Psalms of yearning, few but haunting

Longing and yearning in the Psalms

This week’s psalm is one of my favourites, 62/63, because it is one of the psalms that expresses pure longing.   I was thinking about this group and why I find them so attractive and distinctive.  It’s not a big group in itself compared with some other topics, only half-a-dozen or so psalms, but they do make a recognisable sub-set, and I love them, so I want to write about them.

Different sorts of psalm categories

The Bible psalmists were clearly all sorts of people, and they wrote all sorts of psalms.  Psalms can be praise songs, appeals, requests for help (urgent and less so), celebrations, either of victories in battle or more abstract, e.g. the joy of the Law; litanies, pilgrim songs, accounts of real events (history in digestible and memorable form, like the Kings of England in rhyming couplets), catalogues of creation, curses upon enemies, songs of repentance and there are other categories too.  Some psalms are one topic only, but mostly they cover more than one.  The Book of Psalms is truly an infinite resource.  Some groupings are obvious, like the psalms of repentance – usually counted as seven, but there are different opinions as to what to include;  but the yearning psalms is my classification rather than anyone else’s, and they are easier to recognise than to define.

List of yearning psalms

This is my list of yearning psalms.  Sometimes you catch the same note in other psalms (e.g. 60/61, 100/101), especially if the Response has been chosen to emphasize the wanting and waiting, but these particular psalms seem to me to be the classic ones.

Ps 41/42 : Like the deer that yearns for running streams, so my soul is yearning for you, my God

There is a most beautiful setting of this single verse of the psalm by Palestrina. He did also set the next verse, and may have done the whole psalm, but we don’t have it (though it might still turn up).  His setting accentuates the waiting and longing, and ends with everyone reaching the word for God and just hanging on in perfect, blissful harmony.

Ps 62/63 : O God, you are my God, for you I long, for you my soul is thirsting  (Sunday psalm for this week)

The second verse of Ps 41/42 is ‘My soul is thirsting for God’, so the same image keeps recurring.  It’s interesting that Jesus uses so much water imagery for the good news he is bringing (John 4, 1-25).  People can put up with being hungry for a while, but thirst is somehow much worse. I tried to set it so that it’s beautiful and thoughtful, but doesn’t come to a satisfactory finish, because I felt that was more appropriate.  Different country Responses triggered different tunes, more wistful for CAN and OZ, possibly a bit too upbeat for UK – it’s difficult to get the tone right.

Ps 72/73 : How good God is to Israel, to those who are pure of heart

This one is wordier than most. It dissects the problem of wicked people thriving and the innocent suffering.  The author has clearly grappled with this for a long time without solution, but the psalm ends with complete confidence that God knows what he is doing.  This is included in my list because of vv 25-26 : ‘What else have I in heaven but you? Apart from you I want nothing on earth. My body and my heart faint for joy; God is my possession for ever.’  Heaven is nothing, everything is nothing; only being with God matters.

Ps 83/84 : How lovely is your dwelling place, Lord, God of hosts

which goes on ‘my soul is longing and yearning, is yearning for the courts of the Lord’, not because of any other reason, but because God is there. ‘One day within your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere.’

Ps 129/130 : Out of the depths

This is usually classed as a repentance psalm, but I include it here because of vv 5-6 : ‘My soul is waiting for the Lord, I count on his word.  My soul is longing for the Lord more than watchman for daybreak. (Let the watchman count on daybreak and Israel on the Lord.)’  This illustrates beautifully what I was saying about confidence.  The psalmist longs for the Lord, knowing that he will be coming; – so nothing else matters, even down in the depths.  He knows that joy will come in the morning.  On this basis, I could almost include Ps 136/137 (By the rivers of Babylon there we sat and wept),  because it is yearning for the return to God’s house that is the motor spring of the whole psalm, but the feeling of desolation is so strong that it takes over.

Ps 130/131 : O Lord, my heart is not proud

This might be regarded as cheating, but it’s a tiny psalm which I include even though the word yearning is not mentioned, because of the beauty and serenity of its central image.  ‘Truly I have set my soul in silence and peace. A weaned child on its mother’s breast, even so is my soul.’  Note the detail of this image.  It’s a weaned child, so it’s not fussing or trying to feed; it’s at peace, knowing everything is all right.  But this is a living person speaking, with all the daily problems that everyone has, so it’s an act of will : ‘I have set my soul’.  The child still has enormous needs, but it is totally confident that they will be met.

