Monday, April 24, 2017

The Gradual Psalms and Acts - when God was a mathematician**Updated

Signorelli, Luca - Moses's Testament and Death - 1481-82.jpg
Death and Testament of Moses  (at the age of 120) by Luca Signorelli

I'm not quite ready to resume my notes on the Gradual psalms yet, but I thought I would share with you today some comments that I came across in the course of my lectio divina, in St Bede's commentary on Acts that I think relate to the Gradual Psalms.

It is one of those bits of mathematical symbolism in Scripture that we tend to downplay the significance of, but which the Fathers saw as pointing to the beautiful order of the universe, reflected in the mathematical properties programmed by God into both the natural law and history.

There is a bit of hard work involved in following the logic here, but bear with me and see what you think.

Acts 1:15

Verse 15 of Acts One says:


In diebus illis, exsurgens Petrus in medio fratrum, dixit (erat autem turba hominum simul, fere centum viginti):

In those days Peter rising up in the midst of the brethren, said: (now the number of persons together was about an hundred and twenty:)

Number properties

St Bede focuses in on the idea of a gradual growth in the number of believers, and points out that 120 can be seen as being 'built up' in fifteen stages:
These hundred and twenty, built up gradually by addition [of the numbers] from one to fifteen yields fifteen as the number of steps*
That is, 120 is a triangular number, made up of fifteen components, ie:


The psalter, the law, and grace

St Bede then uses this mathematical connection between 15 and 120 to make several spiritual connections between the two numbers, one of which is an allusion to the psalms:
By reason of the perfection of both laws, this [number 15] is mystically contained in the psalter...
The references to the perfection of the law comes from bringing together two different Patristic memes.

A common Patristic theme expounded most fully in St Augustine, is that the number 15 can be seen as made up of 7+8.  The number 7 in this case represents the Old Law (for the seven days of creation), while 8 represents the New, since Christ rose on the 'eighth day'.  But there is also a connection between 120 and the law, for, Bede points out, Moses, the Old Testament lawgiver, died at the age of 120.

Accordingly, the number 120 is both mathematically and symbolically linked to fifteen and the law, and to the number of psalms in the book of psalms (multiply fifteen by the Decalogue, the ten commandments given to Moses).

Gradual Psalms

But it probably makes most sense, in my view, given the wording of the Latin (per incrementa surgentes quidecim graduum numerum efficiunt) to see it more specifically as a reference to the fifteen Gradual Psalms, and the number of steps in the temple, in particular.

The Gradual Psalms (Psalm 119-133), I have previously noted, are often seen as being about the ascent of grace, building on the psalm that immediately precede them, the great psalm of the law , Psalm 118.  Bede makes this connection in part through a cross-reference to Galatians 1:18 (see my previous note on the significance of the number in that context), which refers to St Paul staying with St Peter for fifteen days in Jerusalem before beginning his first mission journey.  St Bede says:
By reason of the perfection of both laws, this is mystically contained in the psalter, and for this [number of days] the 'vessel of election' [St Paul] dwelled with Peter in Jerusalem. For it was necessary that the preachers of the new grace would designate by their number the sacramental sign which the lawgiver [Moses] exhibited [in the years of his life].
**And in fact I have now found St Bede's source for this comment (not noted in the edition of the commentary I am using) I think, in St Gregory the Great's On Job.  St Gregory implies a similar link (though he is more explicit about the connection to the psalter in general).  St Gregory provides an exposition of the symbolic meaning of seven and eight, and then adds them together saying:
Hence it is, that the Temple is ascended with fifteen steps, in order that it may be learned by its very ascent that by seven and eight our worldly doings may be carefully discharged, and an eternal dwelling may be providently sought for. Hence also it is that, by increasing a unit to ten, the Prophet uttered a hundred and fifty Psalms. For on account of this number ‘seven’ signifying temporal things, and the number ‘eight’ eternal things, the Holy Spirit was poured forth upon a hundred and twenty of the faithful, sitting in an upper room. For fifteen is made up of seven and eight, and if in counting from one to fifteen we mount up by adding the sums of the numbers together, we reach the number a hundred and twenty. By this effusion of the Holy Spirit they learned in truth both to pass through with endurance things temporal, and eagerly to seek after those that are eternal...(BK 35:17)
The growth of the Church depends on our growth in humility

What St Bede is getting at in all this then, I think, is something that in his later works he draws out much more clearly, namely that the expansion in the number of believers, the growth of the Church, is linked to each of our own growth in humility.

In the case of Acts 1, we see the Apostles transformed: chastened by their loss of faith at the Crucifixion, they are now reinvigorated by Christ's Resurrection and instruction during these days.  And their spiritual progress, their mystical ascent of the steps of the temple towards heaven, draws in new believers.

And of course, the principle applies to us as well: our spiritual progress in the pilgrimage of life represented by the Gradual Psalms helps builds up the Church, helps rebuild its broken walls...

Versification of Acts

Finally, as an aside, you would have to think the sixteenth century editor who added verse numbers to Scripture, Robert Estienne, must have been aware of the connection between the number one hundred and twenty to the number fifteen as well...

**The translations come from The Venerable Bede, Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles, Translated, with an introduction and Notes, by Lawrence T Martin, Cistercian Publications, 1989

Saturday, April 15, 2017

The way to heaven reopened: St Benedict and the Gradual Psalms

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William Blake

Today, the final part of this Lenten series on the Gradual Psalms with some comments from St Jerome, and St Bede.

