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The Book of Psalms is the prayer book of the Bible. Eugene says that it provides us with the language for prayer: our responding to the God who speaks to us. “Untutored we tend to think that prayer is what good people do when they are doing their best. It is not. Inexperienced, we suppose that there must be an ‘insider’ language that must be acquired before God takes us seriously in our prayer. There is not. Prayer is elemental, not advanced, language. It is the means by which our language becomes honest, true, and personal in response to God. It is the means by which we get everything in our lives out in the open before God.” (from the introduction to the Psalms in The Message).
Psalm 88 is a challenging prayer as it’s wholly dark and bleak. It speaks of unending despair. The final word of the psalm is “darkness”. It is often assumed that the poet praying this song was sick, immobilized by a disease, possibly leprosy or another unclean illness as per the Torah which would mean that the person had to live outside of their community, unable to return home, to eat with others, to be touched, or to even pray with the community. Leviticus 13:45-46 tells us that just such an ill person, “must tear their clothes, leave their hair uncombed, cover the lower part of their face, and go around shouting, “I’m unclean! I’m unclean!” As long as they have the disease, they are unclean and must live alone outside the camp.” Wow! Talk about despair and hopelessness without respite, reconciliation, and reversal.
While bleak, this psalm is also a song of faith. It may end in seemingly all-encompassing darkness, but it begins in a sure remark of faith that the Lord is the God of salvation. This song of hope is woven through the comments and complaints of the prayer. There is no doubt that God does miracles, rather God doesn’t do them for this poet. God is faithful, but this person feels forgotten, overlooked and cursed. Their pain is too big. The grief too consuming. The injustice too brutal. The darkness is inescapable.
We’ve all been there. In theology, we talk about this with the metaphor of the” Dark Night of the Soul.” Such darkness can be both individual and communal. Without minimizing such pain, Bishop Desmond Tutu reminds us that “Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.”
Questions for the practice of Examen & Contemplation