by William Kopcha
Almost. Before making any snap judgments on this, let’s take a closer look at the rest of the psalm. In doing so, we find such lines as, “For the enemy has pursued me, he has crushed my life to the ground; he has made me sit in darkness like those long dead,” and “Make haste to answer me, O Lord! My spirit fails! Hide not Thy face from me, lest I be like those who go down to the pit.” This gives us a very different impression – that our author is in terror, that he has been “crushed,” that his faith is waning and on the verge of flickering out. Why would he write two seemingly contradictory pleas right next to each other? Well, perhaps it is like this: he wants God to lead him on a level path precisely because his path is not level; he wants to be taught how to do the will of God precisely because he does not know. Also, if we know anything about King David, we know that sometimes he was not so holy – that his pleas were perhaps not pious platitudes, but rather sincere cries of despair to the only One that David knew could save him by leading and teaching him.
Really, I would be surprised if anyone on this earth could say that their path really has been “level” all the way through. My own path has been anything but. I have been conscious of this at many different points, but most acutely after graduating from college. After a meteoric rise to academic excellence, graduating summa cum laude with a “useful” major (chemistry), I was left standing there, holding my diploma, and saying, “Okay… now what?” This led to a certain expectation that I would get easy answers to the prayer, “Teach me to do Thy will, for Thou art my God; let Thy good spirit lead me on a level path.” As if God would simply pop His giant hand down from the sky, point in the right direction, and say, “Okay, here you go.” It was not so. The path that I followed from then on was a rocky, up-and-down, meandering, aimless jaunt through grad school, unemployment, and a first “real” job that I was not in the least bit prepared for, replete with ennui, self-doubt, deep despondency, struggle, and also moments of joy, love, and relief. Along, the way, though, I learned a few useful things.
First, I learned that you cannot know the will of God. To think that you can is at best misguided, at worst crazy in all the don’t-drink-the-Kool-Aid glory of the word. What you can know is that God is greater than anything else that we can imagine – so great that He can turn even the worst tragedy into a great victory. When His creatures that He created in His own image and likeness to be with Him and love Him rose up and viciously betrayed and killed Him, He took the opportunity to complete His plan of salvation, slay Hell, and unite Earth and Heaven. On a slightly lesser note, my own bumpy, rocky path created many opportunities for friends, family, and mentors to intervene in my life. Even a simple, well-timed, “Hey, buddy, I’m worried about you…” has done wonders.
One warm spring evening in late May, I gave up. I had emerged from my dark and winding path through grad school and the doldrums of unemployment and, now, I had previously thought, my life was actually “going somewhere.” I had a real, honest-to-goodness job as a teacher at a boarding school, my parish and family were close by, I could have time for friends and meeting new people and trying new things… Now, I was discovering that I had less than no time (I was working all the time and still falling behind), that my students were not sold on me and eating me alive in my attempts to run a classroom, I couldn’t keep up with seeing my family or friends or doing things with my parish, let alone anything else. I had failed, I was sinking, and worse – I had no place to go from there. So I gave up. That was just it – I was done. I didn’t really know where this was supposed to lead; I just knew it was true. I turned, said some angry things to my icon of Christ, didn’t pray, and went to bed.
The very next night, another, more senior teacher and I were grading exams in our office. It was late, everyone else had gone, and I had just packed up my own things to leave, when she turned to me and uttered a very simple question: “So… this semester sucked, didn’t it?” YES! Yes, it did! How did you know? You were actually watching me? You actually care? In that very moment, I was lifted from “the pit,” and we proceeded to have a hard but necessary conversation about what is was that I needed to do in order to succeed at my calling, teaching, and to keep up with things that I loved – family, friends, church community, etc. We might add to Matthew’s list in his account of the Last Judgment, “I was in despair and you encouraged me” or “My path was not level and you helped to show me the way.” Opportunities like those would not have appeared had it not been for a path that was not level.
A second item on my list of lessons learned is that it’s okay to be honest about your discontentment or confusion. If Christ is “the Way, the Truth, and the Life,” what good would it do you to pretend you don’t see the truth about your own suffering? While not scripture, my Kindle tells me that the immensely insightful Brothers Karamazov contains the word “suffer” or some derivative a total of 161 times. Additionally, at times when my path seemed the most obscure and confusing, it was a few other books that gave a voice to my pathos, the knowledge that I’m not alone, and the will to keep on going. Those books were the Psalms, Job, and Ecclesiastes.
A third and final lesson on vocations is that learning is hard. As a young teacher, it’s very interesting for me to be on “the other side of the desk” from where I was not too long ago, forcing me to think about what it means to learn and how we do it. A piece from NPR about a Western journalist’s trip to a Japanese classroom sent to me by a coworker recently made it “click:” we only make progress when we struggle. Not all struggling brings about progress, but in order for us to strengthen our skills or knowledge, we have to wrestle with the concepts being presented to us and internalize them.
In this light, then, the entreaty to “teach me to do Thy will, for Thou art my God” is an inherently risky proposition. We will learn something, yes, but that kernel of knowledge may have to be jammed into our brains. Perhaps that’s why this prayer is coupled with the request to be led “on a level path” – because we know that the path is by definition not going to be level and we want it to be smoothed out a bit.
How, then, should an Orthodox Christian approach an obscure path or a fork in the road? We can use our best judgment, pray, lean on our loved ones. We also must have the courage to tell them hard truths in our love for them, to bring them out of “the pit.” We cannot lose hope on our not-level paths, and while enduring and learning from its inevitable lows, the “depths of the pit, the regions dark and deep,” we must occasionally look up and appreciate the beauty, joy, and wonder of life that God has given us.