Today’s song from Sing Praise is a cantor-and-chorus type, called “Athirst, my soul, for you, the God who is my life” (that’s the first line of the first chant). The chorus starts “As the deer longs for running streams”, but there are many hymns with that or similar titles, because Psalm 42/43 on which it’s based is very popular as a basis for sung versions.
The appeal of this psalm is in the opening lines, with the attractive image of the hunted deer finding a refreshing stream in a hidden dip in the hills, out of sight of its hunters, where it can drink and rest awhile. The simile is that God will likewise offer us rest and refreshment in prayer and meditation when we are stressed or frightened. That’s true, but not easy to achieve: I find that the greater the pressures of life, the harder it is to find time for prayer and the longer it takes to relax into it.
That’s why I try to find opportunities offered for quiet time away from the usual routines of life – a ‘quiet day’, teaching weekend or short retreat offered by one of the many Christian communities, abbeys or retreat centres. In the present pandemic, I have one booked at the end of next week on Zoom, and that will mean sessions on the screen in my usual study, and finding a quiet space in the house for the personal meditation times in between, where I won’t get distracted. I am looking forward to it, but the experience will be different.
Back to the song, and the verses remind us why we get so stressed and in need of God’s protection and refreshing. Surprisingly, “All your mighty waters sweeping over me” suggests that the feeling of being overwhelmed might actually be the result of God’s intention, but it’s an accurate rendition of Ps.42:7. Perhaps it means the sense of being burdened by the requirements of God’s law and commandments or the guilt of not keeping them, which as we saw the other day has been relieved by Jesus taking us back to the law’s true intentions.
“The foe delights in taunting me”, on the other hand, puts the blame for my troubles firmly on other people. The taunt given as an example is “where is your God”, a phrase that is still used by those who don’t understand the nature of religious faith – “what sort of God is it who allows this to happen?” (whatever “this” is). The antidote to this is to turn back to God and affirming that we do trust in him, whatever is happening around us.
One verse in the psalm (42:4) is not referred to in the song but is very relevant at this time of church closures – in the Prayer Book psalter used at many an Evensong, “Now when I think thereupon, I pour out my heart by myself : for I went with the multitude, and brought them forth into the house of God; In the voice of praise and thanksgiving : among such as keep holy-day.” As much as anything, it is the music and ceremonial of church services that I miss – we can keep in touch by phone call or maybe even Zoom meetings, but it’s not possible with those to chant a psalm or sing a hymn together, or physically to process into or around the church building as we might do on special occasions.
The last verse, though, does look forward to a time when all the sadness and frustration will be put behind us. “Then shall I go unto the altar of my God, praising you, O my joy and gladness, I shall praise your name”. Let’s keep that in mind throughout the lockdown.