Monthly Archives: June 2012

The Royal Psalms

There are eight royal psalms: 2, 20(19), 21(20), 45(44), 72(71), 101(100), 110(109), 144(143). Psalms 95-99 celebrate the Lord’s kingship, and are often called Royal Psalms as well.

 

Commenting on the Royal Psalms, Drijvers says “The kings proved faithless to their mission in a theocratic state by their taking to themselves powers that belonged to Yahweh along, the real king, the national royal line came to grief in the catastrophe of the year 587 B.C.”

 

Is this not what kings do around the world? Is this not what big government does? And is this not what each individual does? In fact, this is original sin.  We want to be like God, “knowing” good and evil. What this really means is we want to take his place and “make” good and evil.  This is clearest in the positivists as regards law.  “Abortion is not wrong, for clearly it is legal.” Wrong equates to immoral. So right and wrong become what man, not God, declares right and wrong.

 

The royal Psalms deny this wholeheartedly, for they declare and praise the true King.

 

“The kings of the earth rise up and the rulers band together against the Lord and against his anointed…[but] The One enthroned in heaven laughs…[and says] “I have installed my king on Zion, my holy mountain.” (Psalm 2)

 

I must note a favorite psalm quotation of mine. As a soldier, I have always liked Psalm 144: “Praise be to the Lord my Rock, who trains my hands for war, my fingers for battle.” Of course, the battle is not just in the physical realm, but it often is there as well. It may be against “enemies, foreign and domestic,” whether this means a terrorist group or an enemy nation. But even the lines “foreign and domestic,” which form part of the oath I took the day I became a soldier, can be extended, and for the Christian, primarily used to refer to the battle with sin.

 

The enemy is foreign: “For our wrestling is…against principalities and power, against the rulers of the world of this darkness, against the spirits of wickedness in the high places.” (Eph 6:12)

 

But it is also domestic: “So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:21-25)

 

Jesus Christ our Lord. Yes, it He who is King. “Lord, give victory to the king!” (Psalm 20:9)

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Psalm 51 (Psalm 50)

St. John Fisher’s commentaries on the seven penitential psalms build upon one another. In the commentary on Psalm 6, he asks “Which of us now being sick in any part of the body and in jeopardy of death would not diligently search for a medicine by which to be healed? Would we not first inquire of one who had the same sickness before us?” Of course, we are free to “speak from the heart” and ask God’s forgiveness, but the Holy Spirit has Himself inspired his prophets to give us words that are both a prayer to the Father and medicine for our own sick souls. These are certainly most clearly given in the psalms.

God will save the sinner who weeps for his sins. “Weeping heartily for our sins is of so great a virtue and strength before God that for one weeping coming from the heart of a sinner, our Lord forgives his trespass…for whenever a sinner weeps and wails heartily for his sins, he shall be saved.”

“…since penance has three parts, that is to say, contrition, confession, and satisfaction, the more diligently anyone exercises himself in each of them, the nearer he is to eternal bliss.” This comment was made in the commentary to Psalm 31, but is just as fitting for Psalm 50. From the commentary on Psalm 37, but again just as applicable to Psalm 50, is his statement that “…truly, an unclean conscience is so great an abomination to the person encumbered with it that he finds the remembrance of it to be as great a pain as if he were vexed and troubled in the torments in hell.”

I find, however, that the trouble, the vexation, and the fear of God’s justice is brought out most powerfully in the opening words of the commentary on Psalm 50 itself: “A man would be in great peril and jeopardy if he were hanging only by a weak, slender cord or line over a very deep pit in which the most furious and cruel beasts of every kind waited eagerly for his fall to devour him instantly, and the line or cord hung on was held up and secured only by the hands of someone he had treated like an enemy by many discourtesies.” Isn’t this exactly the situation we all find ourselves in when we reflect on our lives and on the justice of God? Is not this the purpose of the first week of the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola?

And the psalm says there is nothing we can call up to the one holding the cord that would require him to save us.  We can only offer him out of his own mercy:

“Eternal Father, I offer you the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity, of your dearly beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, in atonement for our sins, and those of the whole world. For the sake of His sorrowful passion, have mercy on us, and on the whole world.”

Only this sacrifice is pleasing to God; a broken and contrite heart. And only Christ, on the Cross, offered that perfectly. And so we offer God Himself. It is all we have, but it is perfect, and all we need.

