Psalm 91 has a very special place in my heart. This is one of the first Psalms I prayed with my boyfriend. We are good Anglicans, you see, who call in video for daily compline! For those of other denominations, Compline is the last act of prayer of the day, traditionally recited at 9 p.m.
God uses his power to cast out fear, as perfect love always does (1 John 4:18). And in Psalm 91 heroic images abound of the Saint who scatters all horror before him. It’s a psalm about finding rest in a turbulent world, even that of Russian warmongering – being secure in Christ, our “Light of Light”.
Read the psalm and you might recognize the language somewhere. It’s a lively thing. You may remember phrases like the shield of God’s faithfulness (v. 4) and angels present (v. 11) from the song “On Eagle’s Wings.” Listen to it on YouTube if it’s been a while.
President Biden quoted this anthem in his 2020 victory speech, offering his portrayal of a loving God as “comfort and solace” to American families bereaved by Covid-19. I confess that I had not heard it before the President’s speech. And it wasn’t until much later that I realized it was based on Psalm 91.
What sticks with me when I read Psalm 91 is this first verse: “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. The theme of God’s protection is clear from the start. And so, I meditated on what it is to dwell in the safe citadel that is Our Lord.
A natural starting point, as Northern Irish people reflect on the subject of refuge, was the Hibernian saying: “Sheltered from one another people live. I guess this phrase came to mind because of the proximity of the language to Psalm 91. To compare, re-read the verse I quoted in the previous paragraph.
Our potential as human beings to be shelter for each other – God knows there are millions yearning for shelter today – is surely part of the mystery here in Psalm 91. song is included in the scriptures of the Hebrew people, after all. It’s not just one person’s experience. Otherwise, it would not have endured in the prayer book of a religious community.
But it is not only the Jewish people with whom the psalm resonates. As Christians, we place our faith in the Holy Catholic Church. And in it, God extends relief to us. Just as a Hebrew worshiper found refuge in the Temple, we have a safe home in the Church.
Indeed, we see the same images of Psalm 91 in the New Testament. Luke records in Acts 5:15 how the people of Jerusalem bore their sick in the literal shadow of St. Peter – Peter being, as the first pope, the head of the Church at the time – in the hope of receiving a grace.
And we can always – whenever the hour of need arises – look to the Church as our life raft. In verse five, the psalmist says, “You shall not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day. This makes it an appropriate psalm for compline before bedtime, encouraging us that the holy ministry of our Church continues while the world sleeps.
Pope Emeritus, writing as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, explains why the Church is a perpetual sanctuary; “because the Lord always gives himself, because the Eucharistic mystery remains present, and because we, in approaching it, are always included in the worship of the whole believing, prayerful and loving Church” (Theology of the Liturgy , 281).
This, of course, is the Church at its best – doing what its Lord has called it to do. My sympathies go out to all whose religious experiences have been exhausting rather than life-enhancing. I haven’t always had a harmonious relationship with Church either. But I see the Church as a force for good in the world when led by virtuous clergy.
God is always at hand in the sacrament as our spiritual protector, even when things in the world are dire. Psalm 91:7 sums it up powerfully: ‘A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you.’ As Putin slips into Ukraine, the Bride of Christ ministers to the broken with a healing supper.
The holy presence is available to all of us. “If you say, ‘The Lord is my refuge,’ and make the Most High your dwelling place, no evil will overtake you” (vv. 9-10a). Through the sacrament of Confirmation, he therefore enters into full membership of the Church in order to dwell with God in the gathering together of his chosen people.
But receiving such a blessing is not an individualistic experience. As emblematic and enacted in the common cup of the sacrament, obtaining a blessing involves the duty to give forth what we receive. When we hold the cup in our hands, we hold the power to bless our neighbor with supreme blessing. We are far from Putin’s terror campaign.
“People live in shelter from each other. And Psalm 91 provides a vision of the relationships we can build to show others the same care we get from God: “He will call on me, and I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble, I will deliver him and honor him” (v. 15, NIV). As I prayed with my boyfriend and events in Ukraine flooded our screens, these words were especially poignant.
And so, my final thoughts on Psalm 91…God wants to be the strong protector of a chosen people. Originally, it was the Jewish community. But in Christian teaching, it includes all people baptized into the Church. In the communion of saints, God reveals his generosity through ministries and sacraments.
Further, believers are called, in our collective life as the Body of Christ and in our various relationships, to reflect this concern for those in need of a home. And who doesn’t yearn for a spiritual home? So we all have a sacred purpose in life: to make our parishes places where strangers can be truly welcomed in the name of Christ.