[I must add yet again that I write of things of which I have no knowledge. I am just groping in the dark.]
The psalm for vespers is Psalm 103 (104 in the Hebrew numbering). I do not always know why the Church has ordained certain psalms for certain times of the day. In some ways the reasons for Psalm 103 being a vesperal psalm is rather simple, for it is oriented around the providential mark of time and evening:
But man shall go forth unto his work, and to his labour until the evening.
But I wonder if part of the reason that Psalm 103 is the psalm for vespers is that the Providence of God marks the entire psalm.
The mountains rise up and the plains sink down, unto the place where Thou hast established them. Thou appointedst a bound that they shall not pass, neither return to cover the earth. He sendeth forth springs in the valleys; between the mountains will the waters run. They shall give drink to all the beasts of the field; the wild asses will wait to quench their thirst. Beside them will the birds of the heaven lodge, from the midst of the rocks will they give voice. He watereth the mountains from His chambers; the earth shall be satisfied with the fruit of Thy works. He causeth the grass to grow for the cattle, and green herb for the service of men, To bring forth bread out of the earth; and wine maketh glad the heart of man. To make his face cheerful with oil; and bread strengtheneth man’s heart.
Even life itself is God’s Providence.
All things wait on Thee, to give them their food in due season; when Thou givest it them, they will gather it. When Thou openest Thy hand, all things shall be filled with goodness; when Thou turnest away Thy face, they shall be troubled. Thou wilt take their spirit, and they shall cease; and unto their dust shall they return. Thou wilt send forth Thy Spirit, and they shall be created; and Thou shalt renew the face of the earth.
I say this because evening is a very difficult time of day if one’s heart is aching. And it may just be that the Church in her wisdom discerned that God appointed this psalm for just such encouragement.
Not that heartache lends ease to any portion of the day. But in the morning one looks forward to the day. There is activity, chores, obligations, things that must be done. One can allow oneself to be distracted. But in the evening, the day is done. The light fades and disappears. Activity slows to stillness and rest. The noise of the day fades. Where one has even the impersonal company of strangers throughout the day, in the evening, when one’s heart aches, even the family and the friend accentuate one’s painful solitude. And if one is truly solitary, the loneliness is magnified tenfold. One is left alone with darkness and silence. Filled with weariness, one finds one’s strength insufficient to guard against the dark emotions that nestle tightly in the wounded heart.
As Job says, whose life is a testimony of the God who brings suffering:
When I lie down I say, ‘When shall I arise?’ But the night is long, and I am full of tossing till the dawn. . . . When I say, ‘My bed will comfort me, my couch will ease my complaint,’ then you scare me with dreams and terrify me with visions . . . . The night racks my bones, and the pain that gnaws me takes no rest.
And the psalmist cries in the sixth psalm
I toiled in my groaning; every night I will wash my bed, with tears will I water my couch.
If despondency is the demon of the noonday, it is also the scourge of the night.
In the evening, when one’s heart throbs with loneliness and sorrow, one is reminded with the psalmist that life is but an evening shadow, fleeting and ephemeral, swallowed up by the overtaking darkness. Sorrow and darkness go hand in hand, for sorrow blinds the soul just as darkness blinds the eyes. As the darkness of night makes one’s walk slow and unsteady, so sorrow binds the feet of faith causing one to stumble and to tremble. Just as darkness causes the heart to race with phantom images, so sorrow causes faith to falter in the face of imagined fears. Darkness strips the physical senses of that great gift of sight. One is forced to depend upon touch and hearing, senses we take for granted. So, too, sorrow strips the spiritual senses of that great gift of understanding. And one is forced to depend upon faith, that foundation of all living which we always forget in the light of comfort. It is little wonder, then, that Christians for centuries have signed the Cross over their beds and prayed for deliverence from the influence and temptation of the evil one, prayed for the exorcism of their thoughts.
In the morning we are clothed for the day, but in the evening we are stripped and lie in our beds as in a coffin. And being so reduced to seeming nothingness, it seems that we are now ready for instruction.
In Psalm 118 (119 in Hebrew) we see that the night is the time for meditation and instruction in the law of the Lord:
I arose in the dead of night and I cried; on Thy words have I set my hope. Mine eyes woke before the morning that I might meditate on Thy sayings.
And Psalm 76 (77 in Hebrew) describes such discipline:
In the day of mine affliction I sought out God, with my hands upraised by night before Him, and I was not deceived. My soul refused to be comforted; I remembered God and I was gladdened; I spake in idleness and my spirit became faint-hearted. Mine eyes were wakeful before the watches; I was troubled and spake not. I thought upon the days of old, and the years of ages past I called to mind, and I meditated. By night I pondered in my heart, and my spirit searched diligently. Will the Lord then cast me off unto the ages, and will He be favourable no more? Or will He cut off His mercy unto the end? Hath He brought to an end His word from generation to generation? Or will the Lord forget to be merciful? Or in His wrath will He shut up His compassions for ever?
