Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Psalm 37/4 - The scourges of life as our penance (verse 18)

Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry, Folio 144r
The Flagellation the Musée Condé, Chantilly.
In the last part of this series, I looked at our proper response to sin and the attacks of others, as articulated in the previous verse.

But one of the key themes of this psalm is the necessity of accepting, even embracing, the trials and tribulations of life as a way of discharging the accumulated debt due to our sins. It is not a very fashionable approach these days.  But more than one saint has seen this as the fastest path to sanctity.  Today's verse is one of the clearest statements of this idea.

The psalm itself relates to someone who is guilty of serious sin.  The Christological connotations of the psalm, and particularly of today’s verse, however, also point to our duty to pray and do penance on behalf of others as well, particularly the souls in purgatory.

The text

Verse 18 of the psalm says:

“Quóniam ego in flagélla parátus sum: * et dolor meus in conspéctu meo semper,” or “For I am ready for scourges: and my sorrow is continually before me.”

Flagellum, means a scourge or whip, punishment, sting of conscience. Parare means to prepare, make ready. Dolor means pain, whether of body or of mind, grief, sorrow or affliction. Conspectus means sight or presence.

So the speaker is saying he is ready to accept the punishment before him.

The psalmist goes on to acknowledge that he deserves punishment.

But the psalm can also be applied to Our Lord’s voluntary acceptance of the punishment for our sins.

Better now than in purgatory or hell!

Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry
folio 113v: Purgatory

St Augustine’s commentary on the psalm makes the point that it is far better to take correction and punishment now, in this life, then to suffer it in the next.

That might seem obvious in the case of hell.

But these days we tend to downplay the suffering of purgatory, and perhaps to underestimate the extent of the punishment our sins actually incur, at least if the judgment of previous centuries is correct. 

St Augustine for example suggests that the pain of purgatory is worse than anything we can experience in this life. 

Personally I tend to put more weight on the testimony of the saints over nearly two millennia of tradition than on the last forty or so years of denial of unpleasant realities!

So embrace the difficulties life sends us and strive to conquer sin!

St Augustine comments on the verse, that it is as if:

“...He were saying, It was even for this that I was born; that I might suffer. For He was not to be born, but from Adam, to whom the scourge is due. But sinners are in this life sometimes not scourged at all, or are scourged less than their deserts: because the wickedness of their heart is given over as already desperate.

Those, however, for whom eternal life is prepared, must needs be scourged in this life: for that sentence is true: My son, faint not under the chastening of the Lord, neither be weary when you are rebuked of Him. Proverbs 3:11 For whom the Lord loves He chastens, and scourges every son whom He receives. Hebrews 12:6 Let not mine enemies therefore insult over me; let them not magnify themselves; and if my Father scourges me, I am prepared for the scourge; because there is an inheritance in store for me. You will not submit to the scourge: the inheritance is not bestowed upon you. For every son must needs be scourged. So true it is that every son is scourged, that He spared not even Him who had no sin. For I am prepared for the scourges…For the scourge is a remedy against sins.

Be not free from anxiety when you have confessed your sin, as if always able to confess your sin, and to commit it again. Do thou declare your iniquity in such a manner, as to have a care for your sin. What is meant by having a care of your sin? To have a care of your wound. If you were to say, I will have a care of my wound, what would be meant by it, but I will do my endeavour to have it healed. For this is to have a care for one's sin, to be ever struggling, ever endeavouring, ever exerting one's self, earnestly and zealously, to heal one's wound. Behold! You are from day to day mourning over your sins; but perhaps your tears indeed flow, but your hands are unemployed. Do alms, redeem your sins, let the poor rejoice of your bounty, that you also may rejoice of the Grace of God...”

And next in this series, a brief look at the most famous of all of the penitential psalms, Psalm 50.  But in the meantime, enjoy this setting of verse 20 of the psalm, 'But my enemies live, and are stronger than I...'

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