The Psalms on Where We Stand

King David, Westminster Psalter

King David, Westminster Psalter

We come to the second-to-last line of our Psalm:

“My foot stands on a straight path.”

It’s a fitting place for a prayer to end.  In the course of Psalm 26 (as in many Psalms) we have considered our eyes, our mouth, our heart, and our kidneys.  Each of these body parts points to a different aspect of how we relate to the world around us.  But our feet, and where they stand, points to givenness.

At the end of our prayer, we say, “here I am, in this spot – this career, this house, this vocation, this family, these friends, this culture,” and, by thinking about our feet, we say, “given that I’m here, where will I go?”

The basic dynamic is simple: on the one hand, it’s up to me to walk, to head off in the right direction.  On the other hand, an awful lot of my life isn’t up to me.  I stand in a particular place.


There’s a modern philosophy called existentialism which focuses on radical freedom.  Every moment is separated from every other moment.  Every moment is a moment of decision!  (We have the expression “existential angst” to talk about how it’s scary for everything to be up to us, “in our hands.”)

Existentialism is beloved of both Christians and non-Christians.  And of course there’s something true about it.  Ultimately, what matters is the state of our heart, and that really is all about our decisions.

But there’s something really false about this, too.  Everything is not up to us.  Or rather, what’s up to us is how we deal with the particular place where we find ourselves.  We do no favors to ourselves – to our responsibility, our dignity – by pretending there’s not a situation given to us.  St. John Paul liked to call it our “task”; we could also call it a “call,” or vocation: we have a reality to deal with.


There’s a strange theme in the Bible, of children being punished for their parents’ sins.  The Bible is aware this is strange.  For example: “the LORD God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations” (Ex 34:6-7).  Forgiving, but punishing children?

Modern Christians are tempted to solve everything by saying the Old Testament God is evil and unfair.  But that strategy fails on a lot of levels.  The most important problem with it is that the Old Testament is God’s Word, and full of wisdom!

Here’s the simple fact: we do suffer for the sins of our parents, even our grandparents, to the third and fourth generation.  This is a big part of “where our feet stand.”  My feet stand in the good things and the bad things my parents and grandparents, and their whole generation, have bequeathed to me.

Just as existentialism does me no favors when it pretends everything is up to me, it does me no favors to pretend that the sins of my fathers don’t affect me.  Oh, I suffer for them!

But even more important, they are the place where I stand, the ground I have to walk across.  This is where I live my faith: in the place my parents and grandparents – and, in another way, their whole generation – gave to me.


But in our Psalm, the line is, “my foot stands in a straight path.”  So here are three ways I can look at my situation, the place I stand: I can see the way I bear the consequences of my grandparents’ actions, especially of their sins; I can see the way I simply must live wherever I am; but finally, I can give thanks for where I stand.

My foot stands in a straight path.  The place where I stand, where I find myself, is a good place, a path leading right up to the heavenly Jerusalem.

This means, first, giving thanks for all the good things in life.  That I know Christ, above all, and everything else about my life: these are gifts.  I don’t claim responsibility for where I stand: I give thanks.

But, too, I give thanks for all the bad things in my life.  I recognize that God’s Providence has put me here, and God’s Providence will bring me home.  This is a good place to be, a straight path to heaven, if I receive it from his hand.

What parts of your life do you have the hardest time recognizing as paths to God?  What failures of recent generations present tasks to you today?


The Psalms on Redemption

King David, Westminster Psalter

King David, Westminster Psalter

With many interruptions, we draw closer to the end of our Psalm 26.  The final strophe says:


“But I walk in my innocence;

Redeem me and have mercy on me.

My foot stands on a straight path;

In the congregations I will bless the Lord.”


Now, there is a strange tension here, especially in the first two lines: I walk . . . redeem me.  Which one is it?  Is it about our works, or God’s?  Is salvation by grace, or by works?

In truth, it is both – and indeed, how can we read the Bible without seeing that it’s constantly saying both things: God’s mercy and his justice; our call to righteousness and our need for a Savior; the necessity of our works, our “walk,” and the centrality of his redemption.


