Create in Me a Clean Heart, O God

prayer to be right with God

Last summer I spent a month with the Benedictine Sisters of St. Gertrude’s Monastery in Cottonwood, Idaho. The nuns had granted me an artist residency: a whole month to work on a manuscript I was writing and read and engage in what they called “holy leisure.” 

It was one of the greatest blessings I’ve ever had to live with these faithful women. I joined them twice each day for morning and evening prayer, during which the nuns sang the psalms. They would sing themselves through the entire Psalter in about thirty days. I suspect each of them knew every psalm by heart. Reciting them was as much a part of their day as breathing.

I am not disciplined enough to follow this practice on my own, but there is one psalm that I have always returned to when I need renewal and forgiveness. It is a psalm we sang every Sunday as part of the liturgy when I was growing up:

Create in me a clean heart, O God
And renew in me a right spirit.
Cast me not away from your presence
And take not your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore unto me the joy of your salvation
And uphold me with your free Spirit.
Psalm 51:10-12

Psalm 51 is attributed to King David, a psalm he wrote when he was in his deepest despair. I won’t retell David’s transgression, but he had acted selfishly, so without regard for others, that the prophet Nathan paid him a visit to let him know that God was appalled. God, with whom David had a close, personal relationship was letting David know this sin had caused a separation between them. Psalm 51 is David’s lament of remorse. It is an acknowledgement that when we fail to love our neighbor, our hearts are not aligned with God’s.

I have been reciting Psalm 51 to myself a lot lately, because I have a deep sense that while my sins may not be as overt as David’s, I find myself thinking of my neighbor as someone who doesn’t deserve the same regard as I do. Perhaps it’s my neighbor with the out-of-state license plate or the neighbor with differing political opinions. When I catch myself harboring dark thoughts toward them, I recite David’s psalm, asking God to give me a clean heart and a right spirit, but which I mean one that is malleable, vulnerable, and open to whatever He might need me to do to strengthen His creation, instead of causing harm.

I may be naive but I believe the acts of kindness (kindness being the overt manifestation of compassion) we do for our neighbor (which includes strangers) are some of the most important work we can do as Christians right now. There is so much pain and fear in our country and world. Without a clean heart and right spirit, the overt manifestation of these emotions is often anger and hatred toward people we perceive as a threat. And this is contrary to what God calls us to do and feel as Christians.

But I can’t overcome these feelings without God’s help. And so I sit on my porch or at the kitchen table after reading the newspaper or during the day when I’ve been cut off in traffic, and whisper:

Create in me a clean heart, O God
And renew in me a right spirit.

Then I take a moment to breathe, to feel God upholding me. With His help I can change my proclivity toward hard-heartedness. I can rest in the joy of His salvation for everyone.

Susan Bruns Rowe

Susan Bruns Rowe

Member of Immanuel Lutheran Church
Boise, ID

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This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Penelope J Smith

    So many of us love St Gertrude’s. They also have a bed & breakfast for those just traveling through. My granddaughter (then 9 years old) loved evening prayer and talking with the sisters. And one sister joined us in a separate dining room so we wouldn’t need to observe silence at breakfast.

  2. Robbie

    One of my favorite Psalms. I Enjoyed singing it in church. It refreshed and renewed me. Thank you, Susan.

  3. Mary Braudrick

    I hope to spend time at St Gertrude’s someday.
    Thank you for sharing your wisdom regarding our challenge to “live out” our faith in these days.

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