St Jerome

Today we recall the harrowing of hell, when Christ freed the holy souls to enter heaven.  In this light, St Jerome's comments on the Gradual Psalms emphasises the role of Christ in our ascent of Jacob's Ladder:
These gradual psalms...are called songs of ascent because in them we mount step by step to greater heights...Jacob saw a ladder set up on the ground with its top reaching to heaven, and in heaven the Lord was leaning upon it...
 It is very difficult, indeed, to ascend from earth into heaven.  We fall more easily than we rise.  We fall easily; it requires great labor, a great deal of sweat to climb upwards...
Do not give up hope though the climb is arduous, and difficult, and engenders despair.  Do not lose confidence O man,: the Lord is up there on the fifteenth step.  He is watching over you; he is helping you...Mark what it [Scripture] does say: Jacob saw Him leaning over the ladder.  Just realise what that means: from where He was standing, He stooped down and lowered Himself that we might ascend.  The Lord stooped down; for your sake he humbled himself; climb up, therefore with safety and confidence.
He therefore instructs us to 'meditate upon the mystical significance of Jacob's ladder', for he argues, to climb from earth to heaven requires great pain, severe effort.

St Bede on St Benedict's ladder of humility

Finally, a few comments from St Bede, who takes us back to St Benedict's teaching on the psalms of ascent:
They arrive as far as the steps that come down from the city of David when one has learned to advance by means of spiritual desires from the common life of the faithful to the things of heaven.  For the steps that come down from the city of David to the lower parts of the city of Jerusalem are the aids of divine inspiration or protection by which we should ascend to his kingdom. For David made the steps by which we should ascend to his city when divine mercy taught us the order of the virtues by which we may seek heavenly things and when it granted us the gift of seeking these same virtues.  Doubtless it is about these steps that the psalmist said: Blessed is the man whose help is from you O Lord; he has placed ascents in his heart., and so on until he says: They will walk from virtue to virtue; the God of gods will be seen in Zion. (Ps 83:6-8).  
The builders of the holy city arrive at these steps, therefore, after building the walls of the Pool of Siloa and the King's Garden when, after the mysteries of the Lord's incarnation have been revealed whereby the Gentile world blind from birth  has been cleansed and illuminated, and after the sprouts of good action have begun to grow through faith, holy teachers at the appropriate moment more diligently reveal the progress of the virtues to their hearers, whereby they may ascend to the vision of their Creator, namely him 'of the strong hand' or 'the desirable one', which is the meaning of the name David.   
Benedict, a father very reverend both in his name and in his life, realized that these steps especially consist in humility when, interpreting our journey to celestial things to be designated by the ladder shown to the Patriarch Jacob, by which angels ascended and descended, he distinguished in a very careful and pious examination the steps of the ladder itself as the increments and stages of good works that are performed through humility...(On Ezra and Nehemiah, trans  deGregorio, pp171-2)
I hope you have found this series of use, and wish you a joyous Easter.  Please if you would, remember me in your prayers.

William Blake The Three Maries at the Sepulchre but503-sm.jpg
William Blake The three Marys at the tomb

Friday, April 14, 2017

A Good Friday meditation on the Gradual Psalms

Folio 152v - The Crucifixion.jpg

Today, I want to provide some comments on these psalms from St Fulgentius of Ruspe, a contemporary of St Benedict, that seem to me particularly apposite for the day:
Just as one who returns to his homeland [Psalm 119] always has more of the trail ahead of him until he arrives, so we also, as long as we are in this mortal body, are away from the Lord.  For us in the present life is a road in which we always have room for being able to make progress, until, with God leading us, we are able to reach that eternal homeland of blessed immortality.
Therefore it is a great blessing in the present age to love in such a way that each member of the faithful applies himself to spiritual progress but not, however, at any time proudly attributing this to his own power.  Rather, with humble heart he asks God for a ceaseless guarding of the gift received [Ps 122], from whom emanates not just the beginning but also the perfecting of every good will....
There is no period in this life in which the enemy does not set a trap for people; no one can escape his snares with his own strength except that one whom God has deigned to free by his grace through Jesus Christ our Lord...So the prophet too proclaims that his feet will be freed from the snare not by his own power but by the divine another text, whom the Lord has deigned to transfer to safety and happiness for eternity, it is said:'Our soul has escaped like a bird from the snare of the fowlers; the snare has been broken are we have escaped'. [Ps 123] ...
Here we overcome the adversary if we fight with tears and prayers and continuing humility of heart.  It is written that 'The prayer of the humble pierces the clouds...and it will not desist until the Most High responds'.  Therefore the weeping of the humble contributes greatly to the destruction of carnal concupiscence.   The tears which come from compunction of heart both conquer the enemy and gain for us the gift of triumphal happiness.  For those 'who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves' [Ps 125].  
How well does the holy prophet teach that the seeds of good works must be watered by a river of tears!  No seeds germinate unless they are watered; nor does fruit come forth from the seed if deprived of the aid of water.  Accordingly, we too, if we wish to keep the fruits of our seeds, let us not stop watering our seeds with tears which must be poured out more from the heart than from the body.  Therefore it is said to us through the prophet that we need to rend 'our hearts and not our clothing'; something we can do when we recall that we ourselves, even if not in deed, frequently sin in thought.  Because the 'earthly tent burdens the thoughtful mind' and our land does not cease to produce thorns and thistles for us.  We are unable to get to eating our bread, unless we will have been worn out by weariness and the sweat of our brow...
Therefore although we have reason to thank God, because by his free mercy, he has subjected us to himself so that we are humble, still we have reason to have to beseige the divine ears with continuous prayers; because as long as we are in this mortal body, just as we cannot be without sin, so we are not yet able to show forth perfect humility to the divine commands...(trans Robert B Eno, in Fulgentius Selected Works).

And you can find the final part in this series here. 

Thursday, April 13, 2017

The Gradual Psalms and the Triduum

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As we enter the last few days of Lent, and start the sacred Triduum, I thought I would end this series by providing a few sources to stimulate meditation that pull the whole set of psalms together in various ways.

