Scripture: Psalm 23- v. 4
When I walk through the valley of the dark, I will fear no evil for you are with me.
When we were reviewing the evaluations from our church’s Lenten mental health series last week, a question has stayed with me. “What do you do with the dark?” I gave a sigh as I read it, feeling a little overwhelmed. What do you do with that question? There could be whole counseling programs or seminary classes devoted to exploring the implications of that question. What do you do with devastating mental illness, or suffering, or trauma from childhood, or hurt, or death? We tried to touch on some of the dark in the recent series, but we all agreed, that without the person’s name for follow-up, we couldn’t handle or address all of that question. We turned the evaluation face down and moved on.
Psalm 23 and the Dark
Yet, the psalmist of the song denoted number 23 doesn’t hesitate to deal with the dark. The psalmist writes “when I walk through the darkest valley.” We’re used to the King James Version that translates it as the “valley of the shadow of death.” The word in Hebrew actually is “dark”—as in all the dark shadows cast when you are in a valley. Of course, the valley is also a metaphor for life—to be in the darkness of things like depression, or illness, or grief. . . or _______(fill in the blank). The psalmist connects right to a person’s depth of struggle, to the experience of darkness in life.
John of the Cross and The Dark
Throughout our Christian tradition there are people who have been unafraid to address the reality of darkness in life. One was named John of the Cross. He lived in 16thcentury Spain and grew up poor; his gentleness, patience and caregiving spirit led him to work as a nurse as a teenager in a nearby hospital; the hospital administrator encouraged him to enter the priesthood and serve as a chaplain to the hospital; he chose to become a monk of the Carmelite order and devoted himself to study and contemplative prayer. He became close friends with the mystic Teresa of Avila, working as a spiritual director with her nuns, teaching poor children, and initiating reforms in religious life. For this, and the threat it posed to the powers that be in the Catholic church, John was abducted, imprisoned, and tortured. For nine months he lived in darkness, in a tiny room six feet wide by ten feet long, with little to eat and not even a change in clothing. He escaped by tying bedsheets together and lowering himself out of the window. He knew suffering. John of the Cross knew darkness.
Out of poetry he was able to write while in prison, John of the Cross composed the prose treatises Ascent of Mount Carmel and Dark Night of the Soul. The mystical theology displayed in these works details a person’s journey to God—a journey which necessarily included suffering. John thought that darkness was a necessary part of our spiritual (and otherwise) life. The dark valley is a given. For John of the Cross, the dark night is when a soul feels God’s absence. It is a time of purgification of our attachments, of life as we know it.Sight is lost, God feels gone.
Psalm 23 and You are with me
What John of the Cross, and the psalmist affirm, is that even in the deepest, darkest valley, we are not alone. After describing the darkest valley the psalmist moves onto affirm, “I fear no danger because you are with me.” You are with me.
The phrase, this “You” to refer to God, comes smack dab in the middle of the 26-word psalm. It comes in verse four, and is bookended by the use of Yahweh in verse one, and Yahweh in verse six, translated in English as Lord. Significantly, as Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann points out, this is the only strong independent pronoun referring to God in the psalms and it may be the reason psalm 23 is so popular—because the second person pronoun feels more personal. “You are with me.”It is the central word, the most significant statement on one of the most beloved psalms.
An argument could be made that this is a significant statement of the Old Testament.A form of “I am with you” appears in Genesis 15:1, 26:24, Deut. 20:1, 31:8, Isaiah 41:10, 13, 43:5.Isaiah 41 even speaks in the voice of God with the first-person pronoun, “I am with you.” Scholars understand the phrase as a word of salvation, directed to someone in lament.
The power of presence
And yet, this word of comfort doesn’t mean that there aren’t dark valleys. It doesn’t eliminate the darkness. Rather, it affirms that God’s companionship can transform every situation. Even in the depth of darkness, God can bring light of presence.
God offers comfort and solidarity in the face of threat. The relationship with God is capable of ending forlornness. The author of Psalm 23 knows that darkness and hardship is present in the world, but it is not to be feared. The assurance of God’s presence with us offers solidarity and hope.God is with us even when we don’t feel God.
John of the Cross penned poetically, “O guiding night! O night more lovely than the dawn! O night that has united The lover with his beloved.” The dark night moves the soul in its journey to deeper life with God. John writes, “although this night darkens the spirit, it does so to give light.”God is always with us, bringing light and love out of the darkness. You are with me.
John of the Cross, The Ascent to Mount Carmel,,in The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, trans. Kieran Kavanaugh, O.C.D. and Otilio Rodriguez, O.C.D. (Washington, D.C.: Institute of Carmelite Studies, 1964), 65.
Walter Bruegemann, The Message of the Psalms, 155.
James May, “Psalms” Interpreters Bible Commentary.
John of the Cross, 204.
To ground into the sense of God’s presence with us in the valleys, I offer for the class an “earth salutation” (instead of a sun salutation) that incorporates malasana, depicted above. In rooting down to earth (or the “valley”) we open our hearts (and our hips!) to the presence of God.
Stand at the top of the mat with a wide stance (almost as wide as the mat). From tadasana (standing mountain) inhale the arms up to the sky, exhale and fold into uttanasana (forward fold). Turn the heels in, toes pointing out, bend the knees, and sink the hips down toward the ground. Wedge the forearms on the inside of the thighs below the knee. Place the palms together. Roll the shoulder blades on the back. Lift the head and heart. Open to the God who is with you.