Shafts of Light – Psalms of Disorientation 1

In this third article, Canon John Udris moves from Orientation to Disorientation as he navigates the complexities of life with some key psalms and biblical people who faced the dark times.

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Psalm 137: Lament over the Destruction of Jerusalem

By the rivers of Babylon—
    there we sat down, and there we wept
    when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
    we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
    asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
    “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How could we sing the Lord’s song
    in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
    let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
    if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
    above my highest joy.
Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites
    the day of Jerusalem’s fall,
how they said, “Tear it down! Tear it down!
    Down to its foundations!”
O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
    Happy shall they be who pay you back
    what you have done to us!
Happy shall they be who take your little ones
    and dash them against the rock!

Old Songs that still Speak

Remember Chouraqi saying in our first reflection that these songs are ‘in our bones’. We may never ever get to see or actually be by the rivers of Babylon but we have all been ‘there’ and sat down and wept. And yet, that lament itself becomes one of those songs, one of the most poignant, most memorable, and most beautiful. One which still speaks to us so eloquently and names what we want to say.

The Babylonian Exile or Captivity which gave rise to this psalm was one of the most catastrophic episodes in Israel’s history. King Nebuchadnezzar lays siege to the city of Jerusalem, King Solomon’s Temple is destroyed, all those with any kind of influence in the country’s culture and religion are taken off into exile. Everything that had always seemed so permanent, everything on which Jewish society had come to depend, came to an end. It must have seemed like the end of the word. A time of crisis, of dissolution and of great distress. And a time of great alienation and disorientation. 

And so we turn to those particular psalms today. The psalms that don’t hold back the tears, or the bewilderment, the anger, and the questions and the sighs too deep for words. These are sometimes the most powerful prayers we’ll ever pray. I suspect some of our most important prayers won’t sound like prayers and don’t feel like prayers. They’re not carefully crafted. They are not thought out or theologically censored. They are out of our mouths or our hearts long before our minds can edit them. 

Thank God we have these psalms of disorientation to give us the permission to kick and scream, to rant and rave. Thank God we have these songs of lamentation and seeming abandonment for the times when that seems like the only authentic language to suit the situations we find ourselves facing. Thank God these psalms are robust enough and honest enough to bear the weight of the various problems that overtake us, the various captivities that we find ourselves in. Including the one we’re not out of yet. Psalm 137 names the anguish of exiles we’ve all experienced, often in excruciating ways during this pandemic and current world instability.

The Sacrament of Tears

And the first thing they say is that it’s okay to cry when we pray. Tears feature in the psalms, ‘They go out, they go out full of tears carrying seed for the sowing’ in Psalm 126:6 and ‘My tears have become my bread by day by night, as I hear it said all the day long, where is your God?’ in Psalm 42:3. And, of course, ’by the rivers of Babylon there I sat down and wept.’

I’ve been reading a lovely little book called A Faithful Farewell by Marilyn Chandler McEntyre. She has this to say about the gift of tears. It’s a long quote but it’s worth reading the whole thing:

‘Tears release me into honest sorrow. They release me from the strenuous business of finding words. They release me into a childlike place where I need to be held and can find comfort in embrace – in the arms of others and in the arms of God. Tears release me from the treadmill of anxious thoughts and even from fear. They release me from the strain of holding them back. Tears are a consent to what is. They wash away, at least for a time, denial and resistance. They allow me to relinquish the self-deceptive notion that Im in control. Tears dilute resentments and wash away the flotsam of anger. Tears require that I stretch my trust and vulnerable to those who witness and weep with me.

Dear friends, such tears are precious. Such tears are holy. For whenever they flow, like a baptism with their mixture of salt and water, we know the Holy Spirit is near. There is something sacramental about them. St Bernard calls tears ‘the wine of the angels.’ 
So let’s not ever be afraid of tears. Let them express those things too deep for words which St Paul talks about in Romans when he refers to the Spirit praying in us. In our tears our disorientations are distilled. When we cry our body boundaries break and our emotions literally overflow. We have come to the limits of language. 

So today I want to take four scenes from Joseph’s story where we can be assured that he cried and be reassured by his own tears. Four moments from his life to help illustrate his approach to descent and disorientation. And how he can speak to us in ours:                   

Scene One: Domestic Dilemma

Joseph’s discovery of and response to Mary’s mysterious pregnancy. Here Joseph is faced with a dilemma. His faithfulness to the Torah tells him one thing. But his faithfulness to Mary tells him another. And so however we prefer to understand his predicament, Joseph is caught in this double-bind. What does blessedness look like here? What does it mean to be just, righteous, upright in this Catch 22 situation? When things are not as black and white as in Psalm 1. I love this painting by the American artist James Tissot called the Anxiety of St Joseph. It depicts him distracted and unable to work as he tries to work out what to do. I have no doubt that when he first heard about Mary’s pregnancy he would have sat down and wept.

Anxiety of Saint Joseph
The Anxiety of Saint Joseph by James Tissot. 1886-89. Gouache over Graphite. Brooklyn Museum.

We all find ourselves in double binds at times. Conflicted. Trapped. Perplexed. And when we do we can go to Joseph who has been there before us. That’s why Joseph is a particular patron as death approaches. Because that’s the ultimate anguish in which we can be vulnerable to the attacks of the evil one. Similarly in all the little deaths we experience, such as the disappointments, difficulties and dilemmas, the evil one will be doing his level best, as he did with our Lord in the desert, to place our trust in ourselves. ‘Save yourself!’ is what he will be whispering to us in different ways. That’s what he was trying to get Jesus to do in the wilderness. And on the cross in Jesus’ ‘final moments too. ‘Save yourself!’ It’s the ultimate temptation. And it lies at the heart of every temptation. Save yourself! Sort it out yourself! Solve it yourself!

