Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Introduction to Psalm 119

Coter Mocking of Christ

The first of the Gradual Psalms, Psalm 119 is a plea for help from someone surrounded by savage enemies who constantly attack the speaker, who has come to the realisation that he has been living too long as an exile in a strange land.  The psalm invites us to realise that the time has come to set out on our pilgrimage towards our true home.

Psalm 119: Ad Dominum cum tribularer clamavi
 Ad Dóminum cum tribulárer clamávi: * et exaudívit me.
In my trouble I cried to the Lord: and he heard me.
2  Dómine, líbera ánimam meam a lábiis iníquis, * et a lingua dolósa.
2 O Lord, deliver my soul from wicked lips, and a deceitful tongue.
3  Quid detur tibi, aut quid apponátur tibi * ad linguam dolósam?
3 What shall be given to you, or what shall be added to you, to a deceitful tongue?
4  Sagíttæ poténtis acútæ, * cum carbónibus desolatóriis
4 The sharp arrows of the mighty, with coals that lay waste.
5  Heu mihi, quia incolátus meus prolongátus est: habitávi cum habitántibus Cedar: * multum íncola fuit ánima mea.
5 Woe is me, that my sojourning is prolonged! I have dwelt with the inhabitants of Cedar: 6 My soul has been long a sojourner.
6  Cum his, qui odérunt pacem, eram pacíficus: * cum loquébar illis, impugnábant me gratis.
7 With them that hated peace I was peaceable: when I spoke to them they fought against me without cause.

Liturgical context

The first of the Gradual psalms, Psalm 119 features in many different liturgical contexts: it is said at Vespers during the Sacred Triduum, as well as in Vespers in the Office of the Dead.

In the older forms of the Roman Office it is said on Monday at Vespers.

In the context of the Office of the Dead, and as part of the first group of the Gradual psalms offered devotionally for the souls in purgatory, the realization that the exile has been living too long far from his true home takes on a more immediate application. In this context, it teaches us that a key step for our spiritual progress is to detach ourselves from earthly things and remember that our true hope is not the extension of this life, but to dwell in heaven.

In the Benedictine Office it is the first psalm of Terce from Tuesday to Saturday, serving as a reminder that each and every day we must seek to grow in perfection, make the holy ascent, with the aid of grace.

Psalm 119 in the Office

Anyone who prays the Benedictine Office regularly could easily come to the conclusion that pleas for God to intervene and help were often at the forefront of the St Benedict's mind.

He prescribed the saying of Psalm 3, a plea for help from someone surrounded by enemies, every day.

And five days he starts the little hours with this plea for help (v1) in the face of lies and defamation, attempts to lure us away from the right path through flattery and promise of earthly honours, and the twisting of doctrine in heresy (vv2-4).

If you read the life of St Benedict by St Gregory the Great and one can quickly see why this might be a key preoccupation for the saint: as a young man he fled a debauched Rome; the monks of his first monastery attempted to murder him; a jealous priest's efforts to discredit him led to the move from Subiaco to Monte Cassino; and even at Monte Cassino the wiles of the devil continued to plague the monastery.

The hostility of the world

Still, while this psalm is always relevant, it seems particularly pertinent to our situation today as Christians living in a society that is deeply at odds to so many of our core beliefs.

There is a certain cyclical feel to the current antagonism to Christianity.

When we read the Gospels, one of the things that surely should always strike us is that far from embracing our God Incarnate, so many fought perfect good even from the beginning.  Far from converting all hearts and minds, God himself ended up on the cross.

For a good many centuries, the culture of Christendom meant that most Christians enjoyed a rather more sympathetic environment in which to practice their faith.  No time, it is true, has ever been entirely free of error and distortion, of wolves in sheep's clothing, of attacks on the good of the kind alluded to by this psalm.  Still, until recently at least, you wouldn't generally find Arts Festivals staging events that invite patrons to 'Come Heckle Christ'.  This psalm reminds us that such attacks are more to be expected than not.

In the world but not of it

Accordingly, the psalm offers lessons in how we must conduct ourselves in the face of our enemies.

In fact Patrick Reardon, in Christ in the Psalms, suggests that 1 Peter is essentially a commentary on this psalm.

Addressed to the dispersed 'exile' Christians, St Peter calls the members of the Church 'sojourners'  - strangers and pilgrims - in this world (1:1; 1:6; 2:11) who must endure the reproaches of outsiders, silencing them with our good deeds (2:15).

St Peter urges us to return peace for enmity (verse 6), following the model of Christ:

"For unto this are you called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving you an example that you should follow his steps.  Who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth. Who, when he was reviled, did not revile: when he suffered, he threatened not: but delivered himself to him that judged him unjustly." (2:21-23)

The Gradual psalms, though,are often conceptualised as representing each of the steps of the temple, steps on the staircase to the heavenly temple.  Cassiodorus summarises this first step as teaching us the "loathing of the world, after which there is haste to attain zeal for all the virtues".  A more positive way of putting it lies in the Gospel injunction to be in the world but not of it, to cultivate the realisation that our true home is heaven, and we must actively set out on the journey towards it (verse 5).

Instead of trying to conform to the world's standards and expect a reward in this life, we have to accept the way of the Cross.  In the end, this life is but a short interval in the face of eternity, and the only journey that really counts is the journey towards the heavenly Jerusalem.

You can find notes on the individual verses of the psalm here.

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