Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Still looking for a lenten penance? Say Psalm 118 (119)!

Tomorrow is the start of Lent, and I've previously posted on getting ready by way of thinking about doing some spiritual reading (the tradition of reading a book right through) and fasting.  I'll leave you to sort out your own almsgiving proposals.

But the other traditional practice is to also do something extra by way of prayer.

Extra prayer during Lent - say a psalm (verse) or two!

Last year I suggested saying the penitential psalms, a very traditional practice.  If you want to go down that track, you might want to take a look at the series on them that I posted here past year.

To provide some variety, however, I thought this year I'd suggest saying some of Psalm 118 (119) each day.  Psalm 118 (119) is an extended meditation on the importance of God's law.  It is a psalm above all about the path to happiness, as its first line makes clear:

"Blessed are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the LORD!"

Psalm 118 as a traditional Lenten penance

Psalm 118 (119 in the neo-Vulgate and protestant Bibles) has a venerable history as an appropriate prayer during Lent. 

Over at Vultus Christi blog, for example, Fr Mark recently republished a letter found in a late medieval copy, purporting to be from St Scholastica, sister of St Benedict, to a fellow abbess and discussing Lenten practices in her monastery.  One of the examples of Lenten penance she provides is the recitation of Psalm 118:

"My venerable brother says that during this sacred season we are “to increase in some way the normal standard of our service, as for example, by special prayers, or by a diminution in food or drink” (RB 49:5-6)... Nonna Marcellina asked me if she might pray the Beati immaculati (Psalm 118) daily through Lent. She knows it by heart, of course."

Psalm 118 as preparation to enter the Temple

Psalm 118 is particularly appropriate for Lent in that it is a wisdom-meditation psalm that can help us get into the right frame of mind to celebrate the joy of Easter.

In Scripture, Psalm 118 comes immediately before the 'Psalms of Ascent' or Gradual Psalms, which are associated literally with the pilgrimage to Jerusalem for major Jewish feasts and the climb up the steps of the Temple, and spiritually with the Ascent to heaven.  This placement is not random!

It is meant to signal to us that reflection on the Law of God as a necessary preparation for the celebration of the Resurrection.

And in that light, it struck me as particularly appropriate, too, this year, at least for Australian readers, by way of preparation for the coming Year of Grace.

A stanza a day?

The letter I quoted above suggested saying the entire psalm daily.  That's a big ask: the longest psalm in the psalter, it has 176 verses in total!

But it is neatly divided into twenty-two stanzas of eight verses. 

In fact, this is an alphabetical psalms, so each set of eight verses starts with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet.

Accordingly, one option would be to pray and meditate on one stanza a day, lingering over a few important verses. 

And to help anyone who is interested in saying Psalm 118, I'll provide some notes here each day on the psalm, as well as some supplementary notes for those interested in digging further over at my Psalm Blog.


Joshua said...

Sidney Smith, a famous Anglican clergyman of yesteryear, was once asked to preach, without any warning. This displeased him. He therefore went to the pulpit, and announced that he intended to preach on Psalm 119 (as the Anglicans number it). He then had the parish clerk read it out, as was the custom when preaching on a text of Scripture. After that long reading, he then said, "It is customary to read the text again," and so ordered the poor clerk to repeat it. Seeing some members of the congregation still present, he then began, extremely exhaustively and slowly, to preach upon each successive verse of the Psalm, all the way through to the end!

Coming down from the pulpit, he was heard to say that hopefully people would learn their lesson, and not trouble him to preach without having prepared a sermon in the future.


I also recall going to confession and being told to read - the Book of Job! I mean, I'd sinned, but really... I actually saw the priest again later, having grumblingly done my penance, and asked him, Did you really mean to say Job? Oh sorry, he said, I meant Jonah. 3 chapters not 42!!!!! I was a bit aggrieved.

HolyCatholicApostoli said...

Doesn't Lent start on the 1st Sunday of Lent. After Ash Wednesday days are called, "Thursday after Ash Wednesday", "Friday after Ash Wednesday", etc. After the sunday days are called "Monday of the 1st week of Lent", etc.

Any thoughts? Clarifications ?

Kate said...

Love both stories Joshua! Just think how much time off purgatory you must have earnt...

And HCA, yes Lent, and the obligation to do something penitential each day, does indeed start tomorrow.

The naming of the days reflects liturgical changes way back in the sixth century (I think)when the days after Ash Wednesday were added to Lent in order to make the number up to forty (and ensure that the Western Church wasn't shown up by the Eastern!). But curiously, the liturgy still reflects the older, shorter Western Lent, with the rubrics for the Office for example, not changing significantly until Monday...

HolyCatholicApostoli said...

Thank you for the clarification and the related interesting historical information.
Also the Maronite Catholic Church start Lent on Ash Monday.

Éamonn said...

Doesn't Lent start on the 1st Sunday of Lent?

It did once but increasingly harsh penitential practices left people needing a break - usually on Sundays so some days were added to the start. (That along with repeated private auricular confession are the two really useful things the Irish did for the universal Church!)

Interestingly, Milan doesn't have Ash Wednesday, they do start Lent on the First Sunday, as they should being not Roman but Ambrosian.

truthseeker said...

Why do you use the word "say" instead of the word "pray'?

Kate said...

Eamonn - I'd love to see some evidence for your claims on the Irish contribution on these issues!

My understanding is that Sundays were always days off Lent. The issue was the Eastern Churches started Lent much earlier than the West - in what is now Septuagesima - making the West's 36 fast days look a little whimpy!

So it's curious in that light that the Maronites don't start until Monday!

And on confession, the Irish contribution as I understnad it was not auricular confession per se, which is Apostolic in origin, but the systematisation of penances for particular sins, and its promotion as a more frequent practice.

HolyCatholicApostoli said...

I should clarify, that the Ash Monday the Maronites start Lent on is two days before Ash Wednesday.

Kate said...

Ahh! That makes more sense. So are Saturdays part of Lent in the Maronite calendar? And what are the current fasting rules, just out of curiosity!

HolyCatholicApostoli said...

You can read about the fasting for Maronites here:

Lent for Maronites is from Monday Feb 20 2012 --> Sunday April 1 (Palm Sunday)