C.S. Lewis and the Problem of Pain: a few reflections

The nature of the problem is as it always has been.  God is supposed to be both good and powerful.  But what is more, He is supposed to be all good (even goodness itself) and perfectly powerful (omnipotent). We find it difficult to imagine that if one of us were both perfectly good and perfectly powerful that we would do anything besides “perfect” the world.  There would be no suffering, no evil.  As it is now, these things exist without doubt. How, then, do we maintain a belief in God?

The first thing we cannot do is decide that we will change our definition of God.  “Making God” less than perfectly good and perfectly powerful is not an option.  Denying the evil that exists in the world would be a futile, not to mention dishonest, effort.  What gives?

Perhaps, as we should with all arguments, we must look for an error in our terms.  Our term which lacks the important features of clearness and unambiguous is “perfect world.” The so called perfect world we imagine ourselves creating if we were all good and all powerful would forego the perfection of free will if we were to guarantee that our puppets (and that is what they would be) could not fail to act perfectly in every way.

Forced action loses meaning. Let us take an example. If I stub my toe on a rock, I may or may not curse the rock, shout at the rock about how evil it is, etc.  But this can only be because I am attributing characteristics to the rock that I, in a more stable mode of thought, certainly know the rock lacks.  This “fault” attributed to the rock when it causes harm is no more “real” than any praise of some inanimate object when it “causes” joy. Likewise, a puppet that treated all other puppets with dignity and respect (besides the obviously absurd tone this is already taking on) is worthy of no praise at all.

If God is free, if God is love, and if we are created in the image of God, we must be free to love.  Not that the necessity of freedom belongs to us, but to the love.  One cannot love unless one is free to do so. Our “perfect world” would lack that little thing called love, and be far from perfect after all.

C.S. Lewis closely examines the attributes of God spoken of above, namely, goodness and power.  He shows us the errors of our anthropomorphism when apply our standards of these to God.  Rejecting all arbitrariness, however, in what it means for God to be called good, Lewis basically agrees with St. Thomas Aquinas.  The goodness and the power are found analogously in God.  More exactly, they are found strictly there, in all their perfection, and found in us and in our understanding of them only with all the flaws that come with being attributed to contingent being.

Therefore, it is not enough to say, in response to the question of God’s goodness and a world that looks full of evil, that “God’s ways are different than ours.” That, taken alone, would be a copout. The reality is, God’s ways are higher than ours, and although we cannot fully understand them, there is nothing preventing us from seeing that our goodness is a participation in His, and not the reverse, which is how we tend to think when we are unaware of this truth.

When speaking to one who disbelieves in God because of suffering, I find that I do not have to change my main points much from the discussion of Calvinism.  The principles are the same; the freedom of man demands, logically, the ability to sin or to do good. All talk of freedom, naturally speaking, must include both possibilities (here, I won’t discuss the freedom of the saints in Heaven, which is a freedom “from” sin, rather than a “freedom” to sin).

We, as humans, feel accomplishment only when we achieve something difficult. We jump out of a plane because there is some risk; we play a sport against an equal or even a somewhat superior athlete so that we may attain victory at a price. Without the possibility of failure, success loses much meaning.

Certainly there is a danger in overextending this analogy, but God did not create a world as a mere puppet-show that simply ran the script. He created a world where man is free to love Him and free to fail to do so. God, unlike us, knows the outcome at the moment He sets out to do anything, but this omniscience does not detract from the “risk” in the project.

A better analogy is that of the man courting a woman.  If she was a robot, programmed to love him without fail, the love would be meaningless.  No wonder, to be blunt, hookers, pornography, and the like are only ever physically and momentarily satisfying, but never emotionally so. It is, rather, in winning the love of the beloved that the love is true.

Now, God does not need love, and wills only to give it.  Yet, true to what love is (metaphysically), the love must be mutual, must be returned.  Freedom, then, is necessary, and any rejection (always a possibility) of this love is a loss in being, thus a loss in goodness, and thus a movement towards evil, which is the lack of being where it otherwise should be.

Love is the reason for evil, but only its “cause” in an indirect way.

“Christianity now has to preach the diagnosis – in itself very bad news – before it can win a hearing for the cure.” This was one of the few lines that I remembered clearly from having read the book years ago.  It seems to go hand in hand with Chesterton’s ascertain that “Certain new theologians dispute original sin, which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved,” for one must merely look at the front page of the paper each day or view the history of man.

