Category Archives: Psalms

Psalm 51 (50) Miserere: A Plea for Purification from Sin and a Heart Made Unclean

Miserere: A Plea for Purification from Sin and a Heart Made Unclean

“Lord, Open my lips, and my mouth will proclaim your praise.”[1]

 

Structure and Purpose of the Psalm 51

 

[David said] “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this shall surely die!  And he shall restore fourfold for the lamb, because he did this thing and because he had no pity.” Then Nathan said to David, ‘You are the man!’”[2] We must recognize in ourselves the times we have failed, and repent, for we have a Father in heaven who longs to shower us with His mercy, if we will but come to Him with a broken spirit and a contrite heart. The title given this psalm, Miserere: A plea for purification from sin and a heart made unclean, shows it to be penitential. In fact, it is, traditionally, the greatest of the seven penitential psalms.

 

“Have mercy upon me, O God, According to Your loving kindness; According to the multitude of Your tender mercies, Blot out my transgressions.”[3] The psalm begins by asking God to take away the psalmist’s sins, acknowledging himself as a sinner. “For I know my iniquity, and my sin is always before me.”[4] The freeing from sin asked for seems to follow a purification rite: “Thou shalt sprinkle me with hyssop, and I shall be cleansed: thou shalt wash me, and I shall be made whiter than snow.”[5]

 

But, like the sacraments, the rite is an outward sign of an inward grace. This grace, the merciful forgiveness of God, is expounded upon in verses 10-17, for example, “Turn away thy 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 thy face; and take not thy holy spirit from me.”[6] Once he has received a clean heart from the Lord, he will, filled with the grace of the Spirit of God, spread the good news of God’s mercy, and “will teach the unjust thy ways: and the wicked shall be converted to thee… my tongue shall extol thy justice.”[7]

 

The third part of the Psalm is a short conclusion; a prayer for Jerusalem. “Deal favourably, O Lord, in thy good will with Sion; that the walls of Jerusalem may be built up.”[8] This may be a sign that the psalm is post-exilic, but certainly has a personally and communally spiritual meaning as well.

 

Psalm 51 in the NT

 

If we had chosen Psalm 110, this entire essay could be devoted to the quotations to be found in the New Testament. However, even if the New Testament authors do not directly quote from Psalm 51, they do allude to its themes and ideas quite often.

 

In the parable of the prodigal son, after having wandered away from his father and having lost his inheritance, the son repents, saying “I will arise, and will go to my father, and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee.”[9] The psalmist did likewise, knowing that, though he has sinned against God and God alone, his father is merciful. Certainly, his father is “justified in thy sentence and blameless in thy judgment.”[10] But he rejoices in the return of the sinner. “When he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion”[11] on him. This represents the Father in Heaven, to which David says “Have mercy on me, O God, according to thy great mercy.”[12]

 

In chapter 9 of John’s Gospel, Jesus encounters a man blind from birth. When the man, cured of his blindness (always an allusion to being released from the darkness of sin) answered the questions of the Pharisees by saying “Unless this man were of God, he could not do anything,”[13] The Pharisees “answered, and said to him: Thou wast wholly born in sins, and dost thou teach us?”[14] This closely mirrors the understanding of the Jews of what we call original sin, espoused by David in the psalm when he said “behold I was conceived in iniquities; and in sins did my mother conceive me.”[15] Several of St. Paul’s epistles directly elucidate this doctrine as well.[16]

 

When Christ prays for Peter “But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and thou, being once converted, confirm thy brethren,”[17] before His passion, we may see a correlation to the psalmist’s words. For David had prayed, “Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation, and strengthen me with a perfect spirit. I will teach the unjust thy ways: and the wicked shall be converted to thee.”[18] We know that Peter fails and denies his Master on the night of His passion. But, restored through the grace and mercy of the Lord, Peter remains the rock to which Jesus can say “feed my sheep, shepherd my lambs”[19] Like the psalmist who will tech transgressors thy ways, Peter and his brethren are, now restored in grace,  fishers of men.

