Anger, despair, and praying the psalms

A chapel talk delivered at St. Olaf College Wednesday, September 12, 2001
Chuck Huff

The hymn we have just sung is Isaac Watts' version of the first few verses of Psalm 90. It is a hymn of praise and trust in the refuge of god.

Many of us today feel that trust is shattered. We look for refuge and we find none. The authors of the psalms have known this too. Turn if you will in your green hymnals to psalm 88. It is on page 255. I commend this psalm to you today. Let me read you the last few verses (they are on the next page).


Your blazing anger has swept over me
Your terrors have destroyed me
They surround me all day long like a flood
They encompass me on every side
My friend and my neighbor you have put away from me
And darkness is my only companion

If today you feel you or your friends and family have no refuge this psalm does not offer comfort. But it does voice your complaint. It does not end in praise or brightness, it ends in darkness.

But even in the darkness, the psalmist is not silenced by despair. The psalm is a complaint to God. TO god. ABOUT god. "Why have you rejected me? Will you do wonders for the dead?" The psalmist brings the horror of the day, the despair, the numbing shock, brings it all to god. Not in meek submission or trust, but in angry accusation. "Why have you rejected me?" There is no comfort here, but there is anger, articulate, intense, and accusing.

I would like you now to turn to another psalm where we can find anger, this time not at god, but at the psalmist's enemies. It is psalm 109 and should be on page 269.

It's not there, is it? Before we talk about its absence from the hymnal, let me give you an excerpt from it:

It starts with a plea to god because of the psalmist's predicament. Even though the psalmist loves and prays for these people, still they curse him. So, what is the psalmist's response? Certainly not to "make prayer" for these folks again. But instead to make a prayer against them, in fact, a curse, or, if you will, a counter-curse. Hold on to your seats, for here it is:

6 Appoint a wicked man against him;
let an accuser stand on his right.
7 When he is tried, let him be found guilty;
let his prayer be counted as sin.
8 May his days be few;
may another seize his position.
9 May his children be orphans,
and his wife a widow.
10 May his children wander about and beg;
may they be driven out of the ruins they inhabit.
11 May the creditor seize all that he has;
may strangers plunder the fruits of his toil.
12 May there be no one to do him a kindness,
nor anyone to pity his orphaned children.
13 May his posterity be cut off;
may his name be blotted out in the second generation.
14 May the iniquity of his fathers be remembered before the LORD,
and do not let the sin of his mother be blotted out.
15 Let them be before the LORD continually,
and may his memory be cut off from the earth.

There is more, but you have heard the highlights. Here certainly is scripture with muscle. Whatever his sins, this person has been well and fully cursed. I used to curse people and things when I was a construction worker, and do still on occasion, but never with this all-encompassing, blazing wrath. And never with this articulate and careful phrasing. This is carefully meditated, revised and targeted, intelligent and highly competent, wrath.

So, in our first psalm, we have despair and anger, and in this psalm unvarnished anger and deadly vengeance. What are we to do with such things in our scripture? One choice, partly implemented by the Lutheran Book of Worship, is to skip over it. Another response has been thrust upon me by my Benedictine colleagues. Some of you know I am associated with St. John's Abbey in Collegeville. Part of what this association means is that I regularly pray through the psalms, using all of them, even those with vigorous cursing or searing despair. I was first introduced to this practice by a visit to a convent in Seattle, where I heard Benedictine nuns praying, with sweet, elderly voices, a psalm of cursing on their enemies. It was chilling. Here were what seemed to me at the time sweet little old ladies (I learned later they were much more than that). But here they were praying that their enemies be made food for jackals. I asked "how do you do it?" They assured me they were not praying for the death, annihilation, and shame of their enemies to the second generation. But they were obligated to pray all of the psalms, and each sister approached these difficult ones in her own way. I would have to find my own way, too, if I took up their practice.

As I took up my practice, one thing I found is that these psalms are so finely tuned in their anger or despair that they call those very emotions out in me. I might not think I am angry, or might think it impolitic to admit I am angry, or be too proud to admit my anger. And, it fact, it may worry you when I admit to this, but when I recite the psalms of cursing in prayer, I cannot help but have some people jump to mind. Today, we can easily guess who jumps to my mind. And so, my prayer shows me my hidden (or sometime not so hidden) anger. It gets it out so I can see it. But becoming aware of your anger, or expressing your despair, is only the first step. Here is a story about the crucial next step. It comes from "Tales of a magic monastery" by Theophane the monk:

"Would you teach me silence?" I asked.
He seemed to be pleased. "Is it the Great Silence that you want?"
"Yes. The Great Silence."
"Well, where do you think it is to be found?" he asked.
"Deep within me, I suppose. If only I could go deep within, I'm sure I would escape the noise at last. But its hard. Will you help me?" I knew he would. I could feel his concern, and his spirit was so silent.
"Well, I've been there," he answered. "I spent years going in. I did taste the silence there. But one day, Jesus came--maybe it was my imagination--and said to me simply, 'Come, follow me.' I went out, and I've never gone back.
I was stunned. "But the silence…"
"I've found the Great Silence. And I've come to see that the noise was inside."

So, the secret, says the silent monk, is to find Jesus, or be found by Jesus, in the noise. Jesus transforms the noise within us and opens us up to others. When I bring Jesus with me when I pray these psalms, and I feel my anger or despair, my own personal noise, Jesus helps to redeem them. I do not know how, but it is so. The danger is in trying hard not to feel the noise. It is there and it needs to be dealt with. But we can only deal with it rightly--we can only turn from it, or rise above it, or carefully use it, or perhaps just simply survive the noise--if we are guided by the hand of Jesus.

So, I invite you to bring Jesus with you and read the psalms of despair and cursing. Read them with feeling, knowing Jesus is big enough to take even the most vigorous expression of your anger and despair. It may not be transformed, but you will no longer be hiding with it. And you will no longer be alone with it.


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