Our bodies have limits to how much tension we can absorb. We are already in the midst of a generation-defining disruption in normal life, and then we add to it the tide of white supremacist violence and reverberating effects of prolonged isolation and economic paralysis. Now, as the election looms in just a few weeks and our society is already quivering with anxiety, many will experience seismic shifts in their personal, spiritual stability. Many of my friends and members of my community have been reporting troubled sleep, persistent inability to focus and even episodes of vertigo. In this column, I offer spiritual and political commentary and occasionally offer advice and encouragement. If you are in a heightened state of angst and uncertainty, this column today is meant for you.
While much can be said about the baggage of religious traditions (and I often dedicate a lot of space to confession), they can provide important historical perspective. Our immediate situation may be unique, but the experience of the world falling apart around us is nothing new. Religious and spiritual traditions are usually born in the crucible of suffering and, when interpreted symbolically rather than literally, they can offer ancient wisdom for modern times. The longest book in the Bible is a collection of 150 or so poems called the book of Psalms. It is full of poetic laments and pleas for help by people writing from the most hopeless situations. Sound familiar? The author of the 91st Psalm says that he will meet God “in the secret place.” It calls God “a fortress” and “a refuge,” under whose wings the author “will not fear the terror of the night, or the arrow that flies by day, or the sickness that stalks in darkness.…” Sound familiar?
In this time, we can easily be consumed by the external world and simply experience our feelings as a backdrop or even an obstacle to our progress. But in reality, our internal world is the filter through which we actually experience the external world. To put it another way, the firehose of daily news makes it seem like the outer world is all that is real and causes us to neglect our inner life, which is the only space over which we have any real control. The wisdom from the spiritual poem of Psalm 91 is that to face the terror of the unknown, the violence that looms, the illness that stalks unseen, is to delve into “the secret place” where we meet the Most High and the Most Real, whatever your conception of that may be.
Last Sunday, the great philosopher and activist Dr. Cornel West spoke at my church’s service. When asked what we must do in order to resist the forces of fascism and white supremacy that face us right now, Dr. West echoed Psalm 91 when he responded: “Fortify your soul.” Yes, we should still organize and plan and pay attention to the world around us, but let us remember that our external work cannot hold unless we retreat to that secret place and remember to fortify our souls.
Read more in the Oct. 14-20, 2020 issue.