The Rev. James Martin, SJ, is a Jesuit priest, editor at large of America magazine, consulter to the Vatican’s Dicastery for Communication and author of several books, including the New York Times bestsellers Jesus: A Pilgrimage and The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything. He is a frequent commentator in the national and international media on religion and spirituality and has written for a wide variety of publications, including the New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.
What is your earliest memory of reading, chanting, or singing Psalm 139?
When I entered the Jesuit Order at the age of 27, I really knew very little about the Psalms. They simply did not figure prominently in my Catholic upbringing. My first encounter with the Psalms was as the hymn that was sung between the first and second readings at the Mass.1 I thought some of the psalms sounded nice, but they were almost never preached on (as is still largely the case today), so I didn’t consider their meaning very deeply. Much more time was given to sermons on Jesus and the Gospels.
But when I became a Jesuit novice, I began praying the Psalms regularly and Psalm 139 hit me like a freight train—I simply did not know that these texts could be so transformative. The central idea in Psalm 139, that God knows each of us intimately, was a new discovery, because before that I just thought the Psalms were nice words of praise—“God, you are so wonderful, God, you are so grand.”
Do you remember where you were when Psalm 139 “hit you”?
I remember it very well. I was at the Eastern Point Retreat House in Gloucester, Massachusetts on my very first retreat as a Jesuit. The retreat director, who was also the assistant novice director, gave me Psalm 139 and said “Here, go pray this. I think you’ll enjoy it.” That was an interesting introduction because when I went back to my little room and began reading it, I had a hard time taking it in, let alone enjoying it.
Until that moment, if you had asked me, “Does God know you?” I would have said “Of course, God knows everything.” But the idea that God knows me—inside and out, in ways I do not even know myself—was totally new to me. It was a lot to absorb.
Fast-forwarding, what is the place of the psalm in your spiritual life today?
While the text as a whole remains powerful to me, I find myself returning to the line “I praise you for I am fearfully, wonderfully made” (as it is translated in my copy of the Psalms) over and over again. On a personal level, it is a daily reminder that God made me and loves me as I am right now, including my flaws, talents, loves, and dislikes. It is an important teaching about self-acceptance.
On a communal level, this psalm has been instrumental in my more recent work with LGBT Catholics. I have found that there is probably no other line in the entire Bible—Jewish or Christian—that speaks to them as powerfully as this one. After decades of being told that they are damaged goods, that they are flawed, that God doesn’t love them, the words “I am fearfully and wonderfully made” are transformative for people. Frankly, many folks have a hard time believing that his actually comes from the Bible and that it is addressed to them.
As you have alluded to more than once in your remarks, the description of God’s intimate, pervasive, presence in the psalm can also be overwhelming to people. How do you respond to that aspect of the text?
Yes, it can be frightening for people—myself included at different points in time—especially since the idea of God as an angry and wrathful judge or parent is so prevalent in our religious imaginations. When working with this psalm, and when inviting people to think about the role of God in their lives more broadly, I try to encourage them to let go (as much as possible) of these negative associations.
I like to say to people: Imagine God as the best possible mentor, wisdom figure, guardian, or friend you can think of. If you envision God as someone who knows and understands you intimately and as someone who truly loves you, it can change things dramatically.
As you know, at the end of the psalm the poet speaks with great anger about his enemies (as is the case in several other psalms). How do you approach these difficult lines of the psalm?
That is a very good question. And I think it ultimately requires investment in a practice of spiritual discernment. How do we read these texts in the context of our lives today? It is also important to think about where a person is on their journey when first encountering this text.
So, with beginners I often encourage them to focus on the first 18 lines and leave aside the end of the psalm for the time being. If a person is more familiar with the Psalms, I will talk to them about how this writer—a human being—wrote these words because he felt something so strongly that he needed to express it.
We can also explore the historical context in which the text was written to learn about some of the factors that might have contributed to this expression of anger and hatred. The next step is to ask ourselves what we are feeling as we read the text. Do any of these emotions rise up in us? If so, what do we want to do with them? Can we speak with God about them? That is part of the work of spiritual direction.
We are currently living through a time of great pain and suffering. The pandemic and more recent social uprising have stirred up a lot of emotion. Is there something from Psalm 139 that you think is particularly helpful for this moment?
To begin with, I think it is really important to affirm the fact that we are going through a very difficult time right now. The pain and suffering people are feeling is real and it is not helpful to sugarcoat it. The psalmist does not underplay the reality of his sadness and pain. To walk about in “darkness,” as he puts it, to feel that “day” has become like “night” is absolutely terrifying. In other words, it is okay for the believer to be sad and discouraged. In such a time, the psalmist’s words about God’s closeness and caring for each and every one of us become all the more important. It is so easy for people to feel alone or abandoned now either because of the pandemic or because of racial injustice.
Psalm 139 insists, however, that the God who “knit us together” in our mother’s womb is also here with us each step of the way. This brings us back to our earlier discussion about how this psalm can serve to remind us that God loves all people, regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation, or other differences.
From a Christian perspective the ultimate message of the Bible is one of resurrection and the hope that the Risen Christ gives us. The question before us is will we follow in Jesus’ ways and work together for justice and peace? Will we, as part of this process, examine ourselves deeply—as God does according to the psalm—on an individual, communal, and societal level and live with greater love for ourselves and for our neighbors? These are the questions that Psalm 139 asks us.
1The standard Christian lectionary provides scripture readings for every Sunday on a three year cycle. These include the first reading (from the Hebrew Bible or TaNaKh), a reading from the Psalms, the second reading from the New Testament, and a Gospel reading from one of the four Gospels.