Morning is the worst time of day for those in the grip of suffering. The nauseating jolt back into consciousness is accompanied by acute sensation: the foul odor and tinny taste of a too-parched mouth is complemented by the needling pain of dry eyelids on dryer eyes. Your body seems to want to participate in your soul’s anguish—as if they were separable—reminding you that you’ve cried out all your moisture. Which reminds me: nights are miserable, too. Morning at least gives way to the business of the day where, mercifully, you find small moments of distraction. But then, having worn out the day but not your grief, night compels you to confront your pain in silence. More than that—night redoubles your agony by forcing you to confront the pain of silence. “Where are you, God?” I manage to whisper so as not to wake my barely sleeping bride. On other nights I can only muster, “Why?” There is, of course, no answer. So your lament carries over from night into morning only to trudge back again towards night: “O my God, I cry in the day-time, but thou hearest not; and in the night season also I take no rest” (Ps. 22:2). The language is arresting, and isn’t “night season” just perfect? The phrase is so strange it gives you pause—but it clarifies the experience in ways other translations don’t. Anyone who has wept through the night will tell you that.
One thinks of Christ’s interminable night in the garden or the medieval mystics’ fascination with that “dark night of the soul” or again remembers the hours that simply won’t pass as your aged, cancer-riddled grandmother begins to. That is why “night season” is terrifyingly precise. Hopkins says it elegantly: “That night, that year / Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God” (“Carrion Comfort”). I wonder whether the poet, a genteel priest, meant the night felt like a year or that he suffered through some three hundred odd such nights. Perhaps both. Miserere mei, Deus: “Have mercy upon me, O God” (Ps. 51:1).
Whether a night or a season, the silence proves deafening. It seems to crescendo through time:
go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence. You may as well turn away. The longer you wait, the more emphatic the silence will become . . . Why is He so present a commander in our time of prosperity and so very absent a help in time of trouble? (Lewis, A Grief Observed, 6).
For in times of trouble, night is where one begins to truly hear silence.
How in the midst of such a night can one speak? How can one begin to express that which defies speech, the agony which resists expression to remain ineffable? One wants to claim that if spoken, if forced down into words, it could be led to the incarnate Word and so redeemed. But life is rarely so tidy and words so rarely at hand. When I attempt to unpack my heart with words, I feel keenly how
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Will not stay still. Shrieking voices
Scolding, mocking, or merely chattering,
Always assail them. (“Burnt Norton,” The Four Quartets)
More directly, what can you say to the woman who so desperately wants to be a mother but has miscarried—again? Or to the mother whose youngest child didn’t wake one week after making the varsity basketball team? What might a teacher say in a classroom that now has an ever-empty chair? What can a priest say in a pandemic? How could one speak to a community that suffers injustice, that is literally being suffocated? Sanctimonious cliché is ever at hand: those who deny the potency of suffering by forcing God into a canned silver lining would get along handsomely with Job’s friends. And then I remember that Job’s friends started well: silence seems right. I do not mean an empty silence, but that pregnant silence which inaugurates lament. So Sarai endures ninety-nine years of silence before the angel arrives with news of a child. Curiously, she laughs. Then she cries. Israel waits in silence for four hundred years in Egypt. I suspect the exodus yoked tears with laughter. Christ himself compels his mother and disciples to wait from Friday until Sunday. What did the women feel at the empty tomb? Perhaps sorrow and joy cannot be separated. Why should we be quick to speak? Silence helps clarify our cries, our wailing into song.
Lament is at heart a complaint, an anguished crying out to God in the midst of suffering and injustice: “Batter my heart, three-person’d God” then gasping for breath—I falter, “but can’t you just leave us alone awhile!” (“Batter my heart”). This song of lament is as universal as pain and suffering. You hear it in the Irish keen, and it courses through African American spirituals; it is voiced by Priam before Achilles and, as we shall see, by Christ himself. It springs from night and silence, from the soul’s profound desire
to make of the ache of inwardness—
music maybe (“Music Maybe,” Once in the West)
Lament rises throughout the books of Job and, not surprisingly, Lamentations. It is elsewhere, too, of course, but it reaches a pitch of intensity in the poems that are the Psalms.