 

Psalm 51 and Augustine

 

Speaking to baptized adult Christians, Augustine begins “For today how many brethren of ours we think of, and deplore their going unto vanities and lying insanities, to the neglect of that to which they have been called.”[20] This is all too common today, and in every century. Those who are nominal in their faith are many. Often, in the history of the Church, people have thought of the priests and religious as those called to holiness. But we know that all are called to one and the same holiness. “Be you therefore perfect, as also your heavenly Father is perfect” [21] was spoken to all who would follow Christ.

 

I have often heard it said that “I would sin like David, if I could repent like David.” However, do we not sin worse than David, since we live under the law of Christ, with all the graces available to us now in the Church and the Sacraments? Nevertheless, when we fall, we have a great model of repentance. “What men should beware of, we have said; but what if they shall have fallen they should imitate, let us hear. For many men will to fall with David, and will not to rise with David…For this it was set forth, for this was written, for this in the Church often read and chanted: let them hear that have not fallen, lest they fall; let them hear that have fallen, that they may rise.”[22]

 

Augustine warns those who see that even so holy a man as David could sin in such a way, this should never lead them to permit themselves to sin. “David had set forth to himself none for a precedent as you have: he had fallen by lapse of concupiscence, not by the countenance of holiness: thou dost set before your eyes as it were a holy man, in order that you may sin: thou dost not copy his holiness, but dost copy his fall.”[23] Although this may seem something so obvious, man’s heart is such that it always looks to excuse itself.

 

Augustine goes on to speak of the true cause of sin, and the only thing that is to blame in the end. It is why, as the psalm will later declare, we must ask God to put in us a clean heart. “For from afar David saw her with whom he was captivated. Woman afar, lust near. What he saw was elsewhere, in himself that whereby he fell.”[24] We are reminded here of our Lord’s words, that “Do you not understand, that whatsoever entereth into the mouth, goeth into the belly, and is cast out into the privy? But the things which proceed out of the mouth, come forth from the heart, and those things defile a man.”[25] True, because we were born in sin (in sin my mother conceived me) we easily fall to outside influence, but as free creatures, it is from within that we fall.

 

An especial danger is that of the sinner, already ut of the state of grace, who thinks to himself “I have failed, why even bother?” Augustine comments “Sin with despair is certain death. Let no one therefore say, If already any evil thing I have done, already I am to be condemned: God pardons not such evil things, why add I not sins to sins?”[26] We need not despair, for all have sinned. “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all iniquity.”[27]

 

We know that we have an advocate with the Father, the Holy Spirit. He prays with us, bringing our prayers to the Father. When we pray in words inspired by Him, we cannot go astray. This penitential psalm is a blessing for us, for “Whoever you are that hast sinned, and hesitatest to exercise penitence for your sin, despairing of your salvation, hear David groaning…David himself has been sent to you. Hear him crying, and with him cry: hear him groaning, and with him groan; hear him weeping, and mingle tears; hear him amended, and with him rejoice.”[28] This is a psalm of repentance for us all, and David’s words are words we all can speak from our own hearts.

 

Psalm 51 and John Fisher

 

St. John Fisher was not shy to lay before the faithful the horror of sin. “Within us is the most stinking abomination of our sin, by which the image of the almighty God in us is very foully deformed and we are made his enemies indeed.”[29] We have sinned against God, who made us for no other reason than pure love. And we have rejected rather than returned this love in each of our sins.

 

Our situation, therefore, is one that should frighten us, should we ponder its reality. “If now, under me, there were such a very deep pit…and nothing held me and kept me up but a broken bucket…hanging by a small cord…secured and held up only by the hands of one I had behaved to as an enemy and adversary…would you not think me in a perilous situation?” [30] St. John Fisher believes this is a lucky situation compared to that in which the sinner who rejects God finds himself.

 

“Therefore, what shall we wretched sinners do?”[31]However, Fisher also expounds the love and mercy of God. Thankfully, it is God who is holding that cord. Anyone else would have let go. God, instead, sent His only begotten Son to redeem man. In psalm 51, we find the confidence, which is hope without presumption,[32] to ask God for His mercy.

