Why is the 23rd Psalm so compelling?
It may be the most often-read, most treasured passage in the Bible. What can we know about its great power? Why does it make such a profound impact that fills not only our consciousness, but also our entire body?
One place to begin involves our recognizing that the 23rd Psalm is a poem. This is important because, as Jacques Maritain observed, poetry is involved in a particular way of knowing—a con-natural knowledge that conveys experience directly into our consciousness. And what kind of knowledge is this? It is an analogical knowledge: the world of the poem is based on an analogy that portrays God as shepherd with us as sheep comprising the flock.
This poetic knowledge is different from literal knowledge: we are not actually, literally sheep. We are humans. But the poem portrays a vision of God as shepherd with the poet as a sheep. And the poem begins with the sheep talking about the shepherd, celebrating the shepherd’s way of shepherding.
What is the shepherd’s way? As sheep, we are members of a flock, and the shepherd has taken responsibility for vigilance and oversight. The shepherd practices a kind of watchfulness that is so pervasive, so substantive that I want for nothing. The shepherd provides everything that is essential. The sheep wants for nothing because the shepherd makes the sheep at home in green pastures and leads the sheep beside still waters, both of which play directly into the restoration of the sheep’s soul. And when it is time for the sheep to rise from rest, the sheep know that the shepherd leads on the right path, for the sake of the shepherd’s own name.
At this point in the psalm, there is a shift. The poetic celebration of this satisfying stillness and the safe travels that the shepherd guides bring the sheep into a communion with the shepherd that is direct and far-reaching; for now the sheep speaks not about the shepherd, but to the shepherd, or rather is in the communion of conversation with the shepherd, a communion that involves the complete awareness that this direct relationship includes the secure presence of the shepherd even when the valley is so dark as to cause the sheep to be afraid. For the shepherd is present with the sheep as guide, strength, disciplinarian, and protector. It is the shepherd’s presence that provides the sheep’s security. And this is a knowing that is the result of the sheep’s speaking well of the shepherd.
This communion of knowing unfolds into a meal with the shepherd as host for the sheep and the sheep’s enemy. The sheep, in direct conversation with the shepherd, comes to know, comes to understand that the shepherd takes responsibility for creating a setting in which enemies can sit together in the stillness of a fellowship meal, be reconciled through forgiveness, and rise from the table as friends. This is the meaning of anointing with oil: the shepherd reduces the friction wherewith sheep have rubbed each other the wrong way. The shepherd heals the wounds. The shepherd creates the circumstances and climate in which people can heal and be reconciled.
This leaves the sheep with a knowing that is lasting—that endures. The sheep now knows that goodness and mercy will follow the sheep, just as the sheep has followed the shepherd. The goodness and mercy are abiding; they are both substantive and eternal.
The poem, the psalm itself, conveys the experience of stillness into the consciousness of the reader so that we can, for a time, enjoy this same experience. How might we describe such stillness?
Our outward lives come to embody our inward interaction with God—our knowing God as God wants to be known. The distinction between our inward and outward lives begins to dissolve. We become vibrantly aware of the world on both the inside and outside. As awareness floods our entire consciousness, we become unaware of the passing of time. Instead, we enjoy a sense of wholeness between our inner and outer worlds.
This is the stillness that the poet enjoyed as he composed the 23rd Psalm. This is the stillness that is involved when we are at our creative best, or completely absorbed in a compelling piece of music. This is the stillness that unfolds in deep conversation when we are listening with undivided attention and complete presence.
Our minds slow down. The inner chatter, which can be all but impossible to control, slows as we become calm while enwrapped with the object of attention. David Peat described such stillness in the following way: “It is the stillness not of sleep or boredom, but of the tiger in the forest or a mind that is totally focused on a creative task.”
Such stillness is the place where we are aware of the surroundings and context even as we give our full and highly focused attention to our subject. This is not the focused attention of tunnel vision that is oblivious to everything else, but a highly absorbed knowing that is aware of the subject and context at the same time. It is a stillness that, while completely present, is also aware of the past that has brought us to this place and the consequences of the future as we reflect and then take action.
We are able to let go of our attachments and the rigid identities and ideas about self, progress, and the way that we think the world should be. Instead, we can enjoy God in presence and enjoy the gift of life right where we are.
We become willing to relinquish our compulsion or driven-ness to force together things that don’t belong together, and to break apart things that do. We become ready to embrace life as it is instead of as we think it should be. We become willing to understand things on their own terms.
This includes both the shepherd and our fellow sheep.
The 23rd Psalm embodies such stillness poetically. As we take in the poet’s portrayal of the shepherd, we can enter this stillness in complete awareness of the poem’s form and meaning, both of which come to reside in the consciousness of our imaginations.