The National Catholic Review
Rabbi Daniel F. Polish
Understanding the psalmist's anguish
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No book of the Hebrew Scriptures is more beloved than the Psalms. Many Christians carry with them a book containing the four Gospels and the Book of Psalms. But no book of the Hebrew Bible is regularly bound by itself, except the Psalms. The psalter is treasured. Pious Jews often carry a small volume of Tehillim (Psalms) or keep a copy on their nightstands (in Israel today many have substituted there a microfiche card of the entire book). Other books of the Bible might be studied, but the psalms are recited with a special devotion. We may assume that a book that inspires such religious devotion must express a profound sense of God’s nearness and concern. And many psalms do exactly that (“Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me”). Yet many others express the precise opposite perspective: a gnawing sense of God’s distance or even absence.

We encounter this spirit in many psalms:

Why, O Lord, do you stand aloof?

Why hide in times of distress?

Ps 10:1

Awake! Why are you asleep, O Lord?

Arise! Cast us not off forever!

Why do you hide your face,

forgetting our woe and our

oppression?

For our souls are bowed down to the

dust,

our bodies are pressed to the

earth.

Arise, help us!

Redeem us for your kindness’

sake.

Ps 44:24-27

I sing to God my rock:

“Why do you forget me?

Why must I go about in

mourning, with the enemy

oppressing me?”

It crushes my bones that my

foes mock me,

as they say to me day after

day,

“Where is your God?”

Ps 42:10-11

“Where is your God?” indeed. The religious spirit of these ancient texts seems far removed from the attitude of reverence and obedience we expect to find in religious texts. The dominant tone is not God’s nearness and accessibility, but God’s distance and absence. It is not the comforting, protecting God of Psalm 23 we encounter, but a God who has virtually departed from the scene. If we were to describe the religio-emotional state of the author, it would not be in terms of “quiet confidence” in God, or certitude and trust. Rather we would describe the author’s spiritual frame of mind as anxious, perhaps distraught.

The Painful Silence of God

Ingmar Bergman, who died in 2007, was widely regarded as a great master of the cinema (his biographer, film historian and critic Peter Cowie, called him “probably the nearest equivalent to a Shakespeare or a Rembrandt that the cinema has produced”). Bergman was the son of a Lutheran pastor. While on occasion his films were humorous or light, Bergman’s most powerful creations were meditations on life and death, the difficulties of establishing true human relationships and a profound theological question: the silence of God. One subset of his oeuvre is referred to as the “Silence of God” trilogy.

Bergman is emblematic of the many people who encounter experiences like those described by the psalmist—the silence of God—and understand it to signify God’s complete absence. We do not hear from God, they would maintain, because there is no God. For them, the inescapable conclusion of encounter with the awesome silence is atheism.

Is it possible that the Book of Psalms could be an atheist tract smuggled onto the nightstands and into the pews of the pious? Is an acute sensitivity to the deafening silence of God a royal road to denial of God? Or is it something else entirely? For certainly there is a very different way to understand a profound sensitivity to the silence of God.

That question was thrust upon the public consciousness with the publication of Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light (Doubleday). We learned that Mother Teresa was overcome for decades with a powerful sense of loneliness, even abandonment. God was not close to her, but unutterably remote, silent, unavailable. Ultimately, she found herself unable to pray. She wrote her confessor:

As for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great, that I look and do not see,—Listen and do not hear—the tongue moves [in prayer] but does not speak.... I want you to pray for me—that I let Him have [a] free hand.

Many expressed shock that so publicly pious a woman would experience such a sense of distance from her God. Others accused her of hypocrisy, of masquerading as a woman of faith while secretly having none. Some assumed that Mother Teresa was an atheist, understanding the silence of God—and her own reciprocal silence—in the same way as Ingmar Bergman.

Yet the difference between Mother Teresa and Ingmar Bergman is profound and telling. There is another sense in which we can understand the silence that Mother Teresa “heard” and which so many of us hear as well. It is a very different path opened for us by the Book of Psalms. For even the most pained of the psalms does not imagine that God is not. Rather, the anguish is an agonized expression of a keen awareness of God’s reality, but God’s distance from us. God most certainly “is.” But God is not close to us.

Recognizing the gap that separates God and us can arouse emotions analogous to the lovesickness that, in a secular setting, lovers experience when separated from the object of their love. It is not at all a denial of the beloved, God, but a profound affirmation of God—and even of our relation with God—attested to by our sense of separation.

A Loving Connection

In the Hindu tradition such lovesickness for God is one of the seven bhavas (forms of love) by which human beings can relate to the deity, all derived from the very human experiences we encounter in the journey of our lives. We can love God as a child loves a parent, or as a parent loves a child. We can love God with the emotion spouses feel for one another. And we can love God with the same emotions as those of a lover who longs to be reunited with an absent loved one.