 

God’s mercy is a cleansing of our soul, and the putting of a new heart within us. “Our soul can be compared to a tablet on which nothing was written. Nevertheless, with many misdeeds and spots of sin we have defiled and made it deformed in the sight of God. Therefore, it is necessary that it should be scraped, washed and wiped.”[33]The martyr then goes on at length to describe in detail his analogy of scraping, washing, and wiping.

 

An important topic in his commentary on this and other penitential psalms is that of the gift of tears. He is careful to be clear on what tears are cleansing, and what tears are rather defiling. “At times we weep, but it does not come from God. As when we suffer adversities against our will, our tears do not profit us at all but rather do us harm.”[34] We must remember that it is not suffering that cleans the soul, but love. It was not Christ’s great suffering itself that pleased the Father, but the love with which He did it. Our love, our repentance, is shown in tears of this kind, “caused by spiritual sorrow, as when we are sorrowful that we have so much displeased God.”[35]

 

Strongly demanding this inner repentance of the sinner, St. John Fisher in no ways neglects the truth of the need of the sacrament of penance and satisfaction. “[W]henever a sinner will turn away from his sin, truly confess himself of it, and make satisfaction, he will live and never die everlastingly.”[36] Fisher quotes this in the context of sacramental confession, and the need to submit oneself to the apostles, on whom Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit and said “Whoevers sins you forgive, they are forgiven them.”[37]

 

The commentator goes into great depth, speaking on this psalm, of the weakness of man and the mercy of God. God certainly recognizes the weakness of each person due to concupiscence and is mindful of the intentions, the will of the sinner to repentance.[38] He tells us to trust the Church, both in its teachings of what we shall do, and its judgments when we have failed.[39]

 

Certainly, the weight of sin upon the sinner is repeated throughout the sermons that make up this commentary. We need to know the filth that sin is, as an affront to God. “To thee only have I sinned”[40] But the joy of the sinner freed of sin is likewise declared. “None can express how joyful the sinner is when he knows and understands himself to be delivered from the great burden and heaviness of sin,”[41] as so many of us can attest to after leaving the confessional; a great weight seems to have been left behind.

 

Like the psalmist, we have laid our sins at the feet of Christ, and He “always lives to make intercession for us.”[42] And when we come before Christ, with “an afflicted spirit: a contrite and humbled heart,”[43] “What will he show? Everlasting peace to come upon his servants, upon those who are sorrowful and do penance for their sins.”[44]

 

Psalm 51 and the Liturgy

 

The whole Office regularly begins with an invitatory. This consists in the verse “Lord, Open my lips, and my mouth will proclaim your praise” (Ps 51:15) and Psalm 95.[45] We see, then, that Psalm 51 holds a central place in the liturgical life of the Church.

 

Every Friday morning, on the day that we remember the Passion of Christ, Morning Prayer contains Psalm 51. “The Liturgy of the Hours makes us pray it at Lauds every Friday. For centuries the prayer has risen to heaven from the hearts of many faithful Jews and Christians as a sigh of repentance and hope poured out to a merciful God.”[46]

 

Psalm 51, although in no official or doctrinal manner, has often been given by a priest to a penitent as a penance after Confession. Personally, I have come across priests who, after hearing my confession, have given the penance of “say whatever prayers you believe will lead you closer to God.” Whether or not this is good confessional practice, Psalm 51 is certainly a good option here. To chant the beautiful Miserere before the crucifix can’t fail to bring one’s heart to a desire to serve God better and to likewise feel the presence of His great mercy.

At the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the Asperges, so called from the words intoned at the beginning of the ceremony, where the congregation is sprinkled with holy water, Psalm 50 is often recited. “After intoning the antiphon the priest recites the psalm Miserere or Confitemini, according to the season, sprinkling first the front and platform of the altar, then himself, next the ministers and choir, and lastly the congregation.”[47] This historically was done to move the congregation to a spirit of penance, and the practice dates back to sometime around the 10th century. Certainly, the miserere is appropriate for personal prayer in preparation, then, before assisting at the Mass.