But Joseph demonstrates a different strategy and is willing and able to unmake his mind. Instead of taking the situation into his own hands he decides, he chooses to undo his own plans in favour of what appears to be providential. He chooses to take Mary as his wife. I wonder if we can guess how long Joseph was in anguish? How long it took before he finally broke through to a new trust and abandonment to whatever God was up to? How long before he was able make his own ‘let it be’ to God’s desire? Did it take three days? That rings true to me! Three days of agony oscillating between doubt and faith, between fear and trust. It’s that breakthrough time in the Scriptures, the blessed window in time in which trust is forged.

A little aside here. Joseph is inspired in his sleep. Don’t ever underestimate the power of sleeping on decisions. Some things get resolved or at least appear in a different perspective after our sleeping on them. In part, that’s the purpose of sleep to process things with parts of ourselves that are deeper than our rational thinking. St Joseph demonstrates the divine potential of sleep, especially in discernment. 

Scene Two: Homeless in the Town of David

Joseph scours Bethlehem for a place to stay. Searching high and low. Can we imagine the frustration, the panic and fear? The roller coaster of emotions between holding out hope only for those hopes to be dashed by another letdown. He must have been at the end of his tether. Desperate. The questions that litter the psalms must have been on his lips ‘when’, ‘where’, ‘why’ and ‘how long?’ The tears that often accompany such questions cannot but have been in his eyes.

Scene Three: Flight into Egypt and Exile

Again it’s in a deep sleep that Joseph hears the inspiration: ‘Arise and take the child and its mother and flee.’ And the urgency is such that they must leave immediately knowing the child’s life is now in jeopardy. Joseph knows intimately the anguish that accompanies those who must escape evil. He teaches us that in certain circumstances flight is right. And that such flight at times entails not cowardice but courage. And that courage demands both acceptance of the situation and initiative. This is how Pope Francis describes this in his Apostolic Letter on St Joseph, Patris Corde:

Joseph is certainly not passively resigned, but courageously and firmly proactive. In our own lives, acceptance and welcome can be an expression of the Holy Spirit‘s gift of fortitude. Only the Lord can give us the strength needed to accept life as it is, with all its contradictions, frustrations and disappointments.

How can tears failed to have been a feature of that Flight? The tears that come whenever we feel overwhelmed by the weight of responsibility. Whenever we can feel swamped and out of our depth. And as Psalm 69 says, ‘the waters have risen to our neck.’ These are the tears that accompany and best express our feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt as to whether we’re up to the task. Let’s go to Joseph when we get disorientated by the demands upon us, and know that he too felt torn and is familiar with the tears and the fears that overtake us when we’re at the end of our tether. And then there’s the second part of the angel’s message in Matthew 2:13: ‘remain there till I tell you.’ Joseph models an embracing of uncertainty and that waiting upon the Lord we’ve already spoken about which the psalms return to as a constant theme and refrain. 

The Holy Father calls this ‘creative courage.’ He says, ‘This emerges especially in the way we deal with difficulties. In the face of difficulty, we can either give up and walk away, or somehow engage with it. At times, difficulties bring out resources we did not even think we had.’ I hope that somewhere in our experience, whether in our personal, pastoral or professional spheres, we all have reference points that prove this to be true. 

Scene Four: The Lost Child Found

Can we imagine the anguish of Joseph in those circumstances? He must have been out of his mind. Distraught in the desperate search for his child. Hardly able to sleep. It must have been a living nightmare. Luke 2:48 has Mary complain when they finally find him ‘look how worried your father and I have been!’ That word worried in the Jerusalem translation deserves a prize for its understatement. More accurately it’s ‘in great distress.’ Luke uses the word only in two other places in his writing. Remember Dives and Lazarus – when Dives in hell looks up into heaven and asks Abraham to get Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool his tongue because I am in ‘agony’ in these flames. That’s the word Mary uses of how they have been feeling – ‘agony’. They have been in sheer hell for the past few days. How Joseph and Mary must have shed desperate tears during that time. How they both must have sat down and wept. Their anguish has given both of them an authority and credibility as go-to people when we find ourselves agonising over things. We’ll return to that scene in the Temple later. But the other time Luke uses this word ‘agony’ is in Acts when the people are saying farewell to Paul who is about to embark for Rome and they know they won’t see him again this side of heaven. Joseph can be a patron in such times when we find ourselves praying like his Son in his own agony in the garden ‘aloud and in silent tears.’

Joseph must have prayed many times Psalm 102 which has the title ‘Prayer of One who is Afflicted and pours out his complaint before the Lord’ among whose lines are these: 
‘Do not hide your face from me in the day of my distress… I lie awake and I moan like a lonely bird on a roof and I mingle tears with my drink.’ Psalm 102: 2; 7; 9.

Let’s end with the prayer that our Pope prays daily in honour of St Joseph. Whatever anguish we may be experiencing right now or that of others whose cares we are caught up in, let’s gather them up into this prayer:

Glorious Patriarch Saint Joseph, 
whose power makes the impossible possible, 
come to my aid in these times of anguish and difficulty. 
Take under your protection 
the serious and troubling situations that I commend to you, 
that they may have a happy outcome. 
My beloved father, all my trust is in you. 
Let it not be said that I invoked you in vain, 
and since you can do everything with Jesus and Mary, 
show me that your goodness is as great as your power. 

Further reading:
The Psalms.

Psalms, Walter Brueggemann, William H. Bellinger Jr. New Cambridge Bible Commentary, CUP, 2014.

Patris Corde (With a Father’s Heart) – Apostolic Letter on St Joseph, patron of the Church –

A Faithful Farewell: Living your last chapter with Love, Marilyn Chandler McEntyre. 2015.
Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.