Image: Populus canadensis (Balm of Gilead)
In January of 1845, after two failed attempts, the poet Edgar Allen Poe finally had his poem “The Raven” published in the New York Evening Mirror. In his trademark gloomy tone, Poe weaves a tale of a lovelorn youth who is visited in his grief by a mysterious talking raven, furthering his decent into madness.
“Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil! – prophet still, if bird or devil! —
Whether Tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore,
Desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted —
On this home by Horror haunted – tell me truly, I implore —
“Is there? – is there balm in Gilead? – tell me – tell me, I implore!”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”
“Is there no balm in Gilead?” Such is the heartsick refrain that has echoed down through the centuries. The phrase, of course, comes from our Old Testament lesson this morning in the book of Jeremiah. The prophet had warned the people about their faithless acts and dubious political alliances, and now mourned the consequence that followed: Jerusalem ransacked, the temple destroyed, and his people driven into exile. In distress he cries out:
“O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people!”
– a far cry from the “never let them see you sweat” sayings of our own day; a misguided stoicism that mistakes vulnerability as a sign of weakness. And yet here we have a prophet who is literally begging for tears to sufficiently mourn the suffering of his people. “Is there no balm in Gilead?” he pleads.
Many centuries later, another enslaved people would transform the prophet’s cry into a symbol of hope. The African-American spiritual takes Jeremiah’s phrase not as a question, but as an affirmation of faith, singing YES! –
There is a balm in Gilead – To make the wounded whole;
There is a balm in Gilead – To heal the sin-sick soul.
What has struck me about this phrase is that, though it is oddly specific (after all, who knows where Gilead is anyways?) the phrase has stood the test of time. The point has never been to remanufacture some kind of ancient Neosporin. The power is in the poetic metaphor that transcends time and space to touch that raw part of our souls that yearns for a healing balm. Slaves sang this song not as a mournful dirge, but as an affirmation of trust in the healing of the Great Physician, Jesus Christ. That he is the balm to heal the sin-sick soul.
All of this raises the question, in an age of modern medicine, what need have we of this kind of spiritual salve? What need have we for the balm of Gilead when we can have a prescription for Prozac?
Now, let me be clear here that I am in no way disparaging the use of modern medicine. As someone who has been treated with everything from antibiotics to antidepressants, I have no doubt that advances in science, medicine, and technology are one of the ways God can and does heal our world. But what cure might there be, as the spiritual suggests, for the soul sick with sin? What treatment could possibly touch the heart, and not just the cardiac muscle? What balm could bring such healing to the mind, and not just the cerebellum?
The kind of spiritual sickness Jeremiah describes, the kind of longing sustained by the refrain of this spiritual, is not a disease that can be so easily remedied.
Sickness such as family disfunction and generational addictions are tricky buggers to heal. Deep emotional trauma is notoriously resistant to many of the cures we toss its way. Resentments and shame so often refuse mending because their gnarly scabs are so often picked off. This is just to name a few of the illnesses that modern medicine alone cannot cure.
And then there are the even more complex diseases of societal ills that infect our collective soul: When police and persons of color are pitted against one another, and fellow Americans are taught to fear that “other” political party, how can we ever hope to heal these deep divides? Do we again cry out in despair “Is there no balm in Gilead?”
In a time when fear and insecurity are invoked to coerce us how to vote, when we are taught to fear Muslims, transgendered persons, refugees, or anyone and everyone who is different from us, how can we hope for healing? Is there no solution? Is there no balm in Gilead these days?
Wounds, you see, come in all shapes and sizes. Some visible, some not so visible. Physical wounds, emotional scars, societal sickness – these are all real hurts. And sometimes I wonder whether it’s those wounds that are hidden or hard to see that make us most vulnerable and afraid.
Just the other day, as I was visiting a parishioner in the hospital, I arrived at the room just as the doctor was leaving. “Here’s the real miracle worker” he said as I entered the room. (Well, there’s a hell of an expectation to live up to, I thought to myself). But gathering my thoughts I said to him, “It takes all kinds, I suppose. Medicine, too, is a miracle in it’s own right.” We then joined hands to thank God for the skill of the surgeon, the love of a supportive community, and for the healing balm of God’s presence. As I anointed the patient and made the sign of the cross on his forehead, I could not help but recall the words of this spiritual: There is a balm in Gilead, to make the wounded whole.
The healing balm of God’s presence is not some secret sauce or magical incantation. In fact, the oil we use for unction is really just ordinary olive oil, which is then blessed for a holy purpose. What makes it blessed is that God uses it as an outward and visible sign to bless and heal his people. What makes it blessed is the prayer and love and forgiveness that comes in correlation to the anointing.
So, despite our sin-sick souls, despite our ailments and longings and afflictions, may we too have the faith to sing: There is a balm in Gilead, and know that Gilead is wherever God may be found.
The Rev’d Brad Landry
St. Paul’s – San Antonio
Proper 20c (2016)