Monday, 12 March 2012

Psalm 118 (119) Teth: How God saves us from ourselves


Today in this Lenten series on Psalm 118, we come to the ninth stanza, headed up by the Hebrew letter Teth. In the traditional form of the Benedictine Office, it is the second ‘psalm’ said at Sunday Sext.

And it is an important one in Benedictine spirituality, since the saint quotes it in his Rule:

The seventh degree of humility is that he consider himself lower and of less account than anyone else, and this not only in verbal protestation but also with the most heartfelt inner conviction, humbling himself and saying with the Prophet, "But I am a worm and no man, the scorn of men and the outcast of the people", "After being exalted, I have been humbled and covered with confusion". And again, "It is good for me that You have humbled me, that I may learn Your commandments" (Ps. 118:71,73).

These verses are one’s to cling to at times when life seems to be kicking us in the teeth!

They serve as a reminder that the bad things that happen to us happen for a reason, and that we should learn from them. And St Benedict’s spin on them is a reminder that most of us have a long way to go before we can truly regard ourselves as having been sufficiently humbled.

There are really, I think two key themes in this stanza: how we should approach the bad things that happen to us in life; and three key gifts we need from God to progress, namely ‘goodness’, discipline and knowledge.

God’s chastisements

Let’s look first at verses 67 and 71:

67 Priusquam humiliarer ego deliqui : propterea eloquium tuum custodivi.
Before I was humbled I offended; therefore have I kept your word.

71 Bonum mihi quia humiliasti me, ut discam justificationes tuas.
It is good for me that you have humbled me, that I may learn your justifications.

It is fashionable these days to deny that God ever punishes anyone, or indeed that anyone should ever be punished, whether children disobeying parents or teachers, or outright criminals. Yet Scripture and Tradition testify to the fact that God does punish, for justice requires that actions have consequences that are proportionate to the offence, unless we are granted mercy.

That's not to say that everything bad that happens to us is meant as a punishment of course - the consequences of original sin, in the form of our mortality, combined with free will have inevitable impacts on the world.  Still, everything that happens is providentially arranged, and there are times when God does directly punish.  And he does so, often through the agency of the evildoers that the psalmist so decries in the other verses of this stanza.

But the kind of punishments we are talking about here are, the Fathers tell us, are not those of the angel striking down Herod for blasphemy (Acts 12), or the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.  Rather they are those things that happen to bring us to our senses, akin to the actions of a surgeon lancing a wound, or a parent chastising a child. They are meant to provide us with the incentive to repent and get back on track. As Benedict says in the Prologue to his Rule:

“…the Lord daily expects us to make our life correspond with his holy admonitions. And the days of our life are lengthened and a respite allowed to us for this very reason, that we might amend our evil ways…For the merciful Lord saith: I will not the death of a sinner, but that he should be converted and live.”

Goodness, knowledge and discipline

So what is it in particular that we are meant to learn from our humiliation at the hadns of our enemies? Verse 63 provides us with the answer:

“Bonitatem, et disciplinam, et scientiam doce me”, or teach me goodness and discipline and wisdom.

Goodness here means essentially kindness, or an attitude of love of neighbour. St Robert Bellarmine suggests that it must be learnt “that I may not wish to hurt, deceive, or defraud anyone”.

Discipline, he suggests, means prudence, “to guard against the deceiver and the fraudulent, so that I may have the sweetness and the mildness of the dove, without being devoid of the counsel and the prudence of the serpent”.

And knowledge of the mysteries of God’s ways is the third virtue sought here, for knowledge without goodness and discipline can be destructive.

Teth

65 Bonitatem fecisti cum servo tuo, Domine, secundum verbum tuum.
You have done well with your servant, O Lord, according to your word.

66 Bonitatem, et disciplinam, et scientiam doce me, quia mandatis tuis credidi.
Teach me goodness and discipline and knowledge; for I have believed your commandments.

67 Priusquam humiliarer ego deliqui : propterea eloquium tuum custodivi.
Before I was humbled I offended; therefore have I kept your word.

68 Bonus es tu, et in bonitate tua doce me justificationes tuas.
You are good; and in your goodness teach me your justifications.

69 Multiplicata est super me iniquitas superborum; ego autem in toto corde meo scrutabor mandata tua.
The iniquity of the proud has been multiplied over me: but I will seek your commandments with my whole heart.

70 Coagulatum est sicut lac cor eorum; ego vero legem tuam meditatus sum.
Their heart is curdled like milk: but I have meditated on your law.

71 Bonum mihi quia humiliasti me, ut discam justificationes tuas.
It is good for me that you have humbled me, that I may learn your justifications.

72 Bonum mihi lex oris tui, super millia auri et argenti.
The law of your mouth is good to me, above thousands of gold and silver.

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