Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Psalms 20 to 31: Psalms of the Passion or Resurrection?

In my recent series over at Saints Will Arise on the structure of the Benedictine Office, I suggested that St Benedictine started Sunday Matins at Psalm 20 rather than Psalm 1 in order to give more of a Resurrection focus, in keeping with the nature of Sundays.

Joshua of Psallite Sapienter however, argues that we should view Psalms 21 to 30 as particularly focusing on the Passion, and hence an appropriate Lenten devotion.  He points to the suggestion by William of Autun (765-812) and Durandus (1237-1296) and  that Our Lord said all of these psalms while on the Cross.

Psalms of the Resurrection or psalms of the Passion?

There is certainly Scriptural warrant for viewing Psalm 21 in this way: Scripture puts its opening line (My God, my God, why have you forsaken me) on Our Lord's lips, and this is taken as impliedly a reference to the whole psalm. 

And I certainly have no doubt about the value of saying these psalms as a group as a devotion. 

But they should they really be viewed primarily as psalms of the Passion?

Psalm 21

In fact a large part of the point of the implied reference to the whole of Psalm 21 by Our Lord is as a prophesy of the Resurrection. 

While the first half of the psalm speaks very literally of the suffering Our Lord underwent, as Pope John Paul II pointed out in a General Audience on the psalm, its ending is one of triumph:

"On the other hand in quoting the beginning of Psalm 22, which he perhaps continued to recite mentally during the passion, Jesus did not forget the conclusion which becomes a hymn of liberation and an announcement of salvation granted to all by God. The experience of abandonment is therefore a passing pain which gives way to personal liberation and universal salvation. In Jesus' afflicted soul this perspective certainly nourished hope, all the more so since he had always presented his death as a passage to the resurrection as his true glorification. From this thought his soul took strength and joy in the knowledge that at the very height of the drama of the cross, the hour of victory was at hand."

Psalm 20

The key to the interpretation of this set of psalms surely has to be the opener of the group, Psalm 20, which features this key verse:

4  Vitam pétiit a te: * et tribuísti ei longitúdinem diérum in sæculum, et in sæculum sæculi.
5 He asked life of you: and you have given him length of days for ever and ever.

The Fathers invariably interpret this as a reference to the Resurrection.

St Irenaeus, for example asked:

"Why does the Psalmist say: "Life you have asked for', since Christ was about to die? In this way, the Psalmist proclaims his Resurrection from the dead and his immortality after rising from the dead. In fact, he entered life in order to rise again, and through the space of time in eternity, so as to be incorruptible" (Esposizione della Predicazione Apostolica, 72, Milan, 1979, p. 519).

Similarly, St Augustine commented:

"He asked life; and You gave Him: He asked a resurrection, saying, Father, glorify Your Son; John 17:1 and You gave it Him, Length of days for ever and ever. The prolonged ages of this world which the Church was to have, and after them an eternity, world without end."

The rest of the set

St Benedict, I think, was undoubtedly influenced by the Fathers' view of this group of psalms as having more of a Resurrection focus than a Passion one.

In the Septuagint text, four of them have titles rendered into Latin as 'in finem', which is invariably interpreted by the Fathers to be a reference to the Resurrection and/or Second Coming.

Several others have equally suggestive, upbeat titles: Psalm 23, for example, is labelled 'for the first day after the Sabbath', and Cassiodorus comments on it:

"A psalm of David on the first day of the week. Let us with the Lord's help eagerly remove the veil of this title, so that the inner sanctum may become clearer to us. The first day of the week indicates the Lord's day, the first after the sabbath, the day on which the Lord rose from the dead. It is rightly called the Lord's day because of the outstanding nature of the miracle, or because on that day He stabilised the world, for by rising again on it He is seen to lend succour to the world and is declared also its Maker. Because the whole psalm is sung after the resurrection, this heading has been set before it to inform the hearts of the faithful with the appropriate indication."

Similarly, let's look at what St Augustine has to say about the opening and closing of Joshua's proposed set of psalms:

Psalm 21 (My God, my God why have you forsaken me): St Augustine opens his commentary on this Passion psalm as follows:

To the end, for His own resurrection, the Lord Jesus Christ Himself speaks. John 20:1-17 For in the morning on the first day of the week was His resurrection, whereby He was taken up, into eternal life, Over whom death shall have no more dominion."

Psalm 30 (In you have I hoped): St Augustine comments:

To the end, a Psalm of the joy of the Resurrection, and the change, the renewing of the body to an immortal state, and not only of the Lord, but also of the whole Church. For in the former Psalm the tabernacle was finished, wherein we dwell in the time of war: but now the house is dedicated, which will abide in peace everlasting."

What about the content of these psalms?

Take a look too, at a couple of  key verses in this set, and you will similarly see why they can be seen as much as hymns of the Resurrection as the Passion.

Psalm 22 (The Lord is my shepherd): ends with the verse: "And that I may dwell in the house of the Lord unto length of days".

Psalm 23 (The earth is Lord's): Lift up your gates, O princes, and be lifted up, O eternal gates: and the King of Glory shall enter in", made famous by Handel's setting of it, is the quintesential Resurrection verse.

In fact pretty much all of these psalms have some verses that are generally interpreted as references to heaven and/or the Resurrection.

Psalms 21 to 30 in the Office

Nonetheless, there seem to have been an intriguing development in thinking about these psalms, reflected in their liturgical use. 

In the oldest form of the Roman Office, Psalms 1 to 26 were said at Sunday Matins, and 27 to 31 as part of Monday Matins.  This arguably simply reflects the older 'running cursus' approach to the Office.

As I noted above, Psalms 20 to 31 were shifted to Sunday Matins by St Benedict.  That seems to me to reflect a deliberate design decision, reflecting the Resurrection focus on Sunday.  That is consistent with St Benedict's firm focus on heaven: you will be hard-pressed to find an explicit reference to the Cross in his Rule!

But there was an interesting Reformation development in the Roman Office: under Pope Pius V, psalms 21 to 25 were taken out of Sunday Matins and reallocated to Prime, but not in numeric order. 

Instead, Psalm 21 (My God, my God why have you forskaen me) moved to Friday, giving that day an obvious Passion focus.  Psalm 22 (The Lord is my shepherd) was allocated to Thursday, perhaps to reflect its eucharistic connotations; Psalm 23 was placed on Monday; Psalm 24 on Tuesday; and Psalm 25 to Wednesday.

The Pius X reorganisation of the Psalter retained those allocations for Prime, but further shuffled the Matins psalms so that the remaining psalms of  Psalm 20 to 31 were now said on Monday at various hours.

St Benedict revisited

To go back to my rather upbeat view of these psalms, suffice it to note that St Benedict's set of Sunday Matins psalms starts with a psalm of the Incarnation (Psalm 20), and ends on one of the seven penitential psalms.   But is a penitential psalm that starts "Blessed are those...", and ends with an injunction to "Be glad in the Lord, and rejoice, you just, and glory, all you right of heart. "

In the end I suspect your focus is depends on your particular school of spirituality....

Psalm 118 Ghimel: Towards martyrdom!

Today’s verses of Psalm 118 (119) come under the third letter of the Hebrew alphabet, Ghimel.

The obstacles to holiness

St Robert Bellarmine sees these verses as enumerating the obstacles to the observance of the law, and praying for their removal from his way.

In his view, the first obstacle is original sin and mortal sin: the cure is God’s reviving grace. 

The second is the blinding veil of our emotions, for which the cure is the intellectual vision of God’s goodness.

The third obstacle is the illusion that the things of this earth is all that is important: to counter this we must remember the transitory nature of this life in which we are just sojourners, and store up our treasure in heaven.

The fourth barrier is our own imperfection: we may have good intentions, but that is not enough to make us act out of love alone, as the perfect do. We should pray then, that we may truly desire and love the law in all its shining glory.

