Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Psalm 142/4: Towards victory!

Verses 13&14
The procession of St Gregory seeking an end to the plague
Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry, Folio 71v
the Musée Condé, Chantilly

In the last part of this mini-series, I looked at verses 11&12 of Psalm 142, and suggested that the psalmist’s pleas to be delivered from his enemies was to be accomplished in large part by his learning to do God’s will, and guidance by the Holy Spirit. Those verses provide some context for the verses I want to look at today by way of conclusion of this Lent series, namely the last two verses of the psalm – and thus of all of the penitential psalms – which contain a further plea for God’s help.

At first glance, verses 13 and 14 present problems to the modern reader, since they sound awfully like a request for God to do some smiting! And while we might all feel the desire for that to occur from time to time, we know full well that in fact we are called on to forgive our enemies, and to return good for evil. So how should we reconcile these seemingly conflicting messages?

The text

First let’s take another look at the verses themselves. Here is the Vulgate (which is identical to the neo-Vulgate):

Edúces de tribulatióne ánimam meam: * et in misericórdia tua dispérdes inimícos meos.
Et perdes omnes, qui tríbulant ánimam meam, * quóniam ego servus tuus sum.

The key verbs here, as I mentioned in the introduction to this psalm, are all in the subjunctive, making them a pleas or request: educare means to lead out, bring or draw forth; disperdere and perdere both mean to destroy, or destroy utterly.

Hence a literal translation would be something like: ‘may you bring my soul (animam meam) out of distress/trouble (de tribulatione), and in your mercy/kindness/compassion (misericordia) destroy my enemies (inimicos meos); And destroy all (omnes) those who trouble/afflict (qui tribulant) my soul, because (quoniam) I am (ego sum) your servant (servus tuus)’.

Who are our enemies?

We shouldn’t, in my view, back away from the idea of praying for the defeat of actual physical enemies here, whether they be personal, enemies of the Church, or of our country. The harsh reality is that evil can and does get worked through others. We shouldn’t be afraid to pray that someone who is hurting us or others be stopped from doing so!

Of course, our prayer must be, first and foremost, that they be converted.

And we must genuinely seek to forgive them for what they do to us and others.

Forgiving someone though, doesn’t mean letting them continue to sin! Accordingly, it is important to keep in mind that praying for the defeat of evil and those who oppress us by whatever direct or indirect means God chooses to employ, or helps us to employ, is perfectly legitimate.

David's Victory
Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry, Folio 95r
Musée Condé, Chantilly.
Victory over sin

Nonetheless, in the context of the penitential psalms, our primary focus should be first and foremost on the mote in our own eye! The enemy in this context is not so much others: for we can accept bear their attacks as part of our penance, or offer up our sufferings at their hands for others.

But we must also focus, especially during this Lenten season, on overcoming our own weaknesses, bad habits, faults and sins. And we shouldn't hesitate to ask God's help in this most personal of battles.

The previous psalms, as well as the earlier verses of this psalm teach us the other weapons we must employ: work to develop a strong and deep sense of contrition; go to confession, tell all of our sins, and be absolved; do our penance and more; study, meditate and contemplate God's works; and submit ourselves to God's will and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Of course, in this battle, it is also important to keep in mind that not all of our faults come from within ourselves: we are also engaged in a spiritual warfare waged against powers and principalities; so call too for God's help in the form of our own guardian angel's interventions.

We should pray too, for final perseverance, for above all, these verses reminds us of God’s promise that evil will eventually be defeated and good vindicated, if not in this life, then in the next.

Ne reminiscaris Domine...

I want to conclude this series not with another version of the psalm for you to listen to, but with the antiphon used at the end of the penitential psalms.  Here, it is in an English setting by Purcell.

The first half of the setting is simply a translation of the Catholic liturgical text:

Remember not, Lord, our offences,
nor the offences of our forefathers;
neither take thou vengeance of our sins:

The second part is an addition from the Book of Common Prayer, but it is so catholic in content that I strongly suspect it actually has its quasi-liturgical origins in the Sarum Rite:

spare us, good Lord, spare thy people,
whom thou hast redeemed with thy most precious blood,
and be not angry with us for ever.
Spare us, good Lord.

Praying the penitential psalms

I do hope you have enjoyed this series and found something in it to stimulate your prayer.  If you have, please do let me know either on or offline if you have any comments, suggestions or questions.

And if you are saying the penitential psalms as part of your Lenten discipline, do remember that Lent (or at least days with a penitential obligation attached if you are following the novus ordo calendar!) still has a few days to go.

No comments: