For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. —Psalm 91:11
In 1895, the inimitable Irish raconteur Oscar Wilde was convicted of gross indecency for having a sexual relationship with a man.
He was sentenced to two years in prison at hard labor. At Oscar’s prison, the motto was “hard labor, hard food, hard bed.”
The hard labor consisted of walking a treadmill hours at a time. The only books the prisoners could read were The Bible and The Pilgrim’s Progress. They could not speak to each other. When they were out of their cells, they had to wear a veil over their faces so that they would not recognize each other.
The food was so bad Mr. Wilde almost starved to death; his health never recovered. Upon his release after two years, he left instantly for France and lived on the continent in exile and destitution till his death three years later in 1900. He never returned to England or Ireland.
One hundred years later, in 1998, the playwright David Hare wrote a play about the playwright Oscar Wilde. It is called The Judas Kiss.
Kathy and I saw a production of The Judas Kiss on Broadway starring Liam Neeson, a tall, handsome, hulking Irishman, in the role of Oscar Wilde, a tall, handsome, hulking Irishman. The play ends with a soliloquy by Oscar:
Society, as we have constituted it, will have no place for me, has none to offer; but Nature, whose sweet rains fall on unjust and just alike, will have clefts in the rocks where I may hide, and secret valleys in whose silence I may weep undisturbed. She will hang the night with stars so that I may walk abroad in the darkness without stumbling, and send the wind over my footprints so that none may track me to my hurt: she will cleanse me in great waters, and with bitter herbs make me whole…
Oscar Wilde was a man of vivid spirit and muscular faith. He eventually became a devout Roman Catholic even though the Church didn’t want a homosexual in its membership.
I think he must have done some Bible reading in prison, do you think? A cleft in the rock where I might hide. Oscar Wilde probably knew Psalm 91 by heart, right?
“You who live in the shelter of the Most High, who abide in the shadow of the Almighty.” I think Psalm 91 is so beloved because it is multivalent, right? Its multiple metaphors for God give us more choices of patterns than the tie case at Brooks Brothers.
God is a cleft in the rock where we might hide.
God is a refuge, a sanctuary church or sanctuary city where the undocumented can take cover from immigration authorities.
God is a shade in the heat where we flee the punishing sun.
God is a fortress like the towering wall of the Night’s Watch in Game of Thrones–700 feet tall, 300 miles long, forged by magic from solid ice.
God is a mother eagle who shelters her fledglings beneath the safety of her majestic wing.
God is the soldier’s sword and shield against trouble and sorrow.
God as a cleft in the rock where I may hide. God as shelter. A thousand may fall at your side, and ten thousand at your right hand, but it shall not come nigh you, because God is your refuge, the Most High your shelter.
How does God shelter us? One of the ways God shelters us is by giving us each other, yes? I love the old Irish proverb: “It is in the shelter of each other that the people live.”
The world can be a dark and difficult place. There is the terror of the night, and the arrow that flies by day, and the pestilence that stalks in darkness, and the destruction that wastes at noonday. And so God places us in the shelter of each other. God sets us in families.
In one of my former churches I had a friend who had been having a very rough time for a very long time. When she was in college, some horrible disease had left her at death’s door; she survived but it took her months to recover. She got married and had children but her husband turned out to be cruel and shiftless; the divorce was ugly and the child support invisible for her teenaged children.
Co-parenting with such a difficult ex was just exhausting. After the divorce her kids felt lost and unmoored; they were sad and distracted a lot of the time; school performance suffered. My friend was not having a good time.
And then God found her a cleft in the rock where she might hide. God placed her in the shelter of another. She met a guy at work whose first marriage was also not what he was hoping for—and that’s an understatement. He also had children. He was wrestling with a hurtful divorce too, and with the challenges of co-parenting.
They got to know each other, they fell in love, my friend started acting like a besotted teenager, she asked me to officiate at the wedding, she wanted me to meet him, which is always a nerve-wracking moment because what if I don’t like him, but he was spectacular, and when I saw this father and this mother and their children flourishing so wonderfully with each other, the poem that leapt unbidden to my mind was Psalm 91: You who live in the shelter of the Most High, you who live in the shelter of each other. There is no greater gift than the shelter of each other.
At their wedding I told them, “Make your home a cleft in the rock where you might hide after a day that was just a mess: after you wrecked the car or lost the account or quarreled with your ex. Every evening tell each other, ‘You are loved. You are safe. Nothing, nobody can hurt you now, because I will love you unconditionally, I will love you invincibly, I will love you to the last of all our days on this earth.’ Love each other into loveliness,” I told them, “Grace each other into graciousness. Beautifully loved, we can beautifully love, and beautifully live.
