|The Agony in the Garden|
Duccio di Buoninsegna c1308-11
One of the most striking changes St Benedict made to his Office, compared to the old Roman, was surely the addition of Psalm 87, generally agreed to be the darkest psalm in the entire psalter, to Lauds.
The lamentation of a man close to death, it is the only psalm in the psalter not to end on a positive note. It is a song of abandonment, of the agony in the garden, making it, at first glance at least, a surprising choice for an hour of the day generally associated with the Resurrection.
It is a choice that makes sense, however, if the Office of Thursday to Saturday is viewed as a mini-Triduum each week, for while there is something of a Eucharistic sub-theme that can be found in today’s Office, it is the theme of abandonment and betrayal that stands at the forefront of the day, and most especially in this psalm.
The Father’s saw this psalm as a prophesy of the Passion, as St Cyril of Jerusalem explains:
“Accept an additional testimony from the eighty-seventh psalm, where Christ speaks in the prophets—for he who then spoke afterwards came among us: "O Lord, the God of my salvation: I have cried in the day and in the night before you"; and subsequently, "I am become as a man without help, free among the dead." He did not say, "I am become a man with¬out help," but "as a man without help"; for he was crucified, not because of helplessness but because he willed it; his death was not a result of involuntary weakness. "I am numbered with those who go down into the pit." What is the sign? "You have taken my friends away from me" (for the disciples fled away). "Will you work wonders for the dead"? Then, "But I, O Lord, cry out to you; with my morning prayer I wait on you." See how these verses manifest the actual circumstances of the passion and the resurrection.”
It is the dark prayer of Gethsemane, before that final resolution point is reached.
St Benedict on humility
This psalm invites us, I think, to contemplate the humility of Christ in taking on human form: the God who washed the feet of his disciples to teach them humility, and suffered for us. St Benedict invites us to compare ourselves to both God and others, and accept out own lack of worth, citing of verse 16 in his treatment of the twelve degrees of humility in his Rule:
“The seventh degree of humility is that he should not only in his speech declare himself lower and of less account than all others, but should in his own inmost heart believe it, humbling himself and saying with the prophet: But I am a worm and no man, a byword to all men and the laughing-stock of the people. I have been lifted up only to be humbled and confounded; and again: It is good for me that thou hast humbled me, that I may learn thy commandments.”
In the face of abandonment
This is a psalm for the dark night of the soul: despite the fact that the speaker seems to receive no answer, he continues to call out to ‘the God of my salvation’ (verses 1, 2, 10, 14), and to set out the reasons why God will listen to his plea. Cassiodorus interprets this as a prayer ‘that the resurrection will come with all speed’, and recitation of his sufferings that invites us all to be joined to:
“This is Christ's chorus…for the faithful people, following His most holy passion, gave answer with a most splendid imitation. On one side the prison held confessors in confinement; from another the blood of martyrs welled forth, more precious than purple garments and fine linen; from another the words of the apostles thundered through the whole world; from another the sacred faith came forth like the brightest sun; from another, even today people hasten to embrace deaths which are transient in search of the rewards of eternal life. So let no person fear the wretchedness which makes men blessed. Let none tremble at the tortures which bring lasting security; let none fear the sadness which bestows eternal joy. How slight a thing is momentary death when its purpose is to win enduring life! How slight an imposition is the judgment of men, enabling us to obtain divine forgiveness! Who would be ashamed of the pains which the Lord Christ deigned to bear? Who would regard as dishonour what our Creator chose to endure for all? So let us shoulder for Him disaster in this world if we wish to possess with Him our enduring portion.”
A canticle of a psalm for the sons of Core: unto the end, for Maheleth, to answer understanding of Eman the Ezrahite.
2 O Lord, the God of my salvation: I have cried in the day, and in the night before you.
3 Let my prayer come in before you: incline your ear to my petition.
4 For my soul is filled with evils: and my life has drawn near to hell.
5 I am counted among them that go down to the pit: I have become as a man without help,
6 free among the dead. Like the slain sleeping in the sepulchres, whom you remember no more: and they are cut off from your hand.
7 They have laid me in the lower pit: in the dark places, and in the shadow of death.
8 Your wrath is strong over me: and all your waves you have brought in upon me.
9 You have put away my acquaintance far from me: they have set me an abomination to themselves. I was delivered up, and came not forth:
10 My eyes languished through poverty. All the day I cried to you, O Lord: I stretched out my hands to you.
11 Will you show wonders to the dead? Or shall physicians raise to life, and give praise to you?
12 Shall any one in the sepulchre declare your mercy: and your truth in destruction?
13 Shall your wonders be known in the dark; and your justice in the land of forgetfulness?
14 But I, O Lord, have cried to you: and in the morning my prayer shall prevent you.
15 Lord, why do you cast off my prayer: why do you turn your face from me?
16 I am poor, and in labours from my youth: and being exalted have been humbled and troubled.
17 Your wrath has come upon me: and your terrors have troubled me.
18 They have come round about me like water all the day: they have compassed me about together.
19 Friend and neighbour you have put far from me: and my acquaintance, because of misery.
Canticum Psalmi, filiis Core, in finem, pro Maheleth ad respondendum. Intellectus Eman Ezrahitæ.
2 Domine, Deus salutis meæ, in die clamavi et nocte coram te.
3 Intret in conspectu tuo oratio mea, inclina aurem tuam ad precem meam.
4 Quia repleta est malis anima mea, et vita mea inferno appropinquavit.
5 Æstimatus sum cum descendentibus in lacum, factus sum sicut homo sine adjutorio,
6 inter mortuos liber; sicut vulnerati dormientes in sepulchris, quorum non es memor amplius, et ipsi de manu tua repulsi sunt.
7 Posuerunt me in lacu inferiori, in tenebrosis, et in umbra mortis.
8 Super me confirmatus est furor tuus, et omnes fluctus tuos induxisti super me.
9 Longe fecisti notos meos a me; posuerunt me abominationem sibi. Traditus sum, et non egrediebar;
10 oculi mei languerunt præ inopia. Clamavi ad te, Domine, tota die; expandi ad te manus meas.
11 Numquid mortuis facies mirabilia? aut medici suscitabunt, et confitebuntur tibi?
12 Numquid narrabit aliquis in sepulchro misericordiam tuam, et veritatem tuam in perditione?
13 Numquid cognoscentur in tenebris mirabilia tua? et justitia tua in terra oblivionis?
14 Et ego ad te, Domine, clamavi, et mane oratio mea præveniet te.
15 Ut quid, Domine, repellis orationem meam; avertis faciem tuam a me?
16 Pauper sum ego, et in laboribus a juventute mea; exaltatus autem, humiliatus sum et conturbatus.
17 In me transierunt iræ tuæ, et terrores tui conturbaverunt me:
18 circumdederunt me sicut aqua tota die; circumdederunt me simul.
19 Elongasti a me amicum et proximum, et notos meos a miseria.