No struggle for relevance in the Psalms

It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing

Relevance is something we all long for. We all want to matter to other people for genuine reasons, not just dutiful affection or because we make good cakes. When you write anything more than a shopping list, you are hoping that someone will find it relevant. When people do find some piece of writing which is relevant to them, they tend to spread it around, to encourage others to enjoy it. It can be very upsetting when your nearest and dearest don’t react as you wanted to something you have shown them!  I once asked my mother whether she liked one of these blogs, and she said that it had been a bit more interesting than some of the others, which was not quite the reaction I had been hoping for.

Illumination brings relevance
hoping for inspiration before writing
Managing to stay relevant over time

The writers of the Bible were not different from us in this respect, but at least they are not standing at our side to gauge our reactions to what they wrote. The Bible was written across a long period of time, but all of it long ago now. The Church tells us that it is all holy, revealed and relevant, and then chooses parts of it to be read out for us each week (sometimes every day, e.g. the Magnificat), because it is so meaningful for us.  The Lectionary does not use all the Bible; we don’t even move through the entire Psalter.  The Church has decided to leave some bits out, sometimes in the light of New Testament revelation, sometimes because it does not seem relevant.  That’s not surprising, when you consider how old the Bible is, and how very different the circumstances.  In fact, what is amazing is how relevant some of it feels to be, and I would argue that the Book of Psalms is perhaps the easiest part of the Bible for any modern person to find relevant, sometimes excruciatingly so.

Listening attentively
Authenticity is always relevant

The reason why it feels relevant is because the stories and situations are ones in which we might find ourselves (I’m talking about the history books of the Bible here; some of the Law books are a bit technical, which is why we have expert theologians, and some are poetry, to which we respond at a different level).  The Bible is arguably the most authentic book ever written, because it was written out of current need and by lots of different people.   This gives it an urgency and an authenticity which are unmistakable.  This also means that it is sprawling and often untidy in its narrative (two versions of the Creation even in the first two chapters), because the guiding principle of the writers was not to create one elegant well-put-together narrative, but to write down what they reckoned was true and helpful for us all.  Genuine edification, in all senses.

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away
safe amid perils, in a very spaceship ark

However, sometimes we struggle to see the relevance of one of the Sunday readings to our own lives.  We can usually work out what the authorities were hoping for us to grasp as the connection between the readings, and anyway that’s one of the subjects that a priest can develop in a homily.  There are times when a more obscure message can be particularly rewarding if you’ve had to puzzle it out.

But the psalmist lives next door (or even closer)

But the Psalms are different.  The Responsorial Psalm is there in the prescribed liturgy to shape our response to the first reading and, if we are lucky, move us gently towards the second, very occasionally even reappearing as a quotation in the Gospel itself;  but the wonderful thing about the Psalms is that, because they are short and metrical, they stay in our minds and return to us in moments of need, just like other forms of poetry.  The language of the psalms is that of direct lived experience.  It is simple.  The psalmist speaks straight to God in the second person;  there are other people around in the world which he evokes, an occasional friend, a wife, children, courtiers and (lots of) enemies,  but there is nothing to stop us taking the psalmist’s words and using them as our own.  We recognise his experiences, however long ago they may have happened, because they happen to us today, and he reacts (mostly) exactly as we do, even if we wish we didn’t.

The whole of life is here

That is another reason why the psalms are so loved.  It doesn’t matter what crisis you find yourself in, there is an appropriate psalm for you.  If you want to shout at God, there is a psalm for it.  If you are feeling despair, there is even a psalm for that.  If you want to ask for help, you have an embarras de choix.  If you want to thank God for saving you from peril (e.g. Ps 56/57), wild beasts (e.g. Ps 34/35), vicious enemies (ditto), flooding (Pss 41/42, 87/88), fire (Ps 96/97) or pestilence (see below), the psalms have the words for it; and just as in a church you are aware of the people who have been there to pray before you.   The psalms have a similar accretion of human suffering, and ways to deal with it.

