Francis X. Clooney, SJ, is Parkman Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School, where he teaches classical Hinduism and comparative theological courses, faith seeking understanding between the Hindu and Christian traditions. He is an ordained Catholic priest, and has for nearly 25 years engaged in regular weekend parish ministry at Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic Church in Sharon, MA.
As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
When shall I come and behold the face of God?
My tears have been my food day and night,
while people say to me continually, “Where is your God?”
These things I remember, as I pour out my soul:
how I went with the throng, and led them in procession to the house of God,
with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving, a multitude keeping festival.
–Psalm 42:1-4 (New Revised Standard Version)
This lovely Psalm is a favorite for many of us, I suspect, because it is a simple, heartfelt, and plaintive cry in a time of trouble while also providing consolation. It has always been a particular favorite of mine, with its yearning mingled with human suffering and struggle. It is expressive of the basic human instinct for God, as natural and urgent as thirst itself: wanting, needing to be face to face with God, even if others do not understand—even if they ask scornfully, where is this God of yours?
The Psalmist remembers happier days, pours out his tears, finds himself sinking in the ocean that is God: “All your waves and your billows have gone over me” (42:7). He reproaches God for forgetting him, yet lives only by the hope that he might reach God again. Twice in the Psalm (and thrice, if we see Psalm 43 as a continuation), the psalmist admits sadness, disquiet, but all the more, a greater need for God: “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.” (42:11)
In that 43rd Psalm there is a kind of resolution, a determination to travel once again to God’s holy temple:
O send out your light and your truth; let them lead me; let them bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling. Then I will go to the altar of God, to God my exceeding joy; and I will praise you with the harp, O God, my God (43:3-4).
Psalm 42 is familiar to Christians, of course. Monastics sing it in their regular cycle of the Psalms. It appears also in the most solemn liturgy of the church year, the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday night. It is sung specifically when converts are being welcomed into the Church.
For me, the echoes go further. A Catholic Christian and a priest, I am also a scholar of Hinduism. When I hear the Psalmist’s deep thirst for God, I think of the mystic saint Ramakrishna (1836-1886), a priest in a small temple of the Goddess Kali near Kolkata who was no longer satisfied with the ordinary rites of the daily routine. He so longed for God his Mother that he nearly died in his desire to break through the veil, that he might see her directly. We are told that he fell into a trance state, as if immersed in the ocean of divinity, as the power of his divine Mother billowed over him. He would have loved Psalm 42!
In light of my study of south Indian devotional poetry, it is hard not to think of the mystical songs of Shatakopan, a ninth century mystical poet of Tamil Nadu. In his monumental Holy Word of Mouth, one hundred songs of eleven verses each, he yearns for the God who is so near but so mysteriously inaccessible. As if a young woman longing for her absent lover, he complains to anyone who will listen:
Good, doe-eyed women, this sinner wastes away, day by day:
when will this servant reach the feet of the king who dwells in the Tiruvallaval temple
surrounded by sweet gardens where lovely kamuku trees reach the heavens, and
honey-rich mallikai trees send forth such a fragrance?
Friends, why do you torment me?
when will we servants wear on our heads the dust of the feet of the Lord
who dwells in the town of the Tiruvallaval temple
where the south wind carries the scent of bright punnai trees, mahir trees and fresh matavi flowers?
The flowers in your hair are lovely, women, but tell me,
when will I be able to look always upon the feet of the lord who dwells in cool Tiruvallaval
where the smoke of oblations wafts aloft in all directions, where the chanting of the Veda resounds like the sea, even as my grief-stricken self wears away?
–Holy Word of Mouth 5.9.1-3 (my translation)
Posed as the words of a young woman in love, separated from her beloved, this is a song of eleven verses about separation from her beloved, the God who resides in the holy temple in Tiruvallaval. The commentators suggest that she is on one side of the river, and his temple on the other side. She can see it, hear the temple music, smell the fragrances of the flowering trees, but cannot get there. Perhaps like the psalmist she too is finding consolation in remembering every detail of the place she cannot reach; and in her words, the poet saint expresses his longing for God.
Psalm 42 has become fundamental to the prayers of Jews and Christians; the extraordinary experiences of Ramakrishna have inspired millions of Hindus in the past 150 years; and even the song of the young woman longing to reach the Tiruvallaval temple is part of the ongoing prayer life of Srivaisnava Hindus who know very well the holy temples of south India and visit them when possible. In each case, the worship, the songs, the desire for God mingle and intensify one another.
In our time of troubles and distress, it may seem self-indulgent to be preoccupied with longing for God, the desire to see God. It may seem like private devotion, compensation for the woes of daily life. But Psalm 42 offers not a distraction but a remedy, a healing. The larger the problems are around us, the deeper we must go if we are to be spiritually alive, able to manifest God’s healing power in a world that seems anything but holy. Nor is this private prayer, then or now. The deep personal desire for God gives voice to the community’s desire for God. We grieve individually, we grieve together; experiencing God, even by the Psalm, changes me, changes us, and offers a light and a truth and a hope that we bring to our daily lives in 2020.