And that’s just what they’re doing. I am having such a blast watching them blend these two broken families and turn them into a humming machine. Their new home together is just an unbreachable fortress; they all feel so safe in their new home, the shelter of each other.
Oh, I know, the shelter of each other doesn’t always seem like one of God’s greatest benedictions. It’s not a never-ending party. One day when Brian was four years old, his mother just made him so mad. I don’t know what she did wrong, or didn’t do, but Brian was furious. He said, “I don’t want to live with you anymore,” and then he stormed off and stomped up the stairs.
And his mother in the family room below could hear him yanking a suitcase from the attic, and then you could hear closet doors opening and dresser drawers slamming shut and you could tell that Brian was packing a bag with the necessary clothing.
He was gone for about 30 minutes, and then he came back down the stairs dragging a giant suitcase behind him. And when his mother asked him, “So, Brian, where are you going to go?”, Brian said, “I’m not going anywhere. I’m not allowed to cross the street. This is your suitcase.”
So the shelter of each other is not an everlasting party. It’s tough. We’re all flawed. Our dreams clash. Our expectations diverge.
But other times, it’s so beautiful to see. Have you been following this story about the Wade Quads? The Wade Quadruplets are high school seniors in suburban Cincinnati about to graduate. They are African American.
When they all started applying to colleges last fall, they all applied to the same schools. They all applied to Stanford; one got in, the others didn’t. They all applied to Harvard; all four were accepted. They all applied to Yale; all four were accepted. Only one applied to Northwestern; he was rejected.
The chance of a quadruple birth, by the way, is one in 800,000, or .00000125%.
So that’s pretty rarefied territory; those boys have seen a lot of academic success. They give a lot of credit to their parents, presumably for both their nature and their nurture, for a spectacular genetic heritage and also for a domestic environment of high expectation.
Their father Darrin is a software engineer at General Electric; their mother Kim is a school principal; Mom and Dad met at Jackson State University in Mississippi. In math class.
I loved the father’s terse, simple philosophy of parenting. This is what he taught his sons: “There is no Santa Claus, but there is a God.” That is to say, the universe features an inherent, infrangible justice: nothing’s free, but everything’s possible with hard work.
And oh, by the way, just to finish the story, the Wade quads are all going to Yale, which offered them the best financial aid package. All four of them.
The world can be a dangerous and harrowing place. Hamlet mentions “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune…the ten thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to…the whips and scorns of time, th’ oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s arrogance, the pangs of despised love, the law’s delay, the insolence of office.”
The Psalmist talks about “the snare of the fowler, and the deadly pestilence. So we live in the shelter of each other, where we can feel safe.
Sue Miller’s novel While I Was Gone is about a Veterinarian and her husband, a Congregational minister, who have three lively adolescent daughters and the full stable of challenges that always brings. I think it might be in my Top Twenty of all time. It feels as if it was written right to me: a New England minister married to a health professional trying to keep up with his spirited children.
One evening the narrator/protagonist Veterinarian is fixing dinner in the kitchen. Her college-age daughter Sadie is whining on and on about her cruel Poli Sci professor who won’t give her an extension on her paper. The washing machine is kicking up a ruckus in the laundry room. The dishwasher is sloshing around in the kitchen. She can smell her husband’s laundered clothes hanging on hooks inches from her face. The dogs are barking up a storm. Sadie’s voice rises and falls with the standard teen-speak of adolescents everywhere.
And the mother says, “I was alive, I was in all these worlds at once. This, this is what we grow old for.” Yes? The Shelter of Each Other.
David Hare, The Judas Kiss (New York: Grove Press, 1998), conclusion to Act II, scene 2, p. 115.
Quoted by Mary Pipher in The Shelter of Each Other (New York: Putnam’s, 1996), frontispiece.
Adapted from Karen Sylvester, Reader’s Digest, February, 2004, p. 187.
Anemona Hartocollis, “Quadruplets Offer Colleges Package Deal. Harvard and Yale Buy It,” The New York Times, April 7, 2017. Also, “Ohio Quadruplets Alike in More Ways Than 1: All Yale-Bound,” by The Associated Press, in The New York Times, May 1, 2017.
William Shakespeare, The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, III, I, 57-72.
Slightly adapted from Sue Miller, While I Was Gone (New York: Knopf, 1999), p. 19.