As a writer, I believe not just in the power of words but also in their necessity and beauty. I think one of the main aspects of Catholicism that has kept me coming back is the lushness, the intensity, and the fervor of how language is used within the faith. Not just in the liturgy of a daily or Sunday Mass, but especially in the sacraments.
There are few words that have ever meant as much to me as the wedding vows that I spoke; for over 23 years as a wife and mother, I built a life upon those promises.
And then, suddenly, it seemed—though it was not really sudden—my husband no longer lived in our home.
Lost in the Wilderness
I believed if I prayed as hard as I could, I could pray our marriage into finding a new beginning. It seemed to me that, since Jesus was with us on that altar when we became husband and wife, he was with us still and would do everything to help us mend the ever-widening tatters. I myself was tattered—a recent struggle with cancer spurred me on to keep fighting for my life with my husband and two children, the only adult life I had known.
I figured that if I went back to all the words spoken at our ceremony, I could find the golden thread and begin the repair. So in the bare space where my husband’s dresser once stood, I placed an old bookshelf, a lamp, and a rug, and on the wall I thumbtacked a jewel-toned postcard of a beloved Blessed Mother painting by Lippi. I set an intention that each dawn I’d sit cross-legged on the floor and read 1 Corinthians 13:4, the timeless passage about love. I lit a candle and begged God for more hope and more patience.
But what happened is that the paperback I was using—my fat New English Bible from college—was so old, the glue so stiff and dried out, that the spine broke apart. It permanently opened right to Book 1 of the Psalms. Psalm 23, to be exact.
Despite my openness to the power and beauty of words, I initially resisted the most famous psalm because of how popular it is. If this “greatest hit” appealed to common people, how could it possibly apply to my particular circumstances? How ridiculous my arrogant suspicion was: I decided to read it out loud and could hardly see the verses through my tears as my voice wavered. He makes me lie down in green pastures: How exhausted I was, how alone and in need of care, suffering each night with insomnia. Even though I walk through a valley dark as death: I was terrified of having to enter the courthouse to face a judge with our separate lawyers. Dwell in the house of the Lord: I could no longer afford our home; where would I go? Did I already have a place of shelter with God?
When the closing sentence used the words love unfailing, something shifted in me. I’d never considered God’s love as abiding. Lasting. Unshakable. So, even though I was still unable to admit that my marriage was lost, my eyes were drawn to this new pairing of words.
My concentration skills were weak then, so I read lines in wild, random order. Psalm 140, then 91, back to 6, skipping to 144, thumbing backward and forward, from the bottom of the pages to the top. Those words kept popping out, sometimes reversed as unfailing love. I was just an ordinary, heartbroken woman whose life took two parallel, contemporary turns—divorce and cancer. I was in over my head, and I knew it. My once-solid world was now—to use Psalm imagery—swept away in a flood. But there was something about these poems penned over 2,500 years ago, confidently trusting in the embankment of this enduring love, that kept me from going under.
A New Look at Ancient Words
How had I never found their artistry before? In my lifetime of sitting at Mass, I’d listened to sopranos sing them from the lectern and then lift their open palms inviting me to join in the response. More often than not, I had stayed silent. I began to think about all the women who sang the Psalms to me. I pictured their pantsuits, the pastel beads of their necklaces, hair fixed up nicely, swept back from their faces.
How earnestly they worked to enunciate all the words so we would hear them fully and clearly: deer, water, broken, rescue me. I thought of the way they waited for their cues by gazing back at the choir loft and all the long moments of watching them walk down the side aisles of the church, always shy and humble with their three-ring music binders clutched in their hands. When at last I discovered the Psalms, I think it was those gifted cantors who led me on that path with their soulful, motherly voices filling the rafters, the pews vibrating with long, sustained notes. They had shown me those words are meant to be sung.
So, as the divorce drew near, I made a new promise to read one psalm aloud as the very first thing I did each morning. I did not check my e-mail, read the newspaper, or speak on the phone until I had spent time in contemplation.
