Reflections on Psalm 90

Make us know the shortness of our life

that we may gain wisdom of heart. 

-Psalm 90:3

Last night I attended Mozart’s Requiem Mass, organized beautifully by the Catholic Artists Society. In November we ought to think about death, we’re told, and about the shortness of life, the passing nature of all that is earthly. Yet this is all wrapped up in our bodies, as we’re asked to take on penances for the poor souls in purgatory. I suppose I found that Mass, as I said, beautiful, but also difficult. The music is meant to take one to a heavenly place, and yet the empty catafalque brings one spinning and crashing back to earth. 

I am often tempted to focus solely on what is beyond this life, and yet I revel in certain aspects of my confined existence here. In fact, I’m a pretty good example of Soloveitchik’s “homo religiosus,” happily running off into the desert for days at a time, but just as happy staying out all night in the clutches of the Big Apple. Feasts like All Soul’s Day don’t often sober those of my condition; rather, they drive us to a higher ecstasy or a deeper, peace-less place. So as I prayed Psalm 90 this morning after a tumultuous and emotional evening, I wondered, how does God show me the shortness of my life, other than by surrounding me with dramatic memento mori? How does He give me wisdom of heart?

By holding up a mirror to my own heart’s restlessness, by showing me my own fickleness. He makes me see how I flit from place to place, overbooked, under-committed, and He says, “I am not like this.” And yet He does not let my restlessness be useless. Through it I’ve learned that I can delight in good people here and can avoid, in the words of Morrison in the brilliant epilogue of Beloved, “the loneliness that rocks” like a child alone in a corner. But we can never quite escape “the loneliness that roams.” Tesknota. The deepest of longings we save for Him, because all else spectacularly disappoints. And therefore we know our life is fleeting, because it fails to fill us.

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