“Lord make us turn to you,” the Psalms say elsewhere: God makes us turn – and we turn.  This is best thought of not as a shared work.  We are not on an equal playing field with God, like two rowers each pulling an oar.  Rather, in more abstract language, it is primary and secondary causality.

The real model is creation: God makes us – and we really exist.  Creation is entirely God’s work; I contribute absolutely nothing.  But when God creates me, I do exist.  Indeed, to deny my existence would not uphold God’s strength, but deny it.  He actually makes something happen.

So too with salvation: God does everything, I contribute nothing – yet when he restores me, brings me back to health, then I really am healthy.  It’s not that God needs me to walk, or that I “contribute” my walk to God’s redemption.  Rather, now that God has redeemed me, I can walk.  That’s what his redemption does: it makes me able to walk – and, more importantly, makes me, really me, able to “bless the Lord.”


“Redemption” is a fabulous, rich word.  The Latin roots of the word are re-, as in restoration – and emptio, which means buying.  Properly, it is buying back a slave.  When an enemy holds one of the Israelites hostage, his people can “ransom” him, buy back his freedom.

Redemption is restoration.  The root idea is that there is a former state that can be restored.  A parallel idea is “health” – and indeed, that is the root of the word “salvation,” in both Latin and Greek.  Salvation is being salved, being healed.  It means being restored to our nature.

That means we have a nature.  We have a reality, which sin has deformed and wounded and enslaved.  Redemption is the restoration of freedom, the freedom of the glory of the children of God, the freedom to be ourselves again – but our true selves were designed to find their happiness in God.  We become human again, which means not randomly doing whatever, but turning again to the Lord, looking back to his face, as is our birthright.  Redemption means being bought back from the slavery of sin to the freedom of glory.

Restoration means we have an original design, a way things are supposed to be, not because there are some rules written on high, but because we are discovering our true selves.  This is the real meaning of “natural law,” a much abused term.  In the Christian context, “natural law” doesn’t mean “what you can do without Christ.”  It means, “the nature that Christ restores.”  When grace makes us whole again – redeems us, heals us, restores us – then we again act like human beings.

We live marriage: which is natural, but which sin makes impossible.  We live neighborliness.  We work, and build, and garden.  Above all, we worship, and give thanks to God for all the beauty of creation – and now, too, for the beauty of our restoration.  We are restored, bought back, made ourselves again.


This is why Christ is true man: because he comes to restore man – not to replace him, not to make us into something else, not to leave our nature in the dust, but to make us human again.  Redemption.

And that’s why “redeem me” does not negate “I will walk.”  Redemption makes us walk again, makes us able to live again.  Even more deeply, in the last line of our Psalm, it restores “the congregations” and lets us “bless the Lord”: Redemption means that the Church is our natural home, the natural place of love of neighbor and love of God.

And finally, “redeem me” is the true meaning of “have mercy on me.”  Mercy does not leave us the same, does not merely overlook our faults.  Mercy heals our faults.  Mercy is not withholding punishment – or, not just withholding punishment.  Mercy is God giving us gifts, grace, redemption.

How does Jesus want to make you more human?

The Psalms on Walking

King David, Westminster Psalter

King David, Westminster Psalter

We turn now to the final strophe of Psalm 26.  God has probed our hearts, and found that we long for him and his dwelling place, not for the company of the wicked.  And in the second to last strophe, we have begged him not to leave us among the wicked.  Now comes the conclusion of this Psalm – and insight into all the Psalms:


“But I walk in my innocence;

Redeem me and have mercy on me.

My foot stands on a straight path;

In the congregations I will bless the Lord.”


The turn now is to our “walk”: after all the talk of what is in our hearts, we now set off to go there.


The juxtaposition of the first two lines is interesting – and recapitulates the structure of the whole Psalm.  “I am innocent | redeem me.”  If I am innocent, do I need redemption?

The answer, always the answer in the theology of the grace, is both-and.  Redemption, God’s grace and salvation, does not save us from the need to walk.  God’s grace allows us to walk.  And our walking doesn’t make us need God’s grace any less; it makes us see more deeply our need for his grace, for his redemption, to allow us to walk to our goal.

We must never oppose grace and works.  Grace allows us to work.