The fifth barrier is pride, which makes us refuse to submit to God’s commandments. Worse, pride turns us into God’s enemies, and all too often makes those enemies attempt to tear down those who are seeking to do the good. But, we are counseled, this must not prevent us testifying with our actions and words, for the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church!


17 Retribue servo tuo, vivifica me, et custodiam sermones tuos.
18 Revela oculos meos, et considerabo mirabilia de lege tua.
19 Incola ego sum in terra : non abscondas a me mandata tua.
20 Concupivit anima mea desiderare justificationes tuas in omni tempore.
21 Increpasti superbos; maledicti qui declinant a mandatis tuis.
22 Aufer a me opprobrium et contemptum, quia testimonia tua exquisivi.
23 Etenim sederunt principes, et adversum me loquebantur; servus autem tuus exercebatur in justificationibus tuis.

24 Nam et testimonia tua meditatio mea est, et consilium meum justificationes tuæ.

Looking at the verses

17. Retribue (Imperative of retribuo, to render, repay, deal with) servo tuo, vivifica (imperative of vivifico, revive, give life to) me, et custodiam (future indic, keep, observe) sermones tuos.
Deal bountifully with your servant, revive me: and I will keep your words

Neo-Vulgate: Benefac servo tuo, et vivam et custodiam sermonem tuum.
Septuagint: ἀνταπόδος τῷ δούλῳ σου ζήσομαι καὶ φυλάξω τοὺς λόγους σου

The Monastic Diurnal translates the verse as ‘Grant to Thy servant that I may live, and I will keep they words’; Coverdale make it ‘O do well unto thy servant, that I may live, and keep thy word’.

One can interpret this as having a short term message and a longer term one. First the short term: the first obstacle to observing the law according to St Robert Bellarmine is being in a state of mortal sin. If we are in this state, we must confess it so that we are revived and once more able to access the necessary grace. The longer term message is that no one can, in this life, be sure that they are saved. Rather we must pray that, despite our sins, God will, of his free gift, grant us eternal life. St Augustine actually divides up the possibilities for eternal life or death into four categories: out of justice, God rewards good for good and punishes evil for evil; and out of mercy he saves sinners. The fourth theoretical possibility, he tells us, of evil being rewarded, never occurs.

retribuo, tribui, tributum, ere 3, to repay, requite, reward, recompense, render; deal bountifully with; to make requital for, repay.
vivifico, avi, atum, are to quicken, give life to, vivify.
custodio, ivi or li, itum, ire to guard, watch, keep;to maintain, to hold steadfastly.

18 Revela (imperative, reveal, disclose) oculos meos, et considerabo (future) mirabilia (substantive, marvelous things, marvelous nature) de (de+abl= about, concerning) lege tua.
Open my eyes, and I will consider the wonderful things of your law.

ἀποκάλυψον τοὺς ὀφθαλμούς μου καὶ κατανοήσω τὰ θαυμάσιά σου ἐκ τοῦ νόμου σου

This verse deals with the second obstacle in our journey, namely the veil of blindness and ignorance arising from our emotions that block our inward sight. Brenton conveys this sense clearly, translating the Septuagint as ‘Unveil thou mine eyes…’. Most of the English translations though, are along the lines of the Monastic Diurnal’s ‘Open Thou mine eyes’. What is it that strips the veils from our eyes? According to St Robert, the purifying power of the law, the intellectual vision of its wondrous nature..

revelo, avi, atum, are to disclose, reveal, lay bare, expose..
oculus, i, the eye
considero, avi, atum, are, to look at closely, to regard, contemplate; to lie in wait for
mirabilis, e (1) wonderful, marvellous. (2) subst., mirabilia, mm, wonders, wonderful works, marvellous things.

19 Incola (nominative, stranger, temporary resident) ego (I) sum (present of esse, to be) in terra: non abscondas (present subjunctive, ascondere, to hide, conceal = lit, let not you hide) a me mandata tua.
I am a stranger on the earth: do not hide your commandments from me.

NV: Incola ego sum in terra, non abscondas a me praecepta tua.
πάροικος ἐγώ εἰμι ἐν τῇ γῇ μὴ ἀποκρύψῃς ἀπ' ἐμοῦ τὰς ἐντολάς σου

The Neo-Vulgate here changes ‘mandata’ (commandments) to ‘praecepta’ (precepts), and the Monastic Diurnal does likewise: ‘A stranger am I on the earth, hide not from me Thy precepts’.

The main point of the verse though, is that the third obstacle we face is our earthbound nature, and tendency to see only the things of this world as important. The true Christian however must always keep in mind the transitory nature of this life. More, as strangers and guests, we need to be instructed on how to live in this world, as a newcomer would in the customs of the place. Cassiodorus notes that: “On this earth the just are the sojourners who have no lodging of their own in the world. They are situated physically on the earth, but in their praiseworthy mode of life they reside in heaven…the true sojourners are this band who store their treasure in heaven, so that their hearts are always set on that future fatherland.”

incola, ae, m., a stranger, sojourner, one who has but temporary residence in a place.
terra, ae, f the earh
abscondo, condi, conditum, ere 3, to hide, conceal; to lay up, to treasure, guard jealously

20 Concupivit (pefect, it has longed for) anima (nom.) mea desiderare (infinitive, to desire) justificationes tuas in omni tempore (in+abl = at all time[s]).
My soul has longed to desire your precepts: at all time

NV: Defecit anima mea in desiderando (gerund) iudicia tua in omni tempore.
ἐπεπόθησεν ἡ ψυχή μου τοῦ ἐπιθυμῆσαι τὰ κρίματά σου ἐν παντὶ καιρῷ

This verse is hard to render into good English, hence the neo-Vulgates use of a gerund rather than infinitive! Brenton’s version from the Septuagint is better I think than the Douay-Rheims’s overly literal version: My soul has longed exceedingly for thy judgments at all times. Alternatively, the Monastic Diurnal gives it as ‘My soul is filled with longing for Thy judgments at all times’.

We are often told that we should act from love, not fear. The problem with this advice however is our own imperfection. St Robert tells us that: “The fourth obstacle is imperfection. The perfect, who love God and his law with their whole heart, and do good from the pure love of it, are very rare indeed. Very many have the best intentions, but there they stop…” Accordingly, he suggests, the psalmist “…dare not say: My soul hath coveted to observe your commandments, but, conscious of his infirmity, he says, "It hath coveted to long for," and this very acknowledgment of imperfection is a regular petition for that.” We should pray then, that we may truly desire and love the law in all its shining glory.

concupisco, cupvi or cupii, cupltum, ere 3 , to desire eagerly, to long for or after.
anima, ae, soul
desidero, avi, atum, are, to long for, desire, earnestly wish for
omnis, e, all, each, every; subst., all men, all things, everything
tempus, oris, n. time,

21 Increpasti (pf of to chide, rebuke) superbos (acc plural, used as a substantive, the proud); maledicti (sunt implied, passive pf) qui declinant (present, declinare, to turn aside) a mandatis tuis.
You have rebuked the proud: cursed are they who turn away from your commandments

NV: Increpasti superbos; maledicti, qui errant a praeceptis tuis.
ἐπετίμησας ὑπερηφάνοις ἐπικατάρατοι οἱ ἐκκλίνοντες ἀπὸ τῶν ἐντολῶν σου

The Greek construction used here does not readily translate directly into Latin here, hence the ambiguous use of ‘maledicti’, which can be translated a number of ways. The Douay Rheims makes it a perfect passive, but the alternative is to treat it as a participle/substantive, as the Diurnal (and RSV) does: ‘Thou doest rebuke the haughty, the accursed, who stray from Thy commandments’. By way of a footnote the New English Translation of the Septuagint (NETS) favours the first approach ‘You rebuked arrogant ones, accursed are those who deviate from your commandments’.