To start with, here is Cassiodorus' summary of the fifteen steps represented by each psalm (I've inserted notes on which hour they are said at in the Benedictine Office):


On the first step he denotes loathing of the world, after which there is haste to attain zeal for all the virtues.

Secondly, the strength of divine protection is explained, and it is demonstrated that nothing can withstand it.

Thirdly, the great joy of dwelling with pure mind in the Lord's Church is stated.


Fourth, he teaches us that we must continually presume on the Lord's help whatever the constraints surrounding us, until He takes pity and hears us.

Fifth, he warns us that when we are freed from dangers, we must not attach any credit to ourselves, but attribute it all to the power of the Lord.

In the sixth, the trust of the most faithful Christian is compared to immovable mountains.


In the seventh, we are told how abundant is the harvest reaped by those who sow in tears.

In the eighth, it is said that nothing remains of what any individual has performed by his own will; only the things built by the sponsorship of the Lord are most firmly established.

In the ninth, it is proclaimed that we become blessed through fear of the Lord, and that all profitable things are granted us.

Monday Vespers

In the tenth, he inculcates in committed persons the patience which he commands through the words of the Church.

Tuesday Vespers

In the eleventh, as penitent he cries from the depths to the Lord, asking that the great power of the Godhead be experienced by the deliverance of mankind.

In the twelfth, the strength of meekness and humility is revealed.

In the thirteenth, the promise of the holy incarnation and the truth of the words spoken are demonstrated.

In the fourteenth, spiritual unity is proclaimed to the brethren, and to them the Lord's benediction and eternal life are shown to accrue.


In the fifteenth, there is awakened in the course of the Lord's praises that perfect charity than which nothing greater can be expressed, and nothing more splendid discovered. As the apostle attests: God is love.  So let us continually meditate on the hidden nature of this great miracle, so that by ever setting our gaze on such things, we may avoid the deadly errors of the world.

The number of these psalms contains this further mystery: when the five bodily senses, by which human frailty incurs all sin, are overcome by the power of the Trinity, this leads us to the fifteenth height of the psalms of the steps; thus the body's weakness is eliminated, and eternal rewards are bestowed on those who conquer it.

And for the next part in this series, continue on here.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Unity through Christ - Psalm 132 (Gradual Psalm no 14)

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Psalm 132 is the fourteenth, or second last, of the gradual psalms (the last of the set concludes Compline each day in the Benedictine Office).  At three verses as it is arranged in most bibles, it is one of the three shortest in the psalter.

The psalm points us to the unity that can only come through Christ, and so it is perhaps significant that it it is the fourteenth psalm of the group, a number associated with the coming of Christ by virtue of the three groups of fourteen generations listed in Matthew 1.

Canticum graduum David.
A gradual canticle of David.
Ecce quam bonum, et quam jucúndum * habitáre fratres in unum.
Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity:
2  Sicut unguéntum in cápite, * quod descéndit in barbam, barbam Aaron.
Like the precious ointment on the head, that ran down upon the beard, the beard of Aaron,
3  Quod descéndit in oram vestiménti ejus: * sicut ros Hermon, qui descéndit in montem Sion.
which ran down to the skirt of his garment: As the dew of Hermon, which descends upon mount Sion.
4  Quóniam illic mandávit Dóminus benedictiónem, * et vitam usque in sæculum
For there the Lord has commanded blessing, and life for evermore.

The psalm is frequently seen by the Fathers, as particularly addressed to religious.  Cassiodorus, however, asserts its universal relevance:
"After the most holy preaching of the previous psalm, the prophet is now perched on the fourteenth step, and pro­claims to the people blessed unity, urging those who bind themselves to the Christian religion to persevere in the one accord of charity. 
Though some have opined that this message is to be addressed to monks, my view is that it is relevant to the harmony of Christians at large, for it is proclaimed not only to monasteries but to the whole Church, gathering into unity by a spiritual trumpet-blast all Christ's soldiers throughout the world. I do not dispute that it is addressed to saintly monasteries, but I believe that it should not be withdrawn from the general body. 
So the place which embraced the gathering of the faithful people was worthy of honour; clearly that assembly was estab­lished before the Lord's incarnation gained it from the Gentiles by His precious blood."
The opening  and closing lines make the psalm's subject matter clear, namely spiritual unity as a prerequisite for eternal life.  

The two images in between, however, of oil flowing down the beard of a priest, and dew on Mt Hermon, require a little more work to explicate, and are dealt with in the verse by verse notes that start in the this post.

And you cna find the next part in this Lenten series here.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Arise O Lord - Psalm 131 (Gradual Psalm No 13)

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Psalm 131 (132), the third psalm of Tuesday Vespers in the Benedictine Office, is longest of the gradual psalms, and the climax of the group.

At a literal level it has its historical origins in the dedication of the First Temple. The first half of the psalm is from the people/King’s perspective; the second half is God’s response.

Read Christologically, however, it can be read as prefiguring the Resurrection: now the appointed time has come for Christ to arise and enter the holy of holies to intercede for us.

Psalm 131 (132) – Memento Domine
Canticum graduum.
A gradual canticle.
1 Meménto, Dómine, David, * et omnis mansuetúdinis ejus :
O Lord remember David, and all his meekness.

