Ancient Answers

Biblical Catharsis

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The Psalms express the full range of human emotions – from the highest expressions of intimacy with God to the vilest expressions of violence and hatred. It’s all there. And I have always viewed the Psalms as the biblical analogue of the catharsis that the ancient Greeks sought when they participated in the performances of tragic plays. And note, I wrote “participated”, not attended. A tragic performance by Aeschylus or Sophocles or Euripides became almost a ritual experience for the ancient Greeks, a form of communal cleansing, a catharsis. Even today a performance of one of these great tragedies can be a soul-shattering experience. Therefore, how sad that only a tiny portion of the Ancient Greek tragedies have survived; most were lost forever in ancient times.

The Psalms are the Bible’s catharsis for the human soul. They are the language of our relationship with God. Even Jesus, at the time of his death on the cross, spoke to God with Psalm 22. Someone very dear to me memorized many of the psalms; they became part of her daily speech. And I’m sure they were her silent prayers when she could no longer speak after her stroke. She lived what Psalm 42 expresses in verse 8:

By day the Lord directs his love,
    at night his song is with me—
    a prayer to the God of my life.

Are you embarrassed by an emotion you are experiencing, or a word of hatred or jealousy that just now agitated your spirit? You will find several psalms that express what you are experiencing! Did you wake up this morning with a burst of confidence, or words of praise for God? Many psalms share your faith. Are you facing doubt and depression? Then today’s verse directs you to one of the psalms that can be the catharsis of your doubts and sadness.

How beautifully the psalm begins – and I’m using the NIV Bible here because I find this translation more poetic:

As the deer pants for streams of water,
    so my soul pants for you, my God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
    When can I go and meet with God?

Only someone who runs a marathon or goes for a long hike in the summer might know what it is to pant for water. The person who wrote this psalm expresses his longing for God as a thirst similar to how a deer pants to find water in the desert of the Middle East. The psalmist pants for God the way a deer pants for water. That’s where faith begins, when we pant for God. But go on and read this Psalm, it is one of the most beautiful and profound. “Deep calls to deep,” the psalmist says at one point. Isn’t that what prayer should be, what our relationship with God ought to be? Not me and the “man upstairs” (a despicable trivialization of God, if you ask me) – but deep calling to deep. The human soul is deep – we are not just a bunch of neurons and cells – and God is deep, the ultimate deep! You trivialize yourself when you trivialize God; when you turn God into your drinking buddy or the vending machine in the sky.

The psalmist laments that God has forgotten him; yet he still speaks to “God my Rock.” This is the ambivalence we all experience at traumatic times in our lives. We believe in God, yet we cry out in anger or despair, “Why have you forgotten me?”

Psalm 42 is a psalm of lament. But it is also a psalm of confidence, memory, and healing self-talk. There is confidence in verse 8 that I quoted above. There is memory in verse 4:

These things I remember
    as I pour out my soul:
how I used to go to the house of God
    under the protection of the Mighty One
with shouts of joy and praise
    among the festive throng.

Can you see here the power of worship as part of a community? Can you see here why it is essential for each of us to participate in Liturgy? Isn’t Liturgy the closest we come as a community to experiencing what the ancient Greeks experienced at tragic festivals and what nourished the psalmist in his time of difficulty?

Twice in this psalm, in the middle and at the end, the psalmist engages in self-talk, healing self-talk, reassuring self-talk. But it is not superficial psycho-babble self-talk. It is self-talk rooted in memory and trust.

Why, my soul, are you downcast?
    Why so disturbed within me?
Put your hope in God,
    for I will yet praise him,
    my Savior and my God.

2 thoughts on “Biblical Catharsis

  1. Pingback: Deeper – Flowering Poverello

  2. Pingback: I Long – Flowering Poverello

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