What is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?
What is man, that he should be clean? And he which is born of a woman, that he should be righteous? Behold, he putteth no trust in his saints; yea, the heavens are not clean in his sight. How much more abominable and filthy is man, which drinketh iniquity as water.
Search me, Lord – Search me, for you alone know my inward parts. You alone understand these things within me, these things that I am so ashamed of I hide them in the dark even from myself.
You and you alone I have loved, and you and you alone I have longed for. You, and you alone, have I known before I drew my first breath – it was you I knew in my mother’s womb. It was you who loved before I came to the world, and it is you whom I will find when I leave this earth.
Oh my God, I have looked far and wide and high and low in every last corner of the earth, and I am looking, and am still looking, and the thing I want to find was you. I have scoured the earth for knowledge, I have dug deep into thought, I have raged my way through the systems of my country to cross great oceans in search of wisdom and knowledge. And because you loved me and gave me many gifts, I looked and found everything else. My God, my God! My whole life I was longing for you, and instead I found everything else! And one by one by one, I made them my purpose, and one by one, you tore down my idols.
And I have wallowed in the mire of my own sin, and made myself queen of it, and thought myself a very fine specimen of a thing, and crowned myself the sovereign of a little kingdom, thinking it was the whole world.
And I have lusted after all the wrong things, each one finer and more delicate and more refined and more subtle than the last, and I have molded myself to them, in imitation of them. And I have torn with great violence the things I was given, ravaged from limb to limb your children you told me to guard, tossed carelessly to the pit the brothers and sisters you gave to love. And I have prostrated myself before the subtle altars of success, of art, of intelligence, of beauty, of romance, of respect, of regard, and thought all the while you were my God. And I have declared a twenty-year war against the Most High God, and charged again and again against your heart like a battering ram, insistent and fierce and relentless and mad, and you have said nothing, but bore it for the sake of your love for me, Lord. And I have poured scalding oil down the sides of my last defenses, all over your army, all over the servants you’ve sent to try reach me, I’ve attacked them with the very gifts you had bestowed me, and I have wounded countless, Lord – I’ve led your sheep astray, I’ve betrayed my own parents, I’ve disobeyed their teachings, I’ve abandoned my house where I was loved and gone wandering foolishly, spending the inheritance you had built up – the inheritance of absolute mercy, absolute love, not knowing the price of the thing that I spent.
And I don’t understand why you still hear my cries. I don’t understand why, finding myself at the same old groove in the same old circle around the same old millstone like some stubborn, dumb mule, you are still patient with me, still loving to me, still hopeful that I will make something of me. I don’t understand your enormous forgiveness; I don’t understand your judgment’s delay. I don’t understand how you can stand by while I rip, again and again, your heart in pieces. I don’t understand how you mutely accuse me while I hammer the nail straight into your palm. I don’t understand how, in all my wildness and pride, in my restless impatience, in my careless violence, you don’t give up on me, and say, it’s time to take that one home – look what she’s done with her mind, what she’s done with her body, look at the state of her ravaged soul.
I don’t understand how you stood by and watched as I lived in pride and lived by lies, when I lived in lust and sloth and greed, and how you allowed my life to blaspheme to high heaven, even while I wrote on my forehead, your Holy Name. I don’t understand why you didn’t bind me more tightly, why you didn’t take and seal my fluttering heart, when you saw once again I was following some idol, like a child in a supermarket following the wrong green dress home, all the while thinking I would get home to my God. And she turned, and I ran, in complete and utter horror, for her face was my face, and again I had turned my self into my god. Oh, my God! I don’t know the first thing about what I have done.
And I’ve been so unfaithful, it amazes me that when the scales are finally measured on that last day, you will count me as one of yours – for I’ve chased after every wind, been buffeted by every wave, been tossed right and left by every distraction, yielded to every last temptation without even a blink of a thought. And I try to keep my eye straight on you, my God, but I’m only a woman, and I cannot see what you see. I keep my eye on you, but cannot feel you walk beside me. I pray to imaginary audiences, I pray to imaginary lovers, and I do not pray to the loving, living God. I long to see your face, but all I see is what I see. And I have for my life the living God as my companion, and yet I live functionally like an atheist, a materialist, and refuse to take the small gifts that you offer me daily, like some relentless lover.
And too often it fixates on what is just another human being, or the works of my own hands, and I am so, so willing to make him or her or it into a god. And I long for things that are lesser than you, good things, but I know that I am still too susceptible, am still a serial idolater, liar, adulterer, and that if given the chance I will abandon my God. And I know that until I have so trained my eyes on the beautiful thing that I do not see, I will always superimpose another image, another icon, and fall in love there instead. And I know that you are more beautiful than everything on earth, on the earth, in the sky, or beneath the earth, and I know that my whole heart will not be still until I see.
