Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Psalm 50: Introduction, part I

Today, continuing on my Lent series on the penitential psalms, the most famous one of them all, Psalm 50 (51), the Miserere.

Psalm 50 has been described as the penitential psalm par excellence, and I think that’s a fair description: it is a powerful expression of deep humility and contrition, and every verse has great spiritual and theological riches waiting to be uncovered.  

Its intensity has prompted vast volumes of commentary, thus there is plenty of material readily available to assist you in studying each verse individually, meditating on it, contemplating it, and put into action.  I’m planning therefore to give it fairly short-shrift here, and instead of delving into selected verses, I will just devote two parts to it, but with some links to material you can draw on for your lectio divina.

The best known of the psalms?

The Miserere is surely the best known of the penitential psalms, perhaps almost of all the psalms!

It is often used for quasi-liturgical purposes, such as part of grace before and after meals; each week at mass in the Asperges; and to open (traditional) Matins each day.

In the pre-1911 Roman Office and in the (1962) Benedictine form of the Divine Office it is said every day at Lauds. The Roman Office says it daily during penitential periods such as Lent.  Indeed, even the Liturgy of the Hours manages it once a week!

And there are a number of famous stories centred around it, including when the child Mozart stole the fabulous setting of the psalm by Gregorio Allegri (composed in the 1630s and used at Tenebrae during Holy Week in the Sistine Chapel) by transcribing it from memory, thus making what had been restricted to the Vatican available to the world. He escaped ex-communication for his act partly perhaps because of his young age at the time, but mostly because the Pope of the day was so impressed at the musical feat!

Overall context

So today I want to take a bit of a look at where the psalm fits in the overall scheme of things.  Tomorrow I'll take a brief look at the structure of the psalm itself.

You might want first to review the words of the psalm in the Latin Vulgate, which you can find here.

And here is the English:

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your great mercy.
And according to the multitude of your tender mercies blot out my iniquity.
Wash me yet more from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my iniquity, and my sin is always before me.
To you only have I sinned, and have done evil before you: that you may be justified in your words, and may overcome when you are judged.
For behold I was conceived in iniquities; and in sins did my mother conceive me.
For behold you have loved truth: the uncertain and hidden things of your wisdom you have made manifest to me.
You shall sprinkle me with hyssop, and I shall be cleansed: you shall wash me, and I shall be made whiter than snow.
To my hearing you shall give joy and gladness: and the bones that have been humbled shall rejoice.
Turn away your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.
Create a clean heart in me, O God: and renew a right spirit within my bowels.
Cast me not away from your face; and take not your holy spirit from me.
Restore unto me the joy of your salvation, and strengthen me with a perfect spirit.
I will teach the unjust your ways: and the wicked shall be converted to you.
Deliver me from blood, O God, you God of my salvation: and my tongue shall extol your justice.
O Lord, you will open my lips: and my mouth shall declare your praise.
For if you had desired sacrifice, I would indeed have given it: with burnt offerings you will not be delighted.
A sacrifice to God is an afflicted spirit: a contrite and humbled heart, O God, you will not despise.
Deal favourably, O Lord, in your good will with Sion; that the walls of Jerusalem may be built up. Then shall you accept the sacrifice of justice, oblations and whole burnt offerings: then shall they lay calves upon your altar.

  Psalm 50 and the sacrament of penance

The title of the psalm suggests that it is, like Psalm 6, a response to King David's sin with Bethesheba (2 Samuel 11-12).

St Thomas Aquinas’ commentary on the psalm (which is well worth reading in full) suggests that there is something of a schema at work here, mimicking that of the sacrament of penance: the first penitential psalm, Psalm 6, is about contrition; the second, Psalm 31 is about confession of sins; the third, Psalm 37 deals with satisfaction. Psalm 50, he suggests, is about absolution: in the first half of the psalm he asks for mercy; in the second, he promises correction and seeks the restoration of holiness and grace.

Certainly, the psalm is clearly the individual lament of a penitent sinner. Unsurprisingly though, it was quickly appropriated by other sinners, as well as used to confess the collective guilt of the nation (indeed the last two verses are almost certainly later additions).  Pope John Paul II commented:

"The Jewish tradition placed the psalm on the lips of David, who was called to repentance by the severe words of the prophet Nathan (cf. vv. 1-2; 2 Sam 11-12), who rebuked him for his adultery with Bathsheba and for having had her husband Uriah killed. The psalm, however, was enriched in later centuries, by the prayer of so many other sinners, who recovered the themes of the "new heart" and of the "Spirit" of God placed within the redeemed human person, according to the teaching of the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel (cf. v. 12; Jer 31,31-34; Ez 11,19. 36,24-28).

Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry,
Folio 100v, Musée Condé, Chantilly.
**NB Keep in mind that saying the Miserere has a partial indulgence attached to it if you recite it 'in a spirit of penitence'.

And you can find part II of this introduction to Psalm 50 here.

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