Reading the Psalm for today brought back fond memories of my childhood religious education. I memorized the entire Psalm 103 during my confirmation instruction, quite a feat for a 14 year old! And while I was prepared to recite it at the public examination for confirmation students, I was not called on to do so, to my relief. It was a nervous and exciting time for me. After two years of Saturday and Sunday instructions in Luther’s Small Catechism and the King James Bible, I was ready to face my elders and not only profess our faith, but my knowledge of it. My classmates and I would become adult members of the Lutheran Church. Was this event a rite of passage, a ritual of renewal for the community, an act of individual piety on my part and obedience on the part of my parents, or just another opportunity to bless the Lord and all his works?
It was all of those things. As a rite of passage, it was the first time for the girls to wear high heels and the boys to wear suits and neckties. Imagine how gawky we looked back in the 60’s? But we felt grown up and acted that way. As an anthropologist, I know how important it is for cultures to provide rites of passage into adulthood for youth. Many of us have argued that we have too few of these rituals for kids today. They don’t have to wait for anything they want to have; they don’t have to demonstrate maturity to do anything they want to do….well, at least in many households. But there are still many of us who hold to traditional values of childhood development which focus more on becoming social beings than just having material goods and doing social things. My experience was also a ritual of renewal for the community. It was a great source of pride for adults to have kept us in Sunday school and confirmation school and held us to the standards they valued. It meant a new generation of adult members who would hopefully marry a Christian and bring their own children for baptism and religious instructions.
My sense of piety, which was certainly evident in memorizing Psalm 103 and everything else I was prepared to recite on that Sunday afternoon before Confirmation Sunday, grew out of the obedience exhibited by my parents. They dutifully brought me and my four siblings to Sunday school and church, faithfully tied loose change in our handkerchief corners for the offering, shined our shoes, and made sure our hair was carefully combed. We were instructed to be seen and not heard and they took pride in being told what nice-looking and well-behaved children they had. We were warned to never embarrass them, to always do what was expected of us, and to represent the family well. I was the oldest and had to be the best example. What better way than learning to recite the 103rd Psalm in public!
But now, over the years, as I reflect on that experience and, more importantly, Psalm 103, I think what that experience was really all about was a special opportunity to bless the Lord and all his works. I can’t recite Psalm 103 any more. But when I read it, it has much more meaning than it did then. There are times when I can actually “Bless the Lord, O my soul,” with all that is within me! And while sometimes I do forget all the Lord’s benefits, I am basically satisfied with my life. I have truly been given much and reading this Psalm today did actually renew my youth to some extent. And I was pleased to reflect that over my 63 years, I have experienced vindication and justice in times of oppression. I’ve been healed from all sorts of things. I’ve known mercy and grace, I’ve known forgiveness and love, and I’ve experienced compassion. Indeed, I’ve flourished, but I do know that I am no more than a flower, I will someday be gone. But that will not be the end of it. I do believe that if I remember the Lord’s covenant, and pass it along to the children, I will know the everlasting love of the Lord.
As I read the Psalm today, I really do see how it has carried through all of my life. As I grow older, I can better understand its lessons. I even some days feel like I am in the company of the angels and the ministers, the ones who do his bidding, who are obedient to his spoken word and who do his will. As a professor of anthropology at Creighton University, I don’t require students to memorize the 103rd Psalm, but I do hope to teach them to see God and meaning in all things. Ignatian pedagogy is God’s good work and it needs to be passed on. Being disciplined by its charisms is my continued confirmation instruction. I’m obedient about teaching students to care for others, desire truth and understanding as a sacred task, practice discernment in striving for excellence, develop the spirit of giving, service and solidarity with others, and to seek justice. I am praying today that our students will remember and internalize what they learn at Creighton University so that they can also say, “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name!” for the rest of their lives.