How can we cope when faced with a world that is so deeply troubling? That is what many of us have struggled with for the past two and a half years. During the pandemic, it felt like a giant cloud of negative energy had descended on us. If you remember the mood during the lockdowns, particularly before the vaccine rollout, it was hard to keep track of time. Every day seemed as grey and indistinct as the last. What was missing was hope, and a clear way forward. I remember giving a sermon about the pandemic in May of 2020, where I pointed out that usually vaccine production takes at least four years. For that first year, it was unclear how long the lockdowns would last, and the future was hard to see. That was not good for our mental and spiritual health. An alarming number of people reported feeling depressed and anxious.
Now, a year and a half after the vaccines became available, we are in the future that before we only hoped for. We have medicines that blunt the blow of even the newest variants. This should be a time when we are feeling like we have come out of the funk, that the bad times are over. Yet, for many people, even with our newly restored freedoms, there is much to be worried about. The war in Ukraine and the rise of authoritarian governments all over the world. Closer to home, the United States seems to be splitting in two. Violence against the state and each other seems increasingly possible. And beneath it all, the steady rumble of worldwide climate change.
For many of us, this is all too much. Our psychological health can’t stand this unending torrent of bad and worrying news. If it all feels like we overloaded, that’s because we really do receive more negative news now than ever before. There was a time when the news only appeared on the doorstep twice a day, with the morning and evening paper. You could choose to watch the news on television once a day, not every minute. There have always been wars and famines, but we were not reminded of them so relentlessly, every second.
Social media has figured out that people are drawn to bad news like an itch we can’t help scratching. Their algorithms feed us the kind of negative news which gets a rise out of us, creating a terrible negative feedback loop. This has some people to unplug themselves from social media. Since social media is new to society, that may not be a problem, we lived without it before, surely, we can again. But many people have also decided to ignore the news. They find they are too prone to doom scrolling, flipping from one report of bad news to the next. Life seems hopeless when we doom scroll, so for the sake of psychological survival, they unplug.
Our problem is that the world does not go away simply because we choose to ignore it. Those who would strip away hard-won freedoms are not going to stop because the silent majority has grown in size. The last Ontario election had a record low turnout. People are getting elected without anything close to a majority because so many people are choosing to be uninvolved. The feeling of being disconnected from society can yield a sense of alienation rather than liberation. Democracies need citizens who are paying attention, but how can we do that when keeping up with the news threatens our mental health?
In today’s psalm, we hear the words of a man who others think has been abandoned by God. They think that in his suffering he has been forsaken, and so they seek to abuse and treat him cruelly. The singer of the psalm may be suffering from a disease or simply material misfortune. We are not told exactly what is going on. This is one of the strengths of the psalms, and why they have lasted so long. In being vague, they gain the ability to float through time. That we know this person is suffering is enough – we know from suffering, we can relate.
There was a time when people memorized the psalms and recited them daily. That was a common practice among monks for many centuries, and among some lay people. The psalms are a curious collection of hymns and poems. Being in the Bible, one might assume they are all pious addresses to God, believers on their best behaviour. Nothing could be further from the truth. Some psalms are like beautiful poetry. But others are filled with dark emotions. Depression, despair, anger, sadness, fear – every negative emotion is expressed.
Why should this be? Recently, one of you asked me: what was the point of prayer? This person meditates, and they could see the value in that. In meditation we calm down, find some peace, turn the ego down so we can connect with God. That practice made sense to them. But why pray in words, as the psalms do? What does that accomplish? Historically, there have been two ways to pray. One is to simply speak to God, share your thoughts, desires, and burdens.
There’s a book by Anne Lamott that summarizes these verbal prayers. It’s called Help, Thanks, Wow. Many of us do this – polls say 55% percent of people speak to God every day.
So that’s one kind of prayer. But within Christianity, there is another kind of prayer which takes a different route. In addition to expressing your personal thoughts to God, this kind of prayer involves reciting out loud the words of others, usually from scripture.
In monasteries and convents all over the world, monks and nuns gather several times a day to sing hymns but also to recite the psalms out loud. Many have them memorized, including the one we heard today.
From the outside, reciting Biblical psalms may seem like an exercise in mindless obedience – pious, but also kind of robotic. A heavy yoke few of us are willing to bear.
But there is a deep psychological wisdom in this practice, which is still relevant and effective today. None of us wrote the psalms. They were written at least 2500 years ago. When we recite a psalm, in our own voice, we are temporarily entering the mind and heart of another person. We are sharing their pains and joys, which are rarely the same as our own. As such, this is an explicit exercise of spiritual compassion. By speaking out loud someone else’s prayer, we are walking a mile in their shoes, sharing their thoughts, forming a temporary solidarity with them.
