Fellow Passengers: This week’s Poetry Passage (Psalm 130) transports me back to a trip I made around 10 years ago to Beckley, West Virginia, where I visited one of the darkest places on the face of the earth; actually, a place far beneath the face of the earth. I was on a service trip to the coal fields, and made my first excursion into the shaft of an exhibition coal mine that had just opened for guided tours. We sat down in a little tram and rode through a claustrophobic tunnel on tracks that took us deep into the mine, far below the hills of New River Park. The most memorable part of the tour involved the guide, a veteran miner, extinguishing the light, so we would know what total darkness feels like. It was ironic that I was taking this trip at this particular time, because it was one of the darker periods of my life, when many flaws, failings, griefs and disappointments all converged to form a heavy episode of depression. I managed to maintain a smooth surface throughout that year, functioning well enough and going to work every day, but below the surface some major subterranean soul turbulence was shifting and re-settling the fault lines of my faith. A good friend, who knew I was struggling, sent me a cassette tape of poems read by David Whyte, called Poetry of Self Compassion. I played it in the car every day, and one of those poems became especially important in helping me navigate the darkness. It was by the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, and the translation went like this: It seems I am pushing through solid rock as the ore lies alone, I am such a long way in, I can see no way through and no space—everything is close to my face and everything close to my face is stone. I don’t have much knowledge yet in grief, so this massive darkness makes me feel small. You—be the Master, make yourself fierce, break in, then your great transformation will happen to me, and my great grief cry will happen to you.
Rilke’s words seem to mirror what the ancient poet was feeling when penning the prayer of Psalm 130, which begins, out of the depths I cry to you. This veteran miner of God’s rich treasures of grace is giving us a tour of the deepest places of depression, with all light extinguished. I love the way the Spanish Bible reads here, A ti, Señor, elevo mi clamor desde las profundidades del abismo. Translated: To you, Lord, I raise my clamor, from the most profound places of the abyss. The Psalmist’s cry here is not some wimpy whimper in the dark; it is a noisy clamor, claiming God’s promise of grace and rescue for one trapped under a load of sin that has caved in, threatening to crush the life out of him. Sin, that experience of missing the mark, of failing and disappointing God and those we love and ourselves, truly can carry us to an abysmal place of massive darkness, where all we can do is clamor and cry out from the profound depths.
When I think back on what I learned from the trips I have made to the coal fields, I understand just how powerful a metaphor for prayer we find there. I connect it back to the ending of Jesus’ model prayer, for thine is the power – the dunamis – the dynamite – and I am reminded of how those coal miners first blasted through the West Virginia mountain with the aid of dynamite placed in crevices chiseled into the rock. Authentic prayer, that clamor for grace, that great grief cry, is like lighting a stick of divine dunamis, that fierce life force able to break in and transform the most depressing of circumstances. Wendell Berry, a Kentucky poet who knows a lot about life in the coal fields, has a line in one of his prayer poems that says, Lord I flinch and pray. When we pray like the Psalmist, we probably should flinch, in anticipation of the explosive power that the prayer just might unleash. When we light a fuse that creates the capacity for grace to blast through guilt, our Amen should probably be followed by a warning shout – Fire in the hole!
*Daily Passages are the weekday reflections of Stan Dotson, connecting culture to biblical texts. As always, your feedback and comments are welcome. Feel free to share where the passages take you in your journey of faith.