Psalm 87/88 : how do you sing about despair?

Despair and desolation  in song form

This is the darkest of the psalms, with no heartening shift towards hope and relief. The psalmist forensically dissects his situation and his feelings, and finds no light or comfort anywhere. This is unique in the Psalms.  Mostly they are at least partly joyful in tone (they are songs, after all), but there are plenty of gloomy psalms, or gloomy passages.   Psalm 87/88 is the only one where the gloom is unrelieved by the prospect of actual comfort arriving, or even just the hope of it.  Why would you sing about despair?

Feast of the Holy Guardian Angels

I’ve been looking at this psalm because it’s set for the Feast of the Holy Guardian Angels on the US Bishops’ website. I was so surprised to find it there that I had a hunt around and discovered that most other Lectionaries are offering Psalm 90/91, and this indeed is available as another option for the US. But if it’s asked for on a particular day, I like to set it, because we try to make sure that you can keep to the Missal as far as humanly possible. So I had to find a way to sing Psalm 87/88.

Unfinished previous attempt

I had totally forgotten, but I had made a previous attempt at setting it, and come up with this modal tune, but I’d never finished it or fleshed it out.  It’s possible I was very busy and events just overtook me; but I think it was also the difficulty of trying to sing (and get the congregation to join in with) such a bleak set of words.  Of course people sing about tragedy all the time in opera, but we don’t do it in church unless we are looking towards resurrection;  and we don’t in opera try to get everyone to join in and sing along.

Fiddler with dancer
The power of music
Psalm 87/88 and what it says

This is a frightening psalm, because it is absolute.  The language is very simple and direct.  The writer describes his emotions in a quiet, almost passionless way.   It starts not with a call for help but a description of an ongoing call for help; the tone is almost conversational.  It is addressed to God, but the speaker is not expecting any response; he is just carrying on calling because there is nothing else left for him to do.  He does not rail at God for the injustice of his position; he reminds the Lord that he keeps calling to him for help, but all his life he has been suffering with no relief.  He can see no reason for this; like Job, he has not deserved what has happened to him.  People count him as already dead, he has reached the end of his strength, he is alone among the dead, even forgotten by God;  and it is God who has done this to him.  The images of desolation are piled up with almost physical weight : death, graves, drowning under  great waves of water, isolation, imprisonment, grief.

drowning people underwater
Drowning under the billows (but not alone)

At verse 10, the psalm feels as though it goes back to the beginning.   This is like when your mind wearily repeats the circle of miserable thought you have just gone through, when you are depressed.  ‘I call to you, Lord, all the day long’, and he starts asking God direct questions : ‘Will you work your wonders for the dead?  Will your love be told in the grave?’, but these are only rhetorical questions, and he does not wait for or expect an answer.

Again he repeats the beginning of the psalm (v 14, ‘Lord, I call to you for help’) and the questions are even sharper :’Lord, why do you reject me? Why do you hide your face?’  and we realise that the worst of his suffering is not that God is absent, but that he is choosing not to engage.  The psalmist goes back to describing his position, as though it were someone else.  Unusually, no human enemies or dangerous animals are even mentioned; this is all God’s work. ‘I have borne your trials; I am numb.  Your fury has swept down upon me; your terrors have utterly destroyed me.  They surround me all the day like a flood, they assail me all together.  Friend and neighbour you have taken away: my one companion is darkness.’

Seascape at night, storm
Darkness and billows

It’s not a long psalm, but it’s too long for a Responsorial.  The US psalm as set is the first eight verses.  Strophe 1 is the call for help, 2 he is about to die, his strength is gone, 3 his place is among not just the dead but the forgotten, and 4 has no relief : ‘You have plunged me into the bottom of the pit (‘tomb’ in the Grail translation), into the dark abyss.  Upon me your wrath lies heavy, and with all your billows you overwhelm me’.  This is wonderful poetry, like parts of Isaiah and Job, but is not going to have the congregation spontaneously bursting into song.

Job surrounded by fierce animals
Job suffering among the animals
Artful renunciation of music in Psalm 136/137

We have had trying to sing about tragedy before, in the rivers of Babylon psalm, where the psalmist cleverly makes a song out of hanging up our harps and renouncing music (here’s the blog I wrote about that one), but this is a different sort of despair, because there is nothing left even to sing about.  In Psalm 87/88, there is no one else there, not even an enemy, only God and the singer.  He is on the brink of the grave.  There is nowhere to go.  He keeps calling out to God, but hears no answer.  All he can do is submit and wait…….and keep singing.