Instead of just reading the Psalms in my head, I found that my emotions flowed when I spoke the words, ensuring I did not rush. Speaking them all alone in my bedroom was a form of simple singing. I had no lute, harp, or lyre; I was without a pipe organ or a grand piano. I had only my wavering voice accompanied by the rustle of the tissue-thin pages.
What startled me over and over in so many of the psalms was the emotional contrast. First there’s a lament, not minimized or sugarcoated, not swept away or judged. Instead, the suffering is eloquently described. For example, the early lines of Psalm 69: “I am wearied with crying out, my throat is sore.” Guilt, shame, reproach, and bitterness follow. Then, a but appears. “But I lift up this prayer to thee.” Over and over I found these sudden reversals. How did they make sense?
After a few months of this daily morning practice, I understood the pattern. I would read many lines of anguish. Once the painful truths are expressed in detail, not rushed, there’s a sense of being deeply heard and listened to—heard by God. Once that internal, intimate ache is honored, we find space in our heavy hearts to move around. We can take that leap of faith and trust, again and again. What the Psalms taught me is to stay true to my human grief, to articulate it, to bring the fear and frustration straight to God. By doing that, faith will appear, often suddenly, always the balm we have been seeking.
Because I was going through such a raw time, I often found passages about disgrace. I will simply say that I was thunderstruck by the events that unfurled. Sometimes I underlined words that might have once seemed archaic but now rang true: enemies, lowly, ambush, abyss. Yes, I was ashamed. On the page with Psalm 25, my deep blue ink jumps out: shame, shame, shame. Other, more hopeful words impacted me. In particular, refuge became the most medicinal word of all. Flip those pages back and forth; there is refuge throughout.
A Time for Everything
My life moved on. To say I never wanted to be a divorced Catholic is not just an understatement, but also, I’m surmising, how almost all divorced Catholics feel. I freely admit that I’d once judged people who got divorced as not working hard enough, not fighting for it, not going the distance. It was quite the humbling wake-up call to realize I was entering a category of people whom I used to look down on.
There’s a good chance that I have been judged the way I once felt superior to others. Did you try everything to save your marriage? In my heart I know I did. There were factors far beyond my control. As another year went by, I continued with the daily practice of reading the Psalms. In Psalm 56, I read, “I have bound myself with vows to thee.” Was it possible for me to focus on a new vow? I believed that it was. I was alone, but I was alive. “For thou has rescued me from death/to walk in thy presence, in the light of life.”
As the darkness in my life receded, I began to see the lighter aspects of the Psalms. Like the opening of Psalm 116, “I love the Lord, for he has heard me,” there is so much joy, praise, and celebration. Admittedly, it has been a long road. When I was first separated, a very good friend of mine, who is a therapist, said, “It can take five years to heal from this.” I thought, Oh, no, that’s not going to be me.
But I was wrong—it has taken that long. I have been given much grace, including the stamina to continue with this spiritual practice these past five years. I still have a place on the floor of my bedroom and I use my still-falling-apart Bible. I just can’t give that paperback up; it has been with me for so many years, and I still love the soft sound of its pages. Each morning I wake up and try to have a connection to God before doing anything else.
As for the soprano who lifts her hand and invites me in? Yesterday at Mass, after contemplating all this, I decided I should thank the cantor. She does such a stunning job for our very lively inner-city Franciscan church. As she clutched her binder, I started to go up to her, but she stepped toward an elderly man hunched crookedly in a wheelchair near the altar. She greeted him warmly and kissed him on the cheek. He lifted his head, eyes shining, and opened his mouth, ready to sing.
Maureen O’Brien is a novelist and poet who has been published in a variety of literary magazines and journals. She resides in Connecticut and teaches creative writing at the Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts. Her latest book is What Was Lost: Finding Refuge in the Psalms.