The Psalms are expansive. They represent the single largest book in the Bible, but they also capture the full range of human experience. As the lectionary or liturgical calendar leads you through the Psalter you find adoration and praise, thanksgiving, instruction, and wisdom in turn. Importantly, though perhaps unexpectedly, you also find imprecations or curses, complaint and lament. These last embarrass us, offend our modern and humane disposition. I suspect that if we encountered them anywhere outside holy script, we would be quick to decry them as impious, even profane or blasphemous. Yet there they are. “Let their eyes be blinded, that they not see; and ever bow thou down their backs. Pour out thine indignation upon them, and let thy wrathful displeasure take hold of them” (Ps. 69:24–25) or “let his prayer be turned into sin. Let his days be few; and let another take his office. Let his children be fatherless, and his wife a widow” (Ps. 109:6b–8). They certainly aren’t what we expect. They don’t sound stereotypically Christian, but then Christ often said rather unexpected things. Of course, Christ’s prayers and speech are, like the great gift that is the Book of Common Prayer, infused with the language of the Psalms.
The Psalms, it is generally agreed, were composed by many authors across a long stretch of time. They range from the time of King David to the fall of Jerusalem in 586 BC where Judah is taken into the Babylonian captivity. Some scholars date the later psalms to the post-exilic period, arguing they were composed after returning from Babylon. They serve many purposes and arise out of diverse situations. The psalms of lament stem from devastating personal or communal experience: David cries out having lost a son; others express the anguish of an entire community, God’s chosen people, crushed and enslaved in exile.
In terms of basic structure, Psalm 13 provides an accessible model. This structure is common, though as you work your way through the laments, you’ll see the poems often assume more complex and strained arrangement because, well, pain and suffering aren’t straightforward. We open with complaint: “How long wilt thou forget me, O Lord; for ever? how long wilt though hide thy face from me? How long shall I seek counsel in my soul, and be so vexed in my heart? how long shall mine enemy triumph over me?” This is followed by petition: “Consider, and hear me, O Lord my God; lighten mine eyes, that I sleep not in death; Lest mine enemy say, I have prevailed against him: for if I be cast down, they that trouble me will rejoice at it.” And though life or experience doesn’t always provide the coherence of poetry, the psalm ends with a resolution, a return to God: “But my trust is in thy mercy, and my heart is joyful in thy salvation. I will sing of the Lord, because he hath dealt so lovingly with me; yea, I will praise the Name of the Lord Most High.” When we pray this psalm, we enact it—it becomes that song we sing.
I would like to suggest that these psalms are essential for the Christian walk for several reasons. Most simply, the psalms of lament give us something to say. They provide us with a means of voicing our pain and suffering, and they give us permission so to do. Thus in times of great personal or communal tragedy, when our souls are laid bare and our own words fail or tend toward hollow cliché, we gasp and reach for the psalms of lament. As poems, the psalms provide a sort of coherence to our own incoherent experience of suffering. Put otherwise, they articulate what we often cannot—I am no great poet.
So too, the psalms of lament provide the grounds where we may fruitfully question God. These psalms embody the struggle and wrestling with doubt that is the life of faith. Though they may at times seem impertinent, they are given to us as faithful models of the life of faith.
In this sense, the psalms of lament can teach us how to feel our feelings. They guide us in how we ought to respond to suffering and pull us out of the pit of self-indulgence—“Not, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee” (“Carrion Comfort”) or “O keep my soul, and deliver me: let me not be confounded, for I have put my trust in thee” (Ps. 25:16). By praying the psalms of lament and thereby avoiding excess, we might grow in virtue. The habitual and liturgical prayer of lament is cathartic, it purifies our emotions or—as Augustine would phrase it—helps order our loves. This doesn’t mean that we’ll escape future suffering but rather that we might learn to suffer better. We might even learn to love our suffering, as Paul did, because it somehow, mysteriously, draws us nigh unto God. Which leads to my final two thoughts.
We find communion when we pray the psalms of lament, alone or in our congregations. By voicing the psalms, we are caught up into that cosmic chorus that is the cry of the Church. This is part of what it means to be in the communion of saints: we join our voices with David, with the ancient Israelites, with Augustine and the early church, with the whole of Christ’s bride, who, in various times and various places, has lifted up these same prayers. Our lament becomes a line in the polyphonic symphony of the Church’s song. Thus we are never alone when we say, “Hear my prayer, O Lord, and let my crying come unto thee” (Ps. 102:1).