 

Concluding Thoughts

 

The greatest of the penitential psalms is a masterful prayer for those who are ready to follow the words of our Savior who’s first words in the Gospel of Mark were “The time is accomplished, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent, and believe the gospel.”[48] In the new heavens and new earth, where the kingdom is completely fulfilled, those who came to Christ with a contrite heart and a broken spirit will attain to eternal life, for “Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”[49]

 

If we look at this as the new Jerusalem, we may see the fitting conclusion of the psalm, which begs “Deal favourably, O Lord, in thy good will with Sion; that the walls of Jerusalem may be built up.”[50] Speaking of these walls, St. John Fisher tells us that “[w]hoever orders himself in this way, that by his inward sorrow he can have a contrite heart, is able and fit for the high building in the heavenly city, whose walls are not yet finished. A great many stones are lacking for those walls to be built up and completed…But it is appropriate that no stone should be taken up into such a noble building without being prepared beforehand as it should be and made fit.”[51] We cannot do this on our own, but we may ask with great and confident hope: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to thy great mercy.”[52]

 


[1] Ps 50:15 (numbering of the psalms are taken from the Douay Rheims when it is quoted, even though the title of this essay is of Psalm 51. Scripture quotes are form the Douay-Rheims unless otherwise noted)

[2] 2 Sam 12:5b-7a

[3] Ps 50:3

[4] Ps 50:5

[5] Ps 50:9

[6] Ps 50:11-13

[7] Ps 50:15-16

[8] Ps 50:20

[9] Luke 15:18

[10] Ps 51:4b (RSV)

[11] Luke 15:20 (KJV)

[12] Ps 50:3

[13] John 9:33

[14] John 9:34

[15] Ps 50 7

[16] Cf Rom 5:12; 7:14;Eph 2:3

[17] Luke 22:32

[18] Ps 50:14-15

[19] Cf John 21:15-17

[20] Augustine, Exposition of the Psalms, Psalm 51

[21] Cf Matt 5:48

[22] Augustine, Ps 51

[23] Ibid

[24] Ibid

[25] Matthew 15:17-18

[26] Augustine, Exposition of the Psalms, Psalm 51

[27] 1 John 1:8-9

[28] Augustine, Exposition of the Psalms, Psalm 51

[29] John Fisher, Exposition of the Seven Penitential Psalms, 98

[30] Ibid, 96

[31] Ibid

[32] Cf. Ibid, 116-117

[33] Ibid, 102

[34] Ibid, 103

[35] Ibid

[36] Ibid, 108, quoting Ezek 18:29

[37] John 20:23

[38] Cf John Fisher, 109

[39] Ibid, 112

[40] Ps 50:6

[41] John Fisher, 114-115

[42] Heb 7:25

[43] Ps 50:19

[44] John Fisher, 115

[45] General Instruction of the Liturgy of the Hours, 34

[46] John Paul II, General Audience, Wednesday 24 October 2001

[47] New Catholic Encyclopedia, Asperges

[48] Mark 1:15

[49] Matt 5:3

[50] Ps 50:20

[51] John Fisher, 136

[52] Ps 50:3

 

Psalm 117

John Paul II states in his Wednesday Audience of November 2001, reflecting on Psalm 117  that “It is a short doxology, namely, an essential hymn of praise, that ideally functions as the conclusion of longer psalms.”

1 O praise the Lord, all ye nations: praise him, all ye people.

In Romans 15, Paul uses the first verse of the Psalm to invite the peoples of the world to glorify God.  Just before this, it is said “But that the Gentiles are to glorify God for his mercy, as it is written: Therefore will I confess to thee, O Lord, among the Gentiles, and will sing to thy name.”

Many of the Psalms have the people of Israel going so far as to call down a curse on the enemies of Israel. They glorify, certainly, the Lord, but also glorify Israel as the people set apart. Here, the Psalm is used by the great Old Testament scholar (if we may call him so) St. Paul as a call to all nations.

In Athens, Paul exhorts them “standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: ‘Ye men of Athens, I perceive that in all things you are too superstitious. For passing by, and seeing your idols, I found an altar also, on which was written: To the unknown God. What therefore you worship, without knowing it, that I preach to you.’”