Oddly, there is no sense of fear in this psalm; and I think it’s because everything bad that he can imagine has already happened, which is itself a terrible thought.  So how are we going to sing it?  How can I give it a tune?

Modal instead of minor, plus not minus

It’s simple, timeless and not cheerful, so a modal tune seemed to work better than anything else.  Modal tunes have an in-between quality, not simply gloomy, like a minor key, but more ambiguous.  This is what makes them haunting (I hope).  Some of our oldest tunes are modal, so I’m also hoping to tap into some ancient music memory here.  The other psalm that bears immediate comparison is Psalm 21/22, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ which Jesus starts to recite on the cross.   I gave that a modal tune as well, but the big difference there is that the second half of that psalm is a strong assertion of God’s power and strength and the singer’s conviction that everything is going to be all right.  That meant that the music also had to change, and the second half is far more upbeat.

Here the mood is set, and unrelieved.  It is difficult to sing, like some of the Holy Week liturgy, but I think these words would be unbearable to sing in a minor key.  We would be heading for despair.  However, despite what I said at the beginning, I don’t think that this psalm does demonstrate despair, because the psalmist does not stop appealing to God.  He reproaches him, he almost threatens him (‘if you kill me, who is going to sing about you?’), but he refuses to give up, he refuses to despair, so the in-between quality, where a chord can resolve into major or minor, is what I want here.

The other advantage of going modal is that you can have all the billows crashing in the fourth strophe.  As I said, it’s wonderful poetry, and you want it to be exciting as well as terrifying, not just miserable.  This is the first psalm where I have needed to write out a separate  verse because of the accompaniment rather than the melody, but those billows are irresistible. The melody just hangs on, being the singer, the same as in the other verses, but the piano part and the recorder cascade down all over it.  Here’s the link.

Sea monster in waves
Darkness, billows and monsters
Avoiding despair, and perseverance

Does this desolation and near-despair lead anywhere?  What is the point of singing about it?  I think there are at least two things going on here.  One is that the psalmist just keeps on going, even when he has no real hope.  Perseverance is not trendy, but it’s a great virtue, even a heroic one.  When Jesus gives the apostles warning of all the terrible things that are going to happen to them, he ends with a promise : ‘He that shall endure to the end shall be saved’ (Mtt 24.13; Mark 13.13).   Paul’s proud claim, looking back at his life, is that he has finished the race, he has not given up before the end (2 Tim 4.7).  Surely this is one reason why we are given this psalm to sing.  The writer is in a terrible position, much worse than ours;  but he’s still calling upon God, despite the lack of an answer.

Job talking to Jesus
Job resisting despair and still asking questions

We have it assigned for the feast of the Guardian Angels presumably also to remind us that however alone we may feel, our angel is there.  Angels are mysterious beings, impossible to predict and hard to recognise, but they keep cropping up unexpectedly (I did a blog on this as well), and this too is a comforting thought.

Small angel figures attached to a light fitting
My kitchen chandelier full of angels

It’s very striking how present God is in this psalm.  He doesn’t answer, he doesn’t comfort, his actions are all in the past tense, which is why the psalmist is in the mess he is in; but it is completely inconceivable that he should be absent.  This is also Jesus’ promise : ‘Lo, I am with you always’, which Matthew uses to close his gospel.  However alone we may feel, we aren’t.   Even if we cannot think of anything else to do, we can just keep going.  Bleak comfort, but comfort nonetheless, and this is what makes it possible to sing this psalm.

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Jesus and women; or the Bible and Bechdel


I should perhaps start by admitting that this blog is not about the psalms.  It grew out of something that occurred to me while I was away from my day job and away from my various psalm books.  I did have a New Testament though, and I wanted to work out an idea that it is Jesus who gives women a voice, because only when they are talking to him do their words get written down.  It’s not even strictly Bechdel, because I want to talk about Jesus’ conversations with women, but it is all about the representation of women and Bechdel was the quickest way to indicate the area of discussion.

The Bible and Bechdel

Ruth is famously the only book of the Bible that comfortably passes the Bechdel test. Others have tried to find instances of two women talking, but not about a man, in other books of the Bible, but it’s often a considerable strain and leads to arguments about different interpretations of the test. We can all agree however that there are very few instances of women talking at all in the Bible, let alone named women, and this is, of course, because of the culture and time in which the Bible came to take shape.

woman with finger over mouth
The preferred stance of women in the Bible

There are a few conversations involving women that do not include Jesus, but they don’t pass the Bechdel test either : Peter and the maidservant, Herodias and her daughter, Mary and the angel at the Annunciation, another Mary and the angel(s) at the tomb.  Mary and Elizabeth just squeezes in as a Bechdel because the babies aren’t born yet.