St Robert Bellarmine comments: “The fifth and greatest obstacle of all is pride, that prevents man from submitting his neck to the yoke, but which David seems to think has no place in him, or in anyone like him, but solely in God's enemies; thus, without any more ado, he simply execrates it. "Thou hast rebuked the proud," who, from pure contempt, did not observe your commandments.”

increpo, avi or iii, atum, are, to chide, rebuke, reprove; to correct, instruct
superbus, a, um raising one's self above others, proud, haughty, arrogant, insolent
maledico, dixi, dictum, ere 3 to curse, revile, slander
declino, avi, atum, are, to bend from the straight path, to turn aside or away, depart from in a lit. or fig. sense. (2) intransitive, to turn aside, go astray.

22. Aufer (imperative, take away, destroy) a me opprobrium (accusative) et contemptum, quia testimonia tua (neuter, accusative pl) exquisivi (pf)
Take away from me contempt and reproach: because I have sought your testimonies

NV: Aufer a me opprobrium et contemptum quia testimonia tua servavi
περίελε ἀπ' ἐμοῦ ὄνειδος καὶ ἐξουδένωσιν ὅτι τὰ μαρτύριά σου ἐξεζήτησα

The Greek word for testimonies (marturia) calls to mind the sufferings of the martyrs, willing to testify even unto death, in many of the patristic commentaries. The Monastic Diurnal reflects the Neo-Vulgate’s change of verb in the last phrase from ‘sought out’ to ‘kept’: ‘Turn away from me reproaches and contempt, for I keep Thy testimonies’; similarly Coverdale, ‘O turn from me shame and rebuke; for I have kept thy testimonies’.

St Robert reminds us that “The proud not only refuse to obey God, but they even despise and insult those who obey him; but such insolence ulti¬mately reverts on themselves, as David here predicts; for this, like other similar expressions in the Psalms, though in the form of an imprecation, is really a prediction.”

aufero, abstuli, ablatum, auferre to take or bear away; to destroy.
opprobrium, ii, n. a reproach, taunt, byword; an object of scorn, mockery, derision; a disgrace.
contemptus, us m contempt, scorn, disdain
exquiro quaesivi itum ere 3, to seek, seek after

23 Etenim (indeed, truly, for) sederunt (literally sat, but in context, the DR makes it ‘enthroned’) principes (nom. Pl, princes), et adversum (against) me loquebantur (deponent: imperfect indicative active); servus autem tuus exercebatur (passive impf, exercised, meditating on) in justificationibus tuis.
For the enthroned princes spoke against me: but your servant had been kept busy with your precepts

NV: Etsi principes sedent et adversum me loquuntur, servus tamen tuus exercetur in iustificationibus tuis.
καὶ γὰρ ἐκάθισαν ἄρχοντες καὶ κατ' ἐμοῦ κατελάλουν ὁ δὲ δοῦλός σου ἠδολέσχει ἐν τοῖς δικαιώμασίν σου

The Monastic Diurnal translates this verse as ‘Though princes sit and take counsel against me, Thy servant thinketh on Thy statutes’. One can see this verse paralleled in Psalm 2, where it is a prophesy of Christ’s coming: ‘The kings of the earth stood up, and the princes met together, against the Lord, and against his Christ... But I am appointed king by him over Sion, his holy mountain, preaching his commandment’. Consistent with this, St Robert comments: “Proud princes, sitting on their thrones, presiding at their councils, or luxuriating in their riches and their power, "spoke against me;" reproached me with obeying God's commands; "but thy servant was employed in thy justifications;" regardless of their threats or their reproaches, I was entirely wrapt up in the consideration, the announcement, and the carrying out of your justifications.”

etenim, conj., a strong et; and, yea, indeed, truly; as an adversative
sedeo, sedi, sessum, ere 2, to sit; rest; dwell, live; to sit with, hold converse with, consult; to sit on a throne, to rule, reign
princeps, cipis, m. prince, ruler, sovereign.
adversus or adversum, prep, with ace against; in the presence of, over against, before.
loquor, locutus sum, loqui, to speak, utter, tell
servus, i, m., a slave, servant; servants of the Lord, devout men who keep the law; the people, i.e., the Israelites
autem, adversative conj., but, on the contrary, however
exerceo, cui, citum, ere 2 , to exercise ;ponder to meditate on, be occupied or employed

24 Nam (for) et (and, redundant in English) testimonia tua meditatio mea est, et consilium (counsel, counselor) meum justificationes tuæ.
For your testimonies are my meditation: and my counsel your justifications.

NV: Nam et testimonia tua delectatio mea, et consilium meum iustificationes tuae.
καὶ γὰρ τὰ μαρτύριά σου μελέτη μού ἐστιν καὶ αἱ συμβουλίαι μου τὰ δικαιώματά σου

The neo-Vulgate’s ‘delectatio’ is reflected in the Monastic Diurnal’s translation: ‘For Thy testimonies are my delight’. Most translations prefer counselors to the Douay-Rheims ‘counsel’, thus Brenton makes it ‘For thy testimonies are my meditation, and thine ordinances are my counsellors’.

St Augustine comments: “Remember what I have above instructed you, that testimonies are acts of martyrdom. Remember that among the statutes of the Lord there is none more difficult and more worthy of admiration, than that every man should love his enemies. Matthew 5:44 Thus then the body of Christ was exercised, so that it meditated on the acts of martyrdom that testified of Him, and loved those from whom, while they rebuked and despised the Church for these very martyrdoms, she suffered persecutions....”

nam for
meditatio, onis, f thought, reflection, musing, meditation.

And the next stanza starts with the Hebrew letter Daleth.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Psalm 118 Beth: The grace of perseverance

Continuing this series on Psalm 118 (119), today’s octave of verses starts by talking about the importance of starting out on the right path as a young person, and ends with a rejection of ‘forgetfulness’, or falling away from God. Taken together, they are, I think, a prayer for the grace of perseverance.

A prayer for perseverance

The key to this stanza of Psalm 118 is, I think, the second phrase of verse 10: ‘let me not stray from your commandments’.

A number of the Fathers and Theologians suggest that the emphasis on the ‘young man’ here is meant to suggest the importance of starting out right from the very beginning. St Augustine, though, gives the focus on the ‘young man’ a rather more inclusive flavour than a literal reading would suggest:

“Is then an old man to be despaired of? My son, gather instruction from your youth up: so shall you find wisdom till your gray hairs. Sirach 6:18”

Cassiodorus builds on this interpretation, telling us that ‘forgetting’ is a by-product of the human condition:

“Forgetfulness does not come upon us naturally, but is the outcome of the frailty caused by original sin. Meditation is set against it as a remedy, so that sacrilegious forgetfulness may not destroy the emi¬nence of memory. They say that they meditate on the Lord's justifica¬tions so that they cannot forget what they strive to remember. They realised the failing by which the human mind was oppressed, and devised this resource against it, by means of which the power of forgetfulness could be excluded.”

The remedy against this human weakness is the grace that causes us to seek out God, open our hearts and minds to his word, allows his Word to permeate our whole being. As St Robert Bellarmine says “He says he has the law of God in his mouth, his will, his understanding, and his memory, and thus, in every part of his soul.”

We must, as Psalm 1 enjoins us, meditate on the law and day and night, and constantly ask God for the grace to keep us on the right path. As St Robert emphasizes: “God teaches his justifications when he, through his grace, causes one to delight in his law, and fully persuades one to wish to keep it exactly."


