Hello, I’m Daniel Westfall on the channel “Pray with Me”.
Psalm 88 is one of the darkest psalms. Most complaint psalms move forward from a statement of deep trouble to a place of hope and trust. Psalm 22, for example, begins, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” and moves toward the thought, “All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the Lord” (v. 27).
But Psalm 88 moves in the opposite direction, starting with “Lord, you are the God who saves me” (v. 1), and ending on the despairing note,
You have taken from me friend and neighbour–
darkness is my closest friend (v. 18).
My spiritual director, who experienced dark years with debilitating health problems, said that at one low point in her life, Psalm 88 was her greatest comfort. When her life was all darkness and no light, the words “darkness is my closest friend” gave her permission to remain quietly in that place, not seeking desperately for answers, not searching hopelessly for light, not complaining bitterly to God, just waiting quietly in darkness and pain.
Author John Monbourquette captures some of this in his book, How to Befriend your Shadow (Darton Longman and Todd: Ottawa, 2001). He says many people spend their lives fighting the shadow side of their experience and treating it as the enemy. For some, the shadow is sinful temptations, evil fantasies, unholy urges. For those who want to appear strong and competent, the fearful shadow may be weakness and vulnerability. Monbourquette suggests that we not fight the shadow, but befriend it, recognizing it as part of who we are. We can listen to what it tells us without acting out every urge. Instead of avoiding and suppressing and denying the darkness,we can receive it and learn from it.
Sometimes our Christian experience is like the disciples on the stormy lake, rowing endlessly through the night without reaching land. There is a spiritual gift for us in receiving this experience, in befriending the darkness as we row through our night, waiting and hoping for God’s deliverance.
Our father, in his poem The Hound of Heaven, Frances Thompson paints you as a hound dog, tracking him as he escapes into pleasure, human friendship, and nature. In the end when you catch him, he lies naked and vulnerable in the dark, no longer able to run, fearful as he waits the stroke of your punishment. But unexpectedly, he encounters your love, and says of his darkness:
Is my gloom after all
Shade of his hand outstretched caressingly? (lines 179-180).
Ah Lord, that is what we long for. To know we live in the shadow of your loving hand. To know that when we experience your absence, when we are tired of running, when darkness is all about us, our gloom is the shadow of your hand, stretched out above us in love.
We bring to you the darkness we feel today.
– We row at night through a COVID pandemic, not knowing how or when we will reach land.
– We enter another long dark winter, where health care and economics are stressed.
– Hurricanes batter the Carribean, an earthquake shakes Turkey, a divisive election disrupts the United States, a typhoon wreaks destruction on the Philippines. Everywhere the world descends into darkness.
As Paul said, “Our warfare is not against flesh and blood, but . . . against the powers of this dark world.” O father, as we feel ourselves sinking, we with the Psalm 88, “Darkness is our closest friend”, for we know that even darkness will reveal your presence to us. With Frances Thompson, we believe that our gloom is shade of your hand, outstretched caressingly.
I’m Daniel on the channel “Pray with Me”.