In this fourth article, Canon John Udris tackles Psalm 51, and several other psalms whose gospel echoes during the Passion of Jesus provide us with real hope in our despair.
Sin slows us down and even brings us to a standstill on our pilgrim way. Sin often disorientates us and we can lose our bearings. King David knew that, and the particular context of Psalm 51 is as its title spells out: ‘when the prophet Nathan came to him after he had slept with Bathsheba.’ But David’s sin gives birth to one of the most beautiful and timeless outcries for God’s mercy. Let’s focus on the first two verses:
Have mercy on me God in your kindness,
in your compassion blot out my offence.
O wash me more and more from my guilt,
and cleanse me from my sin.
In these two verses there are three words for mercy, three words for sin, and three words for how God’s mercy deals with that sin. First all the big Bible words for mercy are all there: ‘Have mercy (1) on me God in your kindness (2) and in your compassion (3) blot out my offence. ‘Have mercy’ means ‘be gracious’. It’s the word Hannan from where the name John (God is gracious) comes from.
Then ‘in your kindness’ that’s the big mercy word hesed sometimes translated as ‘loving kindness’ or ‘steadfast love’. And thirdly ‘in your compassion’ the Hebrew rahamim and the root meaning of that word is womb. It’s what one feels in one’s depths, in that instinctive and visceral way a mother feels for the child within her womb. So all the mercy words are in those first four lines of that psalm. Then there are three words for sin. First ‘blot out my offence’ which conveys a sense of rupture in our relationship with God or others that needs to be restored by a process of reconciliation.
The second word for sin ‘wash me more and more from my guilt’ refers to that burden we carry whenever our behaviour is in contradiction to who we are. Like David’s adultery with Bathsheba which traditionally provoked Psalm 51 in the first place. It’s the tension we feel when our actions are at odds with our identity.
And the third word is ‘and cleanse me from my sin.’ That’s the most commonly used word for sin in the Old Testament which means missing the mark. The sense is there is a target to be hit but the arrow falls short of that target.
As well as the words for sin and mercy in those first four lines of the psalm also known as the ‘Miserere’ from the Latin for mercy, there are three words for what God’s mercy does with that sin. The first is ‘blot out my offence’. That’s a word that comes from the commercial world meaning to cancel something. It’s like a debt for sin now written off.
The second and third words are in the prayer we pray at the offertory at Mass when the priest washes his hands, ‘O wash me more and more from my guilt and cleanse me from my sins’. ‘Wash me’ is a basic laundry word. But the ‘cleanse me’ is the most interesting and means to make pure. More precisely it means to expel every idol. Anything that competes in my heart for the love and service I owe to the Lord alone.
Remember how the Old Testament King Hezekiah famously cleansed the Temple of his time in 2 Chronicles 29. Everything which had been polluted with idols under the rule of his father Ahaz was expelled. That’s the same type of cleansing echoed in Jesus’ own cleansing of the Temple in the gospels. What we’re praying for and what’s on offer from the Lord here, is that pure heart for which David prays in psalm 51: ‘A pure heart create for me, O God!’ It’s the same word – it means a heart that has been completely purified and purged. The Lord puts it similarly in the canticle of Ezekiel 36:25: ‘and from all your idols I will cleanse you.’
But there’s more to the notion of cleansing there. It refers to something restored to its original state, to its original glory which is the role of the Holy Spirit in reconciliation. St. Teresa of Avila once put it well: ‘he makes you yourself again.’ This is what David was hoping for and what was actually happening to him in that psalm. He was being reconnected with his true self after the disconnection caused by his adultery. To use the language of the prodigal son ‘he comes to his senses’ or literally ‘he came to himself.’ This is action of the Holy Spirit. And so it’s striking that the first explicit mention of the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament comes here in Psalm 51: 10-11:
A pure heart create for me O God,
put a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not caste me away from your presence,
nor deprive me of your Holy Spirit.
Let’s stay with the Spirit a little longer as we explore another way we can experience its promptings as we pray the psalms. It was the Spirit who not only led the Lord into the wilderness but who led Jesus to face and outface several temptations. You’ll remember that when the devil quotes Scripture, the Lord answers back with words of Scripture inspired by the Spirit in the first place.
In the spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, this technique became a specific strategy for dealing with temptation. And it was called Anti-Rhetikos literally ‘talking back’.
So people like the 4th century monk, Evagrius who wrote a book with that name, listed specific texts with which to talk back to particular temptations, and particular thoughts which when we give them room and begin to indulge them, can turn into deadly sins. This is from where we get the classification of the seven deadly sins.
