The 23rd Psalm has been a large help to me on several occasions. Those phrases, “The Lord is my shepherd,” or “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil” are perhaps as well known as the Lord’s Prayer. This is the psalm, also, that Mary Baker Eddy comes back to at the end of her chapter called “The Apocalypse” in Science and Health, in which she explicates the vastness of this venture called Christian Science which each one of us is trying to understand.
One of the times this psalm came to my rescue was perhaps rather slight but has meant a lot to me in the ensuing years. It was in rehearsal for a play. Usually, as a playwright, I can come and go as I please during rehearsals. But in this instance I was one of the performers.
One the second or third day of rehearsal, the director asked us all to spread out and find a space to ourselves. She then asked us to think a thought, or feel an emotion, and move to that thought or emotion. And, sure enough, everyone in the cast began to move silently here and there in the rehearsal room. But I was aghast. I had no idea what thought I could have, or emotion, and move to that thought or emotion, never mind moving to them. It seemed so vague and contrived, or touchy-feely, and certainly very unspecific. I felt self-conscious and, frankly, all I wanted to do was walk out of the room. To reclaim my freedom as a writer, to come and go as I please, and never be trapped like that again in a room. This urge to talk out became huge but, at the same time, I recognized this would be disruptive and make our subsequent rehearsals problematic or at least somewhat awkward. I also had to question the extent, or depth, of my restlessness.
So I tried to think of something and move through the room. And what I decided to think came like a breath of fresh air. I began to think my way through the 23rd Psalm, whatever territory, or journey, that might be.
Thus I made it through that day of rehearsal. And the director spoke to me afterwards. She said what I’d been doing in that exercise had been arresting and unique. And so I was pleased obviously, to have found a way to participate, and rehearsals from that point on were challenging and productive.
The 23rd Psalm was also what a church member read at my mother’s memorial service recently. She read it with the word “Love” substituted as Mary Baker Eddy renders it at the end of “The Apocalypse” chapter: “[Divine Love] is my shepherd…”
My mother did not have an easy life. And often her behavior could be strange and her suspicions intense. But after my father’s death a surprising companionship and trust began to develop between my mother and myself. And when my friends would talk recently of the anguish, and rancor, and the many problems they were experiencing with their parents as they aged and lost their health, or memory, or reasonableness, my response was how grateful I was. How special it seemed to be to have this new friend.
The last years of my mother’s life were difficult. My mother would tell me she didn’t feel as close as she once had to God—that the world seemed a more evil place than before. I talked with her several times about Matthew’s parable of the tares and the wheat. How what is evil in this world is certainly more visible, less hidden, or more generally exposed. But, also, what is good and honest, compassionate, and without hypocrisy or deceit, is also so much more visible than ever before.
I know my mother heard God. I stumbled upon some pages she wrote once about how my father lost his job in Italy under circumstances that were clearly questionable and unjust. I saw in those pages how my mother prayed, took up the defense of what was right and how in the end my father was utterly vindicated. I showed those pages to my mother, and then we gave them to a friend of hers, and they were published in the Christian Science Sentinel.
But the last three months of her life seemed especially hard. She was in a Christian Science nursing care facility. And one day I received a phone call from my mother’s favorite nurse at this facility. She told me there had been a change in my mother’s condition and perhaps I should make arrangements to come down. I got a call from the Head of Nursing, also suggesting the same, as well as a call from my mother’s practitioner. I called my mother early that evening to tell her I was looking into hotels and would be down. She seemed to be having difficulty breathing and often spoke the words: “Life goes on.” Which was very difficult for me to hear, or to understand, because my mother often spoke in clichés and it was hard for me to understand her specific thought when she said such things.
I woke up in the middle of that night, alarmed. I went downstairs and sat in a chair. I had no idea how to pray about this. I am a Christian Scientist, I thought, and my mother is a Christian Scientist, but I have no sense right now of what that means to her, or what it means to me. And at that point, I guess to calm down, I began to work my way through the 23rd Psalm. I changed the words slightly. I changed “The Lord is my shepherd” to “The Lord is our shepherd.” I changed the first person singular and made it plural throughout “…Surely goodness and mercy will follow us all the days of our life; and we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
And then I began to realize something, or to insist upon it. It became clear to me that there is no such thing as unrelenting punishment or any kind of more and brutal retribution. There is chastisement, yes, for each one of us, but chastisement always includes insight, growth, freedom and a huge gratitude for what we can each come to perceive and understand—something beyond what we thought possible before. And this is a growing understanding, which can follow us all the days of our life. Because this is where we dwell. And nothing can hide this, or keep it secret, from us.
I went to bed and the next day made no move to call a hotel or make travel plans. In retrospect, this seems surprising. Did I forget or was I waiting? I don’t know, but sometime during the course of that day I heard from my mother’s nurse, and from the Head of Nursing, that my mother’s condition had dramatically changed for the better.
I did see my mother again some time after—even though 5 days after that she passed on. I feel I had a profound glimpse of the Word of eternal Life, and these signs are all around for each one of us to see. There are large shifts in perspective possible within each of us, and there is nothing on earth that can deny this. There is nothing, ever, that can prevent us from understanding the true meaning of, and the huge freedom behind, these words of Christ Jesus: “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me”(John 12:32)
I don’t know what journey my mother is on, or what the whole meaning of my journey is and I do think the stakes are rather high for us right now as Christian Scientists. I think often of these verses from the Gospel of John: “From that time many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him. Then said Jesus unto the twelve, Will ye also go away? Then Simon Peter answered him, Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou has the words of eternal life.” (John 6:66-68)