Today’s Responsorial Psalm is arguably one of the most beloved and widely quoted text of scripture. The fact that this 23rd Psalm is used at joyful celebrations as well as within the contexts of sorrow and tragedy, witnesses to its breadth and depth. For monks it has a special relevance since it speaks to every stage of our monastic journey—from the early days of first fervor and zeal, through the years and decades of testing and desert wandering, and finally to the very threshold of our Heavenly Home.
Thus, for the neophyte setting out on the long journey listening to the voice of the Divine Shepherd and following in his footsteps (in the words of Saint Peter) there are the verdant pastures and the restful waters where the soul is repeatedly refreshed and finds gentle repose. Although first fervor is sometimes spoken of as somewhat unreal, immature, and untested, it is a crucial time in the monk’s life as the foundations of faith and trust in the Good Shepherd are systematically laid. Without this experience (in whatever form it takes) the pilgrimage would probably never be undertaken. Thus like those precious brief years of public ministry during which the apostles were in daily contact and converse with Christ, we are strengthened and prepared for what lies ahead.
For as trust deepens, we grow more accustomed to discern the voice of the True Shepherd and trust that he will guide [us] in right paths for his name’s sake. This trust and willingness to follow the Good Shepherd undergoes the inevitable test of passing through the dark valley when we may lose sight of him and strain to hear the reassuring sound of his consoling voice guiding us through the darkness. This purifying time is also a time of being disciplined and trained. Thus some of the Fathers of the Church interpret the rod and staff as referring to both disciplining and protecting—the rod symbolizing the former, and the staff the latter.
As we proceed through the dark valleys of our earthly pilgrimage, the Good Shepherd not only leads and guides us but sustains us as he spreads a table in the sight of [our] foes. Like the Israelites in the desert this is plain fare and rarely, if ever, a sumptuous meal. As our foes assail us with their lethal weapons of acedia and discouragement, our faith in our Good Shepherd is sorely tested and it is only with that oil of the Holy Spirit with which we are anointed, that we can keep going. Indeed, at times even in the midst of the thickest darkness this anointing wells up and overflows in that obscure yet certain knowledge that we have not been misled or forgotten.
Gradually, as the journey continues we reflect on the pilgrimage and begin to notice that, indeed, only goodness and kindness are following me. We see that, despite feelings to the contrary, we have made progress along the way and are, perhaps, a little closer to our eternal home that still lies hidden from our sight. And whereas some chosen pilgrims are afforded periodic glimpses of our heavenly homeland and are blessed with a privileged intimacy with the One in whom our restless hearts will find rest, most of us are called to press on in pure faith and trust in the Lord’s promise that we will eventually come to dwell in the House of the Lord, for years to come—indeed, eternally.
Therefore, realizing that, in the words of Peter we had (and still do) gone astray like sheep, let us once again return to the Shepherd and Guardian of our souls. For, by his wounds [we] have been healed, and in that healing he comes to us that we may have life and have it more abundantly—as he leads us to those Eternal Pastures of our heavenly homeland and the fullness of Eternal Life.