After Eight Service at Christ Church Cathedral
Sunday 8th May 2011The Archbishop was the guest speaker at an After Eight service at Christ Church Cathedral. The Archbishop, who was formerly a Canon of Christ Church, was interviewed by the Sub-Dean, Canon Ed Newell, and chose to talk about Psalm 88 and the ways it can help us face issues such as depression and frustration with God.
The Archbishop, a Simon and Garfunkel fan, also reflected on the song ‘The Sound of Silence’ which echoes the final words of the Psalm. Also involved in the service was Stephen Hibbs of the hip-hop band Sound Counsel, who is a fifth year medical student at St. Peter’s College, and singer-songwriter the Reverend Andy Thayer, who is a DPhil student at Mansfield College. A packed Cathedral heard their rap version of Psalm 88.
The transcript can be seen below:
It’s quite important to remember I think that the Psalms aren’t just a series of personal poems. They’re also the poems, the songs of a whole community. And it seems as if all of them would be sung in worship in Jerusalem. And that means that part of public worship in ancient Israel was lament. It was the acknowledgement of darkness. Some people think it might have been a psalm that was sung during a nightlong ordeal for a new king or a new high priest who had been locked up in a cave for the night. But the thing was that that person would be speaking on behalf of the whole community – as it were giving permission to a whole community to lament or protest – so not just how somebody happened to be feeling on a bad day! This was the entire community finding the freedom to talk to God in this way.
So there was an entire genre of Psalm called laments?
That’s right. And I think they all have that function. The really significant thing about the psalms is this giving permission: you can say these things to God. You can actually say to God what you feel in those words.
It’s a bleak Psalm. But do you personally find it a helpful Psalm?
I think it is helpful in just that sense that it tells me however angry I feel or lost, I can say that and God won’t go away. I think here of some of the 17th century poems of George Herbert, great priest and mystic. And some of those poems are poems of extraordinary anger, hitting out at God. And Herbert (as it were) ‘shouts at God’ until he gets hoarse. Then he stops and God’s still there, and he’s still there and something about this psalm especially among the Psalms of Lament gives me that sense. You say everything you can possibly think of. You ‘slag God off’ as long as you can and when you’ve run out of things to say – rude epithets to call him – he’s still there and you’re still there.
We view the Psalms through the lens of our own experience and history. I think of the Jewish contexts in the Holocaust/shoah, saying the Psalms in the camps. Does this resonate with you?
Yes I think that if people said a psalm like this in the camps, then they meant what they said. And it’s so difficult to talk about this without using somebody else’s suffering to make a point. But some of you just might have seen on TV a few years ago that drama set in Auschwitz with Anthony Sher playing a Rabbi? It was the occasion – perhaps legendary, perhaps true – when some of the Jews in the extermination camps put God ‘on trial’ and made the case against God as fully and exhaustively as they could. And this play recreates such a moment, when an elderly Rabbi is brought in among all the very different voices and personalities of the men in the camp. And for most of the play he says absolutely nothing. But about half an hour before the end when everybody has run out of things to say, he gets up and he draws it all together in a final statement of passionate indictment of God. He’s absolutely furious. It’s the one speech that bursts out. It’s incredibly moving (I think that Anthony Sher is one of the best things in British theatre) and then he falls silent and then they’re all summoned to go out into the gas chambers and as they go one or two begin to murmur the kaddish and you see one after another they cover their heads as it with a skullcap as they go into the chambers.
Now that’s one context for reading it and it’s one of those things that makes you realise the absolute uselessness of any arguments about God and suffering. The fact is suffering absolutely destroys some people’s faith and other people live faith in the depths of it all. And I don’t know how you argue about it.
We see this in the Book of Job?
With the Book of Job God comes in at the end of that book and he doesn’t come in and say ‘Look, I’ll explain everything you need explained’: he says ‘there you are and here I am’.
Bonhoeffer suggests that the Psalms only find their true meaning in relation to Jesus Christ …but is this really the case and how do you think Christians should respond to the Psalms?
I think just one word of caution about taking that statement in the obvious sense. The Psalms are Jewish and they stay Jewish. I think we’ve got to be rather careful about saying ‘well they’re really ours’. I guess what Bonhoeffer is trying to get at is something like this: specifically for the Christian there’s a long tradition of saying that the Psalms are the voice of God in Christ in us. If Scripture is the voice of God in some sense, well then so are the Psalms and then that puts before you the extraordinary idea that God is shouting out in protest against God. And that connects immediately with Jesus shouting out in protest on the cross. And when St Augustine writes about the Psalms in the 4th-5th century one of the things he says is that the humanity of Jesus means that Jesus speaks to God in our voice, and sometimes our voice isn’t very nice to hear when it’s angry, abusive, furious, lost, wretched. And trusting in God therefore is not saying ‘Oh I know God will produce a happy ending’ it’s more like …well can you imagine writing down on a piece of paper the worst thing you can think of to say to God in a moment of doubt and misery and as it were, handing it to Jesus and saying ‘read that out’. (You can imagine Jesus turning to the Father, (in biblical language!) and reading that out to him: ‘Where the hell are you!’
