I ought to apologise to you good Cambridge people. Today’s Psalm, 27, wasn’t chosen by me but by the Church of England lectionary for the second Sunday of Lent. Why apologise? Because its opening words, Dominus illuminatio mea, were chosen by my own university, Oxford, as its official motto some time in the sixteenth century. “The Lord is my light.” I am sure those words were deemed appropriate by god-fearing Oxford scholars for an institution founded on Christian principles and whose colleges still emulated Benedictine monasteries as communities of prayer, work and study. But you can also see how the Renaissance played a part, with the significance attached to “seeing” in new ways in both the sciences and the humanities. If God is sovereign over learning and scholarship as over all of human life, what better words could Oxford have found as a “vision” statement (so to speak) than these?
Our Psalm continues the theme of confident trust that we met in the twenty-third Psalm earlier today. This too is the prayer of an individual who is looking to God for guidance, assurance and help. There are evils the psalmist has had to face, like the valley of the shadow of death in Psalm 23, and here they recur as haunting memories all the way through – adversaries and foes to daunt the worshipper, unnamed troubles from which to hide, the threat of being abandoned in times of distress even by father and mother or, God forbid, the Lord himself. Protection, salvation, deliverance from all these; strength to keep calm and carry on; light enough to live by.
I guess we can all identify with the ups and downs of the psalmist’s experience. What’s reassuring it that it’s entirely familiar to us: light and shade, the chiaroscuro of ordinary life is normal human experience. We wouldn’t be human if we didn’t at times cry out for our path ahead to be illuminated: Lead, kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom lead thou me on. And you’ll notice that this Psalm is shot through with images of light and seeing: “The Lord is my light and my salvation”; “One thing I asked, that will I seek: to behold the beauty of the Lord”; “I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living”.
And those references to light and seeing tell us that the Psalm is about more than the darkness and obscurity of our ordinary days, much more. For the Psalmist, things only come into focus when they are viewed within a religious frame of reference. “Seeing” is a metaphor of faith and trust, the kind of faith the man born blind in St John’s Gospel had when he not only believed that Jesus could give him back his sight, but believed in Jesus as the Son of God come among us as the Light of the World, the Light that “shines in the darkness”, as John says, “and the darkness has not overcome it”. Dominus illuminatio mea. “The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?” And so the Psalmist comes to a point of resolution, of rest and peace in the presence of God, and trustful confidence to go on living: “be strong and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!”
In our retreat we’ve been exploring the range of experiences that we find in the Psalms. I hope we’ve glimpsed enough to see how the Psalms mirror the stories we can all tell: times of gratitude and praise, faith and doubt, agony and ecstasy, sadness, joy, hope, and often several of these all at once. Even a Psalm like today’s that radiates trustfulness and assurance reverts no less than four times to the ordeals the psalmist has gone through –maybe is still going through. This is why people of faith have turned to these songs down the centuries and found in them what they already know from their own experience: that the more real God becomes in our lives, the more acutely we become aware of the vicissitudes of life, this light-and-shade-and greyscale that make up our days. If only this could last! we find ourselves thinking, even uttering out loud when we are happy and fulfilled, when life is good and the future glows with promise. And then something happens to remind us that the world is broken, that we live precariously, that even in the midst of life we are in death. It may be an event that befalls us personally, or someone we love; it may be the shock of what is happening to other people across the planet; it may be a lower-level unease at the direction our world is taking; it may be the realisation that in our personal lives, all is not as it should be.
To which I respond: take courage! Let Psalm 27 become your inspiration and guide. If you have been a believer all your life, as far as you can tell, if you have recently come to faith, if you’re still not sure about the journey that lies ahead, this Psalm promises that God is near, even when he seemed far away. When the way seems dark, light is at hand – not always a radiant sunrise to make the landscape glow, more often a fragile candle-flame that’s just enough for us to take a step at a time, just enough to live by. That’s all the Psalmist asks. That’s all we need to ask. Jesus says, “I am the Light of the world.” I’d love to think that this retreat helped us all walk a little closer to that Light of Life until our journey’s end.
Rydal Hall: at a Lent retreat for students of Peterhouse College, Cambridge