Today, however, it remains more true than even in Lewis’ and Chesterton’s time that the “sickness” is not a given among the majority of men. The fundamentalists would ask “are you saved?” and perhaps their audience would reject that Jesus was that salvation, but now the question is easily returned “saved from what?” It is one thing to discuss with your doctor the best medicinal approach to curing your illness, but it is quite another to tell him, despite the exam results, that you are not sick.  This, in the end, means the worst kind of illness; not merely that of the body, but of the mind.

Lewis speaks of the Fall of Man and the importance of obedience.  I think that this obedience needs to be better understood these days. Obedience and trust, for one, go hand in hand.  Look at Mother Teresa, who reminds us that God asks of us, not to be successful, but faithful. By this, it is clear that obedient faith is what she has in mind.  In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul tells us that “we have received grace and apostleship for obedience to the faith, in all nations, for his name.”

Lewis reminds us, when addressing the purpose of human pain (and the fact of “purpose” is itself extremely important) that Augustine has said “God wants to give us something, but cannot, because our hands are full.” We are reminded of another text of Augustine, this time from the Confessions, “Unhappy the man who knows all these things (the creatures) and knows not thee! But happy the one who knows Thee although he knows not these other things. And the one who knows both Thee and them is not the happier for knowing them, than for knowing Thee alone.” However, our hands are often full and cannot make room for God (this is why “it is difficult for the rich man to enter heaven”), but when we behold God, it is not to the detriment of being able to behold all these created things as well.  The beholding of God, and putting Him first, makes room for all these others as well.

When leaving the temporal and pondering the eternal, C.S. Lewis touches upon a problem that I think many, perhaps most, of us do not take enough time to face: how is eternal punishment to be reconciled with a merciful God? In other words, is it really even possible for a creature, who did not ask to exist in the first place, to do so much wrong in a finite life that he deserves an infinite damnation?

Lewis gives, not a dogmatic solution, but a possibility. He shows that our understanding of time, and parallel time on earth, is not necessarily equated with that of eternity.  Certainly, if I am having a “grand old time” while I know my spouse is at home suffering, it must, if I have any heart, affect me.  But this is based upon the reality that she suffers while I have joy, and these are concurrent.

Eternity is not, however, time simply extended indefinitely.  Likewise, the realms of heaven and hell are not necessarily in the same plane of existence as one another, as the two distinct points on the map are, one where I am enjoying myself and the other where my spouse is feeling sadness. While we cannot understand exactly how this works, we must be open to the fact that the reality is above our understanding, and it need not be that the saints are joyous in heaven “while” friends and family they knew on earth concurrently burn in the underworld.  Likewise, the eternity of the suffering of the damned cannot be understood linearly, as if their 80 years of sin on earth (or worse, their one mortal sin committed and unrepented shortly before death) were simply to be equaled with a “long, long time” in hell. Peter Kreeft takes up this idea of Lewis (as Kreeft takes many ideas of Lewis) and expands upon it in several of his talks and books, and is worth hearing for further reflection.

Animal pain, and its purpose, seems more difficult, and is treated next.  The recognition that we cannot trace animal pain directly to the Fall, at least not in a manner of linear time, because animals existed and hunted one another long before the birth of man, makes for an interesting problem, both philosophically and theologically. Lewis does not, I must say, answer the problem to my satisfaction, but he does not answer it to his own satisfaction either.  He simply shows us a way, once more, to break out of our often anthropomorphic thoughts.  In other words, he does what Hume did for Kant, in “waking us from our dogmatic slumber.”

Lastly, one line I will never forget for its humor, but must ponder often (for it contains much more than at first may be seen) is where Lewis, in answering the question of “where are the mosquitoes” in heaven, says that “it is not hard to imagine that hell for humans and heaven for mosquitoes might be the same place.” This line, as I said, is funny enough to easily commit to memory.  I think it, however, a good starting point for deep reflection on the bigger reality that lies beyond our everyday experience.

Psalm One (Augustine)

I present here a short reflection on Psalm One with the aid of St. Augustine’s Commentary.

