(picture taken by the Spitzer space telescope—2007)
But I will exult and rejoice in your salvation,
because you have seen my affliction;
you have taken heed of my adversities
(the entire psalm can be found at the end of this reflection)
Might I become invisible? In a culture that so values accomplishments and productivity, it’s a question faced especially by those of us who live with chronic diminishment in our lives, whether that diminishment comes from physical or mental illness, from issues of aging, from poverty, from war, or from persistent unemployment. The question haunts. Since I’m not able to produce much, not able to accomplish much, is life passing me by without taking notice of me? Am I becoming almost invisible?
The writer of Psalm 31 felt this question keenly. We don’t know exactly what his diminishment was. He speaks of his eye, his soul, his body wasting away from grief. He says his life is spent with sorrow, his years with sighing. He bemoans the fact that his strength is failing because of his misery, and he graphically describes the isolation he feels. Acquaintances, he says, tend to pass him by, to flee from engagement with him, to avoid him. “I have passed out of mind like one who is dead,” he laments, “I have become like a broken vessel.” Clearly he feels invisible to the world and to those around him.
But, interestingly, not to God. In the midst of lamenting his condition and his isolation, this psalmist “exults” and “rejoices” that the eye of God is focused on him. Sees his afflictions. Takes heed of his adversities. Those around him may look past him or even right through him as they busily go about their lives. But through his profound faith, a faith no doubt tempered and burnished in times of lonely introspection and prayer, the psalmist has come to cherish a certainty that God does see him. Sees him and affirms his diminished self. Sees him and assures him that his life is still important and still meaningful. Sees him with eyes that whisper into the shadows of his life, “you are my beloved.”
When I recently came across a picture of the Helix Nebula, formed apparently by the expansion of ionized gas ejected from an old red giant star, and popularly known as the “Eye of God,” I immediately thought about Psalm 31. Thought, too, about myself and the sometimes fear I have of being “unseen.” To be sure, the diminishment I experience as a result of CFS/ME pales when set beside the diminishment experienced by our psalmist. My life is not “spent with sorrow, my years with sighing.” My family and friends have not abandoned me, but, on the contrary, have been very supportive and helpful.
Nevertheless, there are now and then days of weakness when I am haunted by a sense of invisibility hovering just behind my left shoulder. In those times, the psalmist’s words, “you have seen my affliction,” “you have taken heed of my adversities,” swirl in the murky air around me. The picture of the Helix Nebula, which now sits frequently as an icon on my prayer table, flickers in my hovering fears. And gradually I am stilled. Gradually I become aware once again of God’s awareness of me, that whispering awareness that tells me I am seen, that my reduced life has meaning, that I am beloved in all of my diminishment.
Our psalmist concludes this beautiful psalm, (a psalm quoted, by the way, by Jesus on the cross), with these words, “Be strong and let your heart take courage.” Whether we live in the fast lane of accomplishments and productivity, or whether we live in the slow lane of chronic diminishment, he urges us to be strong and to let our hearts take courage because the eye of God is taking heed of each of us as we live out all the complexities of our lives. Taking heed of us and affirming who we are—beloved of the God who called us and all that is into an intricate dance of life that pulses through the tiniest blade of grass and reaches to the farthest old red giant star.
New Revised Standard Version
1In you, O Lord, I seek refuge; do not let me ever be put to shame; in your righteousness deliver me.
2Incline your ear to me; rescue me speedily. Be a rock of refuge for me, a strong fortress to save me.
3You are indeed my rock and my fortress; for your name’s sake lead me and guide me,
4take me out of the net that is hidden for me, for you are my refuge.
5Into your hand I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God.
6You hate those who pay regard to worthless idols, but I trust in the Lord.
7I will exult and rejoice in your steadfast love, because you have seen my affliction; you have taken heed of my adversities,
8and have not delivered me into the hand of the enemy; you have set my feet in a broad place.
9Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am in distress; my eye wastes away from grief, my soul and body also.
10For my life is spent with sorrow, and my years with sighing; my strength fails because of my misery, and my bones waste away.
11I am the scorn of all my adversaries, a horror to my neighbors, an object of dread to my acquaintances; those who see me in the street flee from me.
12I have passed out of mind like one who is dead; I have become like a broken vessel.
13For I hear the whispering of many— terror all around!— as they scheme together against me, as they plot to take my life.
14But I trust in you, O Lord; I say, “You are my God.”
15My times are in your hand; deliver me from the hand of my enemies and persecutors.
16Let your face shine upon your servant; save me in your steadfast love.
17Do not let me be put to shame, O Lord, for I call on you; let the wicked be put to shame; let them go dumbfounded to Sheol.
18Let the lying lips be stilled that speak insolently against the righteous with pride and contempt.
19O how abundant is your goodness that you have laid up for those who fear you, and accomplished for those who take refuge in you, in the sight of everyone!
20In the shelter of your presence you hide them from human plots; you hold them safe under your shelter from contentious tongues.
21Blessed be the Lord, for he has wondrously shown his steadfast love to me when I was beset as a city under siege.
22I had said in my alarm, “I am driven far from your sight.” But you heard my supplications when I cried out to you for help.
23Love the Lord, all you his saints. The Lord preserves the faithful, but abundantly repays the one who acts haughtily.
24Be strong, and let your heart take courage, all you who wait for the Lord.