Walter Brueggemann writes, in Praying the Psalms, of their use of the “language of disorientation and reorientation… as old in the Bible as the call to Abram and Sarai to leave their place and go to another” – where of course they are not only relocated, but transformed, as their new names, Abraham and Sarah, remind us and them. Brueggemann goes on to associate disorientation with “the wrong place”, characterised in the Psalms with the image of “the pit” – as for instance in the opening of Psalm 28:
To you, Lord, I call;
you are my Rock,
do not turn a deaf ear to me.
For if you remain silent,
I shall be like those who go down to the pit.
Hear my cry for mercy
as I call to you for help,
as I lift up my hands
towards your Most Holy Place.
Reorientation Brueggemann associates with the image of finding safe refuge under the protective wings of God – for instance in Psalm 61:
…lead me to the rock that is higher than I.
For you have been my refuge,
a strong tower against the foe.
I long to dwell in your tent for ever
and take refuge in the shelter of your wings.
or perhaps even more tellingly in Psalm 63:
On my bed I remember you;
I think of you through the watches of the night.
Because you are my help,
I sing in the shadow of your wings.
I cling to you;
your right hand upholds me.
As Brueggemann points out, this need not be understood as escapism: it may simply be the acknowledgement of “that the resources for life are not found in “us” but will have to come from another source outside of self. It is the recognition of the disoriented person that a new orientation must come as a gift.” (ibid.)
I have come to recognise, from periods in my own life of desolation and functional solitude (being alone in the sense not necessarily of physical isolation, but of being cut off from understanding and comfort: “You have taken from me friend and neighbour – darkness is my closest friend.” (Psalm 88.18)) the power of this kind of prayer, and how actually to pray the Psalms, to take their words and make them one’s own, brings strength and refuge, comfort even, in the darkest places. I honestly believe that at these times in my life I would not have come through had it not been for the Psalms.
But there is another strand in the Psalms’ treatment of suffering that I have not seen in Brueggemann’s account, and which is found in its fullest form only in Psalm 119; and that is the recognition of suffering as in itself somehow a route to healing and restoration. It was in this darkest time that I mentioned in the last paragraph that I first came to notice these passages clearly, though I must have read them in passing often enough. The three passages occur close together in this longest of Psalms, between v. 67 and v. 75:
67 Before I was afflicted I went astray,
but now I obey your word.
68 You are good, and what you do is good;
teach me your decrees…
71 It was good for me to be afflicted
so that I might learn your decrees…
75 I know, Lord, that your laws are righteous,
and that in faithfulness you have afflicted me.
76 May your unfailing love be my comfort,
according to your promise to your servant.
This was for me the key to the whole thing: the way that my loneliness and distress made sense, how it did after all connect with the Gospel – which is after all to be translated “Good News” – and how through some deep mystery it connected intimately with the Cross. I had not at that time read the Catechism of the Catholic Church – not that I have read the whole thing now! – and so I was unaware of this passage:
The cross is the unique sacrifice of Christ, the “one mediator between God and men”. But because in his incarnate divine person he has in some way united himself to every man, “the possibility of being made partners, in a way known to God, in the paschal mystery” is offered to all men. He calls his disciples to “take up [their] cross and follow (him)”,[Mt.16:24] for “Christ also suffered for (us), leaving (us) an example so that (we) should follow in his steps.”[1Pet.2:21] In fact Jesus desires to associate with his redeeming sacrifice those who were to be its first beneficiaries. This is achieved supremely in the case of his mother, who was associated more intimately than any other person in the mystery of his redemptive suffering. Apart from the cross there is no other ladder by which we may get to heaven.[St. Rose of Lima]Catechism of the Catholic Church, CCC618 [some refs. abbreviated]
This is one of those passages which some may find hard to take; but I can honestly say that it was quite simply my own experience. In turning to Christ in the Jesus Prayer, in these words from Psalm 119, and psalms like 61 and 63, the suffering that I had come into became, once accepted for what it was, itself the means of my endurance.
It’s really important to understand that none of this was my doing. None of it came about through any particular insight or perspicuity of mine, still less through any imagined godliness: it was all sheer gift, as Brueggemann recognises. Any resources for this kind of survival must come from beyond the self, which is of course why it is so widely recognised that in matters of mental health the first and often the most vital step is to talk to somebody! Nor am I saying that the ultimate healing of these wounds of the spirit comes purely through the prayerful acceptance of suffering. My survival may, in my own instance, have come that way – but it was only after the passage of many years, and through skilled and patient help, that their effects have finally come to be something like healed. But their value – that is another matter entirely. One of the hardest things to take is the illusion of the pointlessness of one’s own suffering; the realisation that it is not, after all, a waste of life and hope, but a way into endless life and indestructible hope, through and not despite the Cross (as Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, “No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief…”) is what brings us to that refuge, “in the shadow of [his] wings…”