Ps 138/139 : O Lord, you search me and you know me

I can’t not include this one, even though here the focus has shifted right round, and this amazing psalm talks about God’s yearning for us rather than the other way round.  It portrays someone so in love that he literally can’t take his eyes off the beloved.  God’s knowledge is total; he knows my resting, my rising, all my ways, everything I say before I say it, he pursues me, he besieges me.  There is nowhere to hide from him in the whole of Creation: ‘If I climb the heavens, you are there. If I lie in the grave, you are there. If I take the wings of the dawn and dwell at the sea’s furthest end, even there [..] your right hand would hold me fast.’  There are a couple of verses praying for the downfall of the wicked but they seem very peripheral; what stays in the mind is the picture of God pursuing, overwhelming, almost intimidating, the Hound of Heaven, in Francis Thompson’s beautiful but unfashionable poem.  The only reason the psalmist is not overwhelmed and intimidated, is because he knows that love alone is the cause of this pursuit.

Why yearning psalms are distinctive

Some of the most frequently-recurring themes in the psalms are hurrah for God and the Lord hears me whenever I call upon him (Ps 4 and passim), and those can still be threads in a yearning psalm, so what makes them special, what makes them so recognisable?  I think it’s because they are the psalms in which everything else is simply not enough.  They are a celebration of longing.  Not a hopeless love, like troubadour songs or La Belle Dame sans Merci; they are even confident and secure in the knowledge of love, but it’s not enough.  They aspire to union with God, and nothing else will do.  It’s not a question of distress or current danger, just an unsatisfied yearning, which the psalmist even knows is unsatisfiable now, but it’s the only thing he wants to focus on.

Some subjects of yearning

The psalmist longs to be in God’s house, to savour his sweetness and behold his temple in Ps 26/27, but this isn’t a real yearning psalm, because it turns out that his main concern is protection from his enemies.  The upright long to see God’s face (Pss 10/11, 16/17, 23/24, 26/27); they seek God’s name (82/83);  but often in these early psalms the longing for God is overtaken by a clear and present danger, and the psalm switches to a cry for help.  Obviously that is going to be the focus if you are in trouble, so one of the distinctive features of the yearning psalms is that the psalmist is not in dire need and has time to reflect.  He has won through to that state of confidence where he is not afraid of what is happening to him, because he is confident in God’s loving mercy; but he is still unsatisfied.

Always wanting more

Waiting on the Lord is a normal situation for the psalmist, as we’ve seen before (Ps 39/40), similarly wanting to fly away to be with him in his house (54/55), wanting answers (76/77), wanting deliverance (114/115), but in the real yearning psalms, the psalmist doesn’t want anything specific except God.  This is what sets these psalms apart.  They are breath-taking when you think about it.  ‘What is man, that you should keep him in mind?’ (Ps 8), and yet here he is, one puny individual creature, demanding nothing short of union with the Almighty Creator.  Heroic; impressive; terrifying.  Paul, out of his personal experience, blinded and knocked off his horse, tells us that it is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God (Hebrews 10:31), and he was a person of enormous self-confidence, far more so than these reflective and gentle psalmists.  In spite of every possible drawback, the psalmist wants to be with God, nothing more, but nothing less.

Zeus and the importance of disguise

One of the recurring stories in the Greek myths is that the sight of a god can consume you.  This is why Zeus appears so often as something else, a shower of gold, a bull, a swan; because when he appears as a god, the human frame of his partner cannot cope.  There is an important truth in this myth.  God in the Bible appears safely swathed in a cloud, or disguised as a bush, or warns people to cover their faces.  The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; the psalmist knows this better than we do, and he still wants nothing else other than to be united with him forever.  The differences of scale and everything else seem to him to be totally irrelevant.  And remember that this is all Old Testament, not the loving Father that Jesus tells us about.  Perfect love casteth out fear, but we are far from perfect yet.

Common factors of the yearning psalms

One striking feature of all the yearning psalms is the simplicity of their language.  The diction in the book of Psalms varies considerably, partly, obviously, because they are written by several authors.  Some are high style, some are simple and direct, some are allusive and mysterious, but the yearning psalms all tend to be written in simple language which expresses the longing very directly.  And they address God very directly and on a level, unlike many of the other psalms.

