The use of Psalm 42 for Lauds on Tuesday was something St Benedict carried over from the old Roman Office, but it certainly fits very neatly indeed with the thematic approach to the Office I am arguing that the saint adopted.
The temptation in the desert
On Monday, I suggested, the Office focuses on Christ’s life from the Incarnation to his baptism.
St Augustine suggested that this psalm is being sung by one cast down by a fast, while the unjust and deceitful man of verse 2 is identified with the devil by Cassiodorus. Accordingly, the opening verses could be seen as an allusion to Our Lord’s forty days in the desert, and temptation by the devil.
Our spiritual progress?
The key feature of the psalm though, is the sense of a gradual progression. After that downcast opening we reach, in verse 3, the holy hill (Jerusalem); then the tabernacle, or dwelling place of God; and finally, the psalmist prepares to go into the altar (v4).
Could this progress perhaps be taken as suggesting our progression in the spiritual life as we imitate Christ and gradually absorb his teaching? For, I would suggest, just as Christ taught the Apostles and prepared them for their ministry over those three years of his earthly ministry, so too, he prepares us.
Christ's earthly ministry as a preparation
We are most familiar with this psalm, of course, in the context of the prayers at the foot of the altar in the traditional form of the Mass, where they become a dialogue between server and priest.
Western piety has also often seen verse 4 as a particularly appropriate prayer as preparation for communion, where our bodies become the altar in which Christ’s sacrifice is received.
But in the psalm itself the speaker does not actually enter: this is the prayer of those and for those whose fervour has been rekindled, but who are still agitated, still not fully there yet, as verse 5 makes clear.
This is the prayer of those still waiting in hope for God to send out ‘his light and his truth’ to save us (verse 6 and 3).
It is a prayer of and for the Apostles who have yet to be ordained and yet to be given the graces necessary to stand the assaults to come; a prayer for the grace necessary to make the spiritual ascent to heaven.
Psalm 42 (43) A psalm for David.
Judge me, O God, and distinguish my cause from the nation that is not holy: deliver me from the unjust and deceitful man.
2 For you are God my strength: why have you cast me off? And why do I go sorrowful whilst the enemy afflicts me?
3 Send forth your light and your truth: they have conducted me, and brought me unto your holy hill, and into your tabernacles.
4 And I will go in to the altar of God: to God who gives joy to my youth.
5 To you, O God my God, I will give praise upon the harp: why are you sad, O my soul? And why do you disquiet me?
6 Hope in God, for I will still give praise to him: the salvation of my countenance, and my God.
Judica me, Deus, et discerne causam meam de gente non sancta : ab homine iniquo et doloso erue me.
2 Quia tu es, Deus, fortitudo mea : quare me repulisti? et quare tristis incedo, dum affligit me inimicus? 3 Emitte lucem tuam et veritatem tuam : ipsa me deduxerunt, et adduxerunt in montem sanctum tuum, et in tabernacula tua.
4 Et introibo ad altare Dei, ad Deum qui lætificat juventutem meam.
5 Confitebor tibi in cithara, Deus, Deus meus. Quare tristis es, anima mea? et quare conturbas me?
6 Spera in Deo, quoniam adhuc confitebor illi, salutare vultus mei, et Deus meus.