Sunday, June 10, 2007

Psalm 88 -- going to the bottom in order to get back up

I've written here before about the possiblity of using great literature to help people (whether they be chaplains or doctors) develop a greater sensitivity to just what it is that hospital patients experience and need. This summer I'm actually putting this into effect myself by leading some literary study sessions with our summer chaplain interns.

Most of our readings will be from 20th and 19th century literature -- like Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilyich. But last week we started with a much older work of literature -- the book of Psalms.

I got the idea that Psalm 88 might be a particularly appropriate psalm to focus on from Paul Steinke, a very interesting trainer of chaplains who works at Bellevue in New York. Rev. Steinke encourages his chaplain students to read psalms to their patients. But, as one of his former students explained to me, he does not encourage them to read any psalm. In fact, he even discourages them from using the most favorite psalm of chaplains everywhere -- Psalm 23 -- at all.

Steinke's reasoning, as I understand it, is that Psalm 23 is too comforting. Comforting words -- as important as they might be -- are relatively easy to find. What is hard to find -- and what it is that the chaplain might be the only one willing to offer -- is someone who will be willing to join the ill person in their most lonely place, the place where their suffering and despair is the greatest. And joining them there -- being willing to try and break their lonliness there -- may be the most healing thing we can do.

Psalm 88 goes to such a dark and despairing place in the most dramatic of ways. In its mere 19 lines, it expresses a wealth of emotions the suffering person might feel, including that God has abandoned them (verse 6):

I am like the dead who have been released [from life]
בַּמֵּתִים, חָפְשִׁי
like the slain lying in the grave
כְּמוֹ חֲלָלִים, שֹׁכְבֵי קֶבֶר
whom You [God] remember no more;
אֲשֶׁר לֹא זְכַרְתָּם עוֹד
And from Your hand they are cut off.
וְהֵמָּה, מִיָּדְךָ נִגְזָרוּ

The psalm also wonderfully expresses the terrible loneliness of an illness, and even the shame that the victim of the illness can feel at his or her condition (verse 9):

You [God] have estranged my friends from me
הִרְחַקְתָּ מְיֻדָּעַי, מִמֶּנִּי
You have made me an abomination to them;
שַׁתַּנִי תוֹעֵבוֹת לָמוֹ
I am imprisoned, and cannot get out
כָּלֻא, וְלֹא אֵצֵא

The line that says you have made me an abomination -- a toeavah -- to them is particularly powerful to me.

What I also love about this psalm is the lines that reflect what I think is one of the central themes of the entire book and that represent the book's favorite way of asking God for mercy. The Psalms' author believes that our purpose is to praise God -- in song and prayer. And, further, the author believes ferverently that God appreciates these songs. In asking for mercy -- and for more life -- the author seeks to remind God that only the living can offer such song (verses 11-14):

Will the dead rise to give thanks to You, Selah?
אִם-רְפָאִים, יָקוּמוּ יוֹדוּךָ סֶּלָה
Will Your lovingkindness be recounted from the grave?
הַיְסֻפַּר בַּקֶּבֶר חַסְדֶּךָ
Your faithfulness amid destruction?
אֱמוּנָתְךָ, בָּאֲבַדּוֹן
Will Your wonders become known in the darkness?
הֲיִוָּדַע בַּחֹשֶׁךְ פִּלְאֶךָ
And Your righteousness in the land of oblivion?
וְצִדְקָתְךָ, בְּאֶרֶץ נְשִׁיָּה
But I, to you HaShem cry out,
וַאֲנִי, אֵלֶיךָ יְהוָה שִׁוַּעְתִּי
and in the morning
my prayer to you will be the first thing.
תְּפִלָּתִי תְקַדְּמֶךָּ

In those final words I have put in bold, one of our students saw a fundamental hopefulness in this psalm, in that the author -- for all his feelings of despair -- has not give up on God and continues to pray to God.

I am not sure I see that in the psalm myself, but I was very encouraged to see how intensely the student was engaging the text of the psalm to find things within it that supported his own theology. It was clear that our discussion of the psalm struck the students deeply, and individual students several times during the week referred to something from our discussion while they were describing their work with patients. This connection by students of the literary study with their reflection on clinical work is, of course, precisely the goal of bringing literary study into a Clinical Pastoral Education program. So, I was extremely pleased to see this.

I hope we have similar results with our next reading!

By the way, my notes are a couple of years old now, but what they indicate is the following (lamenting) psalms are the ones Rev. Steinke was encouraging his students to use (the ones in parenthesis are ones considered not quite as useful as the others):

(30), 38, (41), 88, 90, 130

And here, by the way, is psalm 88


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