Is My Shepherd,
Then and Now
Thirty-five years ago, in a parish I served in California, there was a woman named Beth. She had been crippled by a stroke; she was unable to speak or even to move, except for some nods and moans and vague gestures with her left hand. She was not only confined to her home but bedridden, waited on by her husband. Word came to me that she wished to be baptized and then taken into membership in the church, and her wishes were granted in due course.
When I would visit her, I would find myself carrying on both sides of the conversation, as one does with someone who is mute; yet her mind was active, and she could still spell. So when she wanted to communicate anything, I would go through the laborious process of naming the letters, one at a time, from a child’s slate that displayed the alphabet and the numbers. “Is it in this line?” I would ask. She would shake her head, “No.” “Then is it in this line?” and she would grunt, “Yes.” “Is it M? Is it N? Is it O? Is it P?”—I would go down the line. The letter was P; I would write down P. And so it went, until a word or abbreviation took shape. And usually her message was “PS 23,” the Twenty-third Psalm. She would want me to recite for her the Twenty-third Psalm. Occasionally I would try to talk with her about some other psalm and read it to her, but she could not be bothered with complications: Beth’s faith, so far as I could discern, began and ended with the Twenty-third Psalm. That was what she asked for, and that was what I could give her.
And it is striking, the hold that this particular psalm has in the popular religion of our culture. Parents whose hold on Christian belief is not too secure may still teach their children the Lord’s Prayer and the Twenty-third Psalm as a kind of double summary of the faith.
Eldridge Cleaver, the former leader of the Black Panther organization, writes of his conversion in 1975 to the Christian faith. He had fled to France to avoid arrest after a shoot-out with police in Oakland, California. In deep depression one night, he writes: