Monday, November 7, 2011

Introduction to Psalm 114 in the context of Vespers of the Office of the Dead

c15th Maitre de Rohan

I want to focus, over the next few weeks, on the traditional form of the Vespers of the Office of the Dead by way of an offering for the souls in purgatory, and in the hope that I can encourage others to say the Office of the Dead to that end.

Like all of the hours of this Office, Vespers starts without any introductory prayers, with the antiphon for the first psalm, Placebo Dominum (I will please the Lord), which is in fact the last verse of that first psalm, Psalm 114 (116).

Vespers of the Dead consists of five psalms:
  • Psalm 114, Dilexi quoniam exaudiet Dominus (I love the Lord, because he has heard my voice);
  • Psalm 119, Ad Dominum cum tribularer clamavi (To the Lord I cry in my distress);
  • Psalm 120, Levavi oculos meos in montes (I will lift up my eyes to the hills);
  • Psalm 129, De Profundis (Out of the Deep);and
  • Psalm 137, Confitebor tibi Domine (I thank thee Lord)
The middle three are all Gradual psalms, while Psalm 129 is also one of the penitential psalms.

So, to start with Psalm 114...

Psalm 114: the text

In the Septuagint (and thus Vulgate), this is a separate psalm. But in the Hebrew Masoretic Text it is joined to Vulgate Psalm 115, and actually constitutes the first nine verses of Psalm 116.

Here it is, first in English (Douay-Rheims), arranged as it is used liturgically:

I have loved, because the Lord will hear the voice of my prayer.
Because he has inclined his ear unto me: and in my days I will call upon him.
The sorrows of death have compassed me: and the perils of hell have found me.
I met with trouble and sorrow: And I called upon the name of the Lord.
O Lord, deliver my soul. The Lord is merciful and just, and our God shows mercy.
The Lord is the keeper of little ones: I was humbled, and he delivered me.
Turn, O my soul, into your rest: for the Lord has been bountiful to you.
For he has delivered my soul from death: my eyes from tears, my feet from falling.
I will please the Lord in the land of the living.

And in the Latin Vulgate:

Diléxi, quóniam exáudiet dóminus vocem oratiónis meæ
Quia inclinávit aurem suam mihi: et in diébus meis invocábo.
Circumdedérunt me dolóres mortis: et perícula inférni invenérunt me.
Tribulatiónem et dolórem invéni: et nomen Dómini invocávi.
O Dómine, líbera ánimam meam: miséricors Dóminus, et justus, et Deus noster miserétur.
Custódiens párvulos Dóminus: humiliátus sum, et liberávit me.
Convértere, ánima mea, in réquiem tuam: quia Dóminus benefécit tibi.
Quia erípuit ánimam meam de morte: óculos meos a lácrimis, pedes meos a lapsu.
Placébo Dómino in regióne vivórum.

To aid your learning, don't forget to listen to it being recited aloud, and work with the recording until you can say and sing (on one note) each verse yourself.

Psalm 114: an overview

Psalm 114 has long had two levels of meaning, referring both to our life here and now, and to our future in heaven.

In the context of the Office of the Dead, this first psalm of Vespers in the Office of the Dead is best read as a deathbed prayer of a soul on the point of victory, asking for God to take it up into heaven, the land of the living.

But it can also be read as a more general thanksgiving prayer (and is used as such in Jewish liturgy, sung after the Passover meal and on other major feasts as one of the ‘Hallel’ psalms) for the many times God has rescued us from those who assault us, and has aided us in keeping us on the path of righteousness, so that we can continue to please him. In this context, ‘the land of the living’ is here on earth, where we can still undertake good works to aid those in the land of the dead who can no longer aid themselves.

There is no explicit historical context that can obviously be attributed to the psalm, though St Alphonsus Liguori suggests that it was a thanksgiving psalm following David’s deliverance from persecution by his son Absalom.  The saint continues:

“The royal prophet is here the figure of the Christian soul, which, after suffering many dangerous temptations, finds itself at the approach of death victorious over its enemies and on the point of going to heaven to enjoy its God.”

For verse by verse translation notes and commentary, start here
For some suggestions on using the psalm to brush up your Latin,  have a look here.

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