One thing do I ask of the Lord,
it is this that I seek—
that I dwell in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life,
to behold the Lord’s sweetness
and to gaze on His palace.
This morning I received from one who had been a close friend in our first years in the community and with whom I had largely lost contact over the years, a very reflective and expressive email. It has now been over 50 years since he left the congregation, and I think we have only been together once since, some thirty years ago. Yet, to read his reflection on our experience at the time and his appreciative description of his life ever since has drawn me into a reflection on my own experience of life over the years.
One of my favorite psalms is Psalm 27, the psalm response for today’s liturgy. “One thing do I ask of the Lord,/ it is this that I seek— / that I dwell in the house of the Lord / all the days of my life.” As a young man of 18 years old, I entered religious life, I’m sure, for several reasons, many of which were probably contradictory. Yet, for certain, one was “to dwell in the house of the Lord.” At that time, this had, for me, quite a physical meaning. The Lord, I thought and hoped, was to be found in living the life of a religious community. Even then, I think I understood that my desires were multiple. So, it was living the “religious life” in a religious community that would enable me to keep this primordial desire first in my heart and in my mind. I knew for certain, although at the very beginning did not so powerfully experience this, that wherever I was, and with all the help in focusing my life that the forms of religious life offered, I would always experience the multiplicity of my desires.
This has always been the significance of Psalm 27 for me. Its declaration of the desire of “one thing” is a reminder to me of the greatest desire of my heart, especially at those times in life when I forget that truth. In today’s reading from Isaiah we hear, “Those who err in spirit shall acquire understanding, / and those who find fault shall receive instruction” (Isaiah 29:24). At this point in both my Advent and life’s journey, these words of Isaiah are a great consolation to me. Even when I err, I shall be instructed; even when I am deaf, I shall come to hear the words of a book; and even in my darkest blindness, I shall come to see. At my lowest point, I shall discover joy in the Lord, and in my pathetic poverty and weakness, I shall rejoice. As a young man, I believed that having made my decision to follow my heart’s desire to dwell in God’s house among others who shared that desire, and certainly if I lived to this advanced age, I would not still be erring in spirit. I am certain I would have been convinced that by this time in life I would have been firmly and forever inhabiting the Lord’s house, with a wisdom in living that can come only from inhabiting the Lord’s dwelling.
As I read my friend’s email, my heart rejoiced in his clear appreciation of his life, his family, and his teaching. I was pleased to hear him able to declare that the decision he made all those years ago was the right one for him. At the same time, of course, I reflected on my own life over these 55 years. I was once told around the age of 21 that I would never leave the religious life because I would also be chasing some elusive dream. And so I ask myself, is the house of the Lord which I keep seeking and in which I long to dwell a mirage or a fantasy, or is it really the true end and purpose of my life?
Advent has always been my favorite liturgical season of the year because it seems to best correspond to my experience. At the heart of life is the experience of longing and waiting. The stance of the whole church in Advent corresponds to my most enduring experience all year long. I am constantly seeking and asking. I am either suffering an unfulfilled desire and longing, or I am errantly attempting to dissolve such longings through the satisfaction of a lesser desire. This is precisely why I find the words of Isaiah so consoling, “Those who err in spirit shall acquire understanding.” Abraham Joshua Heschel writes that “Faith is not something we acquire once and for all. Faith is an insight that must be acquired at every single moment.”
So, there is something about our desire for God and to dwell in the Lord’s house that is foundational and enduring, and there is much of it that is temporary and evanescent. As a young person of 17 or so, it was, of course, something of my spirit that longed to be at home with God, but there was also a desire for relief from the persistent anxiety and self-depreciation in which I lived. While there was something of God in those moments of relief i experienced, they were not “the” house of the Lord. While there was something of the God in the ways I grew as a person, the the development of the gifts I had and in my ability to care about and to attend to others, these also were not “the” Lord’s house.
To this day, I am still learning that“something” of God is present both in joy and accomplishment and in sadness, error, and failure. Religious community is not, as I’d hoped when I entered, the house of the Lord. As all places, at times it reflects the dwelling of God and does not at others. And certainly the church is not always“the” Lord’s dwelling. And as for myself, after all this time, the life I live out is at times lived in the house of the Lord and at others it is seeking other desires and abodes.
The promise of the Lord’s coming is real and true, but we await it in a liminal space. Perhaps it is most true to say that I dwell not in the house of the Lord but on its threshold. Sometimes, in prayer, in love, in self-giving I step over the threshold more deeply into God’s house. And at other times, I step further away and into the seeking of lesser desires that afford me a relief from the painful longing for that which is ‘not yet.”
The elusive dream that I follow is the search not only for the mystery of God but for my own heart. So often I do not know or am unaware of what I really want and long for, or I am mistaken about it. I “err in spirit.” We often speak as if faith is something we have or don’t have. But, as Heschel says, faith “must be acquired at every single moment.” The God on whom we wait this Advent is a mystery to us. Over all the years of my life, I have known a longing to dwell in the house of the Lord, but the object of that longing is constantly changing. Where I long to live, and where in faith I do live, is a “place” I often do not recognize and certainly do not understand or possess. Yet, it is truly home.
Unless God is at least as real as my own self, unless I am sure that God has at least as much life as I do, how could I pray? If God does not have the power to speak to us, how should we assess the power to speak to Him? If God is unable to listen to me, then I am insane in talking to Him.
The strange thing about many of our contemporaries is that their life is nobler than their ideology, that their faith is deep and their views are shallow, that their souls are suppressed and their slogans proclaimed. We must not continue to cherish a theory, just because we have embraced it forty years ago. Faith is not something that we acquire once and for all. Faith is an insight that must be acquired at every single moment.
Those who honestly search, those who yearn and fail, we did not presume to judge. Let them pray to be able to pray, and if they do not succeed, if they have no tears to shed, let them yearn for tears, let them try to discover their heart and let them take strength from the certainty that this too is a high form of prayer.Abraham Joshua, Heschel, Quest for God: Studies in Prayer and Symbolism, p. 89