A modern-day lament psalm
In this time when we are all living in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, I find my thoughts returning to the tradition of lament psalms in the Old Testament. They expressed the fears and terrors of a people under severe threat.
What might a lament psalm look like in our current time of pandemic? I asked myself and then sat down to try my hand at drafting such a poem for our time. I would like to share it with you. Maybe it will speak to you.
The woman that I refer to in the poem is Lady Julian of Norwich, a 14th-century English mystic who wrote down her visions during a time when the Black Plague was ravaging England. It killed one-third of England’s population.
Her visions speak a powerful message of reassurance.*
Who can measure the strength of a virus?
Who can assess its inner power?
No eye can detect its invisible colors;
no skin can feel its crawl.
It lies hidden like a viper in its hole;
it leaps and sinks its fangs without warning.
We shake hands with our neighbor,
and it jumps from finger to finger.
We cough and it scatters on the vibrations of air;
we sneeze and it rains upon the unsuspecting.
We turn the door knob and it attaches itself;
we grab the steering wheel and it adheres.
Where comes the deadliness of such minuteness?
We stagger in the face of its assaults.
The newscaster mounts the statistics
on the television screens of our minds.
They feed our terror before a hidden enemy
as if a guerilla band has attacked our village
and gunned down indiscriminately.
How shall we defend ourselves?
Where can we hide in safety?
Our only refuge is solitary isolation;
we shed the bonds of neighborhood.
We confine ourselves to a world behind locked doors
waving greetings through glass windows.
Yet in this retreat, without street noise, alone,
without the distractions of daily commerce,
we may begin to hear the voice of mistress Julian,
chanting her Jesus-word to a plague-drenched England:
“All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”
* If you find Lady Julian’s words too Pollyanneish, then I suggest you read her full visions to catch the context of acute illness and suffering from which they arise. She says they were the words Jesus spoke to her in her near-death experience.