9 In quo corrigit adolescentior viam suam? in custodiendo sermones tuos.
10 In toto corde meo exquisivi te; ne repellas me a mandatis tuis.
11 In corde meo abscondi eloquia tua, ut non peccem tibi.
12 Benedictus es, Domine; doce me justificationes tuas.
13 In labiis meis pronuntiavi omnia judicia oris tui.
14 In via testimoniorum tuorum delectatus sum, sicut in omnibus divitiis.
15 In mandatis tuis exercebor, et considerabo vias tuas.
16 In justificationibus tuis meditabor : non obliviscar sermones tuos.

A look at the verses

9. In quo corrigit (present indic. active) adolescentior viam suam? in custodiendo (gerund) sermones tuos.
Douay Rheims: By what does a young man correct his way? By observing your words.
Septuagint: ἐν τίνι κατορθώσει ὁ νεώτερος τὴν ὁδὸν αὐτοῦ ἐν τῷ φυλάσσεσθαι τοὺς λόγους σου

St Alphonsus Liguori interprets "Viam suam" here as meaning the errors of his life, of his conduct. The 1979 Neo-Vulgate, however, changes ‘corrigit’ (he establishes, fixes) to ‘mundabit’ (he will cleanse). Reflecting this, the RSV translates the verse as ‘How can a young man keep his way pure?’ By guarding it according to thy word’. The subtle difference of the Masoretic Text to the Septuagint is reflected in Brenton’s translation of the Septuagint as: ‘Wherewith shall a young man direct his way? by keeping thy words.’

The reference to a young man in this verse is generally taken to imply that the whole psalm is directed at young people as a summary of key wisdom sayings. St Augustine however gives it a rather more inclusive reading:

“Is then an old man to be despaired of? My son, gather instruction from your youth up: so shall you find wisdom till your gray hairs. Sirach 6:18 There is another mode of interpreting it, by recognising in the expression the younger son in the Gospel, Luke 15:12, etc. who returned to himself, and said, I will arise and go to my father. Luke 15:18 Wherewithal did he correct his way, save by ruling himself after the words of God, which he desired as one longing for his father's bread....”

corrigo, rexi, rectum, ere 3, (1) to establish ,found, fix firmly (2) to reform, set right, direct.
adulescensior oris adj a youth, young man
custodio, ivi or li, itum, ire to guard, watch, keep;to maintain, to hold steadfastly
sermo, onis, m. words; a command, edict; the expression of God's

10. In (in+abl) toto corde meo exquisivi (pf indicative active) te; ne repellas (present subj) me a mandatis tuis.
With my whole heart have I sought after you: let me not stray from your commandments.
ἐν ὅλῃ καρδίᾳ μου ἐξεζήτησά σε μὴ ἀπώσῃ με ἀπὸ τῶν ἐντολῶν σου

Note that the MD changes the perfect (‘I have sought’) to the present ‘With all my heart I seek Thee, let me not stray from Thy commandments’. The Neo-Vulgate amends the verse as follows, to reflect the Hebrew MT more closely: In toto corde meo exquisivi te; ne errare me facias a praeceptis tuis.

This verse is an entreaty for grace. As Cassiodorus says:

“The assertion that they have sought the Lord wholeheartedly denotes a further kindness of His, for they would not seek Him if they had not been sought out…In every good deed we are anticipated by the Lord's grace. He deigns to inspire us to make us wish to entreat Him”.

exquiro –ere –sivi –situm 3, to seek, inquire diligently, seek after
repello, puli, pulsum, ere 3, to reject, repel, thrust away, cast off
mandatum, i, n. (mando), law, precept, command, commandment (of God); commandments, precepts, decrees
praeceptum, i, n. (praecipio), a law, commandment, precept, ordinance.

11. In corde meo (=in my heart) abscondi (perfect, I have hidden) eloquia tua, ut non peccem (ut +subj, purpose clause) tibi.
I hidden your words in my heart, that I may not sin against you.
ἐν τῇ καρδίᾳ μου ἔκρυψα τὰ λόγιά σου ὅπως ἂν μὴ ἁμάρτω σοι

St Alphonsus Liguori paraphrases the verse as “I have endeavored to impress Thy laws on my heart, in order to avoid in any way to offend Thee.’ The MD translates the verse as ‘Within my heart I hide thy sayings, that I may not sin against Thee’. Pope Benedict XVI suggests that “The Psalmist’s faithfulness stems from listening to the word, from pondering on it in his inmost self, meditating on it and cherishing it, just as did Mary, who “kept all these things, pondering them in her heart”, the words that had been addressed to her and the marvellous events in which God revealed himself, asking her for the assent of her faith (cf. Lk 2:19, 51).”

abscondo, condi, conditum, ere 3, to hide, conceal; to lay up, to treasure, guard jealously
pecco, avi, atum, are, to sin; to sin against, with dat.

12 Benedictus es (passive perfect), Domine; doce (imperative) me justificationes tuas.
Blessed are you, O Lord: teach me your justifications.
εὐλογητὸς εἶ κύριε δίδαξόν με τὰ δικαιώματά σου

The translations here vary only in the word used for justification – variously rendered justifications DR), ordinances (Brenton), statutes (RSV) and precepts (Coverdale). Why does he start here from God’s blessedness? Perhaps because he wants to stress that our happiness is a gift from God, and that the ‘teaching’ he seeks is, as St Robert Bellarmine suggests, ‘more than the simple imparting of knowledge’. Again the stress here is on grace as St Robert emphasizes: “God teaches his justifications when he, through his grace, causes one to delight in his law, and fully persuades one to wish to keep it exactly.”

13. In labiis (labium, lip) meis pronuntiavi (pf) omnia (all, acc pl, agreeing with judicia) judicia oris (gen of os, mouth) tui.
With my lips I have pronounced all the judgments of your mouth.

Neo-Vulgate: In labiis meis numeravi omnia iudicia oris tui.
ἐν τοῖς χείλεσίν μου ἐξήγγειλα πάντα τὰ κρίματα τοῦ στόματός σου

The previous verses mentioned pondering God’s words in his heart and learning them, implying the engagement of the intellect. Having engaged his inner self, he can now give external witness, the words flowing naturally out from his lips. Perhaps reflecting this sequence, the Monastic Diurnal makes the verse future tense; ‘With my lips will I tell all the judgments of Thy mouth’.

labium, ii, n., a lip By metonymy lips frequently stands for language, speech, thought, plan, design.
omnis, e, all, each, every; subst., all men, all things, everything
pronuntio, avi, atum, are, to announce, declare, proclaim.
os, oris, n., the mouth. (1) Of men: (2) Of beasts: 21 (3) Of a place or receptacle

14 In via testimoniorum tuorum delectatus sum (passive pf), sicut in omnibus divitiis.
I have been delighted in the way of your testimonies, as in all riches.
ἐν τῇ ὁδῷ τῶν μαρτυρίων σου ἐτέρφθην ὡς ἐπὶ παντὶ πλούτῳ

There is a curious variety in the tenses used for the translations of this verse. While the Latin is passive perfect, as reflected in the Douay-Rheims and Brenton’s translation from the Septuagint, Coverdale makes it pluperfect: ‘I have had as great delight in the way of thy testimonies, as in all manner of riches’. The Monastic Diurnal and RSV make it present tense, with the former giving it as ‘I delight to walk in Thy testimonies, more than in all riches’.

St Augustine here points us to Christ’s description of himself as ‘the way’: “We understand that there is no more speedy, no more sure, no shorter, no higher way of the testimonies of God than Christ, in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.”

delecto, avi, atum, are to delight, gladden, rejoice.
sicut, adv., as, just as, like.
omnis, e, all, each, every; subst., all men, all things, everything
divitiae, arum, f riches, wealth, abundance.

