things, but I read it anyway.   Back then, I skipped the poetry; religion, philosophy, and the public square together were intoxicating enough.  Now, I read the poems. 

A review of an ICEL Psalter, just published back in 1995, was interesting because of its careful mixture of approval and criticism.  Reading it increased my understanding of some of the issues involved in translating Hebrew thought and language into English, and some of the tendencies of the ICEL in dealing with these things.  But the part I am going to quote isn't really to do with the central thesis.  I just liked it.

The world of Psalms is often pragmatic, anchored in the immediacy and the urgent concerns of quotidian existence. Within this frame, these nameless Hebrew poets succeeded in giving supreme expression to the basic rhythms of inner life: bleak despair in the face of accumulated disaster, stubborn hope, gratitude, exultation, rhapsodic celebration of the splendors of creation, contentment in the quiet joys of the good life. The wonder of it is that the Psalms are able to join a hard-nosed pragmatic view of life with great delicacy of feeling and resonant spirituality.
I liked it because it seemed so true to me.   Not only of the Psalms but more and more of the way I live out my days, the way my inner landscape looks.   My dad always used to recommend the Psalms to me.   He loved them for all the qualities mentioned in the quote.   I read them, of course, but I used to feel a trifle baffled by the battle imagery, and some of the creation celebration just sounded so familiar to me, since I've heard the major Psalms so many times since my earliest days.   They seemed remote from my life, echoes from a different time and place. 

Now that I'm about the age that my Dad was when I reached adulthood (sigh... it doesn't seem that long ago) the Psalms resonate more and more with my daily experience.   Not that my enemies are waiting to kill me... and yet, they are, even if they come from inside.   I too move from desolation to gratitude in the space of a few lines. I too pray for a peaceful night's sleep but know that sometimes I will be awake and groaning under the weight of everything and praying to God for mercy.   I too am so deeply happy that no matter what befalls, Creation keeps up its procession of glorious beauty.   Deo Gratias that I don't have to come up with my own words, for they would not be adequate.   Reading the Psalms ennobles what I am experiencing and gives me a perspective outside of the sheer overwhelming succession of unpredictable moments.    Even the peculiarities of the different place and time only remind me that the human condition is essentially the same in any time and place.  A stay at home mom in the California mountains is not in a different universe from a Hebrew poet of 3000 years before.   And we both look for deliverance and comfort from that very same Lord  


  1. Will, I just love this blog post. To me First Things reminds me of that period when I was engaged. Sitting on my then-fiance's bed reading through his back issues of First Things. I was starting to take my faith seriously as an adult-- I suppose you could call it a reversion-- and he was a huge part of that and First Things certainly was too.

    I love everything you say about the Psalms too. So true how I've come to appreciate them more and more.

  2. nice thoughts, my friend.....

  3. yes...I came back two days in a row ;)

  4. Melanie, I could just imagine you reading FT and getting thrilled about your faith. That was something like what happened to my husband, also a sort of revert after a typical 70's style religious formation. We discovered the rich treasures of the faith together. So wonderful!

    Chari, thank you! : ) . Hope you are having a good long weekend and that everything is going well for people visiting your house!


I would love to hear your thoughts on this!