2  Sicut jurávit Dómino, * votum vovit Deo Jacob
2 How he swore to the Lord, he vowed a vow to the God of Jacob:
3  Si introíero in tabernáculum domus meæ, * si ascéndero in lectum strati mei :
3 If I shall enter into the tabernacle of my house: if I shall go up into the bed wherein I lie: 
4  Si dédero somnum óculis meis, * et pálpebris meis dormitatiónem :
4 If I shall give sleep to my eyes, or slumber to my eyelids,
5  Et réquiem tempóribus meis : donec invéniam locum Dómino, * tabernáculum Deo Jacob.
5 or rest to my temples: until I find out a place for the Lord, a tabernacle for the God of Jacob.
6. Ecce audívimus eam in Ephrata: * invénimus eam in campis silvæ.
6 Behold we have heard of it in Ephrata: we have found it in the fields of the wood.
7  Introíbimus in tabernáculum ejus: * adorábimus in loco, ubi stetérunt pedes ejus.
7 We will go into his tabernacle: we will adore in the place where his feet stood. .
8  Surge, Dómine, in réquiem tuam, * tu et arca sanctificatiónis tuæ.
8 Arise, O Lord, into your resting place: you and the ark, which you have sanctified
9  Sacerdótes tui induántur justítiam: * et sancti tui exsúltent.
9 Let your priests be clothed with justice: and let your saints rejoice.
10  Propter David, servum tuum: * non avértas fáciem Christi tui.
10 For your servant David's sake, turn not away the face of your anointed.
11  Jurávit Dóminus David veritátem, et non frustrábitur eam: * de fructu ventris tui ponam super sedem tuam.
11 The Lord has sworn truth to David, and he will not make it void: of the fruit of your womb I will set upon your throne
12  Si custodíerint fílii tui testaméntum meum: * et testimónia mea hæc, quæ docébo eos.
12 If your children will keep my covenant, and these my testimonies which I shall teach them:
13  Et fílii eórum usque in sæculum: * sedébunt super sedem tuam.
Their children also for evermore shall sit upon your throne.
14  Quóniam elégit Dóminus Sion: * elégit eam in habitatiónem sibi.
13 For the Lord has chosen Sion: he has chosen it for his dwelling.
15  Hæc réquies mea in sæculum sæculi: * hic habitábo, quóniam elégi eam.
14 This is my rest for ever and ever: here will I dwell, for I have chosen it.
16  Víduam ejus benedícens benedícam: * páuperes ejus saturábo pánibus.
15 Blessing I will bless her widow: I will satisfy   her poor with bread.
17  Sacerdótes ejus índuam salutári: * et sancti ejus exsultatióne exsultábunt.
16 I will clothe her priests with salvation, and her saints shall rejoice with exceeding great joy. 
18  Illuc prodúcam cornu David: * parávi lucérnam Christo meo.
17 There will I bring forth a horn to David: I have prepared a lamp for my anointed
19  Inimícos ejus índuam confusióne: * super ipsum autem efflorébit sanctificátio mea.
18 His enemies I will clothe with confusion: but upon him shall my sanctification flourish.

Historical context

Psalm 131 was probably originally composed for the occasion of King David’s bringing the Arc of the Covenant to Mount Sion.

The psalm is put in the mouths of two different speakers: Solomon, recalling the oath his father swore, and then commenting on the ceremony of the dedication of the Temple (vs 5-10); and finally God himself.

Two separate sections of Scripture provide some context for the psalm.

First, 2 Chronicles chapters 6 to 7, quotes at length from it, and provides an extended description of the ceremonies that accompanied the dedication of the Temple.  Its text provides something of a commentary on the psalm, so do go and read it in full.

In particular, it recounts a speech of Solomon on the occasion, which starts with how God chose the people of Israel as his own, brought them out of slavery, and promised to dwell with them in a cloud; how he chose the city of Jerusalem, David as its King, and recounts David’s plans to build the Temple.  It also notes that while David wanted to build the Temple himself, God instructed him to leave the task to his son, Solomon.  The chapter also contains an extended discussion of the covenant, and behaviour required of the Israelites, as well as of the rationale for having a Temple with God’s Real Presence.

Secondly, chapter 7 of 2 Samuel also records the story of David’s commitment to building God a Temple, and God’s promises in return, this time in the form of a vision to the prophet Nathan.  Here is an extract from that chapter:
“Now when the king dwelt in his house, and the LORD had given him rest from all his enemies round about, the king said to Nathan the prophet, "See now, I dwell in a house of cedar, but the ark of God dwells in a tent." And Nathan said to the king, "Go, do all that is in your heart; for the LORD is with you." But that same night the word of the LORD came to Nathan, "Go and tell my servant David, `Thus says the LORD: Would you build me a house to dwell in? I have not dwelt in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent for my dwelling. In all places where I have moved with all the people of Israel, did I speak a word with any of the judges of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, "Why have you not built me a house of cedar?"' Now therefore thus you shall say to my servant David, `Thus says the LORD of hosts, I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep, that you should be prince over my people Israel; and I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth… Moreover the LORD declares to you that the LORD will make you a house. When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom for ever. I will be his father, and he shall be my son….And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure for ever before me; your throne shall be established for ever.'"
The final part of Psalm 131 records God’s promises to David.  And the promises are these: that his descendants will rule forever, a promise realized in the kingship of Christ (vs 11-12); that God will dwell with them, as he does in the Church and in heaven (vs 13-14); that the people will be blessed abundantly with spiritual food through the sacraments, Sacred Scripture and grace (vs 15-16); that he will send the Messiah, after first preparing the way for him through St John the Baptist (vs 18); his enemies will be defeated and brought to shame at the end (vs 19).

Septuagint vs the Hebrew Masoretic Text

Some of the early Church Fathers such as Tertullian claimed that the Jews were changing Scripture in reaction to Christian interpretations of it.  It was a claim discounted by many, including, most vociferously, St Jerome, but recent evidence from the Dead Sea Scrolls provides some support for the claim.  And this psalm provides some possible examples, with competing interpretations of the underlying Hebrew, and clearly differing text traditions contained in the Septuagint Greek compared to the much later Jewish Masoretic Text tradition.

