Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Psalms are in our bones

[This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times 25 September 2008]

This piece had its formal genesis in the reflection I wrote a couple of Sundays ago for the RevGalBlogPals. I couldn't let go of the images of Gannet Girl grieving, and simply decided that I should not. The night after Tom died, I woke up crying in the night. My mother held me, repeating over and over again that she knew there was nothing she could to take away the pain, but that she would be with me. The psalms don't necessarily bring comfort or ease in grief, but like my mother, everyone who prays them, is with me, and with each other. Can we be with others in their inconsolable grief?

At the sight of her tears, and those of the Jews who followed her, Jesus said in great distress, with a sigh that came straight from the heart, “Where have you put him?” They said, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus wept. — Jn. 11:33-35

A friend lost her son last week, dragged from a long awaited retreat in silence into a maelstrom of pain. Over and over people told her that they could not imagine her grief. Perhaps what we really meant was that we did not want to experience her grief ourselves.

Returning to Bethany to find his friends Martha and Mary mourning their brother Lazarus, Jesus did not fail to imagine their grief, to experience this pain, though He could, and would, wipe it away in an instant. Jesus wept.

My friend sought the psalms in her grief. Not the green pastures and clear streams of Psalm 23, but the penetrating, inescapable love of Psalm 139. “If I make my bed in Sheol, You are there,” she prays.

Father Joseph Gelineau, S.J., whose now familiar psalm tones regrounded us in our own ancient chant traditions, said in his introduction to the Grail Psalter, “[the psalms] force us to widen our hearts to the full dimensions of redemption."

The psalms give us a way to voice the anguishes we have not experienced, the joys that might have never been ours, the fears that besiege and beset those around us. They force us to widen our hearts, and like Christ with Martha and Mary, be willing to go beyond acknowledging another’s pain, and imagine it. The psalms let us weep with each other.

In this way the psalms become for us more than the sacred songs of a generation long past, they are our own voices ringing in the wilderness of everyday life. As Andre Chouraqi, a distinguished Jewish theologian and linguist, noted, “We were born with this book in our very bones … 150 poems … 150 mirrors of our agonies and our resurrections.”

Literally, of course, the psalms are the skeleton upon which the Liturgy of the Hours, the Church’s daily work of prayer, hangs. On a deeper level, I find this image of the psalms as bones reminds me that these “150 mirrors” are not a superstructure shielding us from the difficulties of each other’s lives, nor are they an exoskeleton that bounds our growth.

Instead, they hold up for us what we need to see in our own lives, in the lives of those around us. They support us while we grow, through these shared experiences of joys and sorrows, virtues and transgressions.

As I prayed Psalm 139 this week, for my friend and for her son, it brought me back to the dark hours of a Holy Thursday more than 20 years ago. I sat in a hospital waiting room, facing the news that my husband would not live to see the morning. My breviary had disappeared in the chaos of the night before, but the psalms turned out to be in my bones and therefore my memory. When I could not hope, Psalm 30 could hope for me: “At night there are tears, but joy comes with dawn.”

The psalms still give voice to my griefs, my joys, my angers, my failings, my triumphs — they hold me up. They are my very bones. Through them we hold each other up. They are our very bones.

Lord God, deepen our faith, strengthen our hope, enkindle our love: and so that we may obtain what you promise, make us love what you command. We make our prayer through our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, God, for ever and ever. Amen.
— from Evening Prayer I, 30th Sunday in Ordinary time, Liturgy of the Hours


  1. Michelle, in another time or another denomination, would you be able to articulate the call to priesthood that seems to shine through so much of your writing?
    Just wondering...

  2. Kathryn,

    Thank you for such words...I didn't realize it showed...

    Yes, likely I would have tried that path had I come along at a different time, or place, or tradition. And so glad am I that you are in that life, and write for us all so wonderfully...

  3. what is it with psalm 139? it cracked me open my first 8 day retreat...

    beautiful post

    glad you are being cared for at home and hope your recovery goes well.

  4. Thank you for this, Michelle.

  5. It shows. And has taught me much.

  6. My father in law gave me a Grail Psalter after our toddler daughter died in our car accident, and the psalms of lament were my lifeline....Especially 88, which is the only one to have no sections of hope or praise, other than the fact that the hatred and despair are poured out directly to God.

  7. ML, My spiritual director once preached about Ps 88 - and noted exactly's pure lament, and sometimes that's what you need to be praying...

    And Stratoz there is something about 139, I've been praying it for Gannet Girl, but it turns out to be feeding into my preparation for the Spiritual Exercises...

  8. Michelle, this is simply beautiful, that call to go beyond ourselves and to imagine the pain of another is essential.

    Thank you for your honesty, and thank you for bringing your own experience of loss and turnign us all to prayer.

    Peace be with you

    btw...echoing Kathyrns thoughts here...

  9. Anonymous8:41 PM

    For me, one of the most striking aspects of the Psalms is how frequently they exhort us to take "refuge" in the Lord.

  10. Michelle thank you for your breathtaking, life-giving words that serve as such a captivating reminder. When I have struggled, Psalm 102 has been my lament to God on numerous occasions.

    Be well.

  11. christicrux, those images of stronghold and refuge are strong ones for me also...

    And niwaki - Psalm 102 is such a deep lament...