I first encountered the 130th Psalm when I took a class entitled Exile & Pilgrimage at Kenyon College. Don Rogan, my professor, who later became my friend and mentor, had us read Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis, the desperate letter to his lover that he wrote while imprisoned for sodomy. Wilde’s small book takes its name from the Latin title of the psalm. It was one of the best things I read that year, or maybe any year, of college.
The 130th Psalm is one of the Psalms of Ascent, the group of psalms that Jews sang while on pilgrimage to the temple in Jerusalem. These fifteen psalms (120-134) might be expected to be praise songs, since the people singing them were on their way to worship God. But they’re not. In these psalms, the people laid bear their souls – all of the pain they felt towards each other, all of the grievances, all of the disappointments. In our culture, we rarely sing sad songs together, let alone songs that are full of complaints against our neighbors. I find it odd to think of a group of pilgrims walking together and expressing the struggles of their communities in song. But that’s what they did.
Of the fifteen Psalms of Ascent, the 130th is my favorite, in part thanks to Oscar Wilde, but also because I find it the most intense, the most raw. I hope that the piece I made reflects that rawness.
Here’s Nan Merrill’s transliteration of the psalm:
Out of the depths I cry to You!
In your Mercy, hear my voice!
May you be attentive to the
voice of my supplications!
If You should number the times we
stray from You, O Beloved,
who could face You?
Yet You are ever-ready to forgive,
that we might be healed.
I wait for You, my soul waits,
for in your Love I would live;
My soul awaits the Beloved
as one awaits the birth
of a child, or
as one awaits the fulfillment
of their destiny.
O sons and daughters of the Light,
welcome the Heart of your heart!
Then you will climb the Sacred
Mountain of Truth;
You will know mercy and love
Then will your transgressions be
forgiven; and you will know
the Oneness of All.