In verse one for example, in the Septuagint/Vulgate the speaker lauds King David’s meekness.  The Masoretic Text reads the same text as ‘labours’ or ‘devotedness’.  Both interpretations of the text are theoretically possible (due to early Hebrew’s lack of vowel indications) - but it may also be that those early Jews reacting to Christian claims preferred not to highlight Christ-like meekness!  In later verses the MT omits some text found in the Septuagint, and is differs significantly in others.

For the first set of notes on the individual verses of this psalm, continue here.

Alternatively, to go to the next part in this Lenten series, go here.

Monday, April 10, 2017

The twelve degrees of humility - Psalm 130 (Gradual Psalm No 12)

Psalm 130, the twelfth of the series (and the number is significant, not least because since St Benedict then sets out twelve degrees of humility), is a particularly important psalm from the perspective of Benedictine spirituality, because St Benedict cites it as one of the foundations for his discussion of the virtue of humility.  It is also the second psalm of Tuesday Vespers in the Benedictine Office..

Psalm 130 (131)
Canticum graduum David.
A gradual canticle of David.
1 Dómine, non est exaltátum cor meum: * neque eláti sunt óculi mei.
1 Lord, my heart is not exalted: nor are my eyes lofty
2  Neque ambulávi in magnis: neque in mirabílibus super me.
Neither have I walked in great matters, nor in wonderful things above me.
3  Si non humíliter sentiébam: * sed exaltávi ánimam meam.
2 If I was not humbly minded, but exalted my soul:
4  Sicut ablactátus est super matre sua: * ita retribútio in ánima mea.
As a child that is weaned is towards his mother, so reward in my soul
5  Speret Israël in Dómino: * ex hoc nunc et usque in sæculum.
3 Let Israel hope in the Lord, from henceforth now and for ever.

Scriptural and historical context

Psalm 130 is one of the shortest in the psalter at three verses.

St Alphonsus Liguori suggests that it is a response by David to accusations of pride from Saul and his followers, saying:
"David complains that Saul and his followers accuse him of being proud, and calls God to witness against this calumny."
Reading the psalm Christologically, we can see it as a portrait of Jesus' perfect humility, in his willingness to take human form and become a baby, totally dependent on his mother, humble himself and become obedient even unto death.  In this group of psalms that we have now reached, his humility is vindicated by his descent into hades to free the holy souls, and coming Resurrection.

Humility and meekness

As noted above, St Benedict uses this psalm in his discussion of the virtue of humility in Chapter 7 of his Rule:
Holy Scripture, brethren, cries out to us, saying, "Everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled, and he who humbles himself shall be exalted" (Luke 14:11). In saying this it shows us that all exaltation is a kind of pride, against which the Prophet proves himself to be on guard when he says, "Lord, my heart is not exalted, nor are mine eyes lifted up; neither have I walked in great matters, nor in wonders above me" But how has he acted? "Rather have I been of humble mind than exalting myself; as a weaned child on its mother's breast, so You solace my soul".
Unsurprisingly then, many writers have seen this psalm as above exemplifying monastic life.  Fr Pius Pasch's commentary on the Divine Office for example includes this comment:
"In this singing of this beautiful hymn with its unmistakably mystic character, picture some little convent in which consecrated souls serve our Lord humbly and joyfully. Be thankful for the blessings of religious communities, and beg for more vocations."

Growth in the spiritual life

The psalm provides us with three images of humility.

The first is of a person who practices custody of the eyes, keeping his head bowed and eyes downcast pondering his sins and coming judgment (RB 7).  It is probably not accidental that St Benedict's twelfth degree of humility reflects the opening verse of the twelfth of the Gradual psalms!

The second image is of a person who does not 'walk' in things above him, that is, engage in pride arising from our words and actions.  Instead, the humble person recognises that, as St Benedict urges in his sixth and seventh degrees of humility, we regard ourselves as bad and unworthy workmen, of lower and of less account than all others.

The final image is of a child being weaned from its mother's breast.  Pope Benedict XVI comments on this:
"We have listened to only a few words, about 30 in the original Hebrew, of Psalm 131[130]. Yet they are intense words that convey a topic dear to all religious literature: spiritual childhood. Our thoughts turn spontaneously to St Thérèse of Lisieux, to her "Little Way", her "remaining little" in order to be held in Jesus' arms (cf. Story of a Soul, Manuscript "C", p. 208). Indeed, the clear-cut image of a mother and child in the middle of the Psalm is a sign of God's tender and maternal love, as the Prophet Hosea formerly expressed it: "When Israel was a child I loved him.... I drew [him] with human cords, with bands of love; I fostered [him] like one who raises an infant to his cheeks... I stooped to feed my child" (Hos 11: 1, 4). "

For notes on the individual verses of this psalm, continue on to here.

Or to continue to the next part in this Lenten series, go here.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

With Christ there is plenteous redemption: Psalm 129 (Gradual Psalm No 11)

As well as being one of the Gradual Psalms, Psalm 129 is also the first psalm of Tuesday Vespers, one of the seven penitential psalms; and is used in the Office of the Dead at Vespers.  It is a traditional preparatory prayer for Mass; and it carries an indulgence if said for those in purgatory.

