The Psalms in Times of War

A reader asked the other day, how is it that with the millions of prayers offered daily for Ukraine (actually billions around the world) that God allows the ongoing death and destruction? It’s a good question. A hard one.

It’s been asked for thousands of years in times of war, as well as during plagues, floods, fires, earthquakes, drought, famine that – pace the environmentalists – are part of the natural history of the human race. Anyone who reads the psalms in the Bible or daily prays the Liturgy of the Hours, knows that it’s been a central lament even in Scripture. Lord, we trust in you, but are you really there for us when we need you most?

This existential question is even more troubling than the usual questions of war and diplomacy. In secular terms, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has united Europe, America, and most of the world’s nations. Despite differences of opinion about earlier policies or the threat of Western decadence, even Poland and Hungary, which in the recent past leaned towards Putin on cultural questions and resisted the European Union’s “woke” cultural imperialism, have joined the rest of the civilized world in calling the invasion wrong.

If that can happen at the mundane human level, where is the divine solidarity we would expect in this just cause?

The Psalms are a poignant reminder of things that many of us, especially those who have been fortunate to live for years in relatively peaceful societies, would rather not face – even might be tempted to deny.

Our God is not a suburban God who guarantees prosperity and peace. Several psalms praise the wonders of Creation and remind us that such good as we enjoy comes from following God’s law. But they also never let us forget that evil is real and powerful, which is why God had to die on a Cross to defeat it.

As C.S. Lewis remarks in his little book Reflection on the Psalms, “These poets [i.e., psalm writers] lived in a world of savage punishments, of massacre and violence, of blood sacrifice in all countries, and human sacrifice in many.” We tend to discount that such things – along with gulags, laogai, slavery, child sacrifice (i.e., abortion), and sex trafficking – still exist. And not only in far distant places but in subtle – sometime quite open – forms, in our own world. But they continue because human nature doesn’t change.

Every Christian at some point comes face-to-face with evil and suffering, and must try to make sense of them. St. Augustine famously argued that evil does not have real existence – that it’s a lack of some good that should be present. True at a very high conceptual level, but difficult to hold on to when bombs are falling in your neighborhood. He comes closer to our ordinary experience when he speaks of the mysterium inquitatis, “the mystery of evil.”

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There are many mysteries in the world, but perhaps why evil exists in the Creation of a Good God is the mystery that challenges us most. Many people, as in the times of the Psalmists, just accept that evil exists, and God does not. Some lose their faith when they experience evil. The difficult thing for us at times like these – but really, as we should know, at all times – is to take the full measure of the evil both around and within us. And to grapple with it, despite the ways it not only causes pain but even raises doubts.

God intends some good to spring from allowing things like COVID and the invasion of Ukraine. In many cases, the good that results is that we are forced finally to become “woke” in understanding how radically we depend on Him.

For reasons not entirely clear to me, I started studying the psalms weeks before the invasion of Ukraine. I usually make it part of my morning routine to study some part of Scripture in a systematic way. Even before the bombs started falling, the psalms woke me up to something different than “woke” culture.

Because of the politicization of everything in our world, we’ve lost the basic perspective on human existence. We want – really want – to believe that all suffering or evil in the world is the result of faulty policies, or capitalism, or racism, or the “patriarchy.”

We can take some steps to deal with particular problems, to be sure. But how much of what our media daily flood us with really reflects our belief that we could control evil, if only the right political party or politicians were in power?

This is nonsense, on stilts, of course.

Just now we love to blame one another for the invasion of Ukraine, as if it’s our fault and not Russia’s. Every Christian should, of course, examine himself first when some evil appears. And there’s no question that the West might have taken a different tack and made war less likely. But that only partly explains Mr. Putin’s war. He made it clear for years what he intended to do, questions about NATO notwithstanding. Anyway, a proper self-examination should not be a “Kick Me” sign that we affix to our own backs.

Read the news in these troubling days, and try to sort things out, as we all must. But also: read the Psalms. They dispel our usual illusions that we’re in control.

As Newman’s prayer puts it, “I will trust Him, whatever I am. . . .If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him, in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him. If I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him. He does nothing in vain. He knows what He is about. He may take away my friends. He may throw me among strangers. He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide my future from me. Still, He knows what He is about.”

The psalms are both disturbing and comforting. Puzzling and enlightening. They don’t sugar-coat life or speak only of ancient struggles, but of today and the future. About you and me. About the world that desperately now needs to wake to wisdom.

 

Image: Guernica by Pablo Picasso, 1937 [Museo Reina Sofía, Madrid, Spain]

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Robert Royal

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.

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