There are moments of different kinds and levels of darkness in our life. We can be sad, angry, stressed, furious, desperate, devastated, consumed. As we descend these steps towards the abyss, our heart gets filled with bitterness. But God wants to stay close to us in all of those stages, and in order to do that, among other things, He has given us the Psalms.
Psalm 88, which is recited on Friday in the Compline prayers of the Liturgy of the Hours, is appropriate for the last of those stepping stones in the staircase of pain. Because until then, they have been more and more filled with feelings, but the next one is just the opposite, the absence of feeling, the inability to feel anymore, the living death. God wants by all possible means prevent us from reaching that state of dehumanization, and that’s why He provides us with this prayer as our last resource, our last cry, so we can vent all our anguish.
Praying in recovery
The process of recovering from an eating disorder is one of those experiences that may often bring us to that condition of the soul. That’s why, many nights, exhausted from the truceless battle all day long, knowing that the next day would be the same, terrified that I might not be able to get out of this, I vented all my pain crying out to God with this Psalm.
At first I was a bit scared of doing that, because it speaks hard words, when I was sure that the problem was my sin, not God, and that He was my Savior. But then I realized that, if it was in the Bible, it was because it had been inspired by God Himself. He wasn’t going to be angry at me if I said that words, but He wanted me to speak to Him exactly like that if I ever found myself so downcast. Being able to express all my bitterness without fearing that I might be offending God again, this time for my ingratitude, was a relief and a liberation; knowing that He understood all that darkness of the soul and wasn’t going to be startled if I uncovered it to Him, but He wanted me to keep going back to Him while I was in it.
Therefore, I let you with this Psalm, that the Liturgy of the Hours calls “Prayer of a very sick person”. I’ve added small reflections about what I thought when I prayed it in the darkest hours of recovery.
Lord my God, I call for help by day; -> During all the hours of the day that is now coming to an end, I’ve been asking God for help to face the difficulties that hasn’t stop coming. To fight against all the evil thoughts. To eat everything I was scared of. To resist the urge to move constantly and be still instead.
I cry at night before You. -> But now night has arrived, and everything’s worse at night, I’m tired and the bad things seem to magnify. Prayer turns into a cry, a scream, tearing up my lungs, even if I do it in silence; a cry of horror, a cry that lets one trembling.
Let my prayer come into your presence.
O turn your ear to my cry. -> The Lord is in the highest, and I feel in the lowest. I don’t feel able to keep ascending, and that’s why I ask instead that He descends, to come with me.
“I cry at night before You”
For my soul is filled with evils; -> Before starting recovery, I had a somewhat “happy” life, but now? now that precisely I’m supposed to be doing God’s will? Misery, sadness and confusion all day long.
my life is on the brink of the grave.
I am reckoned as one in the tomb: -> In addition, the danger of death by undernourishment is real. And there are people who don’t even trust you can make it, the doctors say it’s a chronic case, that you can’t be helped.
I have reached the end of my strength, -> I can’t do anything by myself. I’m constantly under watch. All my meals are monitored as well as my exercise. I can’t make my own decisions because I’ve been declared unable to do so due to the fact that my mind is taken by the illness.
like one alone among the dead; -> I’m praying this alone at the foot of my bed, and I feel that way, I’m more dead than alive. I started the day with a desire to live, to fight and get over this once and for all, but now…
like the slain lying in their graves;
like those you remember no more,
cut off, as they are, from your hand. -> I’ve always found this passage quite strange, because it seems like there wasn’t other life after death. I guess it has to do with the ancient Jewish belief in the Sheol, similar to the Greek Hades. But I rather think about the people who are alive but like dead, with their hearts hardened, that have lost even the ability to feel, that don’t live, just survive.
“I am reckoned as one in the tomb”
You have laid me in the depths of the tomb,
in places that are dark, in the depths. -> Why have You let me get to such a low place, Lord? Hit rock bottom before inspiring me to go up? I wish I could have had this conversion earlier and not have lost so many years of my life, so I wouldn’t need to rebuild everything from zero now. Although I know it’s me who has insisted on doing this, I have dug my own grave.
