August 28, 2014

Psalm 139

Fr Schmemann
Fr Alexander Schmemann (1921-1983)

This diary entry is longer than usual, but it’s Father Alexander Schmemann’s moving reflection on Psalm 139 in the context of asking the question, what does it mean to believe in God? 

I do not so much arrive consciously, deductively, or rationally at faith in God, but rather I find faith within myself; I find it and I am filled with wonder, joy and thanksgiving. I discover it as the mysterious yet so clearly perceptible presence of the One who is everything: peace, joy, tranquillity, light. I can’t be the source of this presence, since I find none of that joy, peace, light, tranquillity either within me or in the world around me. Where then do they come from? And so I say the word which expresses all of this, names all of it, and which taken apart from this experience, from the witness of this presence, makes no sense whatsoever: I say the word “God.” I would be unable to say this incomprehensible word without this experience, but in pronouncing this word it is as if I liberate this experience, this feeling, from its subjectivity, transience, obscurity; I name Him as the content of this experience. By so doing, I accept this gift, and through a returning movement of my whole being, I surrender to Him my very self.

Celebration Faith
Celebration of Faith: I Believe (1991)
“I believe in God.” And then it becomes apparent that this faith I find in the very depth of my own soul is not just my own personal, inexpressible and ineffable experience, but that in a new way it connects me to people, to life, to the world, that it liberates me from the isolation to which all human beings have been condemned to one degree or another. For if it was joyful to discover faith within myself, within my own soul, within my own consciousness, then it is no less joyful to discover this very same faith, this very same experience in others as well,and not only now, here, around me, in people like me, but also across time and space. I open an ancient book written more than a thousand years before our era, in a world almost completely unlike our own, and there I read:

O Lord, you have searched me,
and known me.

You know when I sit and when I arise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar.

You discern my going out and my lying down;
you are familiar with all my ways.

Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely,
O Lord.

You hem me in—behind and before;
you have laid your hand upon me.

Such knowledge is too wonderful to me, it is high, I
cannot attain it.

Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?

If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.

If I rise on the wings of the dawn, and settle on the far
side of the sea,

even there your hand will guide me, your right hand
will hold me fast.

If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light
become night around me,”

even the darkness is not dark to you:
the night shines like the day, for darkness is as light
to you.

For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully

how wonderful are your works, my soul knows that full

How transcendent to me are your thoughts, O God!

How vast is the sum of them!

Were I to count them, they would outnumber the grains
of sand.

When I awake. I am still with you…

Search me, O God, and know my heart;
test me and know my thoughts.

See if l am on a dangerous way, and lead me in the way

This is Psalm 139, a prayer written several thousand years ago. But I read it and am amazed: Lord, this is all exactly how l feel, this is what I have gone through, this is my experience, this is about me and from me, and even these childish words, this stuttering trying to express, “to sing out,” something that is beyond words—all of this is mine. And this means that faith has been alive for centuries; it means that millions of people have felt exactly the same way; and the heart overflows with joy when ignited by the abundance of faith in these amazing words: “even the darkness is not dark to you; the night shines like the day.” In this light I see the world anew: in spite of all its darkness, it shines for me with its first-created light: truly. “how wonderful are your works, my soul knows that full well…” l see anew and admit that I am sinful and weak, fearful and enslaved, but I repeat the words of the psalm: “I praise you, because I am fearfully and wonderfully made…” Because I have been given this mysterious faculty of inner knowledge, because I can recognize what is high and wonderful and glorious, I can therefore desire guidance from on high—and life from on high—I can differentiate between the dangerous way and the eternal way.

Still more is opened to me through this vision of faith: I see that everything in the world speaks of God, reveals God, radiates with His presence: the darkness of night, as much as the sunlight of morning; suffering and sorrow, as much as happiness and joy. And if so many people do not see this, then it is because I-and believers like me—am too weak a witness of faith; it is because from earliest childhood we surround the person with triviality and lies; we encourage him not to search and not to thirst for the depths, but to desire instead a petty and illusory success; it is because we rivet his attention to things that are vain and futile. And therefore his mysterious inner faculty of light and love is suffocated and the world is filled with the clinging darkness of unbelief, skepticism and their offspring: self—conceit, hatred and malice.

But God did not leave us alone in this darkness and terrible state of fallenness and betrayal. These words, my weak words about faith would be empty if in conclusion I confessed faith merely in God. But I also confess faith in that one Person in whom God came into the world, and in His coming into the world He comes to each person in order to save him and give him a new birth. “I believe in
God.” But God-—in the fullness of His joy and Sovereignty is revealed in Christ.

Alexander Schmemann, Celebration of Faith: I Believe, Sermons, Vol 1, St Vladimir’s Seminary Press (1991), 27-31.