Monday, 11 April 2011

Psalm 101/3 - In the world but not of it: the duties of the laity

In the last part of this mini-series on Psalm 101, I looked at the first three verses, which are a plea for the grace to pray properly. Today I want to look at verses 8&9 in the context of the lament in the first half of the psalm.

Ferdinand Olivia, 1785-1841
The Jews in captivity in Babylon

Individual suffering and penance as a result of sin

Verses 4 to 12 express similar sentiments to the earlier penitential psalms: the psalm is ill with aching bones and fasting, depressed and lonely; hard pressed by his enemies. And the reason is God’s ‘anger and indignation’:

"4 For my days are vanished like smoke, and my bones are grown dry like fuel for the fire.

5 I am smitten as grass, and my heart is withered: because I forgot to eat my bread.
6 Through the voice of my groaning, my bone has cleaved to my flesh.
7 I have become like to a pelican of the wilderness: I am like a night raven in the house.
8 I have watched, and have become as a sparrow all alone on the housetop.
9 All the day long my enemies reproached me: and they that praised me did swear against me.
10 For I ate ashes like bread, and mingled my drink with weeping.
11 Because of your anger and indignation: for having lifted me up you have thrown me down.
12 My days have declined like a shadow, and I am withered like grass."

There are two new elements added here though. One, which I will talk about tomorrow, is the emphasis on the psalmist’s sense of his ever shrinking life expectancy and the ephemeral of his life when contrasted to God’s unchanging and eternal nature, as he expresses his longing for the restoration of Jerusalem. The other, which I want to look at today, is the isolation of the psalmist as a form of penance.

Text: The symbolism of the three kinds of birds


Night raven, Aberdeen Bestiary (1542)

Verses 7&8 say in the Vulgate:

7 Símilis factus sum pellicáno solitúdinis: * factus sum sicut nyctícorax in domicílio.
8 Vigilávi, * et factus sum sicut passer solitárius in tecto.

These verses give us imagery based on three birds, the pelican (pellicano), night raven (nycticorax) and sparrow (passer).

The first two are regarded as solitary birds by choice (the Hebrew actually suggests an owl rather than night raven, though the two are similar symbolically), and are often interpreted as standing for Christ. In Christian iconography and imagery (such as St Thomas Aquinas’ Adoro Te), the pelican is a symbol of the atonement because it was believed to wound itself in order to feed its young with its own blood. Similarly the owl or night raven, lives in the cracks of ruined buildings, and thus symbolizes Christ’s coming to light the darkness so that sinners do not die, but rather are converted and live.

tapistry c 1504
Hamburg, Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe

The desert of our enemies

Verse 8, by contrast uses the image of a gregarious bird, the sparrow. St Augustine suggests that the image should conjure up for us Christ preaching from the roof tops, and sympathizing with the weak.

The other words of the verse seven also conjure up a sense of isolation, of living in the wilderness, amongst a scene of desolation. Solitudinis means being alone, or a lonely place, the wilderness; while domicilium means home or dwelling, in this case the sense, in combination with the raven imagery and parallel to the first half of the verse, is, amongst the ruins. The passive case suggests that this has been done to the author, hence the Douay Rheims translates it as ‘I have become like…’. The Collegeville translation of verse 7, however, is, ‘I am like pelican in the wilderness, like an owl in a ruined house.’

In verse 8, vigilare means to keep watch, or be awake, so perhaps the sense is something like, ‘I kept a lonely watch, like a sparrow alone on a rooftop’.

Overall, the picture given to us is of a person isolated and lonely, making atonement for his (and the nations) sins thereby.

It is important to keep in mind here that the psalmist is almost certainly not talking about a literal desert (the pelican after all is a water bird!), but rather the sense of isolation that came from the Babylonian exile: the isolation that comes from living in a strange land and being forced to serve an alien race.

Not unlike the state of the early Christians living in the midst of a pagan Empire.  Or indeed of Christians today, under assault from the forces of secularism.

Of the the world but not in it

St Robert Bellarmine interprets the verses as a call to add withdrawal from the world to our fasting and weeping:

“To tears and fasting he unites solitude and watching, the marks of true penance. For if one will not seriously withdraw himself awhile from the world, and, in serious watchings, call up the number and the greatness of his sins, it is hardly possible to deplore them sufficiently.”

The three birds, he suggests, can be seen as representing three classes of penitents: the pelicans are hermits and those who flee to the desert to do battle with demons; and the night raven stands for anchorites and monastics who do penance and sing the Divine Office.

In the world but not of it

Pericopes of Emperor St Henry II and his wife Kunigunde,
c1007-1012, Bayrische Staatsbibliothek, CIm 4452, Fol. 2r

But the third of St Robert's categories are the laity who live in the world, but are not of the world, to whom the duty of preaching by word and deed is given.  His summation of the duties of the laity, and how they relate to penitence, is well worth meditating on closely:

“Finally, others, encumbered with families, or public duties, who cannot retire from the world, still, like the solitary sparrow on the housetop, manage to rise above the world and its cares. These are they who, while they are in the world, are not of the world; being slaves neither to the wealth nor the honors, nor the cares of the world. They make such things slaves to them; they master, they dispose of, and they dispense them, and they do not suffer themselves to be entangled or ensnared by them; so that their minds can revel freely in solitude here, and thus, enjoy heaven hereafter. To such persons it belongs to watch and preach from the housetops, to watch their own temptations and dangers, and to preach both by word and by example to those over whom they may be placed. No penance can be more valuable than for those in high rank to observe the greatest humility, for those who have the wealth of the world to content themselves with moderate food and clothing, that thereby they may be the better able to help those in want; for those who are prone to concupiscence, to chastise their body, and bring it under subjection, by fasting and spare living; and finally, to serve our neighbors from love, to compassionate their sufferings, and to bear with their annoyances and scandals.”

And now, a Greek chant version of the psalm (don't be put off by the numerous Alleluias - in the East unlike the West, the alleluias do not disappear during penitential periods!).  And for the next part in this mini-series, onwards.

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