Your anger weighs down upon me:
I am drowned beneath your waves. -> All this paragraph seems even temerarious, because it’s like throwing our situation in God’s face, accuse Him, blame Him. Distrusting his grace, telling Him we can’t go on, that please stop sending things to us, that we can’t face them any longer, that it’s too much. But He prefers us not to keep it inside, but express it.
You have taken away my friends
and made me hateful in their sight. -> People look at me with a mix of pity and fear. I used to think that they admired my bones, now I see they only make people cringe.
Imprisoned, I cannot escape;
my eyes are sunken with grief. -> I cry several times a day, constantly, even to the point that my eyes hurt.
“My eyes are sunken with grief”
I call to You, Lord, all the day long;
to You I stretch out my hands. -> Despite everything he’s saying to God, that won’t keep the psalmist from wanting to stay close to Him. It’s the same that when sometimes I can cry horrible things to my mother in anger, but then I end up simply sobbing in her arms.
Will You work your wonders for the dead?
Will the shades stand and praise You? -> If I get to that terrible state of the living death, will there still be hope for me? Will I then be able to get out of it? Lord, don’t let me get there.
Will your love be told in the grave
or your faithfulness among the dead? -> That state is the kingdom of death, because we’re filled with bitterness and find ourselves then at the expense of the devil and the evil forces. It’s the slow death of the soul.
Will your wonders be known in the dark -> God makes wonders. This can’t be denied even by the psalmist in his desperation. He knows God is the Almighty. That’s why he resorts to Him. He is the only one that can free him from things that are more powerful than himself. But we don’t always notice miracles. The shadows don’t let us see. We fight not to be subsumed by it, that the light of God pierces through the dense fog that surrouds us.
or you justice in the land of oblivion?
“To You I stretch out my hands”
As for me, Lord, I call to You for help:
in the morning my prayer comes before You. -> This is the only bit of hope that I can find in the Psalm. The certainty that God listens to what I ask Him. He exists and He’s there. And tomorrow morning He will give me renewed strength for the new day.
Lord, why do You reject me?
Why do You hide your face? -> However, soon this sparkle of hope is turned off. God’s there, but sometimes He seems hidden. There’s so much noise and disorder inside me that it’s difficult to look for the peace and light that He puts in me. Sometimes I find Him for a second, and that’s enought, but soon I forget this consolation.
Wretched, close to death from my youth, -> Since I was a little child, I started with this illness that has been consuming me.
I have borne your trials; I am numb.
Your fury has swept down upon me;
your terrors have utterly destroyed me. -> The desperation, the bitterness and the anger have gone in crescendo throughout this crying. These three lines are the most powerful for me, in which I always used to pause.
“Your terrors have utterly destroyed me”
They surround me all the day like a flood,
they assail me all together. -> The thoughts, the demons, that come into my mind and enclose me, and they corner me more and more, and I can’t stand their screams.
Friends and neighbor You have taken away:
my one companion is darkness. -> This Psalm doesn’t even have a happy ending. Others do: the one Jesus quotes in the Cross when He says: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22), has a whole second part that speaks of a glorious vision. But this one hasn’t. Because one is praying it at night, and when he finishes it the next thing he’s going to do is going to sleep while shedding the last tear, knowing that the next day his eyes will hurt when he wakes up because of the burning and the dryness, and that he’ll have to face again all the horror, all the terror.
However, I do want to end on a luminous note. That night is over. The new day has arrived. Psalm 116 can well be considered the epilogue of Psalm 88, since it remembers the previous situation (“I was caught by the cords of death; the snares of Sheol had seized me; I felt agony and dread”) and tells how the Lord acted in his life: “I was helpless, but He saved me […] For my soul has been freed from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling”. And, instead of the danger of physical death and living death, now, “I shall walk before the Lord in the land of the living”.