15 In mandatis tuis exercebor (fut passive, I will meditate/ponder on), et considerabo (future active) vias tuas.
I will meditate on your commandments: and I will consider your ways.
ἐν ταῖς ἐντολαῖς σου ἀδολεσχήσω καὶ κατανοήσω τὰς ὁδούς σου

And here St Augustine provides a happy justification for the exegetical enterprise!:

“And thus the Church does exercise herself in the commandments of God, by speaking in the copious disputations of the learned against all the enemies of the Christian and Catholic faith; which are fruitful to those who compose them, if nothing but the ways of the Lord is regarded in them; but All the ways of the Lord are, as it is written, mercy and truth; the fullness of which both is found in Christ.”

exerceo, cui, citum, ere 2 to exercise, work at; in passive, meditate on, be occupied or employed on, ponder on
considero, avi, atum, are, to consider, look at closely, to regard, contemplate; to lie in wait for

16 In justificationibus tuis meditabor (deponent: future active): non obliviscar (deponent: future) sermones tuos.
I will think of your justifications: I will not forget your words.
NV: In iustificationibus tuis delectabor, non obliviscar sermonem tuum.
ἐν τοῖς δικαιώμασίν σου μελετήσω οὐκ ἐπιλήσομαι τῶν λόγων σου

The distinction between the Vulgate (meditabor) and neo-Vulgate (delectabor) here reflects the Hebrew of the Masoretic Text. The Monastic Diurnal here reflects the Neo-Vulgate: In Thy Statutes I take delight, I will not forget Thy words, and St Robert Bellarmine comments: “The Hebrew here implies that he will be delighted in chanting them...The meaning of the passage, then, is: "I will think of thy justifications;" I will occupy myself in chanting the praises of your commandments, in order to delight myself, as I would with sweet and pleasant songs.”

But what does the psalmist mean by warning us of the danger of ‘forgetting’ God’s words? This is, I think, a plea for aid in perseverance, as Cassiodorus suggests:

“Forgetfulness does not come upon us naturally, but is the outcome of the frailty caused by original sin. Meditation is set against it as a remedy, so that sacrilegious forgetfulness may not destroy the eminence of memory. They say that they meditate on the Lord's justifications so that they cannot forget what they strive to remember. They realised the failing by which the human mind was oppressed, and devised this resource against it, by means of which the power of forgetfulness could be excluded.”

meditor, atus sum, ari, to think, plan, devise, meditate
obliviscor, oblitus sum, oblivisci (1) to forget; frequent with both the gen. and ace. (2) non obliviscor, I will not forget, I will not be unmindful of Thy law, precepts, etc. I will strictly observe
delecto, avi, atum, are to delight, gladden, rejoice; passive, to be glad, to rejoice.

 You can find the next part in this series here.

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!


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.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Receptive listening: Introduction to Psalm 118/4

The last section of Pope Benedict XVI’s catechesis on Psalm 118 that I want to share with you by way of introduction to the psalm deals with the idea of the ‘receptive listening’ that leads to obedience.

It’s a very Benedictine sentiment, reflecting not just the current Pope’s spirituality, but that of his namesake St Benedict, who starts his rule with the word 'listen':

“The Law of the Lord, the object of the passionate love of the Psalmist as well as of every believer, is a source of life. The desire to understand it, to observe it and to direct the whole of one’s being by it is the characteristic of every righteous person who is faithful to the Lord, and who “on his law... meditates day and night”, as Psalm 1 recites (v. 2). The law of God is a way to be kept “in the heart”, as the well known text of the Shema in Deuteronomy says: “Hear, O Israel: And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart; and you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise” (6:4, 6-7).

The Law of God, at the centre of life, demands that the heart listen. It is a listening that does not consist of servile but rather of filial, trusting and aware obedience. Listening to the word is a personal encounter with the Lord of life, an encounter that must be expressed in concrete decisions and become a journey and a “sequela”. When Jesus is asked what one should do to inherit eternal life he points to the way of observance of the Law but indicates what should be done to bring it to completion: “but you lack one thing; go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me! (Mk 10: 21ff.). Fulfilment of the Law is the following of Jesus, travelling on the road that Jesus took, in the company of Jesus.

Psalm 119 thus brings us to the encounter with the Lord and orients us to the Gospel.”

Preparing the Latin

By way of vocabulary preparation for tackling the psalm, a few words the psalmist frequently uses to talk about meditation/contemplation:

abscondo, condi, conditum, ere 3, to hide, conceal; to lay up, to treasure, guard jealously

considero, avi, atum, are, (1) to look at closely, to observe with the eyes or mind, to regard, contemplate (2) to lie in wait for, to watch for with hostile intent.

exerceo, cui, citum, ere 2 to exercise, work at, employ one's self about a thing; in the Psalter it is used only in the passive with in, signifying to meditate on, be occupied or employed

exquiro –ere –sivi –situm 3, to seek, inquire diligently, seek after

meditatio, onis, f thought, reflection, musing, meditation.

meditor, atus sum, ari, to think, plan, devise, meditate

obliviscor, oblitus sum, oblivisci to forget; frequent with both the gen. and acc; non obliviscor, I will not forget, I will not be unmindful of Thy law, precepts, etc. I will strictly observe.

perspicio, spexi, spectum, ere 3, to look into, look at attentively, examine.

scrutor, atus sum, ari, (1) to search, examine, scrutinize. (b) With regard to the Law of God: to search out, examine carefully, with the additional idea of to keep, to obey.

And now, onto the psalm itself! 

Friday, February 24, 2012

Pierce my flesh with your fear: Introduction to Psalm 118/3

Folio 67v
Belles Heures of Jean de France,
duc de Berry, 1405–1408/9.
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
The sections of Pope Benedict’s catechesis that I’ve pointed to so far in this series introducing Psalm 118 (119) have focused on the law as a path to happiness, and on the importance of meditation on God’s law. The next part of his talk, however, touches on the darker emotions of grief, lament and supplication.

These days compliance with God’s law is often interpreted very broadly indeed, to mean anything I personally want to do. Not so for the psalmist, who repeatedly asks to be instructed, and to be enlightened. It also alludes to the currently highly unpopular idea that God sometimes allows bad things to happen to us so that we can be called to repentance, learn and grow. And above all, it accepts ‘fear of the Lord’ as an appropriate motivator.

“The entire alphabet unfolds through the 22 stanzas of this Psalm and also the whole of the vocabulary of the believer’s trusting relationship with God; we find in it praise, thanksgiving and trust, but also supplication and lamentation. However they are always imbued with the certainty of divine grace and of the power of the word of God. Even the verses more heavily marked by grief and by a sense of darkness remain open to hope and are permeated by faith.

“My soul cleaves to the dust; revive me according to your word” (v. 25), the Psalmist trustingly prays. “I have become like a wineskin in the smoke, yet I have not forgotten your statutes” (v. 83), is his cry as a believer. His fidelity, even when it is put to the test, finds strength in the Lord’s word: “then shall I have an answer for those who taunt me, for I trust in your word” (v. 42), he says firmly; and even when he faces the anguishing prospect of death, the Lord’s commandments are his reference point and his hope of victory: “they have almost made an end of me on earth; but I have not forsaken your precepts” (v. 87).

The Offertory set for today’s Mass uses verses 107 and 125 from the psalm:

Latin study preparation

Today by way of preparation for studying the Latin of the psalm in more detail, I’d like to give you the last five synonyms the law used in the psalm:

consilium, ii, n. (1) in an active sense a taking counsel, a deliberation, consultation in either a good or bad sense. (2) In a passive sense, the result of the deliberation, a plan, plot, resolution, conclusion in either a good or bad sense. (3) Used also of God, His plan, counsel, design (4) Phrases: consilium facere, ponere, or inire, to consult, take counsel.

praeceptum, i, n. a law, commandment, precept, ordinance.

verbum, i, n., words., the expression of God's will; a command, edict, also a promise.a word, saying, speech. (2) God's promise. (3) the Law. See lex. (4) God's command. (5) In the sense of res, a thing, matter, a something. (6) the Word, the Eternal Son

veritas, atis, f truth. the Law as a record of God's promise and fidelity (1) Of God: His grace, kindness,goodness, fidelity to promises. (2) Of men: goodness, fidelity, piety towards God, and candor, sincerity and charity towards one's neighbor. Faithfulness, the steadfast, those constant in their loyalty. In the psalms this word scarcely ever means truth in the ordinary acceptation of the term. (3) Of things: esp. of the Law as a source of grace and blessings.

ordinatio, onis, f ordinance, decree.

