Friday, 30 March 2012

Psalm 118 (119) Shin: On rebuilding the walls of the city of God

Today we come to the penultimate stanza of Psalm 118, and it is a rather rich one.

I just want to briefly touch on three not entirely unrelated points points, namely the peace offered through Christ; the law as a stumbling block (v165); and the importance of symbolism in worship.

The peace of Christ

The psalm opens with a reminder that princes – or these days perhaps we should speak of Prime Ministers and Presidents – will persecute the Church without reason. But it goes on to assert that the person who loves the law will nevertheless enjoy peace:

161 Príncipes persecúti sunt me gratis: Princes have persecuted me without cause…
165 Pax multa diligéntibus legem tuam: Much peace have they that love your law

What does he mean here by peace? It is not the false peace of toleration of sin that the psalmist is pointing to here, but rather the peace of mind that comes from the hope of salvation. As St Benedict's fifth century contemporary Cassiodorus comments:

“Much peace is to be understood as purity of mind and abundance of faith, which we aptly set against vices. But the person who proclaims himself the servant of the Lord is subject in this world to hardships and dangers. The Lord says to the apostles who were to be ravaged by various forms of persecution: My peace I give to you, my peace I leave to you, so that it may become clear that the Lord's servants always enjoy peace of mind in spite of appearing to be molested by various physical tribulations.”

When the law seems a stumbling block…

The second half of verse 165 deals with a related topic of particular contemporary relevance, namely the idea that God’s law can be a stumbling block to some.

Today many Catholics stumble indeed at the law as passed down to us, often deeming it as scandalous for example in its requirements around sexual morality. And of course just yesterday aCath News showcased (yet again; and the editorializing going on in their headline writing at the moment over there is particularly shocking) retired former Sydney Auxiliary, Bishop Robinson’s call to dump the Church’s teachings altogether in this area.

Yet the psalmist asserts that the law can never be a stumbling block to one who looks to God for salvation:

et non est illis scándalum = and to them there is no stumbling block/scandal

St Augustine provides an important explanation of just why this should be the case, arguing that one who truly loves the law of God, when confronted with a law that seems absurd to him, must assume not that the law is a bad one, but rather that his reaction is due to a lack of understanding on his part:

“Does this mean that the law itself is not an offense to them that love it, or that there is no offense from any source unto them that love the law? But both senses are rightly understood. For he who loves the law of God, honours in it even what he does not understand; and what seems to him to sound absurd, he judges rather that he does not understand, and that there is some great meaning hidden: thus the law of God is not an offense to him...”

This approach has of course been echoed down the centuries by the Magisterium of the Church, and applied to areas such as Scriptural interpretation and more. It is a counsel of humility, of appreciating that we are limited beings who can never hope, at any particular point in time to know everything, whereas God is infinite and all-knowing…

Seven times a day I have praised you….

Thirdly, I wanted to draw attention to a key verse in this psalm from the point of view of the Office:

164 Sépties in die laudem dixi tibi, * super judícia justítiæ tuæ.
Seven times a day I have given praise to you, for the judgments of your justice.

Seven is a number symbolizing completeness (viz the creation of the world), perfection (viz metal refined seven times), or an infinite number of times (viz the number of times we should forgive sins). St Benedict cites this verse as the reason for the seven day hours of his Office, and the Roman Office followed him on this.

It is true of course that the verse can also be interpreted spiritually, as a call to continuous praise.

But one does not have to be a traditionalist to appreciate that the seven day hours of the Office, particularly in monastic usage where it was said in choir at set times each and every day, served symbolically to convey the spiritual message, and in a way far more effective than just saying that we are called to pray constantly.

Fr Michael Casey of Tarrawarra Abbey, for example, certainly no traditionalist, suggests in his book Strangers to the City that it is regrettable that ‘secularization theology’ was unthinkingly incorporated in the ‘process of reformation and renewal’ following Vatican II (p174).

The new Missal is at least a small start in the process of resacralization.

But hard as that fight has been, there is a long way to go yet.

Certainly the ‘Liturgy of the Hours’ has achieved what the fourteenth century heretic Wycliff and the reformation’s Luther could not, namely the abandonment of this long ecclesial tradition of seven hours a day, and one in the night in line with verse 62 of this psalm. Haydock's classic commentary states:

“The Church has enjoined matins to be said at night, lauds in the morning, prime, tierce, sext, none, vespers and complin, in the course of the day. (St. Benedict, reg. 8., and 16.) (Calmet) --- This ecclesiastical office consists of hymns, psalms, &c. (St. Isidore) --- Against it some have risen up, particularly against that part which was said in the night, pretending that God had made the night for rest; and hence they were called nuctazontes, or "drowsy" heretics. (St. Isidore, Of. i. 22.) --- St. Jerome styles Vigilantius Dormitantius, for the same reason; as if it were better to sleep than to watch. Wycliff (Wald. iii. Tit. iii. 21.) and Luther have oppugned the same holy practice, though it be so conformable to Scripture and to the fathers. (St. Basil, reg. fus. 37.; St. Gregory, dial. iii. 14.; Ven. Bede, Hist. iv. 7., &c.)”

The Office, the law and genuine peace

Is there a connection between these three threads I've drawn out from the stanza?  Well yes, I would argue that there is.

I would argue that the drastic reduction in the number of times of prayer each day, and the length of those times of prayer - and above all consequent reduction of what was once a weekly cycle of saying all the psalms to a monthly one omitting all the 'hard bits' - has undermined the spiritual lives of priests and religious.  It has weakened the walls of what Catherine Pickstock has called the 'liturgical city' to the point where they lie in ruins.

And the consequences we see all around us. 

We see it in the Bishop Robinsons of this world who no longer accept the natural law as a starting point for Christian morality, who see God's law as a stumbling block, not a means to salvation, but think in their arrogance that they know best.

We see it in the bishops and priests who faced with the persecution of princes have continued to compromise and crumble rather than standing up for the faith, able to draw on a true inner peace.

We see it in the many who left the priesthood and religious life despite their promises and vows, no longer sufficiently nourished in their lives by Sacred Scripture.

Recovery from this desolation will take a long time.  Yet the walls of the sacred city can yet be rebuilt...


161 Príncipes persecúti sunt me gratis: * et a verbis tuis formidávit cor meum.
Princes have persecuted me without cause: and my heart has been in awe of your words.

162 Lætábor ego super elóquia tua: * sicut qui invénit spólia multa.
I will rejoice at your words, as one that has found great spoil.

163 Iniquitátem ódio hábui, et abominátus sum: * legem autem tuam diléxi.
I have hated and abhorred iniquity; but I have loved your law.

164 Sépties in die laudem dixi tibi, * super judícia justítiæ tuæ.
Seven times a day I have given praise to you, for the judgments of your justice.

165 Pax multa diligéntibus legem tuam: * et non est illis scándalum.
Much peace have they that love your law, and to them there is no stumbling block.

166 Exspectábam salutáre tuum, Dómine: * et mandáta tua diléxi.
I looked for your salvation, O Lord: and I loved your commandments.

167 Custodívit ánima mea testimónia tua: * et diléxit ea veheménter.
My soul has kept your testimonies and has loved them exceedingly

168 Servávi mandáta tua, et testimónia tua: * quia omnes viæ meæ in conspéctu tuo.
I have kept your commandments and your testimonies: because all my ways are in your sight.

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