Monday, February 27, 2012

Ignorance is not bliss! Notes on Psalm 118, Aleph

Today I want to start, as I flagged last week, looking at Psalm 118 stanza by stanza, so today a look at the first eight verses of Psalm 118, which are headed by the Hebrew letter Aleph in the original text.

On the sin of ignorance!

The first stanza of Psalm 118 draws attention, I think, to a very important, but rather neglected principle, namely that everyone has a duty to seek out the truth.

These verses stress that the path to happiness lies in following God’s law. But it is not enough, they tell us, to simply think that we are doing the right thing; rather we are charged to actively seek out God's testimonies.

St Bede the Venerable puts it like this:

“One who neglects to keep his known commandments is not capable of being happy; one who neglects to find out the commandments is separated much further away.”

In the context of the New Evangelization, Pope Benedict XVI has repeatedly stressed the importance of encouraging the search for truth. This takes on a particular context for agnostics, believers in some other faith, other varieties of Christians, who we hope to direct to the fullness of revelation contained in the Church. But it applies equally to Catholics.

The starting point for our journey, then, I propose, needs to be a commitment to learning with the aid of grace: we need to read and study Scripture, for as St Jerome reminds us, ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ; and we need to study and understand the Church’s teachings.

If we have doubts or struggles with teachings, we cannot simply disregard them at will, but rather have a duty to accept the guidance the Church provides, to seek out and study good explanations of the reasons for them. In the modern environment, it is hard to see that many can genuinely claim to suffer from ‘invincible ignorance’, and certainly not those who claim to be a catholic and have access to the Catechism and more!

Aleph

Beati immaculati in via, qui ambulant in lege Domini.
2 Beati qui scrutantur testimonia ejus; in toto corde exquirunt eum.
3 Non enim qui operantur iniquitatem in viis ejus ambulaverunt.
4 Tu mandasti mandata tua custodiri nimis.
5 Utinam dirigantur viæ meæ ad custodiendas justificationes tuas.
6 Tunc non confundar, cum perspexero in omnibus mandatis tuis.
7 Confitebor tibi in directione cordis, in eo quod didici judicia justitiæ tuæ.
8 Justificationes tuas custodiam; non me derelinquas usquequaque.

Blessed are the undefiled in the way, who walk in the law of the Lord.
2 Blessed are they that search his testimonies: that seek him with their whole heart.
3 For they that work iniquity, have not walked in his ways.
4 You have commanded your commandments to be kept most diligently.
5 O! That my ways may be directed to keep your justifications.
6 Then shall I not be confounded, when I shall look into all your commandments.
7 I will praise you with uprightness of heart, when I shall have learned the judgments of your justice.
8 I will keep your justifications: O! Do not utterly forsake me.

Verse by verse

1. Beati (nom pl of beatus) immaculati in via, qui (who) ambulant (they walk) in lege Domini.
Douay-Rheims: Blessed are the undefiled in the way, who walk in the law of the Lord.

Text notes: Both phrases here use a synonym for law, in the first via, or [right] path; in the second law. The psalm starts by reminding us that man’s proper end is eternal happiness, and happiness now to the extent possible in this world. To get to heaven however, we must be free of mortal sin. The MT Hebrew word used for law here is towrah; the Greek is νόμos. Ambulare, literally to walk, is meant to imply the manner in which one orders one's life; or, how one acts. Coverdale translates the verse as ‘Blessed are those that are undefiled in the way, and walk in the law of the Lord’. Other translators prefer ‘blameless’.

beatus, a, um to bless, make happy), happy, blessed, fortunate.
immaculatus, a, um undefiled, stainless, blameless, perfect

2 Beati qui scrutantur (scrutari, to search, examine: deponent) testimonia ejus; in toto corde exquirunt (exquirere to seek, seek after) eum.
Blessed are they that search his testimonies: that seek him with their whole heart.

Scrutantur here arguably implies not just study but also observance. Testimonia is the Vulgate translation of the Hebrew eduih, and really has a broader meaning than commandments or precepts – according to Britt it expresses the declarations of the divine will, to which man must conform. The Monastic Dirunal translates the verse as ‘Blessed are they that search his testimonies, who seek Him with their whole heart’.

In order to walk ‘in the way’, then, we have to seek out God, seek out truth actively. St Bede the Venerable puts it like this: “One who neglects to keep his known commandments is not capable of being happy; one who neglects to find out the commandments is separated much further away.”

scrutor, atus sum, ari, to search, examine, scrutinize.With regard to the Law of God: with the additional idea of to keep, to obey
exquiro quaesivi itum ere – to seek, seek after; with mandata and similar words signifying the Law, it is rendered, to seek, search, ie to keep, oberve

3 Non (not) enim (for) qui (who) operantur (deponent: present indic active) iniquitatem in viis ejus ambulaverunt.
For they that work iniquity, have not walked in his ways.

This verse can be read two ways. The simplest is to take non as qualifying ambulaverunt, hence the Monastic Diurnal makes this: ‘For they that work iniquities do not walk in His ways’. But it can also be read as qualifying operantur, as Coverdale does: ‘for they who do no wickedness walk in his ways’, amounting to the same thing.