It is time for all nations to praise the Lord, the one true God. There had always been those who seek God but have not heard (how can they believe if they have not heard?) the revelation of His salvation.  One such example “was a certain man in Caesarea, named Cornelius, a centurion of that which is called the Italian band; A religious man, and fearing God with all his house, giving much alms to the people, and always praying to God.”

There are many like Cornelius today. Many who have not heard the truth but seek it. Of course, in their very seeking, the grace of God is at work in them. Undeservedly, God moves them ever closer, opens their hearts to the good news, and this is all to the praise of His great mercy:

2 For his mercy is confirmed upon us: and the truth of the Lord remaineth for ever.

Psalm 149: A Few Quick Thoughts

As it appears in the Douay-Rheims, Psalm 149 is prefaced with:

 

“Cantate Domino. The church is particularly bound to praise God. Alleluia.” It truly is a “Hymn on the establishment of the kingdom of the LORD”[1] and that Kingdom is the Church.

 

[1] Sing ye to the Lord a new canticle: let his praise be in the church of the saints.

 

“A festive atmosphere pervades the entire Psalm.”[2] I think the same can be said for the next and final Psalm of the Psalter as well. The last six psalms all begin with “praise.”

 

[2] Let Israel rejoice in him that made him: and let the children of Sion be joyful in their king.

 

“But as many as received him, he gave them power to be made the sons of God, to them that believe in his name. Who are born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.”[3] All are born of God in their first birth, but those born anew are those who accept their King, the Christ. It is they who, faithfully enduring til the end, will hear “enter thou into the joy of thy lord.”[4]

 

[3] Let them praise his name in choir: let them sing to him with the timbrel and the psaltery.

 

“it begins with the initial Alleluia and then continues with chant, praise, joy, dance, the sound of drums and of harps.”[5] We are told by St. Augustine that “to sing is the work of lovers.”[6]

 

[4] For the Lord is well pleased with his people: and he will exalt the meek unto salvation.

 

“The protagonists of the Psalm in the original Hebrew text are given two terms that are taken from the spirituality of the Old Testament. Three times they are defined as the hasidim (vv. 1, 5, 9), ‘the pious, the faithful ones’, who respond with fidelity and love (hesed) to the fatherly love of the Lord.”[7] “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the land.” This, as many of the beatitudes, goes against our first inclinations, but truly, it is the meek that inherit the new creation:

 

[5] The saints shall rejoice in glory: they shall be joyful in their beds.

 

[6] The high praise of God shall be in their mouth: and two-edged swords in their hands:

 

“Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” [8] “For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.”[9]

 

[7] To execute vengeance upon the nations, chastisements among the people:

 

“The kings of the earth stood up, and the princes met together, against the Lord and against his Christ. Let us break their bonds asunder: and let us cast away their yoke from us.”[10]

 

[8] To bind their kings with fetters, and their nobles with manacles of iron.

 

We are told in the second Psalm: “The One enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord scoffs at them. Then he rebukes them in his anger and terrifies them in his wrath, saying, ‘I have installed my King on Zion, my holy hill.’”[11]

 

[9] To execute upon them the judgment that is written: this glory is to all his saints.

 

“And Jesus said to them: Amen, I say to you, that you, who have followed me, in the regeneration, when the Son of man shall sit on the seat of his majesty, you also shall sit on twelve seats judging the twelve tribes of Israel.”[12]

 

Alleluia.


[1]Dr. Daniel Van Slyke, Notes on Processional and Enthronement Psalms

[2] John Paul II, General Audience, Wednesday 23 May 2001

[3] John 1:12-13

[4] Matt 25:23

[5] Ibid.

[6] Augustine, Sermones, 33, 1

[7] John Paul II

[8] Matt 10:34

[9] Heb 4:12

[10] Psalm 2:2-3

[11] Psalm 2:4

[12] Matt 19:28

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)

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.

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.

Psalm 6 in the NT (brief)

Ps 6:9             Lk 13:27 and Matt 7:23                     “depart from me, all you workers of iniquity”

 

Psalm Six is one of the seven penitential psalms, and the first. The Navarre Commentary states of this Psalm that “The peaceful nights referred to in the previous psalms are sometimes disturbed by sorrowful feelings. This psalms provides a pattern for prayer in such circumstances, particularly when a person is very conscious of his own sinfulness.”

