Reflections on Psalm 88 and Daily Suffrages

For a year and more after Susan died on December 17, 2012, I found that the 17th of the month was often a difficult day. This happened even when I wasn't conscious of it being a month's "anniversary," as it were. The sadness passes with time, as many of you also know, and what remains is something like deep joy, deeper than anything we can say, which -- importantly -- does not deny the reality of the loss.

If you say Morning Prayer according to the old calendar, the entirety of the Psalms is divided over the 30 days of the month. The appointed Psalms for the morning of the 17th day of the month include Psalm 88. In the Coverdale translation, it asks God questions like this: "Dost thou show wonders among the dead? ... Shall thy loving-kindness be showed in the grave? .... Shall thy wondrous works be known in the dark?" The implied answer is negative: for this Psalmist, if God wants to be known as one who does wonders and shows loving-kindness, he must do so with the living. Yet God doesn't, and the Psalm ends with about as bleak a line as you'll find in the Old Testament: "My lovers and friends hast thou put away from me, and hid mine acquaintance out of my sight."

Some people have been surprised that, in Losing Susan, I call Job "the best book of the Bible" -- but this is the reason. Job takes this strong, almost uncompromising view of Psalm 88, and puts it in a surprising context. The surprise is that, in the end, human communion is possible. God may have put our beloveds away from us, but somehow that is not the last word.

A Christian, of course, will read the questions of Psalm 88 as having a positive answer: God will show wonders among the dead, and has done so already in Jesus. But let us not too quickly step over the reality that, in the meantime as it were, God has also put away from us many of those who have loved us, many of our friends.

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The suffrages of Morning Prayer are a brief reminder to us of the things we should pray for daily. Here they are in the 1979 version of the Book of Common Prayer:

O Lord, show thy mercy upon us; And grant us thy salvation.
Endue thy ministers with righteousness; And make thy chosen people joyful.
Give peace, O Lord, in all the world; For only in thee can we live in safety.
Lord, keep this nation under thy care; And guide us in the way of justice and truth.
Let thy way be known upon earth; Thy saving health among all nations.
Let not the needy, O Lord, be forgotten; Nor the hope of the poor be taken away.
Create in us clean hearts, O God; And sustain us with thy Holy Spirit.

We pray, here, for ourselves, for the church, for the peace of the world, for our nation, for the spread of the knowledge of God's way, for the poor. And we pray that we will be faithful to the end of our days, sustained by God's good Spirit. May it be so!

Father Austin

The Rev. Canon Dr. Victor Lee Austin is the Theologian-in-Residence for the diocese and is the author of several books including, "Losing Susan: Brain Disease, the Priest's Wife, and the God who Gives and Takes Away."