Rendering the Psalms ecumenically


Allyson Lomax hesitates as she tries to explain the meaning of a word from the Psalms to a non-Hebrew speaker. The word is “selah,” and Lomax’s confusion is understandable. Most translations of the Bible don’t even try to use an English equivalent for the word.

Lomax, a St. Anthony Park resident and a member of Mt. Zion Synagogue, eventually declares the term “untranslatable.” Then she goes ahead and tries to define it anyway. “It’s not a comma, but in the Psalms, you read several lines and the word ‘selah’ appears. It means to pause,” she ventures.

The exchange could represent a small struggle for clarity in an interfaith dialogue, but it’s also an illustration of the challenge that Lomax will face next month when she — along with nearly two dozen other painters, fiber artists, callig-raphers and craftspersons — attempt to translate their personal visions of the Psalms into art for an exhibit at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in St. Anthony Park. “I Lift Up My Eyes to the Hills” will open December 1.

Pastor Blair Pogue of St. Matthew’s says, “My passion is faith and liturgy in the arts.”

The church is a regular sponsor of community art shows, and Pogue has long been interested in fostering an ecumenical arts exchange.

“The Psalms are one of many things we share in the Jewish and Christian traditions,” she explains.

The church will mark the opening of the exhibit with a morning retreat on December 1. The Psalms will be the focus of meditation, with emphasis on three strands of their message: joy, suffering and creation.

Pogue has invited an African Anglican priest who is currently writing a thesis on the book of Job at Luther Seminary to lead the segment on suffering. She plans to invite a rabbi as well to help lead the retreat, which is open to everyone from the community, regardless of religious background.

Both Christian and Jewish artists are represented in the exhibit, which asks each participant to present a visual interpretation of his or her favorite psalm. Art for the exhibit comes from several states and as far away as Jerusalem, with a generous leavening of local artists like Lomax, as well.

As Lomax has discovered, the Psalms, those beautiful songs that express the full range of the human voice lifted to Heaven, are neither simple nor easy to categorize.

“In the Psalms,” she says, “people are speaking to God.” Their utterances go “across the board — from the greatest despair to the greatest happiness. They pose questions to God.”

Lomax chose to illustrate Psalm 88, which she describes as “dark and despairing as it can be. The psalmist has really hit rock bottom, but with a glimmer of hope. I think there is beauty in suffering.”

Another artist brings a personal understanding of suffering to her interpretation of Psalms 150 and 145. Falcon Heights resident Judy Dodds, 63, discovered that undergoing treatment for thyroid cancer actually deepened her faith.

“I’m growing through this experience,” she says. “My attitude is: I’m grateful. My art has not changed, but my heart has changed.”

Dodds describes herself as “mostly a calligrapher” and says the “challenge is to lay down the letters in an interesting way.” She also uses watercolor, gouache, gold and vellum paper in her interpretation of the musical instruments — the trumpet, psaltery, harp, timbrel and the rest — that the psalmist urges be used to “praise God in his sanctuary” in Psalm 150.

Dodds, whose work is available at Vine and Branches on Como Avenue, uses both Greek and Hebrew texts in her art, although she doesn’t read either language. Of her work, she says, “Each project is a walk in faith. It’s hard to see how it’s going to turn out. I just have to trust that it will.”

Organizing the art show may also have called for a measure of faith, but coordinator Ruth Donhowe of St. Anthony Park is eager to deflect credit for the task. In particular, she commends

St. Louis Park artist Lucy Rose Fischer for persuading several members of a group called the Jewish Women Artists Circle to participate in the exhibit.

Fischer says of her group, “We’ve had other exhibits related to spirituality. There’s something about creating art that is profoundly religious no matter what your theology.”

Fischer, who creates art on glass plates and bowls, encounters a particular technical problem when rendering the text of the Psalms in her chosen medium.

“I have to write backwards on the glass in Hebrew,” she explains. Fischer has chosen to illustrate Psalm 90:12, the well-known verse that begins “Teach us to number our days.”

Fischer, 63, says the verse has personal significance for her. “I’m aging myself, and that psalm says it’s important to be aware of the finiteness of life. We don’t want to think about that, but we must.”

Will visitors to the exhibit notice stylistic differences between the Christian and Jewish artists? No one is sure. Dodds, a Christian, does Hebrew calligraphy, and Fischer’s concern with aging touches on universal fears.

Noting that Jewish artistic tradition rejects an overemphasis on the depiction of the human form because of the Biblical injunction against worshiping “graven images,” Fischer suggests that Jewish art may be more likely to follow the hidur mitzvah or “enhancement commandment.”

“You dress up the Torah scrolls with gold and silver,” she says, “not because you’re worshiping that object but because you’re making it something special.”

In the end, whether or not there are stylistic differences between the Christian and Jewish artists, perhaps their common efforts at interpreting the Psalms achieve a deeper purpose of shared understanding.

Says Lomax, a Jew, “My best friend is a Christian funda-mentalist. Because of this project, she has been researching the Psalms, too. We’re going to talk about them, and I’m really looking forward to that.”