A psalm of the winter solstice


“SHE: What happened to Psalm 88?  Why did you skip it?

“HE: I don’t think you could take it tonight.  I am not sure I could.  No: I am sure I could not.

“SHE: Please read it, for me ... I need that kind the most.”

This dialogue begins the preface to the second edition of Martin Marty’s “A Cry of Absence” (Harper San Francisco, 1993), which appears about 10 years after the original publication.

The HE is Martin Marty, prolific author and, until his retirement in 1998, professor of the history of  modern Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. The SHE is Marty’s first wife, Elsa, whose battle with terminal cancer is the unspoken tragedy that runs through the pages of the first edition of “A Cry of Absence.”

Marty’s book is an extended personal commentary on selections from the 150 Biblical psalms. During the course of Elsa’s illness, she needed to take certain medications at the midnight hour, at which time husband and wife took turns reading a psalm: she would read the odd-numbered, he the even-numbered. Marty comments,  “The medicines were pain relievers, fighters against nausea, palliatives. Half the psalms were not.”

Given the circumstances that gave rise to “A Cry of Absence,” it is no surprise that the author has chosen to focus upon those dark places in our human experience; he subtitles his book “Reflections for the Winter of the Heart.” Drinking deeply from the writings of Karl Rahner, S.J. (1904-1984), a German Jesuit priest and theologian,  Marty explores his own “wintry” spirituality; his type of religious faith puts him at a marked distance from those who express their “summery” religious postures through their ever-present upbeat smiles and their nonstop Praise-the-Lords. Marty sides with those who eschew the “ignorant immortality” of Eden and embrace the “informed mortality” that has to some degree darkened our lives ever since you and I were expelled from the Garden:    

“The knowledge of death, for all the grimness of realism it introduces to life, is what gives daily and yearly existence meaning. Humans no longer have immortality, but they have history, memory and hope. Remembering is the root of trust, hoping is the center of faith.”

Marty considers Psalm 88, the psalm he could not at first bring himself to read to his wife, to be a poem of the winter solstice, that moment when the sun stands still at its farthest distance from our place on this planet Earth. I have recently translated Psalm 88 anew in an attempt to bring out the full intensity of the Hebrew’s imagery:              

“I am reckoned among those who go down to the pit, / Like a man who has no strength – / Among the dead – released, like corpses lying in the grave, / Whom You remember no more, cut off from Your protecting hand. / You have placed me in the bottomless pit, in the darkest of places, in the unfathomed depths. / Your anger weighs me down; / With all Your breaking waves You crush me.” (verses 5-8)                            With his bitter cry of absence, the psalmist accuses God of deliberately estranging him from the people he loves: “You have kept me from those I know; You have made me an abomination to them, jailed with no way out.” (verse 9)   

This psalm, more than any other, speaks to that darkness faced by those suffering from life-threatening illness. Despite all the pain packed within the 19 verses of Psalm 88, there is, as Marty points out, “an intrinsic value in the act of facing up honestly to the human condition.... Whoever devises from the Scriptures a philosophy in which everything turns out right has to begin with tearing out this page. [ie., Psalm 88] of the volume.  

Its lines suggest a frozen Niagara Falls, a stalactitic maze of frozen drops forming a curtain to defeat the seeker on a spiritual journey.” Marty’s dying wife, in her heroic effort to come to terms with the palpable ebbing of her life, insists that the searing honesty of this psalm is precisely what she needs most.    

This past March 24, I had the privilege of leading back-to-back workshops at a half-day program  on “Advanced Care Training for Faith Leaders.” coordinated by the Rhode Island State Council of Churches.  My task was to focus upon the “spiritual” dimensions of working with seriously ill and dying individuals, with special emphasis upon our elderly population.  The three other workshop leaders approached the subject from ethical, medical and legal perspectives. 

In each of my two sessions, we spent the majority of our time together in a close reading of Psalm 88. While many of the participants found this poem of the winter solstice profoundly troubling, they were nevertheless moved by its spiritual and emotional honesty; they could see how in certain circumstances Psalm 88 might give “permission” to the seriously ill to voice their darkest feelings. 

At the conclusion of the second session, my colleague Rabbi Sarah Mack questioned me about Psalm 88: “Where is the nechemta? (Where is the consolation, the comfort?)”           

I replied that this poem must be read within the context of the other 149 psalms, which, taken as a whole, reflect the gamut of human experience – both darkness and light, both deepest sorrow and soaring exultation. The very last word of Psalm 88 is machshach, which could be translated as “extreme darkness,” “thickening darkness,” even “devouring darkness.” By way of contrast, the final word of Psalm 150 is Halleluyah, Praise the Lord!

JAMES B. ROSENBERG is rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim in Barrington. Contact him at rabbiemeritus@templehabonim.org.