Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Introduction to Psalm 137 in the context of the Office of the Dead

The memento mori of René of Anjou, king of Naples.
(British Library, Egerton 1070 f. 53)
Through November I've been looking at some of the psalms of the Office of the Dead, and today I want to give a short introduction to the last psalm of Vespers of the Dead, Psalm 137(138), before embarking on a verse by verse look at it.

A psalm of thanksgiving and a last plea for help

This hymn of thanksgiving alternates between the personal concerns of the speaker, and a call for the praise of God to be spread amongst all nations.

Like most of the other psalms of this Office, it has a strong focus on the protection God offers in times of trouble, and preservation from the final death. God is to be worshipped, it argues, for his truth and mercy, for his help in times of tribulation and aid against enemies, and for his aid to the poor and marginalized. In the Office of the Dead, the last phrase of the last verse ‘the works of Thy hands O Lord, forsake not’ is used as the antiphon.

The psalm is also said at Wednesday Vespers in the Benedictine Rite (Thursday in the Roman).

Psalm 137: The text

First listen to be being read and/or or sung through in Latin so you can hear how it should sound:

Confitébor tibi, Dómine, in toto corde meo: * quóniam audísti verba oris mei.
2 In conspéctu Angelórum psallam tibi: * adorábo ad templum sanctum tuum, et confitébor nómini tuo.
3 Super misericórdia tua, et veritáte tua: * quóniam magnificásti super omne, nomen sanctum tuum.
4 In quacúmque die invocávero te, exáudi me: * multiplicábis in ánima mea virtútem.
5 Confiteántur tibi, Dómine, omnes reges terræ: * quia audiérunt ómnia verba oris tui.
6 Et cantent in viis Dómini: * quóniam magna est glória Dómini.
7 Quóniam excélsus Dóminus, et humília réspicit: * et alta a longe cognóscit.
8 Si ambulávero in médio tribulatiónis, vivificábis me: * et super iram inimicórum meórum extendísti manum tuam, et salvum me fecit déxtera tua.
9 Dóminus retríbuet pro me: * Dómine, misericórdia tua in sæculum: ópera mánuum tuárum ne despícias.

Next, in order to get a sense of the overall meaning, have a quick look at the English.  Here it is in the Coverdale translation so you can enjoy the lovely Anglican chant version sung for the Pope during his UK visit at Westminster Abbey in 2010 (warning: this is not a Catholic translation, and I will comment on some of the differences between it and one's based on the Vulgate and Neo-Vulgate as we go along in this mini-series):

I will give thanks unto thee, O Lord, with my whole heart;
even before the gods will I sing praise unto thee.
I will worship toward thy holy temple, and praise thy Name,
because of thy loving-kindness and truth; for thou hast magnified thy Name, and thy word, above all things.
When I called upon thee, thou heardest me, and enduedst my soul with much strength.
All the kings of the earth shall praise thee, O Lord; for they have heard the words of thy mouth.
Yea, they shall sing of the ways of the Lord, that great is the glory of the Lord.
For though the Lord be high, yet hath he respect unto the lowly; as for the proud, he beholdeth them afar off.
Though I walk in the midst of trouble, yet shalt thou refresh me; thou shalt stretch forth thy hand upon the furiousness of mine enemies, and thy right hand shall save me.
The Lord shall make good his loving-kindness toward me. Yea, thy mercy, O Lord, endureth for ever; despise not then the works of thine own hands.

Pope Benedict XVI on Psalm 137

Pope Benedict XVI gave a General Audience on this psalm back in 2005. Here is an extract from his talk by way of introduction:

“Psalm 138[137], the hymn of thanksgiving that we have just heard, attributed by the Judaic tradition to the patronage of David although it probably came into being in a later epoch, opens with a personal hymn by the person praying… We must be sure that however burdensome and tempestuous the trials that await us may be, we will never be left on our own, we will never fall out of the Lord's hands, those hands that created us and now sustain us on our journey through life. As St Paul was to confess: "he who has begun the good work in you will carry it through to completion" (Phil 1: 6). Thus, we too have prayed with a psalm of praise, thanksgiving and trust. Let us continue to follow this thread of hymnodic praise through the witness of a Christian hymn-writer, the great Ephrem the Syrian (fourth century), the author of texts with an extraordinary poetic and spiritual fragrance: "However great may be our wonder for you, O Lord, your glory exceeds what our tongues can express", Ephrem sang in one hymn and in another: "Praise to you, to whom all things are easy, for you are almighty".  And this is a further reason for our trust: that God has the power of mercy and uses his power for mercy. And lastly, a final quote: "Praise to you from all who understand your truth" (General Audience, Wednesday, 7 December 2005)

If you are interested in using this psalm series to help brush up or learn your Latin, you can find some notes to aid you on this here.

Or you can go straight to the first part of the phrase by phrase notes on the psalm here.

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