Restoreth my soul
If you ever attended Sunday School in the South, I bet at some point you memorized the twenty-third psalm. For me it was in second grade, using the King James Version: "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want..." At the time, I did not know that its frequent appearance in funeral liturgies, both on TV and in real life, lent it almost a tragic quality. No, my eight-year-old mind understood the psalm quite literally. I pictured fluffy white flocks of sheep and fancy oils in decorative bottles and a valley something like the road not taken in Robert Frost's poem, since I had never been to the mountains.
But while I understood little of what I recited--at least on a metaphorical or spiritual level--I loved letting the words roll off my tongue. The fancy English language felt elegant and profound, the thous and -eths made even the simplest phrases special. Long after we ended our Sunday School year by reciting the psalm we had worked all year to memorize, I found the verses slipping their way into my thoughts and reactions. When I began races on my high school track, I saw the rod and staff, a serene, guiding image that calmed my nerves and eased my jumpiness. I would think of the overflowing cup when I drove through neglected neighborhoods on the fringes of the city and stared at the litter dotting the bumpy sidewalks and dirt and weed-filled lawns. I fell into still, sparkling streams and verdant green pastures when my world began spinning.
Psalm 23 was my escape.
Maybe unhealthily so, but this psalm first introduced me to the therapeutic power of words. I have since added other words to my repertoire--some scriptures, some chants or meditations, and some beautiful constructed sentences from my favorite writers--but Psalm 23 taught me that restoration could happen anywhere, in the car during a long commute or in church or at the beach or in the middle of a big test, that restoration was not simply a return to what once was but something more. It was a way of being whole, made all the better after experiencing fracture. There was beauty in the reconstituted wholeness because being made complete after being broken elevated the experience of completeness to a new level. Relief, respite, rejuvenation registers in achy souls, just as welcome as massage is to sore, tired muscles. I found refreshment in mouthing the words, allowing my brain to drift in between the phrases, my tense nerves to unfurl and melt into my surroundings.
Language alone cannot save us, and I keep learning the lesson that I cannot always stay in my head. Psalm 23 is about more than the transformative capability of words on our brain, or even God's conversing with us. My second grade mind actually was on to something with its infatuation with the literal. God restoreth my soul not merely cerebrally or mentally or emotionally but physically. The pastures and the water are crucial parts of the restoration process; place matters.
This may be why the woods of West Virginia call me so deeply, why some people need to get away to the ocean and others seek refuge camping beneath the stars and why my father sits in tree stands some Saturday mornings before anyone else is awake. It is in these places that we remember who we are. We are not our jobs or our families or our alma maters or our money but children of God, each one of us.
We fade away into the vast creation and are okay with it. We are not exceptional, not so different from anyone else, and yet we are. We are restored to our most fundamental relationship--creature with Creator.