Jesus’ interaction with women

Sadly, the New Testament isn’t much better than the Old.  Most women aren’t named, and they rarely speak, let alone to another woman and about something other than a man.  The portrayal and evaluation of women are of their time and consequently shockingly limited.  However, one area where there is considerable and significant difference is when you look at the narratives of Jesus’ direct relations with women, and also when you analyse his own speech.  I think this is particularly significant because the Gospel writers would have been very careful about the words reported as coming from Jesus.  There were usually several witnesses; Jesus’ own words were seen as important.

When you look at the proportion of narrative to direct speech in the Gospels, Jesus’ words seem even more precious.  He didn’t leave letters like St Paul, whose own voice, even in translation,  is so recognisable and familiar; he didn’t write any of the accounts of his life;  all we have are some stories, some teaching, and snatches of conversation with the people he met, remembered and set down much later by other people.  When you look at the variation between these words in the Gospels, frankly I think it’s surprising that they are so consistent.  They are all we have.

Women talking to Jesus

When you consider the people Jesus talks to, remembering the culture of his day, it’s striking how many of them are women, and it’s very striking how often their words also are reported.  Women’s words are rarely preserved (I’ve written about this before), but when they are talking with the Lord,  the halo around his words sheds light also on theirs, and they are noted and remembered.  It is indubitably true that there are far more male encounters with Jesus described in the Gospels, but when a women actually reaches Jesus and talks to him, he always deals with her as though her gender is not a big issue.

The woman with a haemorrhage

The classic example of this is the woman with a haemorrhage, the first woman to speak at all in Matthew’s Gospel (even if it’s to herself, Mtt 9).  Her illness makes her ritually toxic, and her life has been miserable for twelve years, avoiding others and being shunned by them.  We should have had her story at the beginning of July (13th Sunday B), but it’s an optional part of the Gospel and often left out in the reading (possibly still makes people a bit uncomfortable?  It was years before I realised what it actually meant, I thought it was an unhealed wound), so I shall briefly recap.  She has been bleeding for twelve years, has spent all her money on doctors and has only got worse.  She has heard about Jesus, and manages to get near enough in the crowd to touch his cloak.  That is all she wants, ‘for she said to herself, ‘If I only touch his garment, I shall be made well’ ‘ (Mtt 9 21).

There are more details in Mark.  The woman instantly knows that she is better as soon as she has touched Jesus’ robe.  Jesus knows something has happened, turns around in the crowd and asks,’Who has touched my clothes?’  The disciples make fun of him: ‘You see how the crowd is pressing upon you, and yet you ask?’  So Jesus looks around to see who did it.  The poor woman, with great courage, comes towards Jesus ‘in fear and trembling’ and falls at his feet and tells him ‘the whole truth’ (but Mark is, as always, in a hurry, so he doesn’t repeat what we know already).  Jesus says to her, ‘Daughter, your faith has made you well.  Go in peace and be cured of your affliction’ (Mark 5, cf also Luke 8).  No criticism, no revulsion, no complaints, just a simple statement and a loving envoi.  Apart from the word ‘daughter’, Jesus could have been talking to anybody.

Jesus standing, woman touching robe
a very early illustration of the story
Talking to women (shock horror)

This seems to be deliberate.  Jesus doesn’t make a big deal of talking to women, even though it makes some of the apostles uncomfortable (‘Send her away, for she is crying after us’ Matthew 15 23,  ‘They marvelled that he was talking with a woman’ John 4 27). He talks to anyone in front of him, male or female, child or adult, important or not, and he does it in the same way, which is also striking. He is simple and direct.  He speaks with authority (notice how many people address him with an honorific (‘Lord’, ‘Teacher’, ‘Sir’) once the conversation is under way, but he is never patronising or dismissive to an individual, except once to Peter (‘Get behind me, Satan’ Mtt 16 23).

The woman taken in adultery
sculpture of woman surrounded by stone-throwing hands
Just before Jesus steps in

The woman taken in adultery  (John 8) is talked about by all the other people present, but only Jesus speaks to her, once he is alone with her.  And he does not say much, but it’s almost as though he is inviting her to common ground with him: ‘Woman, where are they?’ (How would she know, or even care?  Is this even said with a smile?) ‘Has no one condemned you?’ And she answers, ‘No one, Lord,’ with a surprising amount of poise and dignity for someone who has just been within inches of a nasty and painful death.  Jesus gives her back her dignity by simply talking to her as a human being and asking a question she can answer.  Then he saves her, by forgiving her and setting her free :’Neither do I condemn you; go and do not sin again’.

