Friday, May 2, 2014

Psalm 3: Five reasons why St Benedict uses it as a daily invitatory

Psalm 3 is the first psalm said each day in the Benedictine Office, opening the hour of Matins (Vigils), said in the dark early hours of the morning.  In this post, I want to summarise some possible reasons why St Benedict made it one of the daily psalms of his Office.

Psalm 3: Domine, quid multiplicati sunt
Psalmus David, cum fugeret a facie Absalom filii sui.
The psalm of David when he fled from the face of his son Absalom.
2 Dómine quid multiplicáti sunt qui tríbulant me? * multi insúrgunt advérsum me.
Why, O Lord, are they multiplied that afflict me? many are they who rise up against me.
3  Multi dicunt ánimæ meæ: * Non est salus ipsi in Deo ejus.
Many say to my soul: There is no salvation for him in his God.
4  Tu autem, Dómine, suscéptor meus es, * glória mea, et exáltans caput meum.
But thou, O Lord art my protector, my glory, and the lifter up of my head.
5  Voce mea ad Dóminum clamávi: * et exaudívit me de monte sancto suo.
I have cried to the Lord with my voice: and he hath heard me from his holy hill.
6  Ego dormívi, et soporátus sum: * et exsurréxi, quia Dóminus suscépit me.
I have slept and taken my rest: and I have risen up, because the Lord hath protected me
7  Non timébo míllia pópuli circumdántis me: * exsúrge, Dómine, salvum me fac, Deus meus.
I will not fear thousands of the people, surrounding me: arise, O Lord; save me, O my God.
8  Quóniam tu percussísti omnes adversántes mihi sine causa: * dentes peccatórum contrivísti.
For thou hast struck all them who are my adversaries without cause: thou hast broken the teeth of sinners.
9  Dómini est salus: * et super pópulum tuum benedíctio tua.
Salvation is of the Lord: and thy blessing is upon thy people.

Psalm 3 arguably encapsulates five key aspects of St Benedict's spirituality.

1. Remembering the physical world: St Benedict seems, in his Rule, to enjoy finding ways in which to carry out quite literally the injunctions of the psalms while pointing to the underlying spiritual meaning of doing so.  'Seven times a day have I given praise to you' is translated quite literally, for example into seven hours to be prayed during the day, while 'at midnight I rose to give praise to thee' justifies Matins (RB16). 

One of the key reasons for the selection of this psalm as the first for Matins then, must surely lie in the words of verse 3, for in the early hours of the morning, well before dawn, the monk or nun can truly say with the psalmist, 'I have slept and taken my rest, and I have risen up because the Lord has protected me'.

The verse though, also has a Christological interpretation, indeed, the oldest surviving Patristic reference to Psalm 3, from St Clement of Rome (c96) states that the verse alludes to Our Lord's death and Resurrection.  
Indeed, an early tradition is that the first three psalms of the psalter are about, respectively, the life (Psalm 1), death (Psalm 2) and Resurrection of Christ (Psalm 3).  And of course, the Fathers urge us to apply its message to ourselves as well: we must trust that God will protect us so we rise up, both each day now, and at the last, with him.    

2. The spiritual warfare: The idea that we must wage spiritual warfare against our enemies with the help of God resonates throughout the St Benedict's Rule.  Indeed, in the very opening lines of the Prologue he urges us to renounce our own will, in order  'to fight for the true King, Christ', and take up the 'strong and glorious weapons' of obedience.

The psalm, particularly in verses 1 and 7, makes it clear that we cannot expect the spiritual life to be easy: rather, it is a battle.  We must struggle daily with enemies ranged around us, such as discouragement and temptation. 

3.  Why does God often seem so slow to act?:  This psalm opens by asking why God allows us to be surrounded by our enemies (verse 1), and also asks why the good often seem so badly outnumbered (verse 7).  The challenge posed by a God who often seems to sit back, allowing sinners to flourish while oppressing the good (verse 2) is also a key theme of the psalms the saint places at Prime each day.  Why then does God seem to hold back?  

