The Psalm That Led Me Back to the Church
Psalm 88 is a cry of despair that draws those who suffer closer to Christ.
When I was a freshman in college I joined the largest religious denomination in America: Lapsed Catholic. It’s a popular movement that doesn’t require anything but a condescending attitude to the backwards faith of your youth. You get to sleep in on Sunday, and preface dubious opinions on faith and morals with the conversation-stopping qualifier “I was raised a Catholic.”
Leaving was easy for someone nursed on the skim milk of 1970s American Catholicism, a machine purpose-built to squeeze all the majesty and mystery out of one of the most dazzling, sublime, and beautiful religions in human hist0ry. By the time I encountered Greek philosophy in my late teens, I was already heading for the door. The clincher was the Bible, what little I’d read of it. In my ignorance it appeared to be a dull and useless book filled with absurd stories and contradictions. Why should my life be shackled to this leaden weight written millennia ago when an entirely new world, filled with new and better truths, was bursting into creation all around me?
In all this, I proved that no one can be as insufferable as a slightly clever teenager. At a certain stage, being well-read can actually make things worse. I’d encountered enough new ideas to see a hint of the wider world of belief, but not enough to weigh them properly and judge them intelligently. It would take me fifteen years of spiritual wandering to the ends of the world before the twitch upon the thread brought me back with a jolt.
My Only Companion is Darkness
My early 30s found me in bad shape. I was in agony from a then-undiagnosed illness (psoriatic arthritis). I’d suffered from clinical depression since I was teenager and it was still a day-to-day struggle. Fatherhood was more difficult than I’d imagined, particularly in my reduced physical conditions. Finally, my closest friend wound up in the hospital on life support.
Pain, as C.S. Lewis remarked, is God’s megaphone. It was only in the depths of suffering that I could hear Him. Through the cross, those who suffer draw close to God, and sometimes the strong medicine of pain is the only thing that works. Not that God sends the suffering, mind you: he merely uses it.
Two events happened in close proximity to put me on my path back to faith. The first was a clear and unambiguous sense of the presence and love of God. That’s as much as I can say about that, because words diminish it. But at that moment I knew, and never stopped knowing, that God is real and God is love. There is no doubt whatsoever.
But the next question was: whose God? The world makes new idols to worship every day. I’d studied comparative religion fairly deeply, and I knew the truth claims and texts of all the major faiths. Would I need to start reviewing all of them again to see which corresponded to the experience I felt? Catholicism wasn’t even on the list. Been there, done that, didn’t want it back.
God saved me some time with the second event. In the middle of the night, in an intensive care waiting room, I picked up the only available reading material: the Gideon Bible. I thought “Okay, God: if you have something to say, say it now,” opened it, and read Psalm 88:
O Lord, God of my salvation,
I cry out day and night before you.
Let my prayer come before you;
incline your ear to my cry!
For my soul is full of troubles,
and my life draws near to Sheol.
I am counted among those who go down to the pit;
I am a man who has no strength,
like one set loose among the dead,
like the slain that lie in the grave,
like those whom you remember no more,
for they are cut off from your hand.
You have put me in the depths of the pit,
in the regions dark and deep.
Your wrath lies heavy upon me,
and you overwhelm me with all your waves.
You have caused my companions to shun me;
you have made me a horror to them.
I am shut in so that I cannot escape;
my eye grows dim through sorrow.
Every day I call upon you, O Lord;
I spread out my hands to you.
Do you work wonders for the dead?
Do the departed rise up to praise you? Selah
Is your steadfast love declared in the grave,
or your faithfulness in Abaddon?
Are your wonders known in the darkness,
or your righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?
But I, O Lord, cry to you;
in the morning my prayer comes before you.
O Lord, why do you cast my soul away?
Why do you hide your face from me?
Afflicted and close to death from my youth up,
I suffer your terrors; I am helpless.
Your wrath has swept over me;
your dreadful assaults destroy me.
They surround me like a flood all day long;
they close in on me together.
You have caused my beloved and my friend to shun me;
my companions have become darkness.
Several things about Psalm 88 struck me at once.
It spoke directly to where I was. It was a cry of suffering from the depths of darkness and despair. It was unflinching. All the words ever written about the actual experience and feeling of suffering are weak tea in comparison to Psalm 88. In 18 short lines, it is the prefect summation of the human experience of sorrow and abandonment.
And it’s directed to God! There’s no mistaking it: the Psalmist is blaming God, with no obsequious tone or assurance that rescue is forthcoming. He’s asking Where are you? Why did you do this to me? Why me? This is the kind of talk that gets you smote.
Or is it? The form of the psalm itself is an act of faith. As the man drowns, he clings desperately to God. He fears death, because death is no more than a pit, and it will separate him from the God he loves. Though he addresses the God of salvation in the first line, there is no hope of salvation beyond that pit. In Psalm 88, death breaks the relationship of man and God.
How Did This Get in the Bible?
As I sat in that waiting room reading these words over and over again, new shades of meaning emerged, along with new questions, the most pressing of all being, “How did this get in the Bible?” It’s a rebuke to everything we learned in Sunday school about faith in a loving God. That’s because the Psalm is incomplete on its own. The circle of meaning remained open, a question like those asked by the Psalmist and so many other writers of the Old Testament. Only in the fullness of time would the meaning be clear. The Psalm was completed on calvary. The pit of darkness was not and could not be the end because Christ climbed back out of it.
In the writings of St. Augustine and other Church Fathers, the Psalms are interpreted as the voice of Christ himself, including Psalm 88. And if the Son of God can hurl this howl of rage and despair at his Father, along with the other hymns of praise and doubt and thanksgiving and lamentation, then all the experience of humanity — its wonders and horrors, joys and sorrows — are inscribed in the flesh of Christ. In writing the entire world in flesh, God gave all of it new meaning, new life.
That was the gift God gave me with Psalm 88, at that time, in that moment, and ever after when I return to it from now until the day I stand at the edge of that pit for the last time. I couldn’t see it before. I was either too close to it, or too arrogant, or too immature, or just not ready yet. It took distance from the faith of my youth before I could see it in full. That’s why T.S. Eliot’s words in Four Quartets are my favorite in all literature:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
I never knew the Bible. Not until then. Not until I saw it for what it was, and understood that all of it finds fulfillment in the the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Psalmist gave me that. To this day, when I’ve seen more of life and death, and felt more happiness and pain, it gives me a strange comfort. It speaks the truth of our pain from the dark places, assuring us that even there, God is not absent, because Christ is with us.