Psalm 129: De Profundis
Canticum graduum.
Canticum graduum.
De profúndis clamávi ad te, Dómine: * Dómine, exáudi vocem meam :
Out of the depths I have cried to you, O Lord:
2  Fiant aures tuæ intendéntes: * in vocem deprecatiónis meæ.
2 Lord, hear my voice. Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplication.
3  Si iniquitátes observáveris, Dómine: * Dómine, quis sustinébit?
3 If you, O Lord, will mark iniquities: Lord, who shall stand it.
4  Quia apud te propitiátio est: * et propter legem tuam sustínui te, Dómine.
4 For with you there is merciful forgiveness: and by reason of your law, I have waited for you, O Lord.
5  Sustinuit ánima mea in verbo ejus: * sperávit ánima mea in Dómino.
My soul has relied on his word: 5 My soul has hoped in the Lord.
6  A custódia matutína usque ad noctem: * speret Israël in Dómino.
6 From the morning watch even until night, let Israel hope in the Lord.
7  Quia apud Dóminum misericórdia: * et copiósa apud eum redémptio.
7 Because with the Lord there is mercy: and with him plentiful redemption.
8  Et ipse rédimet Israël: * ex ómnibus iniquitátibus ejus.
8 And he shall redeem Israel from all his iniquities

Historical context

The psalm is almost certainly Davidic in origin, as 2 Chronicles 6:36-42, which is part of a prayer of King Solomon, alludes to and explains this psalm, and explicitly mentions Solomon's father, King David in this context.

Here are the verses in question from Chronicles:
"And if they sin against you (for there is no man that sins not) and you be angry with them, and deliver them up to their enemies, and they lead them away captive to a land either afar off, or near at hand, and if they be converted in their heart in the land to which they were led captive, and do penance, and pray to you in the land of their captivity saying: We have sinned, we have done wickedly, we have dealt unjustly: And return to you with all their heart, and with all their soul, in the land of their captivity, to which they were led away, and adore you towards the way of their own land which you gave their fathers, and of the city, which you have chosen, and the house which I have built to your name: Then hear from heaven, that is, from your firm dwelling place, their prayers, and do judgment, and forgive your people, although they have sinned: For you are my God: let your eyes, I beseech you, be open, and let your ears be attentive to the prayer, that is made in this place. Now therefore arise, O Lord God, into your resting place, you and the ark of your strength: let your priests, O Lord God, put on salvation, and your saints rejoice in good things. O Lord God, turn not away the face of your anointed: remember the mercies of David your servant."
Christ reconciles us, reopening the way to heaven

The focus of this psalm is Christ's work of reconciliation: we have now surely reached the harrowing of hell and reopening of the way to heaven in Christ's life recounted in the psalms of the steps.

In this light, Pope Benedict XVI suggested that:
"the text is first and foremost a hymn to divine mercy and to the reconciliation between the sinner and the Lord, a God who is just but always prepared to show himself "a merciful and gracious God, slow to anger and rich in kindness and fidelity, continuing his kindness for a thousand generations, and forgiving wickedness and crime and sin" (Ex 34: 6-7)."
In terms of our own ascent in imitation of him, one can perhaps use it to meditate on incidents in the Gospel such as Jesus' repeated forgiveness of sins of those he healed through his miracles; the tearful repentance of Mary Magdalene; the story of the woman caught in adultery and more.

Competing textual traditions?

It is worth noting that this is one of those psalms where the Septuagint Greek (and thus Vulgate) and the (late medieval) Hebrew Masoretic Text are in places very different, in ways impossible to reconcile by looking for alternative readings of the Hebrew.  

In particular, from verse 4 onwards, the Hebrew puts much more emphasis on fear of God, and omits two references to the hope of the Christ’s redemption.  This may well be the result of early rabbinical reaction to Christianity, and in fact the text is so corrupt that in places even protestant bibles that usually prefer the Hebrew have adopted the Vulgate tradition.

You can find notes on the individual verses of the psalm in this series, in the context of Vespers:

Introduction to Psalm 129
Ps 129 v 1-2
Ps 129 v3-5a
Ps 129 v5b-6
Ps 129 v7-8

Friday, April 7, 2017

The enemy within - Psalm 128 (Gradual Psalm No 10)

The tenth Gradual Psalm, and final psalm of Monday Vespers in the Benedictine Office, is Psalm 128.

Psalm 128 (129) – Saepe expugnaverunt me
Canticum graduum.
A gradual canticle.
1 Sæpe expugnavérunt me a juventúte mea, * dicat nunc Israël:
Often have they fought against me from my youth, let Israel now say.
2  Sæpe expugnavérunt me a juventúte mea: * étenim non potuérunt mihi.
2 Often have they fought against me from my youth: but they could not prevail over me.
3  Supra dorsum meum fabricavérunt peccatóres: * prolongavérunt iniquitátem suam.
3 The wicked have wrought upon my back: they have lengthened their iniquity.
4  Dóminus justus concídit cervíces peccatórum: * confundántur et convertántur retrórsum omnes, qui odérunt Sion.
4 The Lord who is just will cut the necks of sinners: 5 Let them all be confounded and turned back that hate Sion.
5  Fiant sicut fœnum tectórum: * quod priúsquam evellátur exáruit:
6 Let them be as grass upon the tops of houses: which withers before it be plucked up:
6  De quo non implévit manum suam qui metit: * et sinum suum qui manípulos cólligit.
7 Who with the mower fills not his hand: nor he that gathers sheaves his bosom.
7  Et non dixérunt qui præteríbant: Benedíctio Dómini super vos: * benedíximus vobis in nómine Dómini.
8 And they that passed by have not said: The blessing of the Lord be upon you: we have blessed you in the name of the Lord.


This psalm is generally interpreted as referring to the arrival of the pilgrims in Jerusalem, at the gates of heaven, or perhaps the point of the return of the Exiles, and so pause to reflect on their journey.

The journey has not been easy; it has been under constant assault from the enemy.  The opening verses announce, though, that though hard-pressed by enemies along the way, they have not been overcome.

If one interprets these psalms as following the events of the Passion, the devil has been confounded and turned back, as will all be who do his work in the world: we can now look forward to the freeing of the souls in Hades.

