Sunday 11 October 2020
The Shepherd King
Context: a small congregation of mighty individuals in central London
Aim: directed to the best known and learned by heart psalm and its’ expression of the nurturing nature of the one God
Having married into Italy, I spent part of the summer of 1972 in Pisa. One day I was walking in the coastal plain beneath the mountains, on a boiling afternoon. In a dry and dusty meadow my eye began to focus on a distant enormous green canvas umbrella with a red, wooden handle. Beneath it was a tall, thin, bony man. And enjoying its expansive shade were a dozen or fifteen sheep of the mottled brown variety so difficult to distinguish from goats. The sunburnt shepherd was, at one and the same time, the fold and the door for his flock. Maybe that age-old Mediterranean sight is no more. But the flesh and blood shepherd awakened my imagination to what is always alive for us on the Bible page, where the shepherd represents a variety of roles, sometimes all at the same time: prophet, priest, king, pastor, rescuer from danger. In that same biblical world, the door of each town, or rather the space protected by the door, was the gathering place for people who wanted the ‘shepherds,’ the judges, to pronounce in their favour. In that space incomers were scrutinized; announcements were made and news was broadcast. When Ruth and Boaz wanted to get married, the decision was taken there, in front of the elders. ‘In the gate’ became a technical term for life decisions.
Ten years or so earlier, for my twenty-first birthday, my uncle gave me a book: Charles Doughty’s Arabia Deserta. It had just received a glowing review by the famous journalist Malcolm Muggeridge, ‘He conveys the whole character of a land and a people and a way of life. Across his pages a parched fiery wind blows. Vividness, dry air and a remorseless sun beating down on interminable sand.’ The book, remarkable for its archaic, Spenserian language, and full of Arabic words, influential too on T.E. Lawrence and on countless other Britons who would later be disparagingly called ‘orientalists’, evoked a world that many schoolchildren, up till that mid-twentieth century, knew from school as the territory of biblical and prayer book prophets and evangelists. It was the other world of imagination, so far removed from England’s ‘green and pleasant land,’ the country which Blake characterised as ‘mental fight.’
A third autobiographical moment from the beginning of the coronavirus universal shut down: I am an early riser and, in the Spring of 2020, I began to listen to a new 24 hour radio station, produced by the Ahmadiyyah Muslims who had recently consecrated a new mosque in Southall, close to Heathrow Airport. The radio station is called Voice of Islam, and broadcasts for 24 hours a day, a wide variety of commentary and discussion from an ethical and warmly egalitarian standpoint. When I was preparing coffee at the crack of dawn, the ethereal sound of Quranic chant greeted me, interspersed with translation of each chapter verse.
I could not help but be translated too to the Arabian desert, to the illiterate Prophet, to the Bedouin tribes with their camels and flocks, and the beauty of the Arabic words and the melody of the chant of the human voice and brain, grasping out for the only fundamental reality: the love of God for God’s creation. I was moved by the crescendo of familiar personal names uniting the great scriptures of monotheism: Adam, Eve, Moses, Jesus, Mary (Maryam). ‘The great cloud of witnesses’ to a universe created for loving kindness and a rational ethic, which was born to favour the most disadvantaged.
Of the discussions I was privy to at that early hour, many centred on the interpretation of Jihad, literally meaning in Arabic ‘struggle,’ but authentically interpreted not as violence or terror against another human or humans, but rather inner conflict of an individual to manifest a self-discipline which made of you yourself a loving and helpful family member, friend and neighbour.
David of Bethlehem, his troubles and innocent virtues, inspired a kind of proto-Quran, the 150 psalms, which is shared by Jews and Christians. The psalm known by heart to many monotheists is before us today. Jews and Christians have a pluralistic version of the Book of Creation, the Bible, spanning, unlike the Quran, many centuries and, many separate writings, many languages.
Yet the Psalms, like the Quran, became common chant and memory in desert communities where Christians found refuge as the Roman Empire fell apart and the sheep were scattered. Jerome, reviser of the Latin Bible, learned Greek and Hebrew (from Jews) in Bethlehem, city of David and of Jesus. And conserved for the West two Latin versions of the first line of David’s psalm, both ‘The Lord is my Shepherd’ and ‘Dominus regit me,’ - ‘The Lord rules me’. The Shepherd King is the Universal God and Saviour. Sing, say, memorize, now!
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