Friday, August 25, 2017

Introduction to Psalm 127

Today  I want to start on the last installment of my series on the Gradual Psalms, by starting to look at Psalm 127, the last psalm of None on weekdays in the Benedictine Office.

But as well as looking at the psalm itself, this also seems like an appropriate point to reflect on three of the reasons why I think St Benedict assigned the first nine of the Gradual psalms to Terce to None.

But first, read and listen to the psalm itself:

Psalm 127: Beati omnes
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.

Literal and spiritual meanings

Psalm 127 is one of those psalms that it is important to read on several levels.

Taken literally, the psalm is often used at weddings, to point to the temporal blessings we might hope for, as St Aloysius Liguori commented:
The prophet announces to the Jews after their return from Babylon the blessings that they will receive from God if they keep his laws. These blessings are temporal; belong, properly speaking, to the just under the Old Law.
But it can also be interpreted as speaking of the Church as Christ's bride. As Fr Pius Pasch noted in his commentary on the breviary:
At the table of God, we are all his children: Christ is the Father, the Church is the Mother, and we Christians are the children. In the name of the Church we are thankful for all Eucharistic graces, and plead for further favours.
The most important meaning of the psalm, though, is surely eschatological, encouraging us in our spiritual ascent by reminding us that the peace and prosperity we seek is ultimately something that we individually, and the Church collectively, will only fully enjoy in heaven:
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. (Cassiodorus)
I will look at these three levels of the psalm in more detail as we go through the individual verses, but before we do that I think it is worthwhile seeing how this psalm fits into the set.

Christ's death on the cross

In the previous parts of this series I have argued that each of the first nine of the Gradual Psalms can be interpreted christologically to align with the traditional associations of the hours, hence St Benedict's decision to assign them to these hours. The first, Psalm 119, for example, can be read as referring to Christ's trial before Herod and Pilate on Good Friday.

None (the ninth hour) is traditionally associated with the death of Christ on the cross, and I think this psalm can perhaps be viewed as interpreting the blessings spoken of in the psalms as the grace that flows from the wounds in Christ's side. Indeed, the liturgy explicitly points us to this interpretation, using verse 4 of it as an antiphon at Vespers on the feast of Corpus Christ, and the whole psalm in Vespers of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus. It is a reminder that Christ's death on the cross reopens the way to heaven.

The ladder of humility and fear of the Lord

The second key theme running through the Gradual Psalms that I think St Benedict is pointing us to is the link between the Gradual Psalms and the ladder of humility in Chapter 7 of the Rule.

The Gradual Psalms, you will recall, are traditionally associated with the fifteen steps from the lower to inner courtyard of Solomon's temple, and thus signify the ascent from earth to heaven (of which the temple is a microcosm), as Cassiodorus, for example, points out:
But I think that I should advise you that through the bounty of divine grace, fifteen steps are laid in these psalms to denote in various ways the saints' merits, just as there was the same number in the temple at Jerusalem, which we know was completed by Solomon. This was so that the present order of the psalms, prefigured in that building, should be seen to be foretold, for that earthly construction seemed to bear the likeness of the heavenly temple. (On Psalm 119)
As St Bede noted, though, St Benedict's take on this ascent of virtue is rather more specific:
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)
The key explicit link St Benedict makes in the Rule is to the twelfth psalm of the set (and not coincidentally, he has twelve steps in his ladder of humility). But the soul's progress from the first psalm of the set to this ninth can reasonably be interpreted, I think, as the progress within the first of the degrees, from servile fear, that is fear of punishment and hell, to filial fear, born of love.  The Prologue to the Rule, after all, tells us to 'hear what the Spirit says to the Churches, namely that 'I will teach you the fear of the Lord' (Ps 33).

Intriguingly, St Benedict's contemporary Cassiodorus makes exactly this contrast between the first of this group of psalms and this one:
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 [Psalm 127] and everywhere we be instructed that fear of the Lord should be within us, for it is approved as our essential guardian.
Seek after peace and pursue it

The third key theme of this group of psalms that I want to highlight is the pursuit of peace. St Benedict, you will recall, instructs us using the words of Psalm 33 in the Prologue to the Rule, to 'seek after peace and pursue it', hence the motto of the Benedictine Order, PAX.

Accordingly, it seems to me that the choice of this set of nine psalms, where Psalms 121, 124 and 127 (ie the last psalm on Terce, Sext and None each day) each refer to the blessing of peace, is probably not a coincidence!

The search for peace is one of the key things that motivates the psalmist to start his journey, in Psalm 119:

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.

In Psalm 121, we pray for the peace of Jerusalem, and look forward to it, even though we have not yet achieved it:

6  Rogáte quæ ad pacem sunt Jerúsalem: * et abundántia diligéntibus te:
6 Pray for the things that are for the peace of Jerusalem: and abundance for them that love you. 
7  Fiat pax in virtúte tua: * et abundántia in túrribus tuis.
7 Let peace be in your strength: and abundance in your towers
8  Propter fratres meos, et próximos meos, * loquébar pacem de te:
8 For the sake of my brethren, and of my neighbours, I spoke peace of you.
9  Propter domum Dómini, Dei nostri, * quæsívi bona tibi.
9 Because of the house of the Lord our God, I have sought good things for you.

In Psalm 124, the last psalm of Sext, we are urged to persevere with the promise of reward:
4  Bénefac, Dómine, bonis, * et rectis corde.
4 Do good, O Lord, to those that are good, and to the upright of heart.
5  Declinántes autem in obligatiónes addúcet Dóminus cum operántibus iniquitátem: * pax super Israël.
5 But such as turn aside into bonds, the Lord shall lead out with the workers of iniquity: peace upon Israel.

And now again in Psalm 127:
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.

In the next post I will look at verse 1 of Psalm 127 in more detail.

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