The Foul Muse of Psalm 42
I stood in the empty parking lot and listened. The wind blew through the trees, birds crowed, leaves rustled over the top of other leaves with a listless indifference. Ordinarily I would call this silence. I didn’t hear car doors pulled shut, I didn’t hear the idle of engines; I didn’t hear children playing or teenagers whooping or people talking. On a mountaintop in Polk County, Tennessee, I was alone in the way people think of being by themselves.
But I have long ago abandoned this sort of thinking. I am never alone. Never by myself. I don’t even know what that means.
Someone is playing the drums in my head. He is always there. At times the drumbeat feels like a nice rhythm, a steady badonk, badonk, badonk, or a tap, tap, tap, marching me through routine and steadiness. This is the drummer who lets me live between the beats, the space between noise. But of late, I’ve had a different drummer orchestrating my head. This ne’er-do-well hates me. He doesn’t play the drums; he beats mental pandemonium: gadagadagadaGADAGADA. There is no meaning to his noise, no artistry. He sits inside my head and bangs and clangs like a child who never tires of striking cymbals.
This is the drummer who walked with me to Benton Falls. The mile and a half trail, slowly slipping downhill, to a quiet roar, tormented with each step. The dialogue, the flashes of memory, the sudden reoccurrence of something so long ago I thought it had faded from memory the way a dream is unrecoverable after lunch. The noise in my head. Everything comes rushing back, an army of memory, unprocessed emotion, the unforgiven region of mind. The noise never stops.
I finally reached Benton Falls. A small creek rolled over a 65-foot ravine, cascading all the way down. It sounded like ten-thousand showers. But even at the base of the falls, with the clatter of twenty-million drops of water splashing every second, the clang of cymbals replaced the drums and redoubled their efforts, tsh, Tsh, TSh TSH, TSH. The natural world silenced, helpless, muted response. “Ah, ha-ha-ha,” my memories taunt, “Where is your God?”
I wonder what it would be like to live without this stream of consciousness running through my head – to live in some sort of mental abeyance. And I wonder if other people struggle with their own foul muse. I’m sure they do. But is it really the same? I don’t frequently hear people accidently talking to themselves like I catch myself doing when I’m pumping gas or standing in line at the grocery store. The voice so real it occasionally leaks into the material world. It feels like having a conversational partner who is more interested in monologue, wild speculation, and depraved memoir. So distorted and magnified by shame, his thought pattern jumps wildly from one embarrassment to another. Remember when you did… Remember when you said… Remember when you went… TSH, TSH, TSH. And all these thoughts, one after another, come tumbling down, over a ravine in my mind.
“Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me?” But the question cannot be heard.
Deafened, I stumble around my wet, cragged life; I slip, lose my balance on this memory, and then tackled by another, they pile on, one memory after another, and another, uncontrolled and spiteful. Then, somehow, as mysteriously as the sacrament is holy, I am underneath the deluge, being pummeled on the top of my head, the pool of memories, falling thoughts, one after another; the surface of my mind agitated by troubled water.
The walk back up the hill from Benton Falls didn’t seem near as arduous as the hike downhill. I loaded Beans (my truck) and did what I normally do when I’m looking for myself – I picked a random road and followed it. Zig-zagging up and down a mountain, I managed to find another creek roaring between the quiet mountainsides.
Photographing moving water is about as clichéd as photography gets. Maybe not as bad as sunrise and sunset shots, but like a perfect sunrise, a good, long exposure of moving water, no matter how threadbare, can be magical. Overdone doesn’t necessarily equal unmoving.
I moved on from one spot to another, photographing hidden creeks and the Ocoee River. I came across Bald River Falls and, on a different trip, in a different direction, I was led to Foster Falls. Like all the other waterfalls, the water raged over the lip of a rock edge and splattered a pool of collected water.
The banging drums never stop. And the buoyancy of memory floats on the surface of my thoughts. But I remembered the Psalmist. “My soul is cast down within me; therefore I remember you.” On one hand the verse seems to suggest that the soul is traumatized. And no doubt that is a correct reading. Memory is a monster lurking inside our skulls, stealing our soul. Saint John of the Cross indicted memory this way: “People would never lose their tranquility if they were to forget ideas and lay aside their thoughts…our nature is so unstable and fragile that even when well-disciplined it will hardly fail to stumble on thoughts with the memory. And these thoughts become a disturbance to a soul that was residing in peace and tranquility through the forgetfulness of all. As a result, Jeremiah proclaimed: ‘With the memory I shall remember, and my soul will faint in me with sorrow.’”
But I think the psalm is also prescriptive. Cast your soul down within you, maybe the psalmist is also saying. “Deep calls to deep at the thunder of your [waterfalls]; all your waves and billows have gone over me.”
I recognize this psalm living itself out in my life. I cry out to God, “Why have you forgotten me?” And my stream of consciousness pulls memory on top of memory, pounding me beneath the waterfalls, on the surface of consciousness. But God’s ways don’t make sense. “Am I drowning?” one translation reads. And there is salvation in the paradox and contradiction of God. “Deep calls to deep.” The God-man cries in agony and quotes another psalm, “Why have you forsaken me?” His question calls salvation for all because he, like my memory, finds acceptance in the waived presence of God.
“What abyss is this that calls, and to what other abyss?” Augustine asked. “An abyss is a depth that cannot be reached or comprehended,” he explained. To look at another psalm, God’s “judgements are like the great deep.” And to what other deep do they call? Still another psalm teaches, “For the human heart and mind are deep.” The depths of God reach the depths of our souls, a sacred place too profound to bother with memory, too simple to bother with continuity.
This noisy mind of mine can enjoy silence. But it must first go into the water, the watery abyss of baptism, and drown out all the unholy chatter. It needs to learn to listen to God’s silence and do the counterintuitive, the contrary to survival, and submerge beneath the surface. The disquieted soul finds peace when God’s “waves and billows have gone over me.”
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