Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Those other psalms: Extend our lives O Lord that we may yet live!

Tres Riches Heures du duc de Berry
I want to continue, today, with my look at the ferial canticles in the traditional Office, so today Isaiah 38:10-20, of the Canticle of King Hezekiah.

The imitation of Christ 

Tuesdays in the Benedictine Office, I’ve previously suggested, focus on Our Lord’s public life, when he teaches us how to make the mystical ascent to heaven through the imitation of him; when he teaches us what it means to be truly human. At the very beginning of his ministry, Our Lord asserts that he himself is the true Temple; through our worship of that true Temple we that were sick with sin can gain everlasting life.

The historical story behind today's canticle is that King Hezekiah was told by the prophet Isaiah that he was about to die. At first he resisted the message out of pride (2 Chron 32: 24). But then he repented, and prayed desperately to God for more time. His prayer was granted, a miracle confirmed by the sign of the sundial winding backwards (Is 38:7-8; 2 Kings 20).

The story of Hezekiah’s miraculous restoration to health appears three times in the Old Testament, signaling its importance: as well as Isaiah 38, the story also appears in 2 Kings 20 and 2 Chron 32.

In the liturgy, the canticle is also used in Lauds for the Office of the Dead.

Tuesday in the Office

At first blush, however, its appropriateness for Tuesday in the Office is perhaps less than obvious. Hrabanus Maurus, however, explains the significance of the Canticle for us as follows:

“On Tuesday the canticle or if prayer of Ezekiel is sung, in which recovering from his infirmity the actions of grace from God for his salvation refers, admonishing us in order that after receiving the grace of God and the sacred absolution of baptism by which we are freed from the chains of death for all the time of life, we must be diligent to give our thanks to God.”

St Benedict, I think, provides psalms for Tuesday that expand on three aspects of this canticle.

First, the sense, in the first half of the canticle, that we start off far away from God, cut off from him, condemned to a foreshortened, alienated life even, just as the psalmist bewails his exile in the first of the Gradual psalms said at Terce.

The second, more important theme, though, is the possibility of reform: in verse 16 the psalmist asks for God to correct him, that he may yet have hope of life, and this process of gradual sanctification, of spiritual ascent or deification is the major focus of the day. Christ came to earth, after all, as a physician for our souls, sent to bring us to repentance and gives us healing grace.

And for this reason, the Council of Tent cited verse 10 in its explanation of the sacrament of penance, even citing it in one of its canons:

“If anyone says that this contrition, which is evoked by examination, recollection, and hatred of sins "whereby one recalls his years in the bitterness of his soul" ( Isa. Is 38,15), by pondering on the gravity of one's sins, the multitude, the baseness, the loss of eternal happiness, and the incurring of eternal damnation, together with the purpose of a better life, is not a true and a beneficial sorrow, and does not prepare for grace, but makes a man a hypocrite, and a greater sinner; finally that this sorrow is forced and not free and voluntary: let him be anathema.”

But the third key idea, that gives meaning to the previous two is our ultimate objective: our hope is, with Hezekiah, that God will save us, so that we can worship him all the days of our life in heaven.

Extend our lives that we may yet be saved!

St Benedict, in the Prologue to his Rule, sets out, I think, exactly this theology:

“Wherefore the Lord also saith in the Gospel: He that heareth these my words and doth them, shall be likened to a wise man that built his house upon a rock. The floods came and the winds blew, and they beat upon that house, and it fell not, for it was founded upon a rock. Having given us these instructions, the Lord daily expects us to make our life correspond with his holy admonitions. And the days of our life are lengthened and a respite allowed us for this very reason, that we may amend our evil ways. For the Apostle saith: Knowest thou not that the patience of God inviteth thee to repentance? For the merciful Lord saith: I will not the death of a sinner, but that he should be converted and live.”

The Canticle of Hezekiah

Ego dixi: in dimídio diérum meórum * vadam ad portas ínferi.
10 I said: In the midst of my days I shall go to the gates of hell:
2  Quæsívi resíduum annórum meórum. * Dixi : Non vidébo Dóminum Deum in terra vivéntium.
I sought for the residue of my years. 11 I said: I shall not see the Lord God in the land of the living.
3  Non aspíciam hóminem ultra, * et habitatórem quiétis.
I shall behold man no more, nor the inhabitant of rest.
4  Generátio mea abláta est, et convolúta est a me, * quasi tabernáculum pastórum.
12 My generation is at an end, and it is rolled away from me, as a shepherd's tent.
5  Præcísa est velut a texénte, vita mea: dum adhuc ordírer, succídit me: * de mane usque ad vésperam fínies me.
My life is cut off, as by a weaver: whilst I was yet but beginning, he cut me off: from morning even to night you will make an end of me.
6  Sperábam usque ad mane, * quasi leo sic contrívit ómnia ossa mea:
13 I hoped till morning, as a lion so has he broken all my bones:
7  De mane usque ad vésperam fínies me: * sicut pullus hirúndinis sic clamábo, meditábor ut colúmba:
from morning even to night you will make an end of me. 14 I will cry like a young swallow, I will meditate like a dove:
8  Attenuáti sunt óculi mei, * suspiciéntes in excélsum:
my eyes are weakened looking upward
9  Dómine, vim pátior, respónde pro me. * Quid dicam, aut quid respondébit mihi, cum ipse fécerit?
Lord, I suffer violence; answer for me.
15 What shall I say, or what shall he answer for me, whereas he himself has done it?
10  Recogitábo tibi omnes annos meos * in amaritúdine ánimæ meæ.:
I will recount to you all my years in the bitterness of my soul.
11  Dómine, si sic vivítur, et in tálibus vita spíritus mei, corrípies me et vivificábis me. * Ecce in pace amaritúdo mea amaríssima
16 O Lord, if man's life be such, and the life of my spirit be in such things as these, you shall correct me, and make me to live. 17 Behold in peace is my bitterness most bitter:
12  Tu autem eruísti ánimam meam ut non períret: * projecísti post tergum tuum ómnia peccáta mea.
but you have delivered my soul that it should not perish, you have cast all my sins behind your back.
13  Quia non inférnus confitébitur tibi, neque mors laudábit te: * non exspectábunt qui descéndunt in lacum, veritátem tuam.
18 For hell shall not confess to you, neither shall death praise you: nor shall they that go down into the pit, look for your truth.
14  Vivens vivens ipse confitébitur tibi, sicut et ego hódie: * pater fíliis notam fáciet veritátem tuam.
19 The living, the living, he shall give praise to you, as I do this day: the father shall make the truth known to the children.
15  Dómine, salvum me fac, * et psalmos nostros cantábimus cunctis diébus vitæ nostræ in domo Dómini.
20 O Lord, save me, and we will sing our psalms all the days of our life in the house of the Lord.

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