Friday, 2 March 2012

Psalm 118 (119) Daleth Pt 2 - Enlarge my heart O Lord

Google enlargement of heart and you will be confronted with a host of references to heart disease.  In the psalms, however, where the heart is viewed as the centre of the spirit, 'enlargement of heart' is a very positive thing, as verse 32 of Psalm 118 (119) makes clear:

Viam mandatorum tuorum cucurri, cum dilatasti cor meum.
“I have run the way of your commandments, when you did enlarge my heart.”

What does the psalmist mean by enlargement of heart?

The psalms often use the concept of narrowness of space restricting movement to symbolize pain and sorrow, and enlargement to suggest strength and gladness.

The concept of ‘enlargement of heart’ is particularly important from the point of view of Benedictine spirituality because St Benedict uses the term, quoting this psalm, in his Rule to explain the process by which we grow in virtue.  St Benedict views enlargement of heart as the goal of the Christian life, a metaphor for reaching that state where out of perfect love of God, practicing virtue becomes automatic and easy:

“Therefore must we establish a school of the Lord's service; in founding which we hope to ordain nothing that is harsh or burdensome. But if, for good reason, for the amendment of evil habit or the preservation of charity, there be some strictness of discipline, do not be at once dismayed and run away from the way of salvation, of which the entrance must needs be narrow. But, as we progress in our monastic life and in faith, our hearts shall be enlarged, and we shall run with unspeakable sweetness of love in the way of God's commandments; so that, never abandoning his rule but persevering in his teaching in the monastery until death, we shall share by patience in the sufferings of Christ, that we may deserve to be partakers also of his kingdom. Amen.” (Rule of St Benedict, Prologue, trans J McCann)

Lent is in fact a practical statement of this philosophy, a reminder that we must train our minds and bodies if we wish to progress in the spiritual life.  In fact St Benedict gives us here a tantalising glimpse of the spiritual path in front of us: we must start, he suggests, by learning to discipline mind and body through a strict regimen, a message that Lent each year serves to remind us applies to us all, whether monk, priest or layperson.

At first we might act out of fear of hell.

But over time, the saint suggests, as we grow in grace and virtue, doing the good becomes automatic and easy, done out of love rather than fear.

And the reward is to run to heaven, borne up with the unspeakable sweetness of love:

“…the monk will presently come to that perfect love of God which casts out all fear; whereby he will begin to observe without labour, as though naturally and by habit, all those precepts which formerly he did not observe without fear: no longer for fear of hell, but for love of Christ and through good habit and delight in virtue. And this will the Lord deign to show forth by the power of his Spirit in his workman now cleansed from vice and from sin.” (RB 7)

Here is the full stanza of the Psalm once again:

25 My soul has cleaved to the pavement: quicken me according to your word.
26 I have declared my ways, and you have heard me: teach me your justifications.
27 Make me to understand the way of your justifications: and I shall be exercised in your wondrous works.
28 My soul has slumbered through heaviness: strengthen me in your words.
29 Remove from me the way of iniquity: and out of your law have mercy on me.
30 I have chosen the way of truth: your judgments I have not forgotten.
31 I have stuck to your testimonies, O Lord: put me not to shame.
32 I have run the way of your commandments, when you did enlarge my heart.

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