 

Blessed is the man who hath not walked in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stood in the way of sinners, nor sat in the chair of pestilence. But his will is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he shall meditate day and night. And he shall be like a tree which is planted near the running waters, which shall bring forth its fruit, in due season. And his leaf shall not fall off: and all whatsoever he shall do shall prosper. Not so the wicked, not so: but like the dust, which the wind driveth from the face of the earth. Therefore the wicked shall not rise again in judgment: nor sinners in the council of the just. For the Lord knoweth the way of the just: and the way of the wicked shall perish.

 

St. Augustine wastes no time in the commentary on the Psalms in letting us know the centrality of Christ. The first comment on verse 1 of the first psalm is “This is to be understood of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord Man.” We immediately see that the Psalms, thought pre-Christian in date, are Christ centered, and refer us directly to the Son of God Incarnate. Unlike the first Adam, the second Adam is He “who hath not walked in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stood in the way of sinners, nor sat in the chair of pestilence.” Only united to this perfect man may we also be called sons of the Father. If it is “no longer I but Christ that lives in Me” I can understand myself to be the man in this Psalm.

 

“’He will meditate by day and by night,’ is to be understood either as without ceasing; or ‘by day’ in joy, ‘by night’ in tribulations.” Meditating on the law of the Lord means a firm and constant disposition to hold fast to God in all circumstances, times, and places.  Our delight is in God in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, for better or worse, as the wedding vows say.  After all, we, as the Church, are the bride of Christ. These vows should hold at least as firm in our commitment to God as they do to our earthly spouse, if we have one.

 

“If any man thirst, let him come unto Me, and drink;” for “he shall be like a tree which is planted near the running waters.” Augustine references many passages from the Gospels that directly relate to the third verse of the Psalm. It is our life in Christ that nourishes us.  We are the branches, He the vine, and we must abide in Him to bear fruit.

 

“Not so the wicked, not so.” As we are told that the Godly man of verse one refers first and foremost to Christ, the new Adam, we may remember here the fall of the first Adam, who after “he had consented and tasted of the forbidden tree that he might be as God, hid himself from the Face of God.” He is the dust that the wind driveth from the face of the earth.  We are dust and to dust we shall return, if we not be united to the new Adam, who has overcome death.

 

“For the Lord knoweth the way of the just: and the way of the wicked shall perish.” It is as if He were to say to the just “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom,” and to the unjust “I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.”

 

Psalm One could be said to sum up the Gospels and indeed the entire Christian life.  The opening words of the Didache tell it plainly: “There are two ways, one of life and one of death, but a great difference between the two ways.”

Discovering Christ and Ourselves in the Psalms

“In the Psalms, the human being fully discovers himself…The latter, [the Fathers of the Church] in fact, were able with deep spiritual penetration to discern and identify the great “key” to understanding the Psalms as Christ himself, in the fullness of his mystery. The Fathers were firmly convinced that the Psalms speak of Christ.” (Pope John Paul II, General Audience Address) If both of the above statements of Pope John Paul II are true, then their reconciliation, of course, is that we only know ourselves in knowing Christ.  We only know the meaning of something created in the image of God (ourselves) in knowing God Himself, and especially in God incarnate. Further, the pope tells us:

“The Fathers add that in the Psalms Christ is spoken to or it is even Christ who speaks. In saying this, they were thinking not only of the individual person of Christ, but of the Christus totus, the total Christ, composed of Christ the Head and his members.”
And so we also know ourselves in knowing ourselves as community and not just as individuals. Personalist philosophers such as Pope John Paul II and Norris Clarke, S.J., for example, tell us that beings have an internal and external aspect. “All being, therefore, is by its very nature as being, dyadic, with an introverted or in-itself dimension, as substance, and an extroverted or towards-others dimension, as related through action” (Clarke, Person and Being).

We likewise have a personal relationship with Christ and a communal one as well. We are related to the Father in heaven in a personal way, but also pray, not “My Father,” but “Our Father” as taught by Christ. We pray as the Body, as a community. And we pray in the words taught us by the Holy Spirit, written by Him in fact, when we pray the Psalms as a community, most especially in the Mass and in the Liturgy of the Hours.

In other words, we have been given an entire prayer book in the psalms to both discover ourselves and Christ as individuals, and at the same time pray as a community to God in words He Himself gave us. Here the Holy Spirit cries abba for us.  And we discover much of ourselves in knowing ourselves as a community. We know our very being, our created being, in knowing ourselves as “being in relation.” We can “be,” as created, in no other way.