A mystical reading of Psalm 42/3

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The problem addressed here is that a text such as Psalm 42/3, which is an appropriate text to read with a mystical lens, has only to a limited extent been examined from the angle of mysticism. Apart from Waaijman’s investigation in Mystiek in de Psalmen and his analysis in Spirin (the webpage of the Titus Brandsma Institute for spiritual and mystical studies), this text has not been studied in detail with a mystical lens before. The hypothesis is that important aspects of Psalm 42/3, which is treated as one psalm, can be understood only from a mystical perspective. Accordingly, the purpose is to show how a consistent, theoretically based mystical reading of Psalm 42/3 will contribute to the exploration of a certain essential tenor in the poem. Important aspects of the text can be understood through a mystical lens. This study aims to contribute to the understanding of mysticism from a biblical perspective through the investigation of Psalm 42/3, as well as to show how it may be an essential addition to, and enrichment of, existing biblical receptions.

The method entails giving a short theoretical, hermeneutical and methodological account directly after the introduction. Biblical Spirituality as the meeting place of two disciplines, namely Biblical Sciences and Spirituality Studies, is investigated. Waaijman’s spiritual hermeneutics is also examined as an instrument to undertake a mystical reading of Psalm 42/3. An exegetical analysis of Psalm 42/3 follows in the next section. Grammatical, text-critical, lexicographic, poetical and historical insights, characteristic of the historical-critical approach, are investigated. A mystical lens is applied throughout. Consequently, in a formal examination of the text, a mystical process is revealed that unfolds systematically on four levels. This is followed by a detailed examination of each of these four levels of the mystical process. The four levels entail, firstly, a liminal situation as place of birth for the mystical process; secondly, a process of internalisation as a means for dealing with the liminal situation; thirdly, a mystagogical process that carries the internalisation to the fourth level, namely contemplation. With contemplation, the mystical process reaches its peak. 

The first of the four levels of the mystical process is a liminal situation. Liminality is a concept that anthropologists use to apply to the transitional stages in human life. The speaker in Psalm 42/3 is most likely a pilgrim on his way to the temple and who, for some reason, is prevented from arriving at his destination and finds himself in a liminal situation. What is striking in the text is the way the speaker struggles to deal with the liminal situation. It becomes a lived experience that is dealt with in conversation with God, through questions, reminders and pleadings.

In Psalm 42/3, five constants characteristic of a person who allows the liminal situation to permeate him or her, namely disintegration, loneliness, isolation and vilification by the community, bestial aggression and an afflicted relationship with God, are visible. Disintegration is imaginatively depicted in the water images in the poem: a dry riverbed, tears and a fast-moving river that collapses in a waterfall. Loneliness is evident from the speaker’s yearning to march with the faithful to the House of God and vilification in the enemy’s persistent, defiant questioning of the presence of God in his life. This the speaker experiences as a dagger stab in the heart. Underlying all of these experiences is one core experience, namely to be forsaken by God. 

In a second phase of internalisation the processing of the liminal situation is now taken a step further. In Spirituality as Discipline, internalisation is an inextricable part of the mystical process that characterises the spiritual path. In this phase a person opens his or her inner self in the presence of God. This is exactly what happens in Psalm 42/3: The speaker performs certain outward actions, like praying, pleading and questioning – all of which are focused on opening up to God. Detachment and surrender play an important role in this process of internalisation.

For the speaker, detachment entails a release of all self-interest, any dependence on other people, and even giving up his concepts about God. This act of detachment is, at the same time, an illustration of annihilation: to declare those things the speaker adhered to as insignificant. The flipside of detachment is surrender: to submit oneself entirely to God. These acts of detachment and surrender indicate a shift of the action centre from the speaker to God.

The manner in which the external acts are directed to the innermost dimension of humanity is by means of the spiritual practice of mystagogy. In Spirituality as Discipline, mystagogy aims at guiding someone to interpret a particular experience in the light of the hidden Presence, i.e. God. In Psalm 42/3 the striking self-reflection in the poetic structure of the poem indicates the existence of such a mystagogical process. Self-reflection emerges in the cohortatives, but especially in the speaker’s conversation with his soul in the repeated refrain. As a mystagogue, the speaker’s core command to his soul is to wait on God. However, nearer to the end of the poem another mystagogue emerges, namely God. By requesting God to bring him to the holy mountain, the speaker declares God to be the ultimate guide of the spiritual journey: the only One capable of realising the divine encounter.

The fourth phase, and the culmination of the mystical process unfolding in the three stanzas of Psalm 42/3, is the face-to-face encounter with God. This is the ultimate focus of the mystagogical process: to experience the mystery of God in a face-to-face encounter. In Spirituality as Discipline, this entails contemplation, namely God’s self-communication, the “revelation of the mystery”. In Psalm 42/3 the phrases in the refrain, “the liberation of his face” and “the liberation of my face”, bear witness to the reality of this face-to-face encounter between the speaker and God. A bond of unity has emerged among the companions. This unity has a liberating effect on the speaker. It is striking that this liberation can be linked to death and rebirth. In the end, it can be concluded that the face-to-face encounter has a transforming effect on the speaker and his soul.

Keywords: annihilation; Biblical Spirituality; contemplation; exegesis; interiorisation; liminality; mystagogy; mysticism; spiritual hermeneutics; transformation


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’n Mistieke lesing van Psalm 42/3

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