Back to school at PS 119

It sounds like a New York City school, the kind that showed up in old-time kids books. P.S 119. It reads like an exercise from an old-time school. “Write an 16-line poem for every letter of the alphabet. And make each poem be two-line couplets, compare and contrast, repetition, expansion. And make them all be about the the Bible, but don’t say ‘Bible’.”

The result is the longest chapter in the Bible, Psalm 119. For those who try to read through the book of Psalms every month, 5 a day, it’s the spoiler. For those who like a smooth narrative, it’s impossible.

And for those who want a psalm to read out loud to bring some peace to a mom feeling adrift in the hospital, it’s a relentless reminder of a lifetime of living God’s word.

Mom was feeling troubled. In the hospital for tests, food disrupted as a result, mind already challenged with keeping the past and present connected, she was agitated.

“Can I read you a psalm,” I said. She nodded.

I started with 121, a good Psalm for an anxious heart. But it’s way too short when there are hours of darkness and infinite braincycles before morning. So I turned to 119. And started to read out loud. Couplet after couplet. But when they are read to a woman with eight decades of interacting with God, they aren’t lines in a poem or exercises in a primer. There are 176 affirmations, each a reminder of times in those years when they were true. Often as I read, I heard a sigh of ascent.

We read to the end. For the moment she was calmer. But I was left with a question: What would happen to my heart and mind if each day I prayed that song? Like going to school for my soul.

First published November 5, 2012.