De Profundis is the Latin title for Psalm 130, one of the seven Penitential Psalms in the Christian understanding, and one which has influenced poets and writers such as Christina Rossetti in a poem with that title. “I strain my heart, I stretch my hands, and catch at hope.” In lieu of hymns which have been curtailed by the restrictions of COVID-19, we have used the Psalms on occasion to complement the Scripture readings. The Psalms are the prayer book and hymn book for both Jews and Christians.
The various voices of the Psalms contribute to our ethical thinking about our life together as a community of learners. This week Psalm 130 complemented the two Gospel stories that were read in Chapel, the one for Junior Chapel and the Grade 10s on Monday and Tuesday respectively, and the other for the Grade 11s and the Grade 12s respectively. Together they help in the task of facing honestly, responsibly, and maturely the stresses of our times.
On Monday and Tuesday, the story of Jesus stilling the sea-storm was read. It speaks to our world and day as captured in the opening line of Psalm 130. “Out of the deep have I called unto thee, O Lord.” On Thursday and Friday, that opening phrase of the Psalm also connects to the deep distress of suffering and the crying out for healing, not altogether unlike the cries for vaccines in our country and world. In this case, there is the wonder of a double healing which reveals the nature of the ethical: it is at once near to us and also reaches out to us from afar. Such is the healing touch and the healing word of Christ in the midst of the sea-storms of our hearts. Such is the nature of the Good which cannot be constrained.
How do we face the sturm und drang of our world and day? Sturm und drang is an intriguing German term for a literary movement in the late 18th century that contributed to German and English Romanticism. Taken from the title of a literary work, it literally means ‘storm and stress’. The point is that storm and stress are not just about the sea-storms of the natural world, including such storms as the current pandemic, but perhaps, more crucially, the sea-storms of our hearts. We confront such storms in terms of matters of personal health and well-being, like the leper from within Israel, or in terms of the concern of the Centurion for his servant who is sick. In both cases, Jesus wills to heal, reaching out and touching the leper; and healing the Centurion’s servant from afar. And in both cases with a word spoken.
The latter miracle is especially wonderful because it occasions Jesus’ own wonder at the insight of faith by this non-Jewish Centurion. A Roman officer in charge of a cohort of one hundred, hence centurion and century, he has a hold of the nature of God whose power cannot be constrained to the limits of space. His words are a wonderful prayer “out of the deep,” a prayer to God out of his concern for his servant and a prayer that is grounded in the deep ethical understanding that God is not a tribal power, a force to be constrained to some at the expense of many.
“I am not worthy that thou shouldest come under my roof,” the Centurion says, only then to add the mystical and magical words of insight, “but speak the word only and my servant shall be healed.” All through the concept of commands being passed on down through the ranks, such as in the Roman legion and even by extension in our Cadet corps. It is a wonderful image that excites the wonder of Christ. Education is about the passing on of the ethical and the universal. “Speak the word only.”
“There is nothing either good or bad but that thinking makes it so,” Shakespeare has Hamlet say. There are, inevitably, the sea-storms of our world and the sea-storms of our hearts, and the sea-storms, too, that beset our institutions. It is not about the storms but about how we face them. That is the ethical challenge because in both stories there is more at play than just our own self-interest, more than just our self-serving pretensions about how well we are or are not ‘coping’ with things. It is altogether about how we face things. This, too, is the educational challenge. “The character of knowledge depends not on the nature of the object known but on that of the knowing faculty,” C.S. Lewis notes, paraphrasing Boethius in his 6th century treatise, ‘The Consolation of Philosophy’. Such words speak to the ethical dimension of education in concert with these Scriptural readings this week. They concern our thinking which in turn shapes our actions.
Jesus rebukes the wind and calms the seas but even more he is the calm in the midst of the storms of our lives. His calming touch and healing word is what we most need to consider and to grasp. It happens where that word is spoken and heard. Such stories help to save us from our worst tendencies to be buried in our own discontents, fears and anxieties as well as in our attempts to escape from the realities that we confront by turning to distractions and excuses that remove us from the one thing necessary, namely, the way in which we are given to face the storms of life. It is really all about looking to the calm of God, the peace that passes understanding. In so doing, we might just become the calm for others. Out of the deep, indeed.
(Rev’d) David Curry
Chaplain, English & ToK teacher
Chair of the Department of Religion and Philosophy