Scripture for the Sick or Dying: Psalm 143:1-2, 5-6, 10-11

The 143rd Psalm is the seventh of the “penitential psalms” identified by Christians in antiquity. In Judaism, these and many others were identified as laments. The psalmist offers a complaint to God: enemies, national upheaval, natural disaster, and of course, personal illness. After laying it all out, there is a conclusion of trust. Divine resolution is expected, and the psalmist offers that final note of confidence no matter what the calamity.

The relationship with God has been sundered in some way. Certainly, a sick believer might offer a complaint to God. Some might be shocked by such gumption. For the psalmist, it was part of a conversation with a personal God. For a Christian, it is part of Jesus’ invitation into friendship. If we cannot complain to a friend, then our companion isn’t really a friend.

In the Roman Catholic Lectionary for Mass, longer psalms are often chopped up. I’d like to think this is more for reasons of focus rather than utility. The organizers didn’t want multiple themes or threads spraying out with Scripture readings.

In Psalm 143, there are complaints about enemies. Verse 12, a plea to destroy them, is excised from even the Christian category of “penitential”–usually one sees 143:1-11 as the designation.

In the care of people who are sick and dying, verses 3-4 (pursuit by an enemy) and 7-9 (a strong appeal for help, but with a reference to human foes) are dropped from the formal Lectionary. Here’s what the rite assigns, and I would think them suitable for a communal celebration of Anointing at Mass in a parish of other community:

1-2
LORD, hear my prayer;
in your faithfulness listen to my pleading;
answer me in your righteousness.
Do not enter into judgment with your servant;
before you no one can be just.

5-6
I remember the days of old;
I ponder all your deeds;
the works of your hands I recall.
I stretch out my hands toward you,
my soul to you like a parched land.

10-11
Teach me to do your will,
for you are my God.
May your kind spirit guide me
on ground that is level.
For your name’s sake, LORD, give me life;
in your righteousness lead my soul out of distress.

There is a certain logic in this streamlined offering. Though the prayer is insistent, verse 2 acknowledges the unequal relationship between the psalmist and the Almighty. Verses 5-6 recall the “good times.” They suggest a hope that restoration is coming. In the context of serious illness, a recovery.

I found the inclusion of that final stanza to be intriguing. We shouldn’t presume the Church views the sick person as a passive recipient of healing and forgiveness. As long as a human being takes breath there is nearly always that calling to move forward in pilgrimage. Storms, dangerous paths, convoluted trails may confound us. But we desire that stable relationship. In the end the psalmist pleads for life and leadership. How can a loving God not respond?

Two possible antiphons are given for this psalm, if you want to go “by the book.”

Lord, listen to my prayer. 

For your name’s sake, Lord, save my life.

The most common contemporary setting of these a Catholic would recognize is the Taize piece, “O Lord Hear My Prayer.” A live recording is here. It’s one of the few liturgical songs that isn’t damaged by going too slow. Verses are not provided with the piece, however. I suppose a narrator over a choir and congregation rendition would work. (Taize is pretty firm about Jacques Berthier’s music not being adapted by enterprising musicians.) In both the classical and traditional spheres, many versions of Domine, exaudi (Lord, hear) exist.

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. Bookmark the permalink.

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