The enemy within

Many of the Fathers and Theologians interpret it also as referring to the ongoing struggle in this world against those who oppose Christ both within and outside the Church.  St Cassiodorus, for example, comments:
The prophet teaches us to endure the troubles of the world patiently, for he demonstrates that the Church's sufferings are numerous. The prophet is filled with the Holy Spirit, and in the first section he urges Israel to tell of the great struggles and the nature of the guile which they have endured from their enemies, so that none of the faithful may seem to despair because of their afflictions.
Similarly, St Robert Bellarmine comments:
 God's people, in trouble, console themselves by the reflection that troubles and difficulties are nothing new to them, and that, through God's assistance, they have always got through them. This applies to the Jews, and the repeated attacks of the neighboring nations, while the temple and the city were being rebuilt; and it also applies to the Church of Christ, that scarcely ever had a moment's respite from the assaults of pagans, heretics, or bad Christians. He, therefore, says, "Often have they fought against me from my youth, let Israel now say." Let not Israel, God's people, be surprised if her enemies assail her; for it is no new story with her; because, from her very infancy, at the first dawn of the Church, she suffered persecution from Cain, and similar persecutions have been going on to the present day.”
The cursing psalms 

This psalm presents difficulties for many modern readers by virtue of its imprecatory or cursing words. St Robert Bellarmine, however, notes that these should be viewed as prophecy or prediction, not curses: God will not ‘cut off the necks’ of the penitent, but only those sinners who refuse to repent.

Cassiodorus provides a useful discussion of the issue:
In the second section he inveighs with the spirit of prophecy against obstinate foes of the Church by means of certain comparisons, calling down on them what he knew would befall them at the future judgment…Let us observe that this psalm has mounted the tenth level, borne aloft, so to say, on twin wings; for its right wing is the proclaimed conversion of the proud after their manifold persecution of the Church, and the left is the desired confusion of those who hate Sion. The prophet utters this not because he is eager to curse, but out of feeling for the truth to come; for though we are bidden to pray even for our enemies, he revealed the nature of the truth concerning the obdurate who are doomed to perish. These words were not, however, uttered without fruit as the outcome of his great devotion, for many people save themselves by correction from the punishment which was foretold, once they realise the fate that overhangs the obstinate.
It is, then, meant to be a call to action, to conversion.

You can find notes on the individual verses of the psalm in the context of Monday Vespers as follows:

Introduction to Psalm 128 (Saepe expugnaverunt me) (2013)
Ps 128 v1-2
Psalm 128 v3
Psalm 128 v4
Ps 128 v5-6
Ps 128 v7

Or you can go to the next part in this Lenten series, on Psalm 129.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Grace flowing from his side - Psalm 127 (Gradual Psalm No 9)

Image result for psalm 128 beati omnes
Morgan Library

There is perhaps a certain irony in having last psalm of None, an hour that commemorates Christ's death, opening with a beatitude.  But we can, I think, see this as speaking of the blessings that flow from the wounds of Christ, when he was pierced by a lance.  Indeed, Cassiodorus suggests that “In the ninth [of the Gradual psalms], it is proclaimed that we become blessed through fear of the Lord, and that all profitable things are granted us.”

Psalm 127
Canticum graduum.

1 Beáti omnes, qui timent Dóminum,* qui ámbulant in viis ejus.
Blessed are all they that fear the Lord: that walk in his ways.
2  Labóres mánuum tuárum quia manducábis: * beátus es, et bene tibi erit.
2 For you shall eat the labours of your hands: blessed are you, and it shall be well with you.
3  Uxor tua sicut vitis abúndans: * in latéribus domus tuæ.
3 Your wife as a fruitful vine, on the sides of your house.
4  Fílii tui sicut novéllæ olivárum: * in circúitu mensæ tuæ.
Your children as olive plants, round about your table.
5  Ecce sic benedicétur homo, * qui timet Dóminum.
4 Behold, thus shall the man be blessed that fears the Lord.
6  Benedícat tibi Dóminus ex Sion: *  et vídeas bona Jerúsalem ómnibus diébus vitæ tuæ.
5 May the Lord bless you out of Sion: and may you see the good things of Jerusalem all the days of your life.
7  Et vídeas fílios filiórum tuórum: * pacem super Israël.
6 And may you see your children's children, peace upon Israel.
Gloria Patri et Filio et Spiritui Sancto.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost
Sicut erat in principio, et nunc, et semper, et in saecula saeculorum. Amen.
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

As with yesterday's psalm, I plan to come back to this one after Easter, so today just a taster in the form of the introductory remarks on it by St Cassiodorus:
The number itself announces the splendour of this step, for it reveals to us the sacred summit of the holy Trinity by its triple trebling. 
But since we read: The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,we must investigate why the prophet has decided that we must keep it in mind at this stage. There are two fears which prick our hearts. The first is human fear, by which we are apprehensive of suffering physical hazards or losing worldly goods; this is clearly a temporary state, since we fear such things only as long as we dwell in the life of this world. But divine fear always mounts with us through all the advances which we make in this life. Whereas we abandon worldly fear together with the world on the first step, divine fear remains ever with us, and is adapted as a most faithful companion throughout our ascent. 
As has already been said in Psalm 118: Pierce thou my flesh with thy fear, for I am afraid of thy judgments,  So it is fitting that both on this step and everywhere we be instructed that fear of the Lord should be within us, for it is approved as our essential guardian.   
In the first limb the prophet recounts by certain allusions the blessings of those who fear God, so as to fire the spirits of the committed with the warmth of heaven's reward. In the second, he blesses them that they may gain eternal joys, so that none may be apprehensive of this sweetest of fears…We identify in this psalm the promises made to those who fear God, the rewards obtained by the person who with pure mind feels awe for the Lord. 
So let us pray most eagerly that we may deserve to obtain this fear which we seek not as punishment, but for salvation; from it sprout blessings such as never spring from worldly delights. It is right that we seek this highest gift with vehement entreaty. So as we have said, let us continually beg the Lord that by His generosity we may deserve to attain such gifts. He who bids sinners make entreaty in season and out of season has promised that He can hearken even to the undeserving among us.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Placing ourselvs under God's protection - Psalm 126 (Gradual Psalm 8)