And please do continue on to the final part of this introduction to Psalm 118.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Christ the perfect man; Our Lady as the model for believers: Introduction to Psalm 118/2

Yesterday I provided some extracts from Pope Benedict XVI’s General Audience on Psalm 118 by way of introduction to the psalm.  Today I'd like to continue this series on Psalm 118 (119) with some further material from that Catechesis.

Christ the perfect man and Our Lady, model for believers

Pope Benedict’s comments on the psalm today focus first on the idea of meditation on God’s word, pondering it in our hearts, following the model of Mary.

The opening verses of Psalm 118 really just recapitulates the ideas of verses 1-2 of Psalm 1.

Psalm 1 says:

Beátus vir, qui non ábiit in consílio impiórum, et in via peccatórum non stetit,et in cáthedra pestiléntiæ non sedit. Sed in lege Dómini volúntas ejus, et in lege ejus meditábitur die ac nocte.

“Blessed is the man who has not walked in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stood in the way of sinners, nor sat in the chair of pestilence: But his will is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he shall meditate day and night”

Psalm 118 says:

Beati immaculati in via, qui ambulant in lege Domini. Beati qui scrutantur testimonia ejus; in toto corde exquirunt eum.

“Blessed are the undefiled in the way, who walk in the law of the Lord. Blessed are they that search his testimonies: that seek him with their whole heart.”

The main difference between the two is that Psalm 1 talks of one man, which many of the Fathers interpret as Christ, whereas Psalm 118 talks about the happiness of the blessed in the plural, perhaps expanding out the field to believers more generally, implicitly opened up to us through the psalms read thus far! In the Benedictine Office, St Benedict stresses the importance of these two sets of verses by having them open Sunday and Monday Prime respectively.

Pondering the law in our hearts

Pope Benedict XVI places Our Lady before us as the model for lectio divina:

“The Psalmist’s faithfulness stems from listening to the word, from pondering on it in his inmost self, meditating on it and cherishing it, just as did Mary, who “kept all these things, pondering them in her heart”, the words that had been addressed to her and the marvellous events in which God revealed himself, asking her for the assent of her faith (cf. Lk 2:19, 51).

And if the first verses of our Psalm begin by proclaiming “blessed” those “who walk in the law of the Lord” (v. 1b), and “who keep his testimonies” (v. 2a). It is once again the Virgin Mary who brings to completion the perfect figure of the believer, described by the Psalmist. It is she, in fact, who is the true “blessed”, proclaimed such by Elizabeth because “she... believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her from the Lord” (Lk 1:45). Moreover it was to her and to her faith that Jesus himself bore witness when he answered the woman who had cried: “Blessed is the womb that bore you”, with “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” (Lk 11:27-28). Of course, Mary is blessed because she carried the Saviour in her womb, but especially because she accepted God’s announcement and because she was an attentive and loving custodian of his Word.

Psalm 119 is thus woven around this Word of life and blessedness. If its central theme is the “word” and “Law” of the Lord, next to these terms in almost all the verses such synonyms recur as “precepts”, “statutes”, “commandments”, “ordinances”, “promises”, “judgement”; and then so many verbs relating to them such as observe, keep, understand, learn, love, meditate and live.”

Vocab preparation

Yesterday I highlighted five words used in the text used for the law (lex, testimonium, via, eloquium and judicium). Let me add five more to the list:

mandatum, i, n. law, precept, command, commandment (of God); commandments, precepts, decrees; the Law as a command—as enjoined upon man prescribing his duties towards God, and his obligations towards his fellow men.

justificatio, onis, f, precepts, decrees, statutes, ordinances

sermo, onis, m. words; a command, edict; the expression of God's will. (1) word, speech, saying, discourse.. (2) scheme, plan, proposal

semita, ae, f., a path, way; used almost entirely in a fig. sense ; the "way" is the path which God's commandments prescribe. (2) course of life, action, conduct, or procedure.

justitia, ae, f the Law as an expression of God's justice. (1) justice, righteousness, innocence, piety, moral integrity (2) It is found in phrases: (a) In an adjectival sense (b) In an adverbial sense

And please do continue on to the next part in this series.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The reviving power of God's law: Introduction to Psalm 118/1

As I foreshadowed in my last post,, I want to start today a new series on Psalm 118.  In fact this is a return to the original concept of the series for this blog, of looking at those psalms covered by Pope Benedict XVI in his series of General Audiences on praying with the psalms.

The first four posts in this series will be an introduction to Psalm 118 drawing mainly on the Pope's catechesis; I'll then provides more detailed notes on each stanza and verse.

Today's Latin notes include some key vocabulary to learn in preparation for Psalm 118, namely some of the terms it uses to speak about the Law.

Pope Benedict XVI on Psalm 118

"In today’s Catechesis I would like to reflect on Psalm 119, according to the Hebrew tradition, Psalm 118 according to the Greco-Latin one.

It is a very special Psalm, unique of its kind. This is first of all because of its length. Indeed, it is composed of 176 verses divided into 22 stanzas of eight verses each. Moreover, its special feature is that it is an “acrostic in alphabetical order”, in other words it is structured in accordance with the Hebrew alphabet that consists of 22 letters. Each stanza begins with a letter of this alphabet and the first letter of the first word of each of the eight verses in the stanza begins with this letter. This is both original and indeed a demanding literary genre in which the author of the Psalm must have had to summon up all his skill.

However, what is most important for us is this Psalm’s central theme. In fact, it is an impressive, solemn canticle on the Torah of the Lord, that is, on his Law, a term which in its broadest and most comprehensive meaning should be understood as a teaching, an instruction, a rule of life. The Torah is a revelation, it is a word of God that challenges the human being and elicits his response of trusting obedience and generous love.

This Psalm is steeped in love for the word of God whose beauty, saving power and capacity for giving joy and life it celebrates; because the divine Law is not the heavy yoke of slavery but a liberating gift of grace that brings happiness. “I will delight in your statutes; I will not forget your word”, the Psalmist declares (v. 16), and then: “Lead me in the path of your commandments, for I delight in it” (v. 35). And further: “Oh, how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day” (v. 97).

The Law of the Lord, his word, is the centre of the praying person’s life; he finds comfort in it, he makes it the subject of meditation, he treasures it in his heart: “I have laid up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you” (v. 11), and this is the secret of the Psalmist’s happiness; and then, again, “the godless besmear me with lies, but with my whole heart I keep your precepts” (v. 69)."

Learning the Latin of Psalm 118

Psalm 118 has 176 verses, and they mostly go to very similar themes, so you would think that the vocabulary demands of the psalm would not be great.  But that is far from being the case! 

