THE BASQUE SHEPHERD AND THE SHEPHERD PSALM XXIII
Found among the ‘papers’ as an enclosure in one of the Oblate newsletters of Sr. Yvonne Lerner, OSB, Holy Angels Convent, Jonesboro, AR…one of our ‘Goretti Sisters!’ Author unknown.
(I love this prayer to its core about this shepherd and the flock that he gathers.)
Old Fernando D’Alfonso was a Basque herder employed by a big Nevada sheep outfit. He was rated as one of the best sheep ranchers in the state, and rightly so, for back of him were at least twenty generations of Iberian shepherds. But D’Alfonso was more that a sheepherder, he was a patriarch of his guild, the various traditions and secrets of which have been handed down from generation to generation. Despite a long absence from his homeland he was, when I knew him, still full of legends, the mysteries, the religious fervor of his native hills.
I sat with him one night under the clear starry skies, his sheep bedded down beside a sparkling pool of water. As we were preparing to curl up in our blankets, he suddenly began a dissertation in a jargon of Greek and Basque. When he had finished I asked him what he had said. In reply he began to quote in English the 23rd Psalm. There on the desert I learned the shepherd’s literal interpretation of this beautiful poem.
YOU ARE MY SHEPHERD O GOD, THERE IS NOTHING I SHALL WANT
Sheep instinctively know that before they have been folded down for the night the shepherd has planned out their grazing for the morrow. It may be that he will take them back to the same range; it may be that he will go to a new grazing ground. They do not worry. His guidance has been good in the past, and they have faith in the future because they know he has their wellbeing in view.
FRESH AND GREEN ARE THE PASTURES WHERE YOU GIVE ME REPOSE
Sheep graze from around 3:30 in the morning until about 10. Then they lie down for three or four hours and rest. When they are contentedly chewing their cuds the shepherd knows they are putting on fat. Consequently the good shepherd starts his flocks out in the early hours on the rougher herbage, moving on through the morning to the richer, sweeter grasses, and finally coming to a shady place for the forenoon rest in fine green pastures, the best grazing of the day. Sheep resting in such happy surroundings feel contentment.
NEAR RESTFUL WATER YOU LEAD ME REFRESHING BY SPIRIT
Every shepherd knows that sheep will not drink from gurgling water. There are many small springs in the hills of the Holy Land, whose waters run down the valleys only to evaporate in the desert sun. Although the sheep need the water, they will not drink from these fast-flowing springs and streams. The shepherd must find a place where rocks or erosion have made a little pool, or else her fashions with his hands a pocket sufficient to hold at least a bucketful.
YOU GUIDE ME ALONG SAFE PATHS YOU ARE TRUE TO YOUR NAME
In the Holy Land each sheep takes his place in the grazing line in the morning and keeps the same position throughout the day. Once during the day, however, each sheep leaves its place and goes to the shepherd. Whereupon the shepherd stretches out his hand and rubs the animal’s nose and ears, scratches its chin, whispers affectionately into its ears. The sheep, meanwhile, rubs its cheeks against his face. After a few minutes of this communion with the Master, the sheep returns to its place in the feeding line.
THOUGH I WALK IN THE VALLEY OF DARKNESS NO EVIL DO I FEAR, YOUR ROD AND STAFF COMFORT ME
There is an actual valley in the Shadow of Death in Palestine, and every sheepherder from Spain to Dalmatia knows of it. It is south of Jericho Road leading from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea, and it is narrow – a narrow defile- though a mountain range. Climatic and grazing conditions make it necessary for the sheep to be moved through this valley for seasonal feeding each year. The valley is 4 ½ miles long. Its side walls are over 1500 feet high in places, and it is only 10 or 12 feet wide at the bottom. Travel through the valley is dangerous because its floor has gullies seven or eight feet deep. Actual footing on solid rock is so narrow in many places that sheep cannot turn around, and it is an unwritten law of the shepherds that flocks must go up the valley in the morning hours and down toward eventide, lest flocks meet in the defile.
About halfway through the valley the walk crosses from one side to the other at a place where the path is cut in two by an eight-foot gully. One side of the gully is about 18 inches higher than the other; the sheep must jump across it. The shepherd stands at this break and coaxes or forces the sheep to make the leap. If a sheep slips and lands in the gully the shepherd’s rod is brought into play. The old style crook circles a large sheep’s neck or a small sheep’s chest, and the animal is lifted to safety. If a more modern crook is used, the sheep is caught about the hoofs and lifted up to safety. Many wild dogs lurk in the shadows of the valley, looking for prey. The shepherd, skilled in throwing his staff, uses it as a weapon. Thus the sheep have learned to fear no evil in the Valley of the Shadow of Death, for the master is there to protect them from harm.
YOU PREPARE A BANQUET FOR ME IN THE SIGHT OF MY ENEMIES
Poisonous plants which are fatal to grazing animals abound in the Holy Land. Each spring the shepherd must be constantly alert. When he finds the plants, he takes his mattock and goes ahead of the flock, grubbing out every stock and root he can see. As he digs out the stocks he lays them upon little stone pures, some of which were built by shepherds in the Old Testament days, and by the morrow they were dry enough to burn. When the pasture is free from poisonous plants, the sheep are led into it, and in the presence of their plant enemies, they eat in peace.
MY HEAD YOU ANOINT WITH OIL; MY CUP OVERFLOWS
At every sheepfold there is a big earthen bowl of olive oil and a large jar of water. As the seep come in for the night, they are led to a gate. The shepherd lays his rod across the top of the gateway just above the backs of the sheep. As each sheep passes he quickly examines it for briers in the ears, snags in the cheek or weeping in the eyes from dust or scratches. When such conditions are found, he drops the rod across the sheep’s back and it steps out of line. Each sheep’s wounds are carefully cleaned. The shepherd dips his hand into the olive oil and anoints the injury. A large cup is dipped into a cool jar of water. When all the sheep are at rest, the shepherd places his staff within read in case it is needed during the night. Then he wraps himself in his woolen robe and lies down across the gateway, facing the sheep, for his nights repose.
So after all the care and protection the shepherd has given it, a sheep may well soliloquize in the twilight, as translated into words by David: SURLY, GOODNESS AND KINDNESS SHALL FOLLOW ME ALL THE DAYS OF MY LIFE, I SHALL DWELL IN YOUR HOUSE FOREVER.