 

Saint John Fisher comments at length on this Psalm of the need for us to recognize our sinfulness and do penance.  God will not punish twice the offenses of the sinner.  If we recognize our sinfulness, ask forgiveness, and do penance out of the love of God, we will be forgiven.  In the passage from Luke, as well as a similar passage from Matthew (from the Sermon on the Mount), many claim “Lord, we ate and drank in your company.” But it is not merely those that know of Christ that will be saved.  Jesus says that God could raise of children of Abraham from the rocks.  Jesus elsewhere asks “who are my brothers and sisters and my mother?” It won’t be blood relation or acquaintance that is our key to Heaven.  It will be, rather, our humility, our rejection of pride, and our recognition of our own sinfulness and therefore helplessness before God, and a loving turn to His mercy.

 

Verse 9 is referenced in the passages from Luke and Matthew, but the following verse of the psalm gives us hope: “The Lord has heard my supplication; the Lord accepts my prayer.” So it won’t be the Pharisee that thanked God he wasn’t “like this tax collector” but rather, the sinner that beats his breast and asks forgiveness that will “go away justified.”

Life in Christ: The Beatitudes

“Come, ye blessed of my Father, possess you the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Matt 25:34). Certainly, our entire goal and purpose in life is to hear these words at our judgment. This blessed state, the beatific vision, is only given by the pure grace of God, and we are told throughout the Scriptures in what kind of life this blessedness is prefigured and what kind of life, likewise, leads to the fulfillment of our end.

“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” (Psalm 1).

It is well that we meditate on the law of Christ, and there is no place we find this more profoundly written than in the Sermon on the Mount, especially as given in Matthew’s Gospel in the fifth, sixth, and seventh chapters.  “And seeing the multitudes, he went up into a mountain, and when he was set down, his disciples came unto him. And opening his mouth, he taught them…” (Matt 5:1-2)

In Pope Benedict’s Jesus of Nazareth Volume I, he says, reflecting on the Sermon on the Mount, that “In a word, the true morality of Christianity is Love.” (p.99) “The law of the Lord” is therefore none other than the law of Christ, which is why the pope can say just before this that “…the Sermon on the Mount is a hidden Christology.” (p.99)

While it is true that there are certainly objective “dos and don’ts in the way we should live, these are a means, and not the end.  The end is love, for the end is God, and “God is love” (1John4:8). In fact, the verse stated in full says that “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.”  “…in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets” (Matt 7:12).

Let us focus here on that first part of the Sermon, the beatitudes.

“Each beatitude contains two parts; the first part refers to a meritorious act, and the second part refers to a reward. The reward applies primarily to the life to come, and yet there is likewise the promise of happiness even in this life.” (Spiritual Theology, Jordan Aumann)

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 5:3-10).

Many deep and profound works have been composed on the beatitudes, and it probably compares with John’s prologue in the depth of not only what it can say to us but, and for this reason, the available material written on it.

St. Augustine showed brilliantly that, being no mere list of platitudes, each beatitude leads to the next. St. Thomas Aquinas links them with the three types of life in which we hope to find happiness: the life of pleasure, the active life, and the contemplative life, moving from one to the next as we grow. Servias Pinckaers, in his little book, The Pursuit of Happiness God’s Way, tells us that “We can literally say that the Gospel teaches us a morality of beatitude or blessedness.”

To truly understand any of this, we must make it our primary task in life to know Christ. As Thomas a Kempis says in The Imitation of Christ, “He that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, saith the Lord. These are the words of Christ; and they teach us how far we must imitate His life and character, if we seek true illumination, and deliverance from all blindness of heart. Let it be our most earnest study, therefore, to dwell upon the life of Jesus Christ.” (The Imitation of Christ, Bk I, Ch 1)

This in fact could be seen as a commentary on the first Psalm; “Blessed is the man who, on his law, shall meditate day and night” This is the way of those that love God and neighbor, and live in Christ, seeing Christ in others and loving them.