To help you get in front of the learning curve then, over the next few days I'll provide some short vocab lists of key words worth learning in advance.  Today, five of the fifteen terms the Vulgate translation uses as synonyms for the law.  The definitions come mainly from Britt's Dictionary of the Psalter.

lex, legis, f a law; the Law of God. the will of God as manifested in His commandments or ordinances; authoritative teaching, the instruction of the Mosaic code.

via, ae, f the Law of God indicates to man the way he must walk to attain his final goal. A man's way is his moral conduct; God's way is the moral order He has established. (1) a way, road, path, street. God's way, God's policy or attitude towards men, or dealings with them, God's truths and precepts according to which He requires men to live. (3) Man's way of life in a moral sense; his regular course or habitual method of life, action, or conduct; how he walks before God. (4) viam facere. (5) case, cares (7) the way of life, i.e., the way of salvation, the way to eternal life.

testimonium, ii, n. testimonies, commands, decrees; the perceptive part of the Law, esp. the Decalogue. witness, testimony; in the psalms, precepts, commandments, ordinances, statutes, judgments, testimonies. The word, strictly, expresses the declarations of the divine will, to which man must conform.

eloquium, ii, n. , a word, oracle, speech, utterance, promise. It has special reference to divine revelation; but it frequently implies a promise.

judicium, i, n. the Law which makes manifest the will of God and inflicts punishment on those who disobey it. (1) judgment, decrees. (2) law, commandment. (3) the power, or faculty of judging wisely (4) justice. Judicium is here the law of God, or God's wisdom shown in particular cases—God's verdict as it were (B). (5) cause.  

And you can find the next part in this series here.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Coming soon: a psalm for Lent, Psalm 118 (119)

For Lent I'm going to put aside my current series on the Sunday Vespers psalms, and turn instead to Psalm 118 (119 in Protestant and modern catholic Bibles), and invite you to join me in praying and meditating on some verses of it each day for Lent.

Why Psalm 118?

I've explained why I think it is a particularly appropriate Lenten penance over at my Australia Incognita blog. 

In short, it is a psalm above all about the path to happiness, about the Law of God in its broadest meaning.  In both Scripture and the Benedictine Office, it is placed so as to provide a preparation for the spiritual ascent into the Temple represented by the Gradual psalms, so fits neatly with the idea of preparing for the joy of Easter.

This psalm used to be said daily in the Roman Office at the minor hours.  In the Roman 1962 Office it is said on Sundays, and in the Benedictine Office, is spread over Sunday and Monday.

Looking at Psalm 118

At 176 verses, Psalm 118 (119) is the longest psalm in the psalter (and in fact the longest chapter in the Bible).   

But it is neatly divided into stanzas of eight verses, and so I plan to arrange it so as work through it stanza by stanza over the course of Lent up to Holy Week, with a few extra posts at the beginning by way of introduction, and lingering over a few verses here and there!

What to expect...

My plan is to post something relatively short each day over at my Australia Incognita blog, and provide a more extended set of notes, including looking at the Latin of the psalm, over here.

For this week, I'll start by providing an overview and introduction to the psalm, but also provide a couple of verses each day that you could use for prayer purposes that relate to the more general comments.

You can find the first part in the series on Psalm 118 here.

Psalm 109/9: Prophesying Christ’s humility and the Ascension

Garofalo, 1510-20
Today’s verse is somewhat enigmatic, and needs some help to interpret properly, as Pope Benedict XVI points out:

“The evocative image that concludes our Psalm fits in here; it is also an enigmatic word: “He will drink from the brook by the way; therefore he will lift up his head”. The king’s figure stands out in the middle of the description of the battle. At a moment of respite and rest, he quenches his thirst at a stream, finding in it refreshment and fresh strength to continue on his triumphant way, holding his head high as a sign of definitive victory. It is clear that these deeply enigmatic words were a challenge for the Fathers of the Church because of the different interpretations they could be given…”

The final verse of Psalm 109 is:

De torrénte in via bibet: * proptérea exaltábit caput
ἐκ χειμάρρου ἐν ὁδῷ πίεται διὰ τοῦτο ὑψώσει κεφαλήν
He shall drink of the torrent in the way: therefore shall he lift up the head.

Looking at the Latin

De (de, from govern s ablative case) torrénte (abl of torrens, torrentis, a stream, brook or torrent)

in via (in +ablative governing via, way, road, path) bibet (3rd person indicative future of bibo, to drink) = on the way he will drink

The Diurnal translates in via as ‘on the march’, to give the flavour that this is a stop on a journey.

Still, the phrase is open to several different interpretations in the context of this psalm, on which see below.

De torrénte in via bibet = he will drink from a stream on the way

proptérea (therefore) exaltábit (3rd person indicative future of exalto, to exalt, dignify, elevate) caput (nom of caput, head)

To lift one's head up is a sign of triumph or success, and in this context, is often seen as a reference to Christ's Ascension.

proptérea exaltábit caput = therefore he will lift the head


The Monastic Diurnal gives this verse as “On his march He drinketh at the brook: therefore he lifteth high his head”. Coverdale make it ‘He shall drink of the brook in the way; therefore shall he lift up his head’.


torrens, entis, m. a brook, stream, torrent
bibo, bibi, bibitum, ere 3, to drink.
propterea, adv., therefore, on that account, for that cause; but now
exalto, avi, atum, are to exalt, i.e., to elevate in rank, power, dignity, or the like; to dignify

Drinking from the stream: three possible interpretations

Pope Benedict’s comments on this psalm, that I quoted above, suggest that this verse can be given several different translations.

Let’s consider first that offered by St John Chrysostom, who sees it as a reference to Christ’s humility in his time on earth:

“Here he shows the lowliness of his lifestyle, the meanness of his existence, no swagger about him, no bodyguards in attendance, no visible display when he performs this; instead, his way of life was simple to the extent of his drinking from a torrent. His drink matched his food in this: his food was barley loaves, his drink water from the torrent. He came, you see, to teach this reasonable way of life, to keep the appetite in check, trample on pomp and circumstance, shun conceit. Then, to show the advantage of this lifestyle, he added, Hence I shall lift up his head: this is the fruit of his humility and difficult life. These words refer not to divinity, however, but to humanity - drinking from a torrent, being raised up. You see, far from this insignificance doing him any harm, it even lifted him to an ineffable height.”

The moral, then according to St John, is that we too should “scorn a flashy and meretricious lifestyle, and aim instead for one that is lowly and unpretentious”.

St Augustine too sees the verse as a reference to Christ’s humble obedience, an obedience even unto death that results in God also exalting him. St Augustine though, interprets the stream as the sea of human life which Christ joins by his Incarnation:

“…what is the brook? The onward flow of human mortality: for as a brook is gathered together by the rain, overflows, roars, runs, and by running runs down, that is, finishes its course; so is all this course of mortality. Men are born, they live, they die, and when some die others are born, and when they die others are born, they succeed, they flock together, they depart and will not remain. What is held fast here? What does not run? What is not on its way to the abyss as if it was gathered together from rain? For as a river suddenly drawn together from rain from the drops of showers runs into the sea, and is seen no more, nor was it seen before it was collected from the rain; so this hidden rain is collected together from hidden sources, and flows on; at death again it travels where it is hidden: this intermediate state sounds and passes away.”

Drinking at the brook then, means becoming human:

“Of this brook He drinks, He has not disdained to drink of this brook; for to drink of this brook was to Him to be born and to die. What this brook has, is birth and death; Christ assumed this, He was born, He died.”

But Cassiodorus offers a third possible interpretation of the idea of drinking from the torrent, namely Our Lord’s persecution:

“This torrent was disordered persecution by the Jews, of which the Lord Christ drank on the way, that is, in this life, when He endured it in the flesh. The phrase, in the way, indicates the onset of violence and the great speed of the journey made by travellers as they drive to another lodging.”

Our Lord's humility: the Incarnation and Ascension

St Robert Bellarmine provides a commentary on this verse that I think synthesizes these competing ideas neatly, and has the psalm concluding with a reference to Christ’s Ascension. The purpose of the verse, he says, is to explain why the psalm has talked about his power to judge nations:

“He now assigns a reason for Christ being endowed with such power as to be able to break kings, to judge nations, to fill ruins, and to crush heads, and says, "He shall drink of the torrent in the way, therefore shall he lift up the head;" as if he said with the apostle, "He humbled himself, becoming obedient unto death, even the death of the cross; wherefore God also hath exalted him, and given him a name, which is above every name."