And I just beg you to let me see, because for me, all this is desert, a long and lonely desert even with all my dear friends, and I don’t understand why you allow me to be weak. If you are indeed sufficient, if you are indeed strong, then demonstrate now your great strength – I challenge you, I throw down the gauntlet to the living God. I’d wrestle you, my Lord and my God – I’d wrestle you fiercely and refuse to let go. No, I’d never let go until I have had your blessing. I’ll never let go til you walk past the corpses of animals lined up on either side, and vow to me, to me! that you will never, ever leave. I’ll never let go til you put my small hands up to the bleeding side of you, and whisper to me that I’d pierced that old wound, that I’d made it bleed, again and again, but that you love me. Do not leave me, Lord, for I’m afraid of the pit, that yawns open beneath me each time I try to pray. Don’t leave me, don’t take your spirit away from me, don’t leave me don’t leave me, don’t leave me.
And my God, I cannot do this – I can’t do it alone. I try, and every time I try to play Jesus, I end up doing more harm than good. Why did I have to be born? There is so much pain here in the world, which I am sure you remember, for you walked this blighted earth once, yourself. There is so much that is broken, so much that cries out for rescue, and all I can do is the little that I do. And then I try too much, and then I try too hard, and just that little strain makes me an idol, to me, too, and worse, an idol to another. And oh, my God – how difficult it is to break idolatry! I don’t know why, I don’t know why you don’t come in and cut me down, how you think a gentle rebuke is enough! Oh, I long for your judgment, then shrink away from it. I long for your presence, then beg that you take it away, for it is too much, too much for me.
But your rod and your staff, they comfort me: – how it smarts, the corrective smack! How it aches, the dull thud when I fall to the floor! How it chills, when I’m dunked into the cold sea the moment I look down to see how I’m doing it – pulling the world from out underneath my feet, I slip, and fall in love again. You cannot know how it feels like to be jerked around, to be made the fool of, again and again – except that you do, and you, too, prayed an agonized prayer for the cup to pass you by. And you, too, knew what it was like to have the world offered up to you on a silvered golden platter, if only you would bow down to the one who holds it in his grip. And you, too, know that anything worth it is not going to be easy, that the bread won’t taste sweet without the sweat to plow it. And you knew, too, the only way to save a thing was to let go.
How I hate the way before me! Two ways branch out, and both I loathe. I have two hearts, two minds, two natures: absolute Depravity, absolute Beauty – and in my heart and my mind and my body is an eternal War. And these two armies, they seem terribly balanced, my Lord, even though you tell me that in Eternity, one, the bright one, has already won. I am bewildered, for you have appointed an unlettered schoolgirl as queen of this land, and I don’t know what you want me to do with the rioting masses, the ones firebombing the gates of my palace right now. I don’t know why you don’t descend from the clouds right now, and instead leave me with this shaky sovereignty.
My track record alone would make you shudder to give me the reins; I’ve been a slave and a tyrant, too willing to give up power, too stubbornly in the grip of it; I dare not ask you for power, because of what I’ve done before with it. Sin has stripped me of all dignity – I am like an old king, strolling proudly on the roof of his palace, well pleased with what he has done with the land, and whom, in that moment of exultation, is cast down and made to eat the grass like a wild beast. Oh, I have given in to madness and envy, and what remains is bestial – I am a dumb beast, an intelligence divorced somehow from my body, whose reason abdicates at the slightest sign of unrest.
Oh God, I am so very good at thinking, theorizing, making pretty diagrams in the safety of the walls of my head, but not at all at acting, at embodying Jesus Christ – the moment I try to be Him, I do the exact opposite, and again and again that old mare pride tosses her head and once again I am beguiled. I don’t understand this business of being human – the spirit I understand; the body I cannot govern. It riots against me each time I try to guide it; its hungers and appetites I cannot even begin to know to control. Why you decided to make me the way you did I do not know, but I do know I am utterly depraved without you. And if you do not put your name upon me, if you do not divorce me from this sin, if you do not make a claim on me on your own honor, swear by your own name, I cannot love, I cannot love at all. For nothing I say or do, nothing I bind or loose, nothing I promise to you or any of your children is of any worth, for I am as changeable as the evening sea, whose bright colours are seeped out into storms and darkness, and which must wait through the night for the sun again. No, nothing, nothing I do is worth your love, and without your love, I am bereft, for I am worse than nothing without you.
Image: Penitence, acrylic on bamboo plate. By Larry Poncho Brown.