And we can be sure that God does not merely suffer our laments to enter his presence. For in the incarnation, Christ condescends to our suffering. He is that man of sorrows (Is. 53). He knows our suffering: he participates in it, thereby affirms it, and finally redeems it. When he hears of Lazarus’ death, Christ weeps (Jn. 11:35), and in turn he affirms our own lamentations, “Blessed are ye that weep” (Lk. 6:21). Tellingly, he voices the psalms of lament from the cross. Psalm 22 is on Christ’s lips as he utters “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Mt. 27:46), while “I thirst” echoes Psalm 22:14–15 even as it enacts Psalm 69:22. Similarly we hear Psalm 31:6 in Christ’s “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit” (Lk. 23:46). Many of the psalms of lament end in the dust, in the pit; Christ’s suffering literally brings him into Sheol. Thus, the incarnate Christ does not merely hear our prayer. Having suffered with us and for us he becomes our prayer and carries our suffering to the very heart of God. May we, too, O Lord be so carried as we join our lament with thee!
So in the vicissitudes of the too early morning and darkest night season, in the midst of inexpressible personal and communal anguish, when our silence has finally given way to groaning, may our songs of lament be lifted up into Christ and so transfigure us into his image.
Nathan M. Antiel
Nathan has been attending Holy Trinity since 2018 with his wife Kayla and son Huck. He and his wife are alumni of the New City Fellows Class of 2020. Nathan received his MPhil in Anglo-Irish Literature from Trinity College Dublin and, more recently, an MAR in Theology and the Arts from Yale. A graduate of the Yale Institute for Sacred Music, he currently teaches poetry, literature, and theology.
David Taylor’s new book Open and Unafraid: The Psalms as a Guide to Life is an accessible, thoughtful, and at times deeply personal introduction to the Psalms. An Anglican priest, Taylor’s book is perhaps more personal than scholarly though his footnotes point towards more scholarly trails for those so inclined. C.S. Lewis’ Reflections on the Psalms offer another Anglican’s take on this wily and wonderful book. He admits in his first sentences, “This is not a work of scholarship. I am no Hebraist, no higher critic, no ancient historian, no archaeologist,” and yet he discovers much by a sustained meditation on the Psalms. Walter Brueggemann has written extensively on the Psalms and his The Message of the Psalms divides them into psalms of orientation (which affirm the world as well-ordered), disorientation (describe the world as we experience it), and new orientation (where God breaks through apparent disorder).
It is difficult to read anything of Augustine’s and not encounter the Psalms, they so shape his thinking and, thus, his speech. Yet his Expositions of the Psalms perform close reading and commentary on each of the 150 psalms in turn. Similarly, one cannot but be inspired by the energy of Luther as he constantly discovers Christ in the psalms—see Reading the Psalms with Luther.
C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed and Nicholas Wolterstorff’s A Lament for a Son represent two potent laments written in prose. I would recommend them to anyone who has lost a loved one.
I have not called directly on the following two texts here, but they have guided my thinking in many ways. Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams’ The Edge of Words offers a profound and dense meditation on language and God. And Stanley Hauerwas’ meditations on the last seven words of Christ in Cross-Shattered Christ ends with the claim that “Jesus has become the Father’s Psalm [he has the thirteenth in view] for the world, fulfilling Israel’s undying hope that death, and the judgement death must be and always is, is not the last word.”
Finally, I have at times quoted from and often alluded to a tradition of poets because I take certain of their poems as participating in and extending the range of lament. Their poems will take you on a similar journey but end with the assurance, as Eliot has it, that “all shall be well, and / all manner of thing shall be well.” I recommend the poems of John Donne (especially his “Holy Sonnets”), George Herbert, Gerard Manley Hopkins (especially “Carrion Comfort” and “I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day”), and of course the great poems “Ash Wednesday” and The Four Quartets by that highest of Anglicans T.S. Eliot. Christian Wiman is a contemporary poet whose My Dark Abyss recounts his response to a diagnosis of incurable cancer. His poetry is like lightning.