In you, O Lord, have I taken refuge;
let me never be ashamed.
In your righteousness, deliver me and set me free;
incline your ear to me and save me.
Be my strong rock, a castle to keep me safe;
you are my crag and my stronghold.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Psalm 71:1-3 (BCP Version) – September 20, 2012)
This is one of my favorite images from Scripture, God as strong rock, castle, crag, and stronghold. In fact, during my sabbatical last year this verse kept coming to mind as I explored the ruins of castles and monastic foundations in Scotland, England, and Ireland. My fondness for this metaphor today dovetails with my thoughts the past couple of days about the nature of sovereignty (see yesterday’s meditation on praying Psalm 72 in modern America) and God’s reign (the day before, considering the modern political implications of Christ’s triumphal entry in John 9).
Like any metaphor and every metaphor, God as rocky fortress is limited. All metaphors, similes, and analogies breakdown at some point. Nonetheless, this is where the metaphor in today’s Psalm takes me . . . .
Life in a stone castle was anything but relaxed and luxurious. Even the “lairds and ladies of the manor” would have had their work to do, although it wouldn’t have been as onerous as that of, say, the scullery maids, the chamberlains, or the stable boys. Monastic foundations weren’t much different: a division of labor shared by everyone from the newest novice or lay brother to the abbot or prior. The same would have held true in a Celtic or early medieval convent. Everyone would have had some share in keeping the community within the stone walls running smoothly to everyone’s good. In a very real sense, the castle, monastery, or convent would have been a “commonwealth”.
Although mostly used today in the context of international trade (as in “the commonwealth of nations”) or as a synonym for nation, state, or territory (as in “the Commonwealth of Massachusetts” or “the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico”), the word dates from the 15th Century with a different significance. Meaning “common well-being,” it connoted a community of interest promoting the public welfare or general good of every member.
In the 17th Century the philosopher Thomas Hobbes wrote his book Leviathan on the origin, nature, and forms of a commonwealth, explaining that the function of a commonwealth is to protect human liberty and provide security for the people living in it. Hobbes argued that the citizens or subjects of a commonwealth have the right to food, clothing, and shelter, the right to protection from harm or injury, the right to engage in lawful commerce, the right to an education, the right to health and safety, and the right to legal protection of one’s possessions; these rights are matched by the commonwealth’s mutual responsibility to protect them. Interestingly, Hobbes’s treatise suggests the notion that the kingdom or reign of God is an eternally perfect and spiritual commonwealth.
Which brings me back to the metaphor in the Psalm. God conceived of by the Psalmist as a castle, crag, or rocky fortress is not simply an image of God’s protection of individual safety; it is a metaphor of the community which in God lives and moves and has its being (Acts 17:28). The Psalmist’s strong rock, castle, crag, and stronghold is Jesus’ kingdom of God (or kingdom of heaven). It is the commonwealth of God, “the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign forever and ever.” (Rev. 11:15) It is the community of eternal life in which we, believing participants, have mutual accountability for our rights and responsibilities.
When we pray this Psalm and claim God as our stronghold, we also claim our rights and take up our responsibilities as “citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.” (Eph. 2:19)
Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.