The importance of holding a hand

A Reflection on Psalm 63.1-9 by Canon Rob, 20th March

One of the hardest things about being in lock-down was not being able to embrace someone we love unless they were in “our bubble.” Undoubtedly this was most painful for those who were unable to visit a loved-one who was dying in hospital. “I couldn’t even go and hold her hand!” Often it fell to nurses to hold the hand of a patient, to help comfort them and assure them they were not entirely alone.

I have recently read a library book called “Cilka’s Journey” by Heather Morris. Based on actual events, it tells of a young girl from Czechoslovakia who spent years in Auschwitz during the 2nd World War and then 15 years in a Russian Gulag because she was suspected of being an informer. It is a heartbreaking story but during her imprisonment in the Gulag she was given the opportunity to train as a nurse and so helped save the lives of many, especially those who were sent down the local coal mine facing danger every day. On one rescue operation Cilka was badly injured. She was in and out of consciousness, but one day she opened her eyes to see a strange man holding and kissing her hand whilst repeating, “Thank you for saving my life, you are an angel:” words of comfort and praise which gave her the courage to stay alive, hard though that would continue to be.

The words of today’s psalm were written when the author was going through a hard time but praises God as he recalls comfort and help received in the past. So in verse 8 we read, “For you have been my helper and under the shadow of your wings will I rejoice.” [Common Worship.] Then a verse later, “My soul clings to you; your right hand shall hold me fast.” What beautiful words which, if we close our eyes after reading them, we can picture what was in the mind of the psalmist. There are times when even the most faithful of us find it hard to say our prayers. Perhaps we have heard some really bad news which upsets us, or we are feeling unwell and in a lot of pain, or we may be grieving because someone we love has died and life seems empty. Or in the words of the psalm, our souls are thirsty. Verse 2 says, “My flesh also faints for you, as in a dry and thirsty land where there is no water.” We all know what it is to be thirsty and here the author of the psalm realises that this is what life can be like. At such times he knows it is important to draw on the strength which he received from God in the past. His faith is restored and he knows that God is holding his hand and giving him the strength to carry on.

Another way of putting this is that the psalmist finds peace of mind through faith: something which is a gift; a free gift which God gives to us all who seek it and have the patience to wait upon God. Mindfulness is often talked about today and this too can bring peace of mind. Again, it requires of us that we can relax as those of us with faith will do when we meditate. Perhaps the difference is that with mindfulness we draw upon inner resources, whilst with meditating, or waiting upon God, we are also drawing upon the strength that God gives, believing that he is “holding our hand” just as a nurse will do with a patient in hospital or an aid worker will do when helping a victim in Ukraine.

Psalm 62, like 63, is about being strengthened by God although the metaphor is different. Instead of God holding the hand of the author, God is experienced as a rock, a stronghold, but the end result is the same and in verse 5 of this psalm we read, “Wait on God alone in stillness, O my soul; for in him is my hope.” Here again we find peace of mind and this is something we who have faith, can not only experience ourselves, but also help others to find by offering support when it is needed. As we do so, we fulfil our shared vocation to make God’s love and peace known.

Gentle protector, strong deliverer, in the night
you are our confidence: from first light be our joy