Lo, these are the ungodly, these prosper in the world,
and these have riches in possession :
and I said, Then have I cleansed my heart in vain,
and washed mine hands in innocency.
Then thought I to understand this :
but it was too hard for me,
Until I went into the sanctuary of God :
then understood I the end of these men;
Namely, how thou dost set them in slippery places :
and castest them down, and destroyest them. Psalm 73:12, 15-17
As a “liberal” Episcopalian, I’m not supposed to like these verses. I’m supposed to cringe and talk about how God is love. I’m supposed to emphasize how humanity is created in the image of God and how that imago Dei is hidden somewhere beneath the surface of even our lowest and basest actions. I’m supposed to say that there are not wicked and ungodly people, only wicked and ungodly deeds. On most days, I shift uncomfortably in my seat through this Psalm. But, on some of those days that I am outwardly wincing, somewhere deep inside, I sigh and quietly smile to myself.
I smile because I have said similar words throughout the course of my life, because there have been several times where I have had to make tough decisions. These decisions were not clear-cut and most only had discernible lose-lose outcomes, no matter what I did. Sometimes this required that I cast someone into the “outer darkness” of my life, moving former trusted friends to the outer periphery of my life. Many times this was due to my own weakness and my own attachments, but, sometimes, it was because of betrayal or intentionally inflicted pain on their part, too.
These hard decisions can be more than just about a friendship, though, as they can be about habits, jobs and locations, too. They can be anything that grows stagnant and encourages physical, spiritual or emotional death. We must never forget the words of St. Paul, “the wages of sin is death”. (Ro. 6:23) Death is not a punishment for sin, laid out by a wrathful God. No, death is the natural outflow – the natural consequence – of sin. When these relationships, habits or whatever can become so mired that they choke life, they will always lead to death, eventually.
We should thank God, by the way, when we finally awake to what is happening. We should thank him when death starts to smell like death and we stop pretending that that smell is perfume. We should thank him when that which was formerly vivifying, now has the pale grey countenance of the dead. For it is then that our eyes are truly opened and grace really begins to work in our life.
It is hard, hard work to take stock of one’s own life. It is exceptionally hard work to be in the valley of decision and continually wash your hands in innocency. It is exceptionally hard work to be in that place and have to discern an ending that will glorify God. It is hard to smell death, yet live your life. In my experience, it is very tiring to trust in God; it is very taxing to rest in his peace. Meanwhile, the other parties all blissfully go about their life as if nothing has changed. Their ways seemingly prosper. Good things happen to them while you’re stuck on the corner of Rock Street and Hard Place Boulevard. And you rejoice with them as much as you can.
So, we’re stuck in this place of life-changing grace while everyone around us seemingly has never known it. These others, perhaps, never have known the quiet grace of loneliness, the fiery gift of undercover discernment or the tempestuous cleansing power of waiting on the Lord. They still think all this death is just about the most awesomest thing EVAR!1! And, frankly, that just makes it all the harder for us. Our Psalmist is struggling to understand this, just as much as we are, today and, very comfortingly, he doesn’t get it, either.
The Psalmist wrote that he didn’t understand any of this until he went into the sanctuary of God.
One of the singular gifts of the sanctuary of God is perspective. The sanctuary of prayer, whether it be in the tallest cathedral or the smallest corner of the heart, always brings us perspective. In our Christian setting, the Daily Office sanctifies time in order that it may glorify God with our praises throughout the day. Even more so, the Mass grants to us an eternal perspective, as at every Mass, we step outside of time and see Calvary represented before our eyes every time in a very real way. Even our private devotions and our extemporaneous prayers, we sanctify to God our thoughts and feelings, our very heart and mind.
I’ve said several times before that my life only makes sense when I have a Prayer Book in my hand. All of the parts of my life — from the big, public chunks to those little broken shards that I like to pretend do not exist — find their ultimate meaning, their ultimate purpose when I am praying in the sanctuary of God. It is the only time that all of my life makes sense. I know many of you feel the same way. And I think this is what the Psalmist is getting at.
It is from this place, this place of prayer, this sanctuary of God and this perspective that we are able to discern the end of these things. The Psalmist, using the language of his day, says that it is in the sanctuary of God that he was able to see that God will really cast down those who had afflicted him. That justice will once more be done in his land. I prefer to think that it is more that from the sanctuary of God, we see that these relationships, these habits, etc. all lead naturally to death, for it is the natural outflow, the eventual future.
The problem with this is that we’re still living our lives, making those tough decisions on faith, without seeing any result. We’re planting seeds that have yet to germinate or, perhaps, we’re tearing up the ground in order to plant those seeds. We’re doing all the hard work of the soul, not seeing any results and few around us even realize this is going on.
If we’ve retreated into the sanctuary of God, if we’ve rightly discerned our lives, if we’ve washed our hands and cleansed our hearts, then plant those seemingly-invisible seeds in hope. Cast off those relationships with hopes that one day reconciliation will happen. Do the hard work of reconciliation, but if it isn’t happening now, keep praying that it will and watch the horizon. Cut out the habits that are slowly choking you like weeds. Avail yourself of the sacraments. Stay in that perspective as much as you can and act in faith.
Because, here is the good news: “wisdom is proved right by her children”. (Lk. 7:35) The right actions, the truly good deeds of faith are seldom proved right in a day, a week or even a year. The true seed of faith will only find its fruit after many years of quiet toil. And that tree will only yield the promised hundredfold in the life to come. But that’s the good news, you will eventually be proved right, although it may take years for it to happen.
So, we should always keep before us, the other words of the Psalter, while we do all this hard work of the soul:
Commit thy way unto the Lord, and put thy trust in him :
and he shall bring it to pass.
He shall make thy righteousness as clear as the light :
and thy just dealing as the noon-day.
Hold thee still in the Lord, and abide patiently upon him :
but grieve not thyself at him whose way doth prosper,
against the man that doeth after evil counsels.
Leave off from wrath, and let go displeasure :
fret not thyself, else shalt thou be moved to do evil.
Psalm 37:5-8 (emphasis mine)