St Robert Bellarmine discusses how we can reconcile this verse with the statement in 1 John 1, "If we say that we have no sin we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us, and sin is iniquity." The answer he gives is that the verse refers to mortal sin: “Now, the saints who have the desire of walking in God's way, and do so habitually, may be said to walk therein; and if they occasionally get off the path, by doing something not directly opposed to God's law, they quickly get on it again through penance and confession.”

iniquitas, atis, f iniquity, injustice, sin.
operor, atus sum, are , to work, do, carry into effect, cause, administer

4 Tu (you) mandasti (mandare, to enjoin, order, command) mandata tua custodiri (passive infinitive of to keep, maintain) nimis (greatly, beyond measure)
You have commanded your commandments to be kept most diligently.

Commandments or precepts (mandata) here corresponds to the MT Hebrew piqqudim, and the Greek ἐντολάς. Brenton’s translation from the Septuagint is fairly literal: Thou hast commanded us diligently to keep thy precepts. The Monastic Diurnal makes it ‘Thou has give Thy commandments that they be well observed’. This verse is a call to obedience!

mando, avi, atum, are (perhaps for manui or in manum do), to enjoin, order, command.
mandatum, i, n. law, precept
nimis, adv., exceedingly, greatly, beyond measure.
custodio, ivi or ii, itum, ire to guard, watch, keep;to maintain, to hold steadfastly.

5 Utinam (oh that!/would that!/ I wish that!) dirigantur (subj passive of dirigere, to direct, guide set aright) viæ meæ ad custodiendas (to the keeping) justificationes tuas.
O! That my ways may be directed to keep your justifications.

The MT Hebrew word (Huqqim) for justifications here means literally something engraved or cut in (stone or a tablet). The MD translates the verses as ‘Oh that my ways be well directed unto the keeping of Thy statutes!’ The verse tells us that in order for us to be able to obey, we must ask for the help of grace.

utinam, adv., oh that! would that! I wish that!
dirigo, rexi, rectum, ere 3 to direct, guide, set aright; to prosper, to be established.

6 Tunc non confundar (fut passive, 1st person), cum (when) perspexero (future) in omnibus mandatis tuis.
Then shall I not be confounded, when I shall look into all your commandments.

The Douay Rheims translates this rather literally as ‘Then shall I not be confounded, when I shall look into all your commandments’. The MD conveys more of the sense of it, I think, with ‘Then shall I not be put to shame, when I pay heed to all Thy precepts’. The RSV makes it rather more colloquial: ‘Then I shall not be put to shame, having my eyes fixed on all thy commandments’.

St Augustine suggests that this verse goes to one of the key purposes of lectio divina, namely, as an aid to knowing our own sins and faults, and thus correcting them: “We ought to look upon the commandments of God, whether when they are read, or when they are recalled to memory, as a looking-glass…”

tunc, adv. denoting a point of time which corresponds with another; then, at that time. as a subst.
confundo, fudi, fusum, ere 3, to put or bring to shame, to discomfit.
cum - when
perspicio, spexi, spectum, ere 3, to look into, look at attentively, examine.

7 Confitebor (deponent: future indicative active) tibi in (in + abl= with, in, on among, by means of) directione cordis (gen), in eo (from is ea id) quod didici (pf indicative active of disco to learn) judicia justitiæ tuæ.
I will praise you with uprightness of heart, when I shall have learned the judgments of your justice.

Confiteri is an ambiguous verb, meaning both to praise and to confess (sins). The Fathers and Theologians play on this double-meaning in their commentaries, suggesting that more than not being ashamed, through grace we will come to see the glory of God’s truth and praise him for it. The Douay-Rheims therefore makes the verse ‘I will praise you with uprightness of heart, when I shall have learned the judgments of your justice’. The MD: ‘I will praise Thee with an upright heart, for I have learned Thy righteous judgments’. And Coverdale: I will thank thee with an unfeigned heart, when I shall have learned the judgments of thy righteousness

confiteor, fessus sum, eri 2 (1) to praise, give thanks (2) to confess, acknowledge one's guilt.
directio, onis, f uprightness, righteousness; that which is right, just, or proper.
cor, cordis, n., the heart,
is, ea, id, he, she, it.
qui, quae, quod, pron. rel., who, which, what, that,
disco, didici, ere 3, to learn.

8 Justificationes tuas custodiam (present subj.); non me derelinquas usquequaque.
I will keep your justifications: O! Do not utterly forsake me.

The Douay-Rheims makes it: I will keep your justifications: O! Do not utterly forsake me. The RSV prefers to use the word statutes in this case: ‘I will observe thy statutes; O forsake me not utterly!’.

St Robert Bellarmine comments:

“This is the conclusion of the first octave, if we may so call the eight verses composing the divisions of the Psalm, and indicated by the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, for which division no satisfactory reason can be assigned. The meaning is: Whereas the observance of your law tends to the happiness of those who keep it, and whereas it has been proposed by you, the supreme legislator, and its observance most strictly ordered, "I will keep thy justifications;" I determined and resolved with all my strength to keep them; but do you, on your part, withhold not your grace and your assistance, without which I can do nothing; and if, perchance, in your justice, you shall have to desert me for a while, so that I may feel my own weakness, and learn to fly to thee, and to confide in thee, do not, at all events, "utterly forsake me," that is, altogether and forever.”

derelinquo, liqui, lictum, ere 3, to abandon, forsake. Used frequently of God, of men, and of things.
usquequaque, adv., utterly, altogether, exceedingly



Do let me know if you find these notes helpful, and particularly if you have any suggestions for different content, format etc.  And questions are also welcome!

And do go on to the notes on the next stanza of the psalm.

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