Scripture for the Sick or Dying: Psalm 90

Perhaps the most well-known presentation of Psalm 90 is Isaac Watts’ 18th century paraphrase “O God Our Help In Ages Past.” The appeal is that God is available to assist those who are in need, no matter what the situation may be. Isn’t this a message for the seriously ill person? As with any Scripture, the attending minister, either in public liturgy or as a spiritual guide, must weigh the appropriateness of the text for the community or the individual.

Half a decade ago, I wrote up this psalm for its placement in the Rite of Penance. How does the context of the sick or dying person change its usage? What about my perspective five years later?

When sung in a communal liturgy, this lament begins with a statement of experience, of faith:

In every age, O Lord, you have been our refuge.

After verse 1 the following verses: 2-6. 9- for the psalmist. Based on how this psalm is treated in the Lectionary for Mass, I’d divide these five verses into three stanzas:

Before the mountains were born,

the earth and the world brought forth,
from eternity to eternity you are God.

You turn humanity back into dust,
saying, “Return, you children of Adam!”
A thousand years in your eyes

are merely a day gone by,
Before a watch passes in the night,
you wash them away;

They sleep,
and in the morning they sprout again like an herb.
In the morning it blooms only to pass away;
in the evening it is wilted and withered.

God lives in an eternal now. In today’s cosmology this perspective of verse 2 fits: God was there at the Big Bang, and as all material creation unfolded after that event. Science affirms the lifespan of a single human being as miniscule compared to the age of the universe. The calendar year is often used to depict a comparison to this. Beginning on January 1st, dinosaurs lived for two days, December 28 and 29. The oldest person in the world has lived at most for one-fourth of a second. The psalmist is exaggerating our importance, if anything.

We turn to the middle verses reminding God of the futility of human labor. We know we have no footprint in the grand design. Even exhaling in relief–where does the air go?

Our life ebbs away under your wrath;
our years end like a sigh.
Seventy is the sum of our years,
or eighty, if we are strong;
Most of them are toil and sorrow;
they pass quickly, and we are gone.

The Lectionary gives us select intercessions to finish our prayer:

Teach us to count our days aright,
that we may gain wisdom of heart.

Fill us at daybreak with your mercy,
that all our days we may sing for joy

Show your deeds to your servants,
your glory to their children.

Teach us, fill us, show us. What is fruit for the sick or dying person? Wisdom of heart–remember that for the Jewish people the heart is the seat of the will–it’s not about emotions.

I’d also interpret verse 14: joy in worship is an act of the will, the heart–it is a response to God’s goodness.

Finally, a forward-looking human perspective. We know that our life is fleeting, but another fraction of a second comes for our children and grandchildren.

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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