We are told, in the Sermon, something that should sound alarming, even shocking, to us, if we take it seriously.  “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”(Matt 5:20) He goes on to command us to “Be you therefore perfect, as also your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matt 5:28)

“And seeing the multitudes, he went up into a mountain, and when he was set down, his disciples came unto him. And opening his mouth, he taught them…” (Matt 5:1-2) This is the way we are introduced to the Sermon on the Mount, which has often been called a summary of the Gospel.  And the beatitudes, first in the Sermon, have been called a summary of the Sermon on the Mount.  We could easily devote our entire study to them, and in fact, several of the major religious orders see them as the primary subject of meditation and contemplation, both at the beginning of the religious life and throughout.

Of course, upon first reading the beatitudes, we may find it difficult to make sense of them, seeing them as perhaps nothing more than pious platitudes. “Blessed are the poor? Blessed are those who mourn?”

The first thing we must see is that these are not a random list of “blesseds.” When we read the commentary of such saints as Augustine of Hippo and Thomas Aquinas, we see a remarkable unity and order to the beatitudes.  As Fr. Pinkaers says in reflecting on Augustine’s commentary, “St. Augustine establishes an ascending order of beatitudes…The journey begins with humility, taught in the first beatitude, and gradually mounts, passing through a loving and docile openness to the Word of God, …to wisdom or the contemplation of truth which gives peace to man and makes him like God” (p.189-190).

In other words, the entire spiritual life can be seen to be contained in the beatitudes.  Likewise, all of Christian morality can be found in the beatitudes.  The rest of the Sermon on the Mount, in fact, is an exposition of particulars and application of that which is contained in the beatitudes.  Thus, before Jesus goes on to give us examples of living out this spirituality, He says, “Do not think that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets. I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill.” (Matt 5:17)

What follows the beatitudes, although we will hear the words “You have heard it said…but I say to you,” are not intended to abolish, but to fulfill, what is said in the Old Law, in the Torah, in the Ten Commandments.  The heart, reflecting upon the beatitudes, and conforming itself with them, will understand the entire Sermon on the Mount as showing forth what the Old Law always intended; a heart formed by love, and not a list of rules to be followed merely out of fear.”

As the first Psalm says, we are blessed when we meditate on the law of the Lord. The beatitudes likewise tell us we are blessed, because, conforming our hearts to Christ, we begin to live with, through, and in Him, and this is the goal of our striving. “Be glad and rejoice, for your reward is very great in heaven.”

The first Psalm has often been my prayer when I do not have time to read and pray the entire Sermon on the Mount.  I have found it to contain what the Didache, a very early Christian writing from the first century (or at the latest, the early second century,) calls “the two ways.”

“There are two ways, one of life and one of death, but a great difference between the two ways. The way of life, then, is this: First, you shall love God who made you; second, love your neighbor as yourself, and do not do to another what you would not want done to you. And of these sayings the teaching is this: Bless those who curse you, and pray for your enemies, and fast for those who persecute you. For what reward is there for loving those who love you? Do not the Gentiles do the same? But love those who hate you, and you shall not have an enemy.” (The Didache, opening sentences)

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:10).

This is the “first way, the one of life.” We said earlier that “The law of the Lord” is therefore none other than the law of Christ, and that “In a word, the true morality of Christianity is Love.” Therefore the Didache tells us that “The way of life, then, is this: First, you shall love God who made you; second, love your neighbor as yourself.”

No one is more blessed than Christ, for He, as man, was graced in a way no other, could be. Grace reaches its full limit in the incarnate Christ both intensively and extensively.The grace of Christ can be looked at in two ways. As the son of God and the person of a divine nature His grace is infinite because the word himself is infinite and is the source of that grace. But as existing in a created subject which is Christ soul, and humanity in total, it is finite, although it is given the most perfect way possible to any human being. As perfect it can in some way be called infinite even here.

To live a life of the beatitudes means to live a life in Christ. Like the apparent contradiction of the beatitudes (blessed are the poor, the hungry, the mourning), our life is only truly fulfilled when we die to self. “Therefore, if you be risen with Christ, seek the things that are above; where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God: Mind the things that are above, not the things that are upon the earth. For you are dead; and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ shall appear, who is your life, then you also shall appear with him in glory” (Col 3:1-4).