Monday, 18 April 2011

Psalm 142/2: Seeking knowledge of God's ways

Jacob's Ladder, Morgan Bible c1240s or 50s
On Saturday I gave a general introduction to Psalm 142.  Today I want to look particularly at verse 5, where the psalmist talks about meditating on God's works.

The verse is important from two perspectives.  First as a reminder of one of the key tools of our spiritual life, meditation.  But secondly to warn of some of the dangers in this area.


The opening verses of Psalm 142 are a plea for God to listen to the psalmist's prayer be heard, and a reiteration of the sentiments of Psalm 129: we are all sinners, he points out, who would be unable to withstand God's judgment if he dealt with us strictly. 

As in the previous psalms, the speaker states that he is in a dire situation: his enemies are persecuting him, tempting him, and as a result he fell into a state of sin, consigning him to darkness; as a result, his soul is troubled and disturbed.  He is in that that state of restless that persists, as St Augustine says, until we come to rest with God.

Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry, Folio 46v
David Beseeches God Against Evildoers
the Musée Condé, Chantilly.

In the earlier penitential psalms, the speaker works though a series of steps to escape from the darkness that encompass his soul: he offered tears of contrition; confessed his sins; and did penance in various forms.  Verse 5 of this psalm though, adds another important rung to this ladder to heaven, namely seeking knowledge of God’s ways through meditation on God's works.

Meditating on God’s works: Creation and God’s providential plan for his people

The starting point for knowledge, the psalmist asserts, is meditation on God’s works. Verse 5 states:

Memor fui diérum antiquórum, meditátus sum in ómnibus opéribus tuis: * in factis mánuum tuárum meditábar.

A reasonably literal translation is: 'I remembered (called to mind, memor fui) olden days (dierum antiquorum), I meditated (meditatus sum) on all your works (in omnibus operibus tuis): I meditated/pondered/think (meditabar) upon the works (factum=work, deed) of your hands (manuum tuarum).'

The neo-Vulgate has revised the text somewhat, to make the progression involved here clearer: from calling to mind, to meditating, and then contemplating or pondering (recogitare- consider, weigh, ponder or reflect) the implications:

Memor fui dierum antiquorum, meditatus sum in omnibus operibus tuis, in factis manuum tuarum recogitabam.

The verse then reminds us of the path our lectio divina should take!

God's works as a source of hope

The first point to note is that the psalmist does not jump to the 'via negativa', or negative path, which seeks to clear the mind of all created things in order to reach heaven.  On the contrary, he starts from God's works.

The psalmist makes it clear in the following verses that he is looking to the past as a source of hope: God has acted to help his people in the past, and has promised to do so again - and again and again!

If we simply look at the world around us without the perspective of the hope of heaven, we can easily lose our way; so too if try and we meditate on things seeking the 'via negativa' without first assimilating the important content of our faith.

The dangers: centering prayer and 'eco-Catholicism'

Think back over the past few decades to the popularity of that false path, centering prayer, which the Vatican has issued warnings about.

And the latest variation on this theme are the various odd forms of 'eco-Catholicism' that are springing up. Australian ex-priest Paul Collins for example, has propounded a greater focus on creation (and associated erroneous ideas such as support for contraception) since, he argues, mankind cannot possibly be as important as we tend to think we are since the universe is so immense, and has existed so much longer than we have.

The universe
Hildegarde von Bingen, Scivias Codex, c1165

Yet even the age of the universe (assuming of course that one accepts the scientific consensus on this subject!) is but a blink of an eye to God, who stands outside time and space. Perhaps more importantly, neither size or the time something takes to happen are true measures of relative importance.

When we consider the immensity of the universe, and the time it has taken for evolution under God's guidance to reach this point (assuming you believe in evolution of course), we are invited to wonder at God's special care for us, not see it as evidence, as atheists and agnostics do, that God doesn't really exist at all, or that God doesn't really care for us in particular in a special way.

More, surely it is obvious that some times and places are far more important than others!  For the believer, in the history of mankind, the thirty three years of Our Lord's life made far more impact on our history than even centuries or millennia worth of events.  And within those thirty three years, some events are much more important than others.  Until the moment of the Incarnation, human history had been going nowhere. And until those few, horrendous but vitally important hours on the Cross, each person's life effectively ended with their death. But through the resurrection of Christ, our horizon too, becomes one of eternity.

Hildegarde von Bingen, Book of Divine Works

So what should be the subject of our meditation if we want to escape the thrall of sin?

So when we come to meditate, by all means take the opportunities and things that come to us as our subject.  But try also and balance that with a focus on the events that really matter, such as Our Lord's birth, death and resurrection.

In pointing to God's deeds, the psalmist is, I think, inviting us to recall above all two kinds of God's works.  First, the work of creation itself, evident in nature, society and culture; and secondly God's ongoing providential care of his people down the ages, manifested in particular in the events of salvation history.

Meditating on the wonder of natural creation is important: through it we are reminded of God's power, his goodness and much more.  Through it we can reach knowledge of God's law.  And yes, it should humble us, put our lives into perspective.

We need though, to remember that creation was not just a once off event - without God's action to continue to sustain us at every moment we would cease to exist!

In addition, we need to remember that God continues to guide history, and makes us co-creators of society and culture, one of the many reasons we should study that those subjects, especially of course, the history of the Church and the lives of her saints.

Above all, we need to spend the most time meditating on the significance of the events that changed the history of both this world and the next, in the life and death of Our Lord. 

So when we meditate on God's deeds, the work of his hands, by all means consider the importance of creation: but remember creation does not just mean nature, but also, society and culture.  Above all, we need to call to mind and meditate on the great events of salvation history set out for us in Scripture.

For if we wish to escape from sin, we need to develop the true perspective that comes from the hope of heaven.

And this series continues here.

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