So what are we taught? At evening, as the darkness falls on us, we are instructed in Psalm 103 and the Providence of God. Indeed as the rest of Psalm 76 itself teaches us:
And I said: Now have I made a beginning; this change hath been wrought by the right hand of the Most High. I remembered the works of the Lord; for I will remember Thy wonders from the beginning. And I will meditate on all Thy works, and I shall ponder upon Thy ways. O God, in the sanctuary is Thy way. What God is as great as our God? Thou art God Who workest wonders. Thou hast made Thy power among the peoples; with Thine arm hast Thou redeemed Thy people, the sons of Jacob and Joseph. The waters saw Thee, O God, the waters saw Thee and were afraid; the abysses were troubled. Great was the resounding sound of the waters, the clouds gave forth a voice. Yea, for thine arrows passed abroad; the voice of Thy thunder is in their rolling. And Thy lightnings have lightened the world; the earth was shaken and it trembled. In the sea are Thy byways, and Thy paths in many waters; and Thy footsteps shall not be known. Thou leddest Thy people as sheep by the hand of Moses and Aaron.
It is just here that our attenuated spiritual sense of understanding, no longer available to us in the darkness of sorrow, must be set to one side for the purposes of returning to the foundation upon which understanding is built: faith. For the unique property of sorrow is the fear to believe. Hurting already with the deep soul-ache of affliction, sorrow makes the heart fearful of such trust–for who knows what will happen if the heart stretches forth once more in hope? As painful as hopelessness is, it at least seems to conform to the reality that is ready to hand.
Faith, on the other hand, causes us to incline our hearts toward preposterous things: the God of the universe condescends in love to my cry, the heart of God is attentive to my plea, miraculous provision of my needs, answers to prayer. None of these things, not one, is a conclusion of reason. None of these things, not one, conforms to our everyday experience. But we are called to remember that Israel was a stiff-necked people for whom God provided miraculous deliverence again and again. We are reminded that the ignorant and prideful apostles are the very men on whom the Lord founded his Church. That something as insubstantial as a shadow was, against all probability, the cause of miraculous healings. And if the miracle feedings of the four thousand and the five thousand are not enough to draw forth the heart into trust, then the utter impossibility of the dead coming back to life ought persuade the most fearful of hearts. If the God of the universe can reverse the natural laws of life and death, if he who created all the universe watches over the sparrow and clothes the grass of the field–what is too hard for him to do?
But the sorrow-darkened mind is not timid in terms of God’s power and ability. No, what the sad heart fears most of all is finding himself unloved by God. It is not God’s ability, but his willingness that the weeping heart doubts. One fears that these painful afflictions are the signs of God’s displeasure and that we are not his child. This fear is met with Hebrews 12, of course. But it is a stubborn sort of soul-creature, and it is not easily banished.
Which is, perhaps why, after a night of such painful tossing and turning, after these double-minded ruminations, the Psalms of Monday’s matins include Psalm 33:
I will bless the Lord at all times, His praise shall continually be in my mouth.
In the Lord shall my soul be praised; let the meek hear and be glad.
O magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt His name together.
I sought the Lord, and He heard me, and delivered me from all my tribulations.
Come unto Him, and be enlightened, and your faces shall not be ashamed.
This poor man cried, and the Lord heard him, and saved him out of all his tribulations.
The angel of the Lord will encamp round about them that fear Him, and will deliver them.
O taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the man that hopeth in Him.
O fear the Lord, all ye His saints; for there is no want to them that fear Him.
Rich men have turned poor and gone hungry; but they that seek the Lord shall not be deprived of any good thing.
Come ye children, hearken unto me; I will teach you the fear of the Lord.
What man is there that desireth life, who loveth to see good days?
Keep thy tongue from evil, and thy lips from speaking guile.
Turn away from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it.
The eyes of the Lord are upon the righteous, and His ears are opened unto their supplication.
The face of the Lord is against them that do evil, utterly to destroy the remembrance of them from the earth.
The righteous cried, and the Lord heard them, and He delivered them out of all their tribulations.
The Lord is nigh unto them that are of a contrite heart, and He will save the humble of spirit.
Many are the tribulations of the righteous, and the Lord shall deliver them out of them all.
The Lord keepeth all their bones, not one of them shall be broken.
The death of sinners is evil, and they that hate the righteous shall do wrong.
The Lord will redeem the souls of His servants, and none of them will do wrong that hope in Him.
So we are fortified against the night, with the light of morning and the assurance of God’s deliverence.
We will face the night again. This battle will be fought many many times. But we are drawn each day toward faith and hope and trust in the God who always only loves us.