Come, behold the works of the LORD, what desolations he has made in the earth.
He makes wars to cease unto the end of the earth; he breaks the bow, and cuts the spear in two; he burns the chariot in the fire.
Be still, and know that I am God: I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.
The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah.
Selah – this post is inspired by the last word of the quote from Psalms 46 – a single word that is used 74 times in the Bible, and has no accepted definitive meaning. It is thought to mean “stop and listen” to a musical interlude at that point in the Psalm. The word is also translated as “pause, and think of that,” or “stop and exult”. How important is it that we have a word like this!
I first came across this word in a book that was very important to me. Selah is the last word in Edward Dahlberg’s Because I Was Flesh. Rarely have I read a book where both the first and last lines have an equal power for me. The introductory quote to Chapter I is from a play by Cyril Tourneur (or Thomas Middleton depending on which scholars are most convincing to you), The Revenger’s Tragedy.
“What moved you to ‘t?”
“Why, flesh and blood, my lord;
What should move men unto a woman else?”
What follows is Dahlberg’s description of his life as a boy and young man in Kansas City. It is also a remarkable portrait of his mother Lizzie. The book is mysterious and evocative, redolent of Old Testament and Elizabethan prose, and I still find it compelling. The last words in the book were shattering.
“When the image of her comes up on a sudden — just as my bad demons do — and I see her dyed henna hair, the eyes dwarfed by the electric lights in the Star Lady Barber Shop, and the dear, broken wing of her mouth, and when I regard her wild tatters, I know that not even Solomon in his lilied raiment was so glorious as my mother in her rags. Selah.”
The “dear, broken wing of her mouth …” – how those words evoke a world.
We often see tributes to our mothers, but far more rarely do we see such tributes to the women who are our mothers. It is the women who lament, and the women who are comforted.
Thus saith the LORD; A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation, and bitter weeping; Rahel weeping for her children refused to be comforted for her children, because they were not. Jeremiah 31:15
This verse, used so often as a lamentation, is actually followed by a wonderful verse of comfort.
Thus saith the Lord; Refrain thy voice from weeping, and thine eyes from tears: for thy work shall be rewarded, saith the Lord; and they shall come again from the land of the enemy.
And there is hope in thine end, saith the Lord, that thy children shall come again to their own border.
In our world of the Romanesque, there exists a very special archetype of the Mother, the vierge romane, also known as the “Throne of Wisdom” madonna. The Christ child is seated on the lap of the Virgin, who is portrayed as a mature woman, not a young mother. I have heard the phrase “On the mother’s bosom shines the wisdom of the Father” applied to these images, and it seems so appropriate. But more than anything, the faces of these Vierges show knowledge of the sacrifice and loss that will come, so they are not faces of tenderness and affection.
It is for these women – our wives, mothers, lovers, and sisters – that a word like Selah should exist. We should exult in them as women, in their strength, and in their love.
These words are written for a woman I have never met, Lenka Cunningham. Watch this version of Stand By Me. The song was at least partly inspired by Psalm 46 that started this post. I dedicate it to my friend Patrick Cunningham who lies gravely ill in a hospital in the Czech Republic, his beloved wife Lenka standing at his side.