Friday, January 17, 2014

Introduction to Psalm 41 (As the deer longs for cool water)



To complete, for the moment, my series on Office of the Dead, today a brief look at the last psalm of Matins, Psalm 41, a beautiful poem whose tone is set by the repeated phrase  'Why are you sad, my soul, why do you disquiet me' (verses 6&15).  The psalm is also said on Monday at Matins in the Benedictine Office.

The psalm is one of those few (such as the Matins Invitatory, Psalm 94) that is probably better known in the Old Roman Latin version, which starts 'Sicut cervus', rather than the Vulgate, courtesy of Palestrina's beautiful evocation of the psalmist's melancholy borne of homesickness, which you can listen to below.

Vulgate
Douay-Rheims
In finem. Intellectus filiis Core.
Unto the end, understanding for the sons of Core.
1 Quemádmodum desíderat cervus ad fontes aquárum: * ita desíderat ánima mea ad te, Deus.
As the hart pants after the fountains of water; so my soul pants after you, O God.
2  Sitívit ánima mea ad Deum fortem vivum: * quando véniam, et apparébo ante fáciem Dei?
3 My soul has thirsted after the strong living God; when shall I come and appear before the face of God?
3  Fuérunt mihi lácrimæ meæ panes die ac nocte: * dum dícitur mihi quotídie: Ubi est Deus tuus?
4 My tears have been my bread day and night, whilst it is said to me daily: Where is your God?
4  Hæc recordátus sum, et effúdi in me ánimam meam: * quóniam transíbo in locum tabernáculi admirábilis, usque ad domum Dei.
5 These things I remembered, and poured out my soul in me: for I shall go over into the place of the wonderful tabernacle, even to the house of God:
5  In voce exsultatiónis, et confessiónis: * sonus epulántis.
With the voice of joy and praise; the noise of one feasting.
6  Quare tristis es, ánima mea? * et quare contúrbas me?
6 Why are you sad, O my soul? And why do you trouble me?
7  Spera in Deo, quóniam adhuc confitébor illi: * salutáre vultus mei, et Deus meus.
Hope in God, for I will still give praise to him: the salvation of my countenance, 7 and my God.
8  Ad meípsum ánima mea conturbáta est : * proptérea memor ero tui de terra Jordánis, et Hermóniim a monte módico.
My soul is troubled within my self: therefore will I remember you from the land of Jordan and Hermoniim, from the little hill.
9  Abyssus abyssum ínvocat, * in voce cataractárum tuárum.
8 Deep calls on deep, at the noise of your flood-gates.
10  Omnia excélsa tua, et fluctus tui * super me transiérunt.
All your heights and your billows have passed over me.
11  In die mandávit Dóminus misericórdiam suam : * et nocte cánticum ejus.
9 In the daytime the Lord has commanded his mercy; and a canticle to him in the night.
12  Apud me orátio Deo vitæ meæ, * dicam Deo : Suscéptor meus es.
With me is prayer to the God of my life. 10 I will say to God: You are my support.
13  Quare oblítus es mei? * et quare contristátus incédo, dum afflígit me inimícus?
Why have you forgotten me? And why go I mourning, whilst my enemy afflicts me?
14  Dum confringúntur ossa mea, * exprobravérunt mihi qui tríbulant me inimíci mei.
11 Whilst my bones are broken, my enemies who trouble me have reproached me;
15  Dum dicunt mihi per síngulos dies : Ubi est Deus tuus? * quare tristis es, ánima mea? et quare contúrbas me?
Whilst they say to me day be day: Where is your God? 12 Why are you cast down, O my soul? And why do you disquiet me?
16  Spera in Deo, quóniam adhuc confitébor illi : * salutáre vultus mei, et Deus meus.
Hope in God, for I will still give praise to him: the salvation of my countenance, and my God.

As the deer longs for fountains of water...

The psalm opens with a poignant image that has been taken up in iconography (see for example the picture above). The idea of Our Lord as the font, or fountain is clear cut in meaning.  But why a deer (hart/stag)?  St Robert Bellarmine (following St Augustine) summarises the traditional take on this as follows:

"The stag is noted for four peculiarities. It is a deadly enemy to serpents, and constantly at war with them. When it is pursued by the hunters, it betakes itself to the highest mountains as quickly as possible. By some natural instinct, they singularly carry out the advice of the apostle, "Bear ye each other's burdens;" for, according to St. Augustine, when they move in a body, or swim across a lake, the weaker ones rest their heads on the stronger, and are thus helped along. Finally, when they are tired after a combat with serpents, or a flight to the mountain, or from helping each other along, they seek to refresh themselves by copious droughts of water, from which they cannot be tempted or deterred."

Bellarmine goes on to apply the imagery to our own spiritual life:

"Such is a most perfect idea of the true lover of God. He has to wage a continued war against the serpents of his evil desires. When he is nigh overcome by temptation, or by persecutions, he flies away to the mount of contemplation, bears his neighbor's infirmities with the greatest patience, and, above all, thirsts ardently for God, from whom he will not be held back by any earthly happiness or trouble. Such was David, though a soldier; so was Paul, Peter, and the other apostles and martyrs; such were all who felt they were, while here below, in exile, and, through good and evil days, never lost sight of that country, the supreme object of their wishes."

Longing for our true home

The original context for the psalm is disputed: it could be about one of King David's many exiles, or a later poem of the Exiles longing for their homeland and the Temple.  In the context of the here and now, it expresses a deep longing for the joy of beautiful liturgy of a feast day, as verses 5-6 suggest:

"Memories come back to me yet, melting the heart; how once I would join with the throng, leading the way to God’s house, amid cries of joy and thanksgiving, and all the bustle of holiday." (Knox translation)

The imagery of the fountains of water, and the deep calling to the deep also calls to mind the font of baptism, linking it clearly to one of the key themes of Monday in the Benedictine Office, as to does the invocation of God as our sustainer or support (susceptor) in Verse  12 (cf Psalm 118 and the Suscipe verse at Terce on Monday).

The image of the exile also makes the psalm a prayer particularly suitable for those times when we have gone backwards in our spiritual life, or suffer from the withdrawal of the sense of God's presence, and can only look back with longing to the consolations we previously enjoyed.

Above all, though, this beautiful poem expresses the longing we should all have for heaven, as Fr Pius Pasch makes clear:

"Since the fall, earth has become a land of exile for us, and we look and long for our heavenly home.  The sinner also suffers this nostalgia for true joy, his home and union with God."

As such, we can think of it, in the Office of the Dead, either as the prayer of the person on their deathbed, looking forward to their earthly release.  But perhaps it is even more powerful thought of as the prayer of the person in purgatory that we are praying for, afflicted by punishment and unable anymore to help themselves, yet knowing that they will eventually enter heaven, when their purgation is complete.


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