Ouch! Why? Please! Praying with the Lament Psalms

Thu, Nov 15th 2018 12:00 pm

The Book of Psalms contains the "Word of God" in the words of humans. Of the 150 Psalms in our biblical book, more than half of them are psalms of lament. Unfortunately, these psalms, at least the lament sections, are not used commonly in our Sunday lectionary and so we may have lost touch with this dimension of prayer; we need to recover it.

What is lament? Paraphrasing the words of Father Michael Guinan, OFM, ("Biblical Laments: Prayer Out of Pain"): When we feel blessed in life, ... we turn to God in praise and thanksgiving. But what happens when we are overcome by the presence of chaos, brokenness, abuse and suffering? When we hurt physically, we cry out in pain; when we hurt religiously, we cry out in lament. Lamentation can be described as a loud, religious "Ouch!"

There is a pattern in most biblical laments: invocation - petition to God; the complaint - description of the crisis behind the lament; petition - what one pleads for God to do and/or reasons God should do as one asks; conclusion - expression of trust that God hears the prayer, or a promise to offer praise to God. Laments are addressed directly to God: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Ps. 22:1, the words of Jesus on the cross. These words may seem like a lack of faith. But lament is an act of faith. We cry out directly to God because we know God is there, that God hears, and that we count with God. Some lament psalms have words of thanksgiving for deliverance in the conclusion. This may not reflect the immediate circumstances of the petitioner, but a hope for future justice or a later experience of satisfaction. The psalmist takes the time to let all the pain and anger out before the praise can set in. Finally, a lament may include a curse of one's enemies, the cause of one's suffering (Ps. 6:11), or a claim of one's guilt or innocence in the situation (Ps. 31:18). Communal lament psalms are also present in the Bible and the structure is similar to the individual lament (Ps. 60).

The Psalms as the prayer of the Church give us several options for praying them: to God the Father, to Christ the Son, or as Jesus would have prayed them; since we are members of the Body of Christ and as one member suffers we all suffer, we can also pray lament psalms in the name of those who are suffering.

The recently revealed radical evil of clerical sexual abuse within the Catholic community, committed against our most vulnerable young members, elicits responses among the faithful ranging from horror, rage, shame, bewilderment and a cry for justice. Among others, survivors, parents, families, those who reported abuse and were ignored, all are suffering. In his Aug. 20, "Letter to All the Faithful" on this abuse Pope Francis writes: "Today we are challenged as the people of God to take on the pain of our brothers and sisters wounded in their flesh and in their spirit." The pope calls for "the active participation of all the Church's members ... in generating the necessary dynamics for sound and realistic change."

Opening ourselves to listening to survivors, really hearing them, and offering prayers of lament, individually and communally, on their behalf would be a first step in taking on their pain. In so doing we place ourselves under the watchful eyes of God and we are spurred on to just actions and meaningful change.  

Related Articles