This conjunction of anguish at separation and, at the same time, the affirmation of the unbrokenness of the underlying connection finds expression in many of the psalms. The God of Psalm 13, for example, is far off, but not dead to the psalmist. Instead, the psalmist cries out to the beloved God to pay heed and be present in a way that God has not been. It is a profound sense of God’s being and God’s ability to heed and help that provide the emotional energy of this psalm. Indeed, the anguish we hear in the first verses stands as a powerful statement of faith in God and devotion to God.

It is this same kind of affirmation through anguish that we hear in one of the most familiar of the psalms, Psalm 22. We know well the searing pain of the opening words, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” Christians recognize the cry as one of the seven last words of Christ, as recorded in Mt 27:46 and Mk 15:34. One can easily imagine a learned Jew of that time quoting these words of the psalm and evoking the emotions associated with them. So the words have become symbolic of an anguished sense of distance from (a perhaps uncaring) God.

One can imagine a casual reader (in a fantasy movie reel playing in my mind, that casual reader is Ingmar Bergman) coming upon these words and misconstruing them as the pathetic lament of someone who has lost faith. But the rest of the psalm makes such a glib assumption impossible. Instead of treating the non-being of God, or the disappearance of God, it grounds the pain on a powerful affirmation of God’s presence in the world and God’s ability to be present to humanity. The pain of the opening verses, then, is a deep recognition that God can help but has not. It is belief of the most profound, if painful, kind.

Such anguish can easily be misconstrued as the opposite of faith. In reality it is a tortured expression of profound faith, perhaps what the 16th-century Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross called the “dark night” of the soul.

‘What Does That Matter?’

The Hasidic master Menachem Mendle of Kotzk—called the Kotzker Rov—(d. 1859) spent the last years of his life in self-imposed isolation. Some maintained that he had withdrawn to spend all his time in communion with God. Others recognize that he withdrew from human contact in response to the way he felt God had withdrawn from him. His anguish became an expression of the depths of his faith. His silence—and God’s—became the hallmark of his own pained piety. Martin Buber recounts an episode from the years before the Kotzker Rov removed himself from the world. A disciple came to him:

“Rabbi,” he complained, “I keep brooding and brooding, and don’t seem able to stop.”

“What do you brood about?” asked the rabbi.

“I keep brooding about whether there really is a judgment and a Judge.”

“What does it matter to you?”

“Rabbi! If there is no judgment and no Judge, then what does all creation mean!”

“What does that matter to you?”

“Rabbi! If there is no judgment and no Judge, then what do all the words of the Torah mean!”

“What does that matter to you?”

“Rabbi! ‘What does it matter to me?’ What does the rabbi think? What else could matter to me?”

“Well, if it matters to you as much as all that,” said the rabbi of Kotzk, “then you are a good Jew after all….”

If it matters to you as much as all that, then you are a person of faith after all. That seems to be the sense in which the Book of Psalms takes our anguish at the awesome silence of God. It seems the spirit in which we can understand the agony of others, even those who, like Mother Teresa, once had a profound experience of God before a long period of God’s silence and the distance it represents.

If it matters to you as much as all that, then you are a person of faith after all: that is the spirit in which each of us can deal with our own encounter with God’s silence. When it descends, may we wrestle with it, struggle to move beyond it and recognize our own anguish for what it is: a mark of the most profound kind of connection to, and love for, God—even when God is silent.

Rabbi Daniel F. Polish, former director of the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism, is now spiritual leader of Congregation Shir Chadash of the Hudson Valley in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. He is the author of Bringing the Psalms to Life and

Comments

Rosalie Krajci | 3/14/2008 - 2:04pm
Dear Rabbi Daniel, What a powerful and faith-filled message! Thank you for this important reminder and assurance of God's enduring goodness.
lLetha Chamberlain | 3/7/2008 - 11:12pm
Thank you, dear Rabbi, for these words of comfort. There are times in my aridity when I do not take take time for the long formal prayer of "emptiness"(although I do attend to the usual routine ones)... I say to myself, "my life is a prayer"--and know that to be true. The pain of the silence is simply more than my heart can bear--instead I write poetry of praise to the God Who Lives, and do my various ministries. When th time is right for the prayer of "emptiness" in a formal fashion, it will be the time, I know, and I will be glad for it. My "emptiness" must also be included in how I live my life so the gifting of contemplation is also part of that life, as well as listening to the voices of the Body of Christ, Who surround me with their LOVE.

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