Love in a time of cholera
Job surrounded by fierce animals
things can get tough

Here we are in a time of pestilence and sickness all over the world, holed up as much as possible in the smallest of groups, trying not to infect or be infected, and yet closer together in our fears and aspirations than we are usually.  When we dive into the psalms to find relevant prayers and comfort, we are doing it not only with lots of our contemporaries, but also with all the people who have done the same thing in their day, in their outbreaks of illness, in their desperation.  I find this very comforting.

Sickness in the Psalms

As you would expect, there is a lot about sickness in the psalms.  The psalmist prays for comfort and healing in sickness, for freedom from contagion, for the return of health.  He even threatens God with running out of worshippers if he allows all his faithful ones to die (Pss 29/30, 87/88,  113/115).   It has taken the current pandemic to make me realise how acutely observed these psalms are, as we are usually so much better protected from mysterious illness by modern medicine.  But currently we are in a situation which the psalmist would recognise.  We know very little about this illness’ behaviour.  We are unsure about its strength and duration.  We follow current best advice; and we still don’t know whether we might catch it or (worse) give it to someone else.

We can make the words of Ps 90/91 our own now; we recognise the sickening fear of the plague that prowls in the darkness[..] the scourge that lays waste at noon , because we are finding it hard to defend ourselves against this illness.  We no longer equate sickness with guilt, as in Pss 31/32 and 37/38, imagining it to be deliberately caused by God; but we recognise the feelings of fear and helplessness (With my cares I cannot rest, Ps 54/55),  running a temperature (Ps 37/38 : All my frame burns with fever; / all my body is sick );  pain and weakness (Like water I am poured out, disjointed are all my bones, Ps 21/22)  with a new immediacy.  The psalmist talks about hearing of someone else’s illness (Ps 34/35), and even though it was a hostile person, there is no Schadenfreude, but fellow feeling : When they were sick, I went into mourning, / afflicted with fasting. / My prayer was ever on my lips, / as for a brother, a friend.

God as doctor (reversing the metaphor)

There is a very encouraging sequence in several psalms.  The speaker falls ill; he calls for help; God intervenes and he gets better; he sings to God in praise and thanksgiving.  This is the sort of movement we see in many psalms, but there is a whole little group in the twenties (Pss 25/26, 26/27, 27/28, 29/30, 31/32).  The psalmist finds much comfort in his faith that God will keep him safe (Ps 26 : For there he keeps me safe in his tent / in the day of evil. / He hides me in the shelter of his tent, /  on a rock he sets me safe) and of course this is what we are all trying to do with our own more vulnerable beloved.  We have to do everything we can, and then trust to God for the rest.  To leap forward in time from the psalmist, here is a similar confidence from Julian of Norwich : He shall keep thee securely.  As Julian herself said, this is ‘an endless comfort’;  and she was writing during the time that the Black Death was ravaging England.

Handwashing and the psalms

The best advice to keep ourselves healthy is to keep washing our hands, for long enough to sing a particular song (or say a prayer if you prefer).  I was delighted to find there are even references to this in the psalms.  In Psalm 17/18, the psalmist describes being in terrible danger, but then God rescues him.  He brought me forth into freedom, / he saved me because he loved me. / He rewarded me because I was just, / repaid me for my hands were clean (v 20f).  It is even repeated later in the same psalm : He repaid me because I was just / and my hands were clean  (v 25).   And again in Ps 23/24 : Who shall climb the mountain of the Lord? […] The man with clean hands (v 3f).  One more : To prove my innocence I wash my hands (Ps 25/26, v 6).  I cannot help wondering whether Pilate is thinking of this on Good Friday, showing the Jews that he knew their prayers as well as his own.

Peaceful holy well
plenty of water for washing….and welling up to eternal life
It don’t mean a thing, all you got to do is sing

Of course, this is metaphorical washing, and what we all need to concentrate on at the moment is the real sort, with the singing.  But when we feel ‘tempested, travailed and afflicted’ (Julian again), we can turn to the psalms for the words we need, knowing that the psalmists have been through this before, but God looked after them even as he is now looking after us.  Last word to Julian of Norwich : You shall not be overcome.

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Author: Kate Keefe

Kate Keefe composes music for responsorial psalms, gospel acclamations and the Mass for English speaking Catholic congregations all over the world, using the local lectionary for UK, Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the US and the Philippines. She writes about what comes up in the process, and blogs for The Tablet.