Befriending the Darkness
Liturgies of lament
Of all the psalms of lament, Psalm 88 is the bleakest. It seems entirely devoid of hope. All that is left is despair and desolation. But even this psalm, for all its despair, is not entirely hopeless. It is, after all, a prayer. It is addressed to God even though it offers no assurance that God is listening. And what a strange and enigmatic way for the psalm to end: "The darkness is my closest friend." Can it really be that the darkness itself can become a friend?
Through the Psalter, the traditional liturgy of the Church has been rich with lament and thereby remained pastorally pertinent. Sadly, one must seriously question whether this remains the case within the churches with which I am most familiar. No collection of hymns or songs has ever been flawless, and every generation of the church has managed to produce its fair share of poetic and musical dross. But it is fair to say that the majority of contemporary songs are up-beat in tempo and that the balance between the affective and the confessional and declaratory has swung in favor of the former. This style of worship focuses almost exclusively on praise, adoration, and thanksgiving, with clapping and other expressions of exuberance.
This form of worship renders it difficult to opt out, to observe, to sit, and to pray quietly while the performance proceeds. For the person who comes as this psalmist comes, for the person wrestling with any form of clinical depression, for the person tortured by the breaking down of relationships, for the recently bereaved, all this is unrelieved torture.
Any liturgy that does not include regular and broad engagement with the Psalter could, in these respects, be similarly faulted. Time and again the psalmists put into words, with disarming candor, feelings and prayers that most of us would struggle to express but echo nonetheless.
Am I angry with God? There are psalms that name this anger. Am I isolated and opposed? There are psalms that express this loneliness. Am I despairing of justice in human society or international relations? That same despair finds voice here. Am I fearful concerning the future for myself and for those I love? There are psalms that reassure me that I am not alone in such fears.
I believe that the Resurrection overwhelms the Cross, but not in a way that negates it or obscures it. It is the crucified one who is risen just as it is the risen one who was crucified. The risen and ascended Christ still bears the marks of slaughter.
Despair is not the last word
I have not taken lithium for almost thirty years. As my closest family and friends will tell you, I have certainly not "recovered." I've just spent thirty years developing strategies for coping.