As spiritual people, we recognize the risk of being totally absorbed in our own egos. Our egos are always hungry for recognition, never satisfied, rarely at peace, always self centered. Setting aside our ego for a time is part of the spiritual path. Imagine that there is a young person in our city who is surrounded by hostile, dangerous gangs. Some of the gangs may want to score some points by harming this person. That young person prays to God for mercy and help. Imagine now, that you receive his or her words, and say them to God, on behalf of that person. In taking their words and worries into your heart and mind, you are enlarging your consciousness, and living in sympathy and compassion for that person for a few minutes. You carry their burden inside your consciousness for a time. It’s a compassionate act.
If being subsumed by our own ego is a spiritual risk, then praying the words of another is like lowering a bridge to escape out of the castle of our ego. Now, you may wonder – if I recite their words, am I not just trading my ego for theirs? That could be the case, except for one thing. The psalms are never personal navel gazing. Every psalm includes God. Sometimes the writer is in love with God and sings God’s praises. Other times, they are wondering where God went, they cannot feel the sacred presence. Other times, the psalmist is angry at God. But no matter what, God is always there.
The reason this is important is that each psalm places us in a cosmic context by including God. This is a statement of divine reality, but also a prescription for psychological health. In today’s psalm, a person who is scorned by others for his infirmity or illness reaches out to God. The psalmist declares that God has sent many troubles into this person’s life but has also rescued them over and over again. Despite being in a troublesome time now, the writer declares they will list as many of God’s blessings and graces as they can count.
Psalm 71:15-16: My mouth will tell of your righteous acts,
of your deeds of salvation all the day, for their number is past my knowledge.
16 With the mighty deeds of the Lord God I will come; I will remind them of your righteousness, yours alone. (Psalm 71:15-16)
The psalms never shy away from the difficulties of life, or the psychological pain that comes with them. But contained in each psalm is a prescription for healing: reconnect to the source. Remember the big picture of all that God has done, all the wonders of this universe which outnumber the pains which come our way. Regain some perspective, as we say now. The psychological wisdom in the psalms is that when we are feeling depressed and lonely, the solution is not more isolation, but connection. Connection to the rest of the wonderful world through remembering God’s presence and manifold wonderful works.
During the pandemic, when many of us were feeling very isolated, people found solace by walking in nature, hearing birds in the unusual quiet. Our loneliness and fear were assuaged by the calm of creation, with all of its beauty. We felt connected again to something much bigger than ourselves. The psalms, too, contain this prescription for mental health: admit our heartache, fully and openly; seek out help and connection to others; and finally, remind ourselves that we are part of a universe much greater and more wonderful than our problems.
Long ago, Christians realized that reciting psalms was not just for those days when we are personally suffering. Getting into the headspace of another person is an important spiritual practice even on the good days. One day, when you are depressed, you will know a psalm that feels your pain, has put it into words, and provided a path back to God and meaning.
This approach is worth considering in our time because so many of us are tempted to react to the world’s news by tuning out. Faced by a stream of negative news, we may react by avoiding social media, and refuse to read the news. To avoid doom scrolling. This withdrawal from the world may seem like a positive road to mental health, but it can be taken too far. Our society is always encouraging us to focus on just us. We used to go to stores, now we can get almost everything delivered to our doorstep. There’s a lot of money to be made by keeping us isolated from each other. What seems like a good survival strategy can also be more of the same isolation that made us feel bad in the first place.
The psalms present a different strategy. Connect. Imagine what it is like for other people who are very different from yourself. Not as an act of social justice piety, but as an act of spiritual and psychological health. Seek out the perspectives of others who are going through psychological states very different from your own. Back in the day when there were few books, the psalms were one of the only ways to do this for most people. Times have changed. We have the option of reading novels and watching films made by people from all over the world. To read the first-person stories of people with sexualities and gender identities different from our own. To get inside the heads of people suffering from depression, anxiety, or other mental states which we may not be personally experiencing.
Novels, poems, and films can all give us access to another’s person’s reality, but a key part of psychological and spiritual healing is to place all of this into a cosmic context. To know that you and the person whose words you are reading are part of a divine, sacred order. That you are both held in the same divine embrace. The psalms do this, for our welfare. The psalms encourage us to use our imagination, our consciousness, to practice and develop empathy. That is the opposite of cocooning and withdrawal. The psalms tell us that by speaking out loud the prayers of another, we will heal ourselves, connect with God, and lay the groundwork for creating a society where care for others is mutual.
Developing empathy is not something that comes instantly. It is not like a pill from the psychiatrist which reaches full effect in a few weeks. Empathy battles against a tidal wave of opposing messaging which we receive every day. So, it must be cultivated steadily, and slowly.
Prayer by using another’s words is a tried and tested method for developing empathy and compassion. It is never too late to try it. Just begin at psalm 1 and make your way forward. If you find a psalm too long or difficult, skip to the next one. Try saying one a day. At first, it will feel strange to be in someone else’s head. That’s ok. They would find it strange being in your head, too. But know that as you speak their words to God, God is listening, and will reward you with the healing that comes from an expanded sense of belonging. For you are not alone, you live in God’s world.