Today in this series on Psalm 118 (119) I want to finish looking at the last section of the psalm set for Sunday Prime in the traditional Benedictine Office.
Yesterday I looked at verses 25 to 31 of psalm 118 (119); today I want to hone in one very important verse in the same stanza, verse 32:
Viam mandatorum tuorum cucurri, cum dilatasti cor meum.
“I have run the way of your commandments, when you did enlarge my heart.”
What does the psalmist mean by enlargement of heart?
The psalms often use the concept of narrowness of space restricting movement to symbolize pain and sorrow, and enlargement to suggest strength and gladness. St Augustine explains it as follows:
“The widening of the heart is the delight we take in righteousness. This is the gift of God, the effect of which is, that we are not straitened in His commandments through the fear of punishment, but widened through love, and the delight we have in righteousness....”
This concept of ‘enlargement of heart’ is particularly important from the point of view of Benedictine spirituality because St Benedict uses the term, quoting this psalm in his Rule to explain the process by which we grow in virtue.
St Benedict views enlargement of heart as the goal of the Christian life, a metaphor for reaching that state where out of perfect love of God, practicing virtue becomes automatic and easy:
“Therefore must we establish a school of the Lord's service; in founding which we hope to ordain nothing that is harsh or burdensome. But if, for good reason, for the amend¬ment of evil habit or the preservation of charity, there be some strictness of discipline, do not be at once dismayed and run away from the way of salvation, of which the entrance must needs be narrow. But, as we progress in our monastic life and in faith, our hearts shall be enlarged, and we shall run with unspeakable sweetness of love in the way of God's commandments; so that, never abandoning his rule but persevering in his teaching in the monastery until death, we shall share by patience in the sufferings of Christ, that we may deserve to be partakers also of his kingdom. Amen.” (RB Prologue, trans J McCann)
St Benedict’s contemporary Cassiodorus expands on this saying:
“They could not have either walked or run if their hearts had not been extended by breadth of knowledge, for though we read that the way of the commandments is narrow, we can run it only with heart enlarged. When the soul receives the light of truth, it is opened to recognitions of many kinds; it is broadened by knowledge of virtues after earlier being narrowed by sins.”
Lent is a reminder that we must train our minds and bodies
St Benedict gives us here a tantalising glimpse of the spiritual path in front of us: we must start, he suggests, by learning to discipline mind and body through a strict regimen, a message that Lent each year serves to remind us applies to us all, whether monk, priest or layperson.
At first we might act out of fear of hell.
But over time, he suggests, as we grow in grace and virtue, doing the good becomes automatic and easy, done out of love rather than fear. St Robert Bellarmine adds:
"I have observed them with delight, with readiness, with alacrity, "when thou didst enlarge my heart" by the infusion of your love, which makes "your yoke sweet and your burden light."
And the reward is to run to heaven, borne up with the unspeakable sweetness of love:
“…the monk will presently come to that perfect love of God which casts out all fear; whereby he will begin to observe without labour, as though naturally and by habit, all those precepts which formerly he did not observe without fear: no longer for fear of hell, but for love of Christ and through good habit and delight in virtue. And this will the Lord deign to show forth by the power of his Spirit in his workman now cleansed from vice and from sin.” (RB 7)
A look at the verse in more detail
Viam mandatorum tuorum (gen pl) cucurri (perfect: I have run), cum (temporal clause: when, after) dilatasti (perfect) cor meum.
I will run in the way of your commandments: when you have enlarged my heart
The second phrase is a ‘temporal clause’: cum used with an indicative verb indicates something that happens after an event, so we could paraphrase the verse as ‘After you widened my heart, I was able to run in your testimonies’.
Most of the English translations attempt to convey this sense by placing the first phrase in the future tense: the Monastic Diurnal, for example, suggests “I will run the way of your precepts for thou hast enlarged my heart.” Brenton’s translation of the Septuagint does a better job here though I think, making it: ‘I ran the way of thy commandments, when thou didst enlarge my heart’. The neo-Vulgate solves the problem by changing cucurri (pefect) to curram (future).
curro, cucurri, cursum, ere 3, to run, hasten.
dilato, avi, atum, are to make broad or broader, to enlarge, extend. (1) "to enlarge," i.e., to set at large, set at liberty. (2) Of the mouth, to be open wide. (3) to enlarge, said of the heart, i.e., to dilate with comfort and joy. (4) to grow thick or fat.
cor, cordis, n., the heart, regarded as the seat of the faculties, feelings, emotions, passions; the mind, the soul.
Here is the full stanza once again:
25 My soul has cleaved to the pavement: quicken me according to your word.
26 I have declared my ways, and you have heard me: teach me your justifications.
27 Make me to understand the way of your justifications: and I shall be exercised in your wondrous works.
28 My soul has slumbered through heaviness: strengthen me in your words.
29 Remove from me the way of iniquity: and out of your law have mercy on me.
30 I have chosen the way of truth: your judgments I have not forgotten.
31 I have stuck to your testimonies, O Lord: put me not to shame.
32 I have run the way of your commandments, when you did enlarge my heart.
25 Adhæsit pavimento anima mea : vivifica me secundum verbum tuum.
26 Vias meas enuntiavi, et exaudisti me; doce me justificationes tuas.
27 Viam justificationum tuarum instrue me, et exercebor in mirabilibus tuis.
28 Dormitavit anima mea præ tædio : confirma me in verbis tuis.
29 Viam iniquitatis amove a me, et de lege tua miserere mei.
30 Viam veritatis elegi; judicia tua non sum oblitus.
31 Adhæsi testimoniis tuis, Domine; noli me confundere.
32 Viam mandatorum tuorum cucurri, cum dilatasti cor meum.
And now on to the sections of the psalm set for Sunday Terce in the Benedictine Office, starting with the stanza headed by the Hebrew letter He.