The way Jesus talks

The simplicity of Jesus’ tone is characteristic, and probably one of the things that made the apostles uncomfortable.  He talks to women as though they were just other people (still not as common as it should be).  When he mentions families or groups, he uses inclusive language,’mothers’ as well as ‘fathers’, ‘daughters’ as well as ‘sons’ (Mtt 10 35ff), and he often gives two or more parables at once, with one drawing on women’s experience (the yeast, the salt, lighting a lamp, hunting for a dropped coin etc).  He’s not talking just to the men in his audience.  ‘Two men will be in the field; one is taken and one is left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one is taken and one is left’ (Mtt 24 40).  Most unusually for his day, Jesus is naturally inclusive, in language and behaviour.  Repeatedly he says ‘fathers and mothers’, ‘brothers and sisters’.  Most attractively, he does not see this as a remarkable concession.

Mary and Martha, but two separate events

He is happy to engage even with a woman heckler (Luke 11 27); when others around him treat women dismissively, Jesus stands up for them.  In Bethany he tells Martha that Mary is allowed to sit and listen to his teaching ( just as the disciples are), and I can’t help thinking that this was aimed at the disciples at least as much as at Martha.  When the women who pour oil on his head (or his feet) are condemned by the people sitting with Jesus, he tells them to leave the anointer alone (Mk 14 6 (head), Mtt 26 10 (head)).  In Luke’s account (Lk 7 (feet)), Jesus is the only person to speak to the woman herself, though there are many others there; and he does it twice, very deliberately.

scene where woman anoints Jesus' feet
the woman anointing Jesus’ feet with (unusually) another woman at the table
Women are people too

He is aware of the realities of women’s lives (grinding grain, setting lamps, looking after children) and appreciates their vulnerability (‘Alas for those who are with child and for those who give suck in those days!’ Lk 21 23), grieving even for those women who grieve for him on his way to be crucified (Lk 23 28).   He uses a woman in labour as an image to describe how the apostles will move from sorrow to joy (Jn 16 21), an interesting choice of metaphor for an all-male group.  He defends widows and women unwillingly divorced;  we can even see him as a #MeToo pioneer: ‘every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart’ (Mtt 5 28).

Longer conversations
Jesus talking with woman at the well
Note how the woman at the well is standing and talking, not crouching as so often

We have two or three precious slightly longer conversations with Jesus: the woman at the well (Jn 4), the Canaanite woman (Mtt 15), two separate conversations with Martha and Mary after Lazarus’ death (Jn 11).  In every case, Jesus takes his interlocutor seriously and they have a real discussion (even though the Canaanite woman has to work for it). The woman at the well is a fascinating example, as she starts almost hostile but ends up as the evangeliser of the whole village, with Jesus’ full support.

Woman addressing Jesus
Conversation in progress
Women in bulk

It is often difficult to be sure of the identity of the various women in the Gospel narrative. Several of them share names, and they are clearly seen by the various evangelists mostly in the lump, as it were.   The Alleluia verse for St Mary MacKillop (last week) summed this up beautifully: ‘Many women were there by the cross, watching from a distance, the same women who had followed Jesus and looked after him’. A variant of that verse is in every Gospel, and conveys more information than the writers meant, I suspect.  These women emerge from the mass when they speak to Jesus, but flow back into it when out of his presence.  He gives them a voice that can be heard and that gets written into the narrative.

Women as witnesses to the Gospel

The angels at the tomb talk to the women in the simple direct way that Jesus does.  They have information to pass on, and they do so.  A whole group of women goes back and faithfully passes on the message of the Resurrection to ‘the eleven and to all the rest’.  But here we hit a snag : ‘But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense’ (Lk 24 11).  Jesus has to appear to the apostles themselves later,  ‘and he upbraided them for their hardness of heart, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen’ (Mk 16 14).  The women do not speak nonsense.  They are faithful messengers.  Jesus is happy to give them the message to pass on.  The problem lies in the ears of those who do not want to listen, like the unjust judge in the parable in Luke 18.  Jesus encourages us not to lose heart.  Who is the person who has to keep on asking and not give up?  It’s a widow, the archetype in the Bible for female powerlessness; but Jesus defends and encourages her persistence.  And she wins her case.

woman petitioner with judge
The Lord’s advice : just keep on asking
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