Interviews with God
A Life Apart

Zen psalms


Because I call
You answer
For you are fitting
Because I am small
You enlarge me
For you are gracious
You hear my song

( -- from psalm 4, as rendered by Norman Fischer)

In one of my last posts of 2006, I noted that I'd been meaning to pick up a copy of Opening to You, abbot Norman Fischer's Zen-inspired translations of the psalms. A copy arrived for me in the mail recently, and after reading it and letting his versions soak in for a while, I can affirm that this is a beautiful and thought-provoking piece of work.

Fischer's renditions aren't strict translations. He's not a Hebraist, so while he referred to the original Hebrew in creating these, he primarily worked with a variety of English translations. "[I]t may be that all translations, especially the best, are versions," he writes in the introduction. "It may even be that all poems are only tentative versions of something so intimate it can never be written down." That quote gets at something else I really like about this book: these are recognizably the psalms as they have been handed down to us, but they are also contemporary poems.

Specifically, they're contemporary poems that arise out of a Zen understanding of things. Fischer gives a lot of thought to how his Zen training and sensibility permeate these poems -- and how his Western upbringing, grounded in Biblical text, shapes both his Zen and his poetry:

[A]lthough my way of life and understanding have been thoroughly saturated by Zen, I am still a Westerner, so I have found in the Psalms a very familiar music that seems to express my own approach to enlightenment: the passionate, prickly, and lively noise that naturally seems to rise from the silent depths of my own heart.

In one of my favorite lines of the foreword, he writes, "Making language is making prayer. Our utterances, whether silent or voiced, written or thought, distinct or vague, repeated or fleeting, are always essentially prayer, even though we seldom realize it." This is deliciously close to one of my favorite quotes about writing ("writing is a form of prayer," Franz Kafka) which served as my .sig for some years and now appears on the front page of my website. Anyway, it's a sentiment that resonates strongly for me.

Relationship, Fischer writes, is the theme of the psalms -- "specifically that most difficult of all relationships, the relationship with God." God-language is famously problematic for many readers, he notes; maybe that's why he chose, as many Sufi poets have done, to address these poems to an unnamed You. God is the second person implicit in each of these encounters, but God is never named. (By the by, here's a terrific interview with Fischer called The Roshi and the Rabbi, about his Zen practice and his reawakening to Judaism.)

Enough preface: what does Fischer actually do with the psalms? On the whole, he renders them (those he chooses to approach -- 93 of the 150) in clear, readable English. And from time to time, his versions approach a kind of transcendence for me, a flash of encounter with the Real.

At the start of psalm 19, for instance, he writes, "The heavens express your fire / The night sky is the work of your hands / Day after day is your spoken language / Night after night your perfect knowing[.]" I like the rhythm of these lines as he renders them, and the sense he offers that our days themselves are words in God's mouth.

You have always been a refuge to me
Before the mountains, before the earth, before the world
From endlessness to endlessness
You are

Help me understand how to count my days
How to embrace my life
That I may nourish a heart of wisdom

(That's from psalm 90.) I like the way the first line here presumes and reinforces relationship: You have always been a refuge, not just in general, not to us, but to me. It makes me consider whether and how I relate to God as my refuge, the still point in Whom I find security and calm.

Most compelling, for me, were the renderings of the psalms I know best from my own liturgical life. Psalm 145, for instance (which we recite daily in the prayer the ashrei.) Psalms 90 and 23, which we read at funerals. Psalm 27, which I pray daily during the weeks leading up to the Days of Awe. And, of course, the psalms we traditionally read or sing on the eve of Shabbat, during the kabbalat Shabbat service. Fischer does lovely things with these. In psalm 92, he writes, "Because you are at work in what is / I rejoice." In his psalm 93, he captures some of the alliteration and rhythm of the Hebrew with these lines:

The rivers' cries, the rivers' shouts have been lifted
The rivers have lifted their dark waves

But more than the thunder of the waters
More than the thumping of the seas
Is you

Some of the psalm-poems in this book don't move me. Then again, that's true of my experience with the psalms in general -- some are more opaque to me than others. I've come over time to trust the wisdom and power of the psalms, even though they don't all speak directly to or for me all of the time. So I'm willing to allow for the possibility that some of Fischer's psalms that don't transport me now might do so at a different moment, when I'm in a different place.

I'll end this post is with Fischer's version of psalm 150, the last poem in the book. I love what he does with this one -- it's a fairly straight rendering of the Hebrew, but the stanza gap before that last line means the last line knocks me flat. As it's meant to do. This is a beautiful collection, and a valuable addition to my library. I recommend it wholeheartedly.

Praise to you in your holiness
Praise throughout your expansive realm
Praise for the power of your doing
For your abundance and everywhereness
All praise
Praise with the blowing of trumpets
Praise with the psaltery and harp
Praise with timbrel and dance
With stringed instrument and pipe
Praise with clear-sounding cymbals
And with crashing cymbals

Every breath is your praise

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