Saturday, 9 April 2011

Psalm 101/2 - O Lord hear my prayer!

Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry, Folio 52v
Musée Condé, Chantilly

Yesterday I gave something of an introduction to Psalm 101.

Today I want to take a brief look at the first three verses of it, which ask God to hear the psalmist’s prayer.

Their underlying theology gives them an importance that enables the first verse in particular to be used in many contexts independently of the rest of the of the psalm, and I'll draw out this a little below.

All the same, these verses are also integral to the development of one of the psalm's key themes, namely the proper praise of God, as we shall see in the next few parts of this mini-series.

Asking God to hear our prayers

The first verse, which also occurs in three other psalms, will be very familiar to anyone who attends the Latin mass, or prays the Office:

“Dómine, exáudi oratiónem meam: * et clamor meus ad te véniat,” or ‘Hear, O Lord, my prayer: and let my cry come to you’.

The first question that occurs is, why do we even need to say it? Can’t we take as read that God does indeed hear our prayers?

The grace to pray well

There does seem to be a common error about these days, to the effect that we shouldn’t pray for our own needs.  Or worse, that God doesn't listen or isn’t willing (or worse, most grievous error, able) to intervene to help us in times of trouble, or when we are in a state of sin.

But in fact Scripture repeatedly stresses, as in this psalm, that these are precisely the occasions when we must beg God’s help.

Accordingly, St Robert Bellarmine interprets this first verse firstly as a request for the grace to pray well:

“This verse is used daily by the Church as a preparation to any other petitions she may need to put up to the Creator; for, she learned from the Prophet that we should ask for an audience from God before we put any petition in particular before him; not that God, as if he were otherwise engaged, needs being roused or having his attention called, but because we need that God should give us the spirit of prayer; nay, even it is "the Spirit himself that asketh for us with unspeakable groanings," Rom. 8…Make me pray in such a manner that my prayer may be the earnest cry of my heart; so full of fire and devotion, that, though sent up from the lowest depth, it may not falter on the way, but ultimately reach you sitting on your lofty throne.”

Blockages to prayer

The psalmist goes on:

Non avértas fáciem tuam a me: * in quacúmque die tríbulor, inclína ad me aurem tuam. In quacúmque die invocávero te: * velóciter exáudi me.

That is: ‘do not avert, or hide not (non avertas) your face (faciem tuam) from me: in whatever (quacumque) day I am afflicted, incline (inclina) to me (ad me) your ear (aurem tuam). In that day (in quacumque die) when I will call to you (invocavero te), quickly (velociter) hear me (exaudi me)’.

God is said to turn his face from us, an image used several times in the penitential psalms, when we are in a state of sin!

And of course, if we were truly conscious of his scrutiny of us we would cower indeed, as St Robert Bellarmine points out:

God's regarding us is both the first grace and the fountain of grace, he, at the very outset, asks God to look on him, saying, "Turn not away thy face from me," however foul and filthy I may be; and if your own image, by reason of my having so befouled it, will not induce you to look upon me, let your mercy prevail upon you, for the fouler I am, the more wretched and miserable I am, and unless you look upon me, I will never be brought to look upon you, but daily wallowing deeper and deeper in my sins, I must, of necessity, be always getting more filthy and more foul.”

Promulgation of the law on Mt Sinai,
Gerard Hoet (1648–1733);
 image courtesy Bizzell Bible Collection,
University of Oklahoma Libraries

Yet even in a state of sin, God hears our prayers for help to escape this state:

“Anyone that speaks in such manner begins to be already looked upon by God, but, as it were, with only half his anger laid aside, and still averting his face; however, having got any glimpse of God's light and countenance, he cries out, "Turn not away thy face from me;" cast me not away from thy face; finish what you have begun, by turning yourself to me, that I may be perfectly and completely turned to thee.”

The saint points out that: “Many things prevent our prayers from penetrating the clouds, such as want of faith, of confidence, of humility, desire, and the like.”

But these verses of the penitential psalms remind us that if we ask for the grace of praying well, we are most likely to obtain what we want.

More in the next part.  In the meantime, from a setting by Orlando Lassus of verses 3&4 of the psalm.

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