Take the affliction which is usually called ‘sloth’. It’s actually something much more subtle than that. The Desert Fathers and Mothers called it ‘acedia’. It’s like a depression or melancholy or sadness that de-energises us. If you’ve ever woken up in the morning with so much to do that the thought of it paralyses you and you lie in bed despite all that needs to get done, that’s acedia. If you’re endlessly looking for distractions from the very things that must be done or find yourself procrastinating until you’re so tired you haven’t the energy to actually do what you needed to do, that’s acedia. Those desert monks and nuns were very familiar with this state but rather than give up, they learned to talk back to it with some words from Psalms 42 and 43 –
Why are you cast down my soul,
why groan within me?
Hope in God I will praise him still,
my saviour and my God.
So we don’t indulge acedia by giving in to it, we talk back to it. And in so doing, we separate ourselves from it. And in putting a distance between us and it, we create some perspective. By not over identifying with it, we can acknowledge that we are not that temptation.
Take another example: anger. Now there’s an anger we need to express, the sort that the psalms do very readily. They teach us to be angry with God, the kind of anger we all need to download with a friend. But such venting should lead to the reduction of that anger. There’s an anger that is toxic when the venting of it simply adds fuel to the fire and it becomes self-indulgence. That’s when it becomes self-destructive and deadly. The monk Evagrius says that in such situations ‘Turbid anger is calmed by singing of Psalms’. Singing literally lets off steam. It creates a healthy space as an antidote to the cramped confines created by anger. Singing doubles the effect of our prayers, the psalms are the Songs of the Spirit.
And that’s what makes the psalms so powerful and the lines of those psalms such an effective response to anger. Evagrius prescribes specific lines from Psalm 37: 8-9 to those who find themselves seething with anger:
Calm your anger, and forget your rage.
Do not fret, it only leads to evil.
For those who do evil shall perish,
the patient shall inherit the land.
So we need the opposing virtue to move towards when overcome with anger, which here is patience. Just as in a similar way that ‘hope’ is the antidote to acedia.
Let’s look at one more example, of when we’re conscious of being consumed by pride we can pray Psalm 131 which begins ‘O Lord, my heart is not proud nor haughty my eyes.
I have not gone after things too great nor marvels beyond me.’ Here we can use the psalms as an act of faith. We’re praying words that are beyond where we are right now, words that capture where we want to be. We’re praying our future into existence.
And this leads us to the awesome acknowledgment of how perfectly the Psalms of Disorientation find their fulfilment on the lips of the Lord, especially in his Passion.
According to Matthew 27:46 and Mark 15:34, Jesus cries out from the cross in the words of Psalm 22 ‘My God my God, why have you forsaken me?’ It’s a psalm that prophetically anticipates the agonies of crucifixion such as in verse 14:
I am poured out like water,
and all my bones are out of joint;
my heart is like wax;
it is melted within my breast…
And then even more poignantly between verses 16 -18:
They have pierced my hands and feet…
they divide my garments among them,
they cast lots for my robes.
The double edged abandonment expressed in this psalm can describe both our feeling of abandonment and our decision to abandon ourselves. Psalm 22 expresses both and while it begins with ‘My God, my God why have you abandoned me’ it develops in verse 24 with:
In the midst of the congregation I will praise you:
You who fear the Lord, praise him!
For he did not despise the affliction of the afflicted;
he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him.
So this psalm does not end in despair but in praise as indeed does the whole Psalter. Yet it is not the only psalm in which we can hear echoes from the cross. The Lord’s thirst is evoked in Psalm 42:1-2 with ‘my soul is thirsting for God, the God of my life. When can I enter and see the face of God?’ and Psalm 63:1 with ‘My body pines for you like a dry weary land without water.’
Jesus’ final words of surrender ‘Father into your hands…’ are a direct echo of Psalm 31:5 ‘Into you hands, Lord, I commend my spirit. It is you who will redeem me Lord.’ And then the Scriptures say his ultimate prayer was a sigh too deep for words, a sigh of the Spirit and a final breath. As John 19:30 states, ‘Then he bowed down his head and gave up his spirit.’
I heard a rabbi argue that the origins of the Jewish name for God is the universal sound of human breath. Yah-weh. Yah-weh. Yah-weh. He is as close to us as the air we breathe. When we take our first breath we are speaking his name. And we speak his name when we take our last breath, as Jesus did on the cross. That might be something that might help us to get into prayer if we’re finding it difficult at the moment.
The psalms plot the journey of prayer for all of us. We begin by ‘praying for’ such and such, and then we find ourselves ‘in prayer’. And one day we will discover that we have become the prayer. That we have become prayer. Which is to say we have become intercession. Intercession is our identity. Which is to say we have become Love. Which is to say we have become Jesus. Which is exactly what the Psalms are seeking. That’s why in God, and therefore in the psalms, we find our deepest identity, and our deepest destiny.
Music: Allegri’s Miserere – Tallis Scholars. (Nine voice setting of Psalm 51).