The stream or torrent, he argues, is the transitory noise of humanity:

“The torrent means the course of human affairs; for, as a torrent flows with great noise and force, full of mud and confusion, and soon after subsides without leaving even a trace of itself, so it is with the affairs of this mortal life—they all pass away, having, generally speaking, been much troubled and confused. Great battles and revolutions, such as those in the time of Caesar and Alexander, and others, have been heard of, but they and their posterity have passed away without leaving a trace of their power.”

Through his Incarnation, Our Lord joins this torrent:

“The Son of God, through his Incarnation, came down this torrent, and "in the way," that is, during his mortal transitory life, drank the muddy water of this torrent in undergoing the calamities consequent on his mortality; nay, even he descended into the very depth of the torrent through his passion, the waters of which, instead of contributing to his ease and refreshment, only increased his pains and sufferings, as he complains in Psalm 68. "The waters are come in even unto my soul. I stick fast in the mire of the deep, and there is no sure standing. I am come into the depth of the sea, and a tempest hath overwhelmed me."

But the conclusion of the story lies in his Ascension, Resurrection and Second Coming:

"In consideration, then, of such humiliation, freely undertaken for the glory of the Father and the salvation of mankind, he afterwards "lifted up his head," ascended into heaven, and, sitting at the right hand of the Father, was made Judge of the living and the dead.”

And that brings us to the end of this mini-series on Psalm 109.  If you have found it useful, or have any comments, questions or suggestions, please do leave a  comment.

For an introduction to the next psalm of Sunday Vespers, Psalm 110, follow the link here.

And you can find notes on the second psalm of Sunday Vespers, Psalm 110, starting here.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Will Christ come again with a bang or a whimper? Psalm 109/8

Georgios Klontzas, c16th
Some today suggest that the Second Coming of Christ will be like the first, something that happens quietly, almost without most people even realising it is happening. Today’s verse of Psalm 109 seems to suggest otherwise.  But is that first impression misleading?

Here is the verse itself, in a variety of translations:

Vulgate: Judicábit in natiónibus, implébit ruínas: * conquassábit cápita in terra multórum.
Neo-Vulgate: Iudicabit in nationibus: cumulantur cadavera, conquassabit capita in terra spatiosa.
Septuagint: κρινεῖ ἐν τοῖς ἔθνεσιν πληρώσει πτώματα συνθλάσει κεφαλὰς ἐπὶ γῆς πολλῶν
Douay-Rheims: He shall judge among nations, he shall fill ruins: he shall crush the heads in the land of many

Looking at the Latin

Judicábit (3rd person future of judico, to judge, punish, rule) in (in +abl) natiónibus (nations, governed by in)

Judicábit in natiónibus = he will judge among the nations

implébit (3rd person future of impleo, I fill, fill up) ruínas (accusative pl of ruina, ruin, destruction)

implébit ruínas = he will fill up ruins/destruction

The Greek here is πληρώσει πτώματα, which Brenton translates as “he shall fill up the number of corpses”. The neo-Vulgate is closer to the Greek than the Vulgate here, making it cumulantur cadavera, corpses are piled up. The RSV translates the phrase as ‘filling up with corpses’.

conquassábit (3rd person indic fut of conquasso, I break or crush) capita (acc pl of caput, head)

conquassábit cápita = he will crush/break the heads

in terra (in +abl) multórum (gen pl of multus, many)

The Greek here (ἐπὶ γῆς πολλῶν) has both earth and many in the genitive: earth is governed by the preposition ἐπὶ meaning on. Accordingly, Brenton, correctly in my view, translates the half verse as

‘he shall crush the heads of many on the earth’. The Douay-Rheims, however, instead of referring back to the Greek, simply follows the Latin word order literally making it ‘in the land of many’, which makes rather less sense to me at least!

It is worth noting, however, that the neo-Vulgate avoids the ambiguity by providing a third variant, changing the phrase to ‘in terra spatiosa’, which the Monastic Diurnal makes ‘throughout the land’. However I suspect that the neo-Vulgate is just confusing the issue here by following the Hebrew Masoretic Text (rab erets), which could be best translated as Coverdale does ‘over divers countries’.

in terra multórum = of many on the earth


A literal reading of the Vulgate would be to slightly correct the Douay-Rheims as follows: He shall judge among nations, he shall fill ruins: he shall crush the heads of many in the land.

The Monastic Diurnal makes this verse: He judgeth among the nations, maketh ruin complete, He crusheth heads throughout the land.

But looking to the Greek Septuagint as authoritative, I think the better version is Brenton’s: He shall judge among the nations, he shall fill up the number of corpses, he shall crush the heads of many on the earth.

Protestant versions of this verse, based entirely on the Masoretic Text, have different take again on this verse. The King James Bible, for example, makes it “He shall judge among the heathen, he shall fill [the places] with the dead bodies; he shall wound the heads over many countries”.


natio, onis, f nation, people; in pi., the gentiles; a generation.
judico, avi, atum, are to judge, rule, punish, do justice to, to relieve from wrong.
impleo, plevi, pletum, ere 2 to fill, fill up, fill full; to fill, to cover; to fill, satisfy.
ruina, ae, f. a falling down, fall, ruin, destruction; evil, destruction, i.e., a plague
conquasso, avi, atum, are to break, crush, or dash to pieces
caput, itis, n. the head,
terra, ae, .f, earth, land
multus, a, um, much; many, numerous; much, great

Christ’s judgment of the world

This verse, Pope Benedict XVI points out, paints the final victory of Christ in vivid colours:

“Supported by the Lord, having received both power and glory from him (cf. v. 2), he opposes his foes, crushing his adversaries and judging the nations. The scene is painted in strong colours to signify the drama of the battle and the totality of the royal victory. The sovereign, protected by the Lord, demolishes every obstacle and moves ahead safely to victory. He tells us: “yes, there is widespread evil in the world, there is an ongoing battle between good and evil and it seems as though evil were the stronger. No, the Lord is stronger, Christ, our true King and Priest, for he fights with all God’s power and in spite of all the things that make us doubt the positive outcome of history, Christ wins and good wins, love wins rather than hatred.”

Nonetheless, the verse can be interpreted at the spiritual level in somewhat softer tones, as St John Chrysostom points out:

If you prefer to take this in a spiritual sense, you would say that he is doing away with folly…”

Similarly, St Augustine portrays the verse as talking about the humbling of the proud that leads to their conversion:

“Whoever you are who art obstinate against Christ, you have raised on high a tower that must fall. It is good that you should cast yourself down, become humble, throw yourself at the feet of Him who sits on the right hand of the Father, that in you a ruin may be made to be built up…He makes them humble instead of proud; and I dare to say, my brethren, that it is more profitable to walk here humbly with the head wounded, than with the head erect to fall into the judgment of eternal death. He will smite many heads when he causes them to fall, but He will fill them up and build them up again.”

Nonetheless, St John, St Augustine and the rest of the Fathers also accorded this a decidedly material interpretation, prophesying the fall of demons, the fate of the Jews and heathen, and indeed any who reject Christ, as St Alphonse Liguori tells us:

“Jesus Christ shall judge the rebellious nations, and will carry into effect the chastisements with which they have been threatened; he shall shiver in pieces on the earth the proud heads that rose up against him. This verse well applies to the end of the world and to the Last Judgment. Hence the proud will be confounded, and the humble after having been made to drink with their divine Master of the water of the torrent, shall be glorified with him.”

Make sure then that we learn from those things that humble us, lest our corpses join the pile consigned to eternal death….

And you can find the last part of the series on this psalm here.