We sometimes think we have only one voice but we have many voices and many languages. Not only do we have words, we have gestures and symbols, we have music and song and we also have silence.

Listen here:

In so many different ways language, especially our song-language, carries memory as well as emotion and vision. Song never just expresses thoughts, it involves ‘us’ – all of us – not least our soul. And, of course, it is not just about singing or speaking or even watching. It is also about listening – in a beautiful and strange way as we listen, are taken into the song. We can find ourselves filled with joy and peace, or we can experience our pain and longing, our regret and hope in ways we could never express on our own.

In the song, we can also find a whole community, their history, their wisdom, their faith. In the liturgy of the Church, we not only find ourselves in prayer, but we are caught up with the whole community of faith coming to us across all the centuries, coming to rest with us in the present, inviting us to take up the great song and carry it into the future.

In the season of Lent, in word and song, in gesture and in prayer, the community of faith enfolds us, not only in the cry for mercy and forgiveness, but in the prayer of hope – hope that we can change, hope that, in some way, we can reach out across our boundaries and our limitations to each other and to God.

When that happens, we have begun to change, to sing a new song; to touch the reality of the Kingdom of God for which every generation longs. In these moments, Lent brings its own balm – balm for our wounded bodies, our anxious minds and weary souls.

‘There is a balm in Gilead’ is a haunting African American spiritual. It was collected and printed in the 19th century, but it probably goes back much earlier than that. It has a gentle, simple melody almost like a lullaby. It is a hymn of consolation, itself a sort of balm for ‘the troubled soul’.

It takes its line from the prophet Jeremiah 8: 22: his great and moving lament for the slain people of Judah, the destruction of Jerusalem and for the people sent into forced exile in Babylon. Gilead was famous in the ancient world for its medicinal balsam. But the disaster is so complete and the wound so deep that Jeremiah can find no comfort, not even in Gilead for there is no easy cure for what has happened. He asks,

“Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no healer there? …..Oh that my head were waters, and my eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night for the slain daughter of my people!”

As you listen to this great African American spiritual, you will recognise that although the first line draws from Jeremiah, it actually reverses it. “There is a balm in Gilead”, it assures us. The balm is Jesus Christ.

Now, it would be mistake for us to think that the quiet solace of this song is naïve. Listening closely, we can surely hear within it the echo of lament; all the gathered experience of a people, a race, that has a long history of endured suffering, oppression and exploitation.

But out of that very place of darkness comes the song of faith, a song of equally quiet resistance and of invincible hope. The very fact this great song of comfort rises up from the soul-pain of those whose situation seems so impossible, is itself a witness to the very freedom that they possess. For while we can still sing the Lord’s song, no matter how foreign the land, our hearts are always free.

It is a freedom which comes from faith, a deep faith purified in the fires of slavery and many forms it can take in our world, yet it is a faith that can already see that the time of bondage and captivity has no future. Even while in its pride, it continues to exploit the weak and oppressed, it is already judged and sentence has been pronounced.

“There is a balm in Gilead” is not an angry song. To all those who listen, it offers a grace. It points out the way in which our bruised souls can be revived: simply by refusing to let go of faith and the Christ who is found even in all the valleys of darkness.

Its consolation is also about waiting in patience, trust and hope, like the women at the foot of the cross and those who live in silence of the Holy Saturday, keeping vigil for the Easter dawn.

“There is a balm in Gilead” is a missionary song. It reminds us that beyond the present oppression there is something greater, something that we can all do. As it says, even if we can’t sing like angels or preach like Paul, we are all apostles of the great message of salvation – we carry Christ who is the healer of all souls, whoever they are or wherever they are, whether they are caught in the past, trapped the present or lost in the darkness of the future, the mercy of Christ can reach them. Christ is not bound by our histories and from him flows God’s mercy from the eternal well love.

One of the most moving and beautiful versions of ‘There is a balm in Gilead’ is by Jessye Norman and Kathleen Battle. These two great artists remind us that we sing best when we sing together for consolation, is a community. Towards the end there is a graced moment in their singing.

They sing individually and then together the phrase ‘In Gilead’ – it is a sort of suspended moment, more than a moment of longing, it is as if they already see it, and have begun to possess it. For this Lent we might take time to listen to the song, our heart, is singing.

About the Author

James Hanvey SJ

Secretary for the Service of the Faith for the Society of Jesus

His particular research and teaching interests are in the areas of Trinitarian Theology, Pneumatology, Ecclesiology and Catholic Social Thought as well as Ignatian Spirituality.

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