Is this one of the reasons that this Psalm in particular is associated with Good Friday?
Absolutely yes. It’s one in which that voice of complete lostness and lack of happy ending becomes utterly appropriate in thinking through what’s going on in Jesus on Good Friday. That moment when Jesus takes on the voice of the lost and the dying, and as John Calvin said in some sense the voice of the damned, and people crying out of a sense of being absolutely lost, forgotten and rejected. And very powerful in the Psalm is that language of being forgotten. It’s not that God isn’t there, he is there and doesn’t care and you’re obliterated and he’s forgotten about you.
Is the resurrection the answer to the questions posed in this Psalm?
I don’t think the Resurrection is an answer to anything. The Resurrection just happens. The Resurrection doesn’t come in to say ‘It was alright really’ with God smiling as he removes the mask. There’s a line in a hymn, Behind a frowning providence he hides a smiling face, and I find that a really scary image. It’s not that the Resurrection comes in to solve it all. It just happens that when all this has been said and done and suffered: he’s still there. And maybe the proclamation of the resurrection just has to begin with that very quiet almost silent moment he’s still there. There’s a wonderful painting by an early 20th century Russian painter -- Ilya Repin’s ‘Dawn on Easter Day’ -- with a huge wooden cross in the foreground with caked blood still on the bottom of it and dogs licking the blood. It’s very grotesque. And behind you see the wall of the city and the small Postern gate in the wall. And somebody sitting just in side the gate has lit a small fire, and to me that’s just one of the most powerful images of the Resurrection I know. That tiny little glow in the background that says: still there. And I’m not worried that this psalm ends without going on to the Resurrection because sometimes we’re in such a hurry to get to the happy ending we don’t take seriously enough what’s going on in the interim. We have a whole day between Good Friday and Easter Sunday and quite right too! And so at the end of the psalm silence falls, and you wait.
I think for people of my generation who first heard that in about 1964, it still sends a shiver down the spine. It did then and it does now. And it’s really interesting that the first line picks up the end of the psalm. Because a number of people translating the psalm want to translate that last verse as, my only companion is darkness; the one friend I have left is darkness. So yes, it does resonate.
The Psalms can really connect with the human condition and speak to us about what humanity is like?
Interesting that in the song, silence is not a good thing, it’s a bad thing, an evil almost. Because the silence there is the silence of voices that ought to be heard and can’t be. And that connects back in its own way with the psalm because sometimes we don’t allow the voice of grief or protest to be heard. We’ve all witnessed and reflected on the silencing of the voices of the abused. We think not enough of the voices of the forgotten of the world, of the poor, of those living year after year of civil war and butchery. And the silence of the song is the silence of those things not being heard. That’s where the liberation of the psalm in a strange way is just back to where I started: a licence to say it, to name the truth of the human condition.
Psalm 88 is described as a depressive psalm. Paul Simon’s song is depressive. Do you see any links between religion and depression?
Some psychiatrists talk about the ‘depressive condition’ as being somewhere we all really need to get, in the rather technical sense that in the depressive position is where you actually accept your limitation. It is somewhere where you know you can’t do everything and where you have come to a point where you see that your own fragility and weakness is just a given and that it doesn’t kill you. In a strange way that depressive position is good news. I think that religion has a lot to do with the depressive position because it’s an acknowledgement of the possibility and the limit of human endeavour, human hope. It’s a genuinely compassionate and hopeful realism, and I think that is where we all pray to get.
So it becomes part of our spiritual journey?
Yes. But that’s not to say that depression is good for you. It’s not to say for those who suffer the horrors of clinical depression ‘it’s all right really, this is all really very spiritual so don’t panic’. It is to say that the moments when we are most up against our limits are potentially moments of growth and truth. Now how those moments genuinely come to be moments of growth and truth depends on any number of things: compassionate care; accompaniment; listening ears and all the rest of it. But I think that that’s what it comes to.
There is a very good book written by Gwyneth Lewis (a great friend and the first National Poet of Wales) entitled Sunbathing in the Rain: a cheerful book about depression. She had suffered enormously from clinical depression and this book is essentially trying to come to terms with these aspects of growth and truth in what she was enduring.
Is there something you’d like to leave us with? A take-home message from Psalm 88?
The message in a sense is the silence at the end of the psalm. It’s inviting us to say ‘yes, this is the truth’ but ‘yes, I can say it’. And in that freedom to say it, mysteriously you can see the little brazier burning in the dark doorway. It reminds me of the story of Russia and Stalin in the 1930s and the great poet Anna Akhmatova. Standing in a queue of people going to visit their relatives in prison in the cold of a Moscow winter. And one of the other women in the queue knowing who Akhmatova was, turned to her and said ‘can you write about this?’ and Akhmatova thought about it and said ‘yes’ and the woman said ‘that’s alright then’.
And that gift of being able to say it is somehow the beginning of grace. But we don’t rush it.