Scripture for the Sick or Dying: Psalm 86

It shouldn’t be a surprise that most of the psalms chosen for the Pastoral Care Lectionary fall in the genre of lament. The 86th is a lovely work. It makes a weekly appearance in Compline on Monday night. In my younger days, I overlooked this text. It doesn’t get set often, even though it appears in the Sunday Lectionary. (This coming weekend in fact.)

Recently I composed a setting using the new Grail translation, and just the verses chosen for the Pastoral Care rites, 1-6, 11-13, and 15-16. The antiphon is from the rites, not the Sunday Mass. You can hear it here. (If you are interested in a sample score, contact me.)

I’ll give the full text from the NABRE below. The first verse identifies this as a personal lament. Sometimes this involves an accusation against God. But in this whole text, the psalmist is more or less at peace with the Almighty. In suffering there is a core of trust. Resolution has yet to occur, but confidence gives the narrative a tone of insistence. Not begging, really:

Incline your ear, LORD, and answer me,
for I am poor and oppressed.

Preserve my life, for I am devoted;
save your servant who trusts in you.
You are my God;

be gracious to me, Lord;
to you I call all the day.

Gladden the soul of your servant;
to you, Lord, I lift up my soul.

Lord, you are good and forgiving,
most merciful to all who call on you.

LORD, hear my prayer;
listen to my cry for help.

When I set these verses, it struck me that the English rendering suggests a slight turn of mood verse to verse. 1, I am poor. 2, I am devoted. 3. I call all the day. 4, I lift up my soul. In the musical setting, I kept the pattern for 5-6, suggesting a shift to a major key as I did for the other stanzas.

The Pastoral Care rites skip these, possibly because of the mention of “other gods.” I’d just be guessing on that point:

On the day of my distress I call to you,
for you will answer me.

None among the gods can equal you, O Lord;
nor can their deeds compare to yours.

All the nations you have made shall come
to bow before you, Lord,
and give honor to your name.

For you are great and do wondrous deeds;
and you alone are God.

In my setting of this psalm, I change the music for this verse:

Teach me, LORD, your way
that I may walk in your truth,
single-hearted and revering your name.

Then back to the doubled lines:

I will praise you with all my heart,
glorify your name forever, Lord my God.

Your mercy to me is great;
you have rescued me from the depths of Sheol.

Psalm 86 is curious. It’s almost not a lament. Most Biblical texts of that genre include an adversary, a persecutor of some sort. One Bible scholar I read years ago suggested that every psalm of lament has three actors: the singer, the persecutor, and God. How they relate and interact is the drama of every artistic lament. Up till now, the Psalmist has just plied his complaint. The Church interprets this as sickness, but it could be some injustice perpetrated from the outside. Verse 14 is sliced from the Pastoral Care rites:

O God, the arrogant have risen against me;
a ruthless band has sought my life;
to you they pay no heed.

Maybe we can talk about a virus being arrogant …

Every lament offers a final word of hope.

But you, Lord, are a compassionate and gracious God,
slow to anger, abounding in mercy and truth.

Turn to me, be gracious to me;
give your strength to your servant;
save the son of your handmaid.

A final word against the adversaries:

Give me a sign of your favor:
make my enemies see, to their confusion,
that you, LORD, help and comfort me.

Psalms can be difficult in the circumstances of anointing the sick or at the time of death. Most clergy do not bring a musician to tag along on home visits. They stick to brief readings, usually from the Gospels. If a believer is struggling with pain, consciousness, low energy, then certainly a brief liturgy is appropriate.

For a longer convalescence, I’d personally go the psalms frequently. We haven’t touched on many of them in this series. If I get inspired, I’ll spend some time with original compositions or good settings by other musicians. Meanwhile, any comments?

For an in-depth treatment of the Pastoral Care rites, check this page that outlines our examination from a decade ago.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
This entry was posted in Pastoral Care of the Sick, Scripture, Todd's music. Bookmark the permalink.

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