The language is often very physical.  The body of the speaker is consciously present, even though often the words concentrate on the feelings of the mind, soul or heart (more or less equivalent at this stage of human understanding).  This is striking if you compare Ps 118/119, where the language is simple but not intimate.  The psalmist there expresses great love for God’s las, but it’s all the mind and the heart, and not the body.  In the yearning psalms, ‘my body pines for you…..your right hand holds me fast.’

There is almost a sense of stasis, of having come through rough seas but now reaching smoother water with time to reflect, as I said earlier.  The attitude is one of conscious, patient, confident waiting (the Advent/pregnancy nexus again), also marked by singlemindedness.  God alone can satisfy this wanting.  This is the better part, that Mary chooses, sitting to listen and be with the Lord.

The reason we yearn for God is because he yearns for us.  We can’t rescue him, or save him from his enemies, or protect him, or even give him somewhere safe to live, but we can love him and long for him, as he loves and longs for us; and that is why the yearning psalms are so special.

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Music for the Queen of Heaven : setting the Assumption psalms

Two services, two psalms

Because it’s such a big feast, the Assumption has two psalms, one for the Vigil Mass (night before), one for on the day, and they are very different. The first one is Psalm 131/132 and the second Psalm 44/45.

Vigil Psalm : The Ark of the Covenant

It takes a minute to work out the relevance of the Psalm 131/132, because it is overtly about the Ark in which Moses placed the stone tablets upon which God had written the Ten Commandments.  It explains that ‘we’ have found the Ark, we are bringing it to God’s house, everyone should rejoice, and above all we rejoice because God has chosen Zion, our holy mountain, as the place where he chooses to live from now on.  Practically speaking, the Response is very long (two lines-worth instead of the usual one); and in the first verse there are proper names, which are always slightly tricky unless they are well-known.  What the US translation calls ‘Jaar’ is called ‘Yearim’ in the other versions, so you have to decide how many syllables to give it.  The other proper name is Ephrathah, which is at least consistent, if difficult to pronounce.  I gave Ja-ar two syllables, because they must have doubled the ‘a’ for a reason, and three for ‘Ye-a-rim’ because if it’s pronounced like that, you can see why it might mutate to Ja-ar.  But I’m always happy to be corrected on this, and to change the settings for later years if anyone knows better than I do!

Our Lady as the Ark

So the Ark which we are so happy to greet is here representing the mother of God, as she too ‘contains’ the Word of God.  It makes sense, though I feel a little uncomfortable, as though I am thinking of Mary as a walking box rather than as an individual. However, the psalm is there as a reaction to the first reading (David leading the Ark into a special tent pitched for it, so that God can dwell with his people).  It is a great psalm, which we reserve for this feast, and it has beautiful shape and movement.  The direct speech in the first verse is balanced by God’s own words in the third verse, and the middle verse has a wonderful vision of the Church with the priests ‘clothed in holiness’ and the faithful all shouting out their joy.  As a nomad by marriage rather than by conviction, I especially like God’s words in the last two lines : ‘This is my resting-place for ever, /here have I chosen to live’, and the rhythm of that was what controlled the verse tune for me (UK/OZ/CAN) and meant that it came out with a swing as 3/4 instead of the balanced 4/4 for the US version.

The Vigil Gospel

On the whole the Vigil readings are fairly calm and low-key, culminating in the slightly odd choice of Gospel (when you think that this is the feast of the Assumption), where Jesus says that people who hear the word of God and obey it are more blessed than the person who just happened to be his mother (Luke 11,27-28).  I feel it is significant that his mother is not actually present at this encounter (it comes from a period when Jesus is on tour with the disciples), and Jesus is making a point about the obedience of faith rather than anything else.  One of our sons does stand-up comedy, and he talks about a stock character called ‘my Dad’, who is not actually anything to do with his father (or so he says).  The point of what Jesus says is for those who are listening, it’s not actually anything about Our Lady.

The Assumption : Day Mass

Now let’s move on to the Mass on the day itself, and the picture is wholly different.  Here the readings are gorgeous, opulent, exotic, mythic, terrifying, transcendental, and I could go on.  The heavens are open, showing the divine Holy of holies (think how the earthly one was always kept screened and only seen by only the High Priest only once a year), there is a ‘huge red dragon with seven heads and ten horns’ (I’ve always thought that the fact the numbers don’t match only adds to the overwhelmingness of the spectacle), there is a woman ‘clothed with the sun’ (how?), standing on the moon (always shown as a sickle moon, so she’s not stable), crowned with twelve stars (think of the scale here)…and she’s in labour, and not just in labour but at the crowning moment (in all senses).  The dragon is waiting to seize and gobble up the baby, but God is also waiting (as he does for Mary’s assent, at the Annunciation), and he rescues them both as soon as the baby is born.  And that’s only the first reading.