The issue seems to have been a particular preoccupation for St Benedict, reflected not least in his choice of the psalms set for Prime.  

This psalm doesn't directly answer the question, but in the Prologue to the Rule the saint does suggest one key reason, namely to give us - and those mired in evil - time to repent that we might yet be saved:

"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."

4.  Ask God for help: Another reason for God's delay is suggested by Verse 7 of the psalm, which introduces some key motifs or memes in the Benedictine Office, often used in antiphons and elsewhere, in the words 'exsúrge, Dómine/salvum me fac, Deus meus' (or  'Arise Lord, save me my God). The point is that although God always calls to our hearts, he also gives us free will, and part of that gift is that we must actively ask for his help to ensure, and to perfect what we do.

St Benedict seems to have had some particular attachment to these sentiments for he deliberately splits psalms in two, even across days in order to arrange for these two phrases (or slight variants thereof) to be used as incipits twice on Wednesday: firstly at Matins (Psalm 67/68) and again at Prime (Psalm 9 pt 2/Psalm 11).

5.  Trust in God:  Finally, closely linked to the requirement that we actively ask for God's help is the deep sense of trust in God to make everything come out right, and help us win the race that we must cultivate.  Verse 4 of the Psalm alludes to God as the one who is our sustainer or protector (susceptor), who lifts us up.  In many respects the themes of the psalm, and this verse in particular, echo the stanza of Psalm 118 that surround the Suscipe verse that is used as part of the monastic profession ceremony.

Indeed, the idea of God as our 'susceptor' has an important theology behind it.  St Augustine's take on the word points to the analogy of the Roman paterfamilias, who 'received' (acknowledged) his child, thus saving it from the fate of exposure.  He also explains it as a word used to mean a powerful man who takes up the cause of someone, or a doctor or lawyer accepting a case.   When God becomes our susceptor, in other words, he acts as a Father or powerful protector of us, someone who has taken our cause on as his own, and will work to sustain, help and heal us.  The monastic commentator Cassian (c. 360 – 435) took the discussion of its meaning a step further, for in Chapter 17 of his Conference 13 he discusses God's intervention in various types of vocation:

"Hence it comes in our prayers we proclaim God as not only protector and Saviour, but actually as our Helper and Sponsor [adjuitorem et susceptorem] for whereas He first calls us to him, and while we are ignorant and unwilling, draws us towards salvation, he is our Protector and Saviour, but whereas when we are already striving, He is want to bring us help, and to receive and defend those who fly to Him for refuge, He is our Sponsor and Refuge.' "

St Benedict's contemporary Cassiodorus' commentary on the verse puts more emphasis on the idea of God as our ongoing sustainer, particularly in the ennoblement of the flesh through grace made possible through the Incarnation:

"Sustainer, that is, of the form of slave, since the taking up of human nature is the Word made flesh. So it is the flesh which speaks of its glory and the lifting up of its head, for the all-powerful Word assumed it so that the divine and human substance might be one Person without any admixture. This verse is relevant too to the confounding of the Pelagians, who believe that man can by his own efforts achieve something good; for who, pray, could be self-sufficient for performing good without abundance of divine grace? It is through grace by which it is united to God that human nature has taken its place at the Father's right hand."

Throughout the psalm there is a clear message: if we but put our trust in God and cry out to him with strength, he will destroy our enemies, be they of the world, the flesh and the devil.  

Verse by verse notes on the psalm

I've previously provided more detailed notes on Psalm 3 which you can find as follows:

Introduction to Psalm 3
Psalm 3:v1
Psalm 3:v2
Psalm 3:v3
Psalm 3:v4
Psalm 3:v5
Psalm 3:v6
Psalm 3:v7 
Psalm 3:v8

I also provided some crib notes on the Latin:
Notes on Psalm 3 grammar and vocab Pt 1
Notes on Latin of Psalm 3 Pt 2
Notes on the Latin of Psalm 3, Pt 3

Alternatively, you can jump straight to the introduction to the next psalm in this series, Psalm 94.

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