Using the Psalms Among the Sick

Using the Psalms Among the Sick

Pastoral care with the sick has no expiry date. Every circumstance, hard as it is and may be, direly calls for the person and those around him/her to be cared for. In effect, pastoral care can be translated into a relationship that encompasses both its vertical and horizontal aspect, that is that person visa vis God, other people and himself/herself. Yet, this pastoral relationship occurs within an intermediary ambience, the pastoral minister. It is the latter who represents God’s presence with the person and persons s/he is walking with.

If, as Pope Francis says, “time spent with the sick is holy time,” and it has a “special value” then, one way of making it holy is by celebrating God’s Word with the suffering person together with his and her entourage. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI reminds us: “sacred Scripture contains countless pages which speak of the consolation, support and healing which God brings.”

Psalms are the source for consolation, support and healing. They are an effective means to accompany people who are facing extremely difficult moments in their lives, especially sickness. In his article on the Psalms, literally meaning “a song sung to a stringed instrument,” Nahum M. Sarna says that among the types of psalms in the Psalter there are poems of praise which celebrat[e] the majesty, greatness and providence of God. Examples of such include Psalms 8, 19a, 29, 33, 65, 66, 92, 100, 104, 113, 114, 117, 135, and 145–150. Other type of psalms which make up this complex compendium is lament. Here, the speaker may be either the individual or the community. The latter type bewails situations of national oppression or misfortune (e.g., Ps. 44, 60, 74, 79, 80, 83, 89c, 94); the former comprises about 40 psalms in all and is distinguished by personal complaints of bodily or mental suffering which may frequently be accompanied by protestations of innocence and integrity and are usually coupled with a strong plea for divine help (Ps. 3, 5, 6, 7, 9–10, 13, 17, 22, 25–28, 31, 35, 36, 38, 39, 41, 42–43, 51, 52, 54–57, 59, 61, 63, 64, 69, 71, 77, 86, 88, 102, 120, 123, 130, 140–143). Sarna also mentions what he calls “psalms of confidence. These are psalms which portray the expression by the worshiper of the absolute certainty that His prayers will be heard.

For our brethren in the faith, the Jews, the Psalms are a wellspring of God’s mercy for them. In fact, for time immemorial, whenever Jews found themselves in difficult situations, whether individually or communally, they would open up the Book of Psalms and use King David’s ageless poetic praises and supplications to beseech God for mercy. Moreover, God’s mercy for his people was, is and will be, from age to age (Isa. 60:15). Therefore, every circumstance needs to be enlightened and led by the wisdom and courage found in the Psalms. The Midrash tells us that when King David compiled the Psalms, he had in mind himself, as well as every Jew of every generation and every circumstance. No matter who you are and what the situation, the words of the Psalms speak the words of your heart and are heard On High.

In their joint book תְּהִלִּים Tehillim Psalms of Hope, Comfort and Courage, the professional Board Certified Chaplains, Rabbis Stephen Roberts, Stephen Shulman, Mychal Springer and Tzvi Stern, in their short, simple yet profound introduction to this book, claim: “The words of Tehillim, Psalms belong to us all. Jews have traditionally recited Psalms when seeking to articulate joys and sadness, hopes and fears, gratitude and needs. Tehillim expresses the language of our neshamah, our spirit, in health and sickness, in jubilation and despair, in fulfilment and defeat… These words have been a message of faith and of courage for hundreds of generations during periods of life when such a message was greatly needed.” Furthermore, these Jewish chaplains openly claim: “Each contributing chaplain has utilized the deeply spiritual properties of these Psalms extensively when working with people in times of joy as well as in times of distress.”

As the writer Belinda McLeod attests, “the shock of illness and a sincere desire to say the right thing can be obstacles when looking for what to say to someone who is sick.” Thus, for those who really want to be guided when visiting someone who is greatly suffering physically she gently offers the following Psalms to share lovingly with them. In so doing one conveys them the message that he and she has been thinking of them as well as his/her noble intent to share words that bring them solace, hope and comfort.

O Lord, heal me, for my bones are shaking with terror (Ps 6:2). For McLeod, “this Psalm directly asks for healing. Simultaneously, it recognizes the real fear and scary emotions when facing a health crisis.” Another helpful Psalm is Psalm 34:18-19: The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit. The righteous person may have many troubles, but the Lord delivers him from them all. Commenting on the reason for choosing this psalm McLeod offers the following argument: “Brokenhearted is an appropriate and visual word to describe the tough feelings a friend or family member may be dealing with as a result of seeing a loved one so ill. Maybe you are looking for prayers for grieving parents, who are suffering from the illness or injury of their child. This Psalm can help soothe some of the hurt and acute pain for those who are hurting.”

In case where a person is greatly hurting physically or emotionally one can pray Psalm 31:9, 14-15: Be merciful to me, Lord, for I am in distress; my eyes grow weak with sorrow, my soul and body with grief. But I trust in you, Lord; I say, ‘You are my God.’ My times are in your handsThis psalm can easily remind your friend to turn to a higher power in times of need. Psalm 41:1-3 is also helpful during time of ilness since it offers “a fantastic message of hope and recovery” in that it “can offer some real inspiration to a close friend or family member who may feel the opposite.” It says: Blessed are those who have regard for the weak; the Lord delivers them in times of trouble. The Lord protects and preserves them— they are counted among the blessed in the land— he does not give them over to the desire of their foes. The Lord sustains them on their sickbed and restores them from their bed of illness (Ps 41:1-3).

Psalm 107 can be shared with patients “who have been feeling alone in their pain and suffering,” especially when suffering because of “chronic illnesses or recovery from a tough injury.” According to McLeod, this Psalm gives “some inspiring words and hope when it all feels too difficult.” It proclaims: Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he saved them from their distress. He sent out his word and healed them (Ps 107:19-20). Psalm 13 is a psalm of patience. Since healing does not always take place instantly but it is a process, one may need to ask for more patience and endurance to manage that time.” The psalmist prays: How long will You forget me, O Lord? Forever? How long will You hide Your face from me? How long shall I take counsel in my soul, having sorrow in my heart daily? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? (Ps 13:1-2).

In times when a person feels “drained of hope” in mind, body and spirit, here comes the living refreshing water of Psalm 130. In fact, McLeod says that “this Psalm offers a different take on prayer, where you can infuse your emotion into these words and cry out for help and guidance to another power. That has its own form of power.”

By appreciating these Jewish Psalms of healing I came to realise that these Psalms accompany the person and his and her family entourage throughout the different phases of illness. By praying them the person is acknowledging what s/he is going through, and is inviting God to be in the picture. Second, it would be helpful if these psalms are prayed with family members too so that they feel encouraged and sustained by the Divine in their caring support for their loved ones in distress. Third, when God enters the realm of our suffering, through the praying of the Psalms, a community of faith is built. Fourth, when the chaplain, who is representing God, uses the Psalms as his/her important tool in his/her pastoral ministry with the sick, his/her ministry becomes more enriching, charismatic, spiritual and more down-to-earth. Most of all, his and her personal faith is rejuvenated all the time.

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Written by
Fr Mario Attard OFM Cap