Day Psalm : the Queen takes her place

We respond to this first reading with Psalm 44/45, which describes a queen dressed in gorgeous robes leaving her father’s house and coming to take her place on the king’s right hand.   She is beautiful, arrayed in gold and jewels, and she fits with the woman in the first reading.  And we are celebrating the Assumption of Mary into heaven, so that is who the Queen is: she leaves the earth and takes her place as Queen of heaven.

I think of this as ‘the Klimt psalm’ because it is so rich and exotic, and I wanted to make the music a little strange, without putting the congregation off.  The verses are short and irregular, and the different countries divide them up differently : the US version has four verses, which are basically two (more or less) matching pairs, where the other Lectionaries (UK and OZ) have standardised the lines into two verses of four lines.  The CAN one is completely sui generis : it lulls you into a false sense of security because it starts the same as UK and OZ but then branches out into five lines for v2 (including three which no-one else has included), and a third verse of only two lines (second half of v2 for UK and OZ).  This turned out to be completely un-compactable, sorry about that; you will need someone to help turn the pages.  So all the settings had to be different.

The music isn’t difficult, just strange and slightly alien (I hope), emphasizing the exotic.  Where I’m usually wishing for trumpets, double basses, saxophones or drums, in this psalm I’m trying to suggest a gong or cymbals, maybe gamelan or those little Indian finger-cymbals. It’s modal, to keep everyone slightly on the alert and aware.  In the whole idea of the Assumption, there is meant to be a creative mismatch between Mary, the woman from Galilee who accepted a job which God offered to her, and the mighty Queen, and I’m trying to pick up the strangeness of the whole thing.

The feast of the Assumption

I have to admit that I have problems with the two Mary feasts of the Assumption and (even more) the Immaculate Conception, because they seem to me to deny what they are meant to stand for.  If Jesus was not born of a real human being, the Incarnation is not real; if Mary was set apart by the Immaculate Conception from birth (not to mention conceived by a kiss between Joachim and Anna in some versions of her life), then she is not a real human being.  For the Annunciation and the Incarnation to work, Mary needs to be an ordinary person, a person like us. Similarly, if Mary was old and full of years and carried up to heaven in that old, maybe ill body (we have to die of something, even if it’s just anno Domini), why is she not allowed the new body which all the rest of us will have?  I know this is very heretical, and no-one will speak to me again, but I have to say I rather like the (not just) Eastern tradition of the Dormition, where Christ comes down to the body of his mother lying on her deathbed and takes her soul, usually pictured as a little girl, sometimes small enough to sit on Christ’s hand,  back up to heaven with him, instead of the mature woman’s body just disappearing.

The Assumption means taking one’s correct place

It seems to me that the feast of the Assumption is actually the celebration of something slightly different.  It is the moment when a human being becomes fully what God created him to be.  It is Tennyson’s moment of crossing the bar, or Hopkins’ moment when the poor potsherd becomes immortal diamond.

God made us to be like him.  That is actually a terrifying statement to make.  We find it difficult to see God in ourselves, and even more so to see him in the other people walking around with us.  But if we could see what God can see, if we can come to fulfil the potential he has given us, we are genuinely a royal priesthood, a kingly nation, a nation made up of kings and queens, all of us.

The Gospel for the Day Mass is the section of Luke’s Gospel that contains Our Lady’s Magnificat (chapter 1, vv 39 to 56), the only piece of extended speech of hers that we have.  This is her human apotheosis, when she grasps God’s plan being fulfilled through all history and takes her place in it willingly and joyfully.  Indeed from this day forward all generations have called her blessed.  Her suffering in later life must have been terrible, but at least she understood that God’s mercy would prevail.

At the end of her life, the Assumption is a way to explain what happens when a simple human being fulfils God’s plan and realises her potential.  It seems strange and exotic to us, we find it difficult even to put it into words, but it is what we are born for; and at least we can appreciate its beauty even now.

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.