Psalm 126, the eighth Gradual Psalm, is the second psalm of Benedictine weekday None.  Cassiodorus summarises it as follows:
In the eighth, it is said that nothing remains of what any individual has performed by his own will; only the things built by the sponsorship of the Lord are most firmly established.
Canticum graduum Salomonis.
A gradual canticle of Solomon.
1.  Nisi Dominus aedificaverit domum:*
 in vanum laboraverunt qui aedificant eam.
Unless the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it.
2.  Nisi Dominus custodierit civitatem:*
frustra vigilat qui custodit eam.
Unless the Lord keep the city, he watches in vain that keeps it.
3.  Vanum est vobis ante lucem surgere:*
surgite, postquam sederitis, qui manducatis panem doloris.
2 It is vain for you to rise before light, rise after you have sitten, you that eat the bread of sorrow.

4.  Cum dederit dilectis suis somnum:*
ecce hereditas Domini, filii merces, fructus ventris.
When he shall give sleep to his beloved, 3 behold the inheritance of the Lord are children: the reward, the fruit of the womb.
5.  Sicut sagittae in manu potentis:* ita filii excussorum.
4 As arrows in the hand of the mighty, so the children of them that have been shaken.
6.  Beatus vir, qui implevit desiderium suum ex ipsis:* non confundetur cum loquetur inimicis suis in porta.
5 Blessed is the man that has filled the desire with them; he shall not be confounded when he shall speak to his enemies in the gate

As I don't have space, in this current Lenten series, to look at this important psalm verse by verse as it deserves, I thought I would save giving you my take on it until after Easter, and in the meantime provide for your meditation a General Audience on it of Pope Benedict XVI from 31 August 2005:
Psalm 127[126], just proclaimed, places a motion picture before our eyes: a house under construction, the city with its watchmen, family life, night watches, daily work, the little and great secrets of existence. However, a crucial presence towers over everything, the presence of the Lord who watches over the works of man, as the incisive opening of the Psalm suggests: "If the Lord does not build the house, in vain do its builders labour" (v. 1).   
Indeed, a sound society is born from the commitment of all its members, but it needs the blessing and support of that God who, unfortunately, is too often excluded or ignored.  The Book of Proverbs emphasizes the primacy of divine action for a community's well-being and does so radically, asserting: "It is the Lord's blessing that brings wealth, and no effort can substitute for it" (Prv 10: 22). 
This sapiential Psalm, fruit of meditation on the reality of everyday life, is built mainly on a contrast: without the Lord, in vain does one seek to construct a stable house, to build a secure city, to bring our own efforts to fruition (cf. Ps 127[126]: 1-2).  With the Lord, instead, there is prosperity and fruitfulness, a peaceful family richly endowed with children, a well-fortified and protected city, free of constant worry and insecurity (cf. vv. 3-5). 
The text opens with a reference to the Lord, portrayed as a builder of houses and a watchman on guard over the city (cf. Ps 121[120]: 1-8). Man goes out in the morning to toil at a job to support the family and serve the development of society. It is work that consumes his energy, making his brow sweat all day long (cf. Ps 127[126]: 2).3. Well, the Psalmist, although he recognizes the importance of work, does not hesitate to say that all this work is useless if God is not beside the labourer. And he affirms that God even goes so far as to reward his friends' sleep. Thus, the Psalmist desires to exalt the primacy of divine grace that impresses substance and value on human action, although it is marked by limitations and transience.  In the serene and faithful abandonment of our freedom to the Lord, our work also becomes solid, capable of bearing lasting fruit. Thus, our "sleep" becomes rest blessed by God and destined to seal an activity that has meaning and coherence. 
At this point we move on to the other scene outlined in our Psalm. The Lord offers the gift of children, seen as a blessing and a grace, a sign of life that continues and of the history of salvation extending to new stages (cf. v. 3). The Psalmist extols in particular "the sons of youth": the father who has had sons in his youth will not only see them in their full vigour, but they will be his support in old age. He will be able, therefore, to face the future confidently, like a warrior, armed with a quiver of those victorious pointed "arrows" that are his sons (cf. vv. 4-5). 
The purpose of this image, taken from the culture of the time, is to celebrate the safety, stability and strength found in a large family, such as is presented anew in the subsequent Psalm 128[127], in which the portrait of a happy family is sketched. The last picture shows a father surrounded by his sons, who is welcomed with respect at the city gates, the seat of public life. Begetting is thus a gift that brings life and well-being to society. We are aware of this in our days in the face of nations that are deprived, by the demographic loss, of the freshness and energy of a future embodied by children. However, the blessing of God's presence, the source of life and hope, towers over it all. 
Spiritual authors have often made use of Psalm 127[126] to exalt this divine presence, crucial to advancing on the path of good and of the Kingdom of God. Thus, the monk Isaiah (who died in Gaza in 491), recalling the example of the ancient patriarchs and prophets, taught in his Asceticon (Logos 4, 118): "They placed themselves under God's protection, imploring his assistance, without putting their trust in some work they accomplished. And for them, God's protection was a fortified city, because they knew that without God's help they were powerless; and their humility made them say, with the Psalmist: "If the Lord does not watch over the city, in vain does the watchman keep vigil'" (Recueil Ascétique, Abbey of Bellefontaine 1976, pp. 74-75). Thus, it is also true today that only communion with the Lord can safeguard our houses and our cities.

And you can either go on to the next part in this Lenten series, or to more detailed notes on the psalm.