Work – the walk – is important, because ultimately we are important.  I just read today yet another confused attempt to sort out whether religion is “about us” or “about God.” This one was talking about liturgy, and said, essentially, it might be nice if we can participate, but liturgy is really “for God,” and it doesn’t matter if we participate.

This is nonsense – or, rather, it is a good insight very badly put.  In the moral realm it would raise more red flags.  It would say something like, God doesn’t need us to be righteous; he is righteous!

That’s true enough.  But God offers us righteousness.  That’s the purpose of morals, and the purpose of liturgy.  God doesn’t need any of it!  Rather he offers it to us.  It is he who allows us to walk: the walk of morality and the walk of liturgy.  It is ultimately “about us”: both liturgy and morality are about us being redeemed.

But it comes from God – only God can allow us to pray and to live a life ordered to God.  And it is ordered to God: liturgy is pointless unless we | pray to God.  And morality is pointless unless we are truly converted | to God.

And so it is important, at the end of all our prayers, to return to the theme of “walking.”  It makes little sense to say “I love your house,” or “leave me not among the wicked,” unless it bears fruit in the transformation of our lives, our “walk.”


Nonetheless, for all the importance of our walking, our Psalm 26, and all the Psalms, and all truly Christian spirituality, hems in these thoughts about walking with lots and lots of God talk.

Walking comes only at the end of the Psalm: only after our hearts are firmly set on our destination.

And Psalm 26 almost comically returns immediately from the one line about walking to lots of lines about God.  First, “redeem me!”  No, walking doesn’t mean I stop thinking about redemption.  It means I think more deeply about what redemption really means.

Then, “my foot stands on a straight path”: a recognition that my very ability to walk, the ground under my feet and the way forward, comes not from my walking but from God’s grace.  He puts me in the place where I can walk.

And finally, “in the congregations I will bless the Lord”: because my walking is ordered to Jerusalem.  I walk to the place of prayer.  That’s what our walk is all about: having our faces turned toward Jerusalem.


Walking is a helpful metaphor for thinking about the moral life.  Compare walking to earlier talk about our hands.  “I have washed my hands in innocence,” we said before.  And the wicked “have blood on their hands.”  But now we “walk in innocence.”

Both metaphors are important.  But walking emphasizes that we are going somewhere.  Indeed, if we think of our “works” purely in terms of our hands, we might think the point is that we make something for God.  Lucky him!

But to the contrary, what we are really making is ourselves.  Or in other words, what we are really “working” at is to move ourselves, to “walk,” to Jerusalem, to be in his presence. With all the current maladies and poor health going around in my family I’ve been looking into other health care and insurance system around the world. Europe has myehic application which covers people with basic care, it leaves me thinking that we need to improve our situation here at home.

What parts of your Christian “walk” are you tempted to think about without reference to God?  Are there ways you replace spirituality with moralism?

The Psalms on Bribery

King David, Westminster Psalter

King David, Westminster Psalter

We are learning about the spirituality Psalms by carefully reading Psalm 26. We are in the penultimate strophe of the Psalm, where we beg to be kept far from sin. But the last line of that strophe takes a surprising turn. The first line identified “sinners” generally. The second called them “men of blood,” describing sin as violence. The third spoke generally of “crime” on their hands. But this final line says, “And their right hand is full of bribes.”

The word bribery occurs only a couple times in the Psalms, but it points to a deeper concept that is ubiquitous – and to which Pope Francis has drawn attention by his calling for a Church “poor and for the poor.”

The Psalms say, “Blessed is he that considers the poor” (41:1). The Psalmist repeatedly identifies himself as poor, and says that God’s king (which, depending on the reading, could be God himself, the Messiah, or those who do as God wills) “shall judge for the poor, and save the children of the needy” (72:4). So we too are told, “Defend the poor and fatherless; do justice to the afflicted and needy” (82:3), where as he will be cut off who “remembered not to show mercy, but persecuted the poor and needy man, that he might even slay the broken in heart” (109:16).

Examples could be multiplied. But the point is well made with the example of bribery. To take a bribe is to choose the rich over the poor because we choose self-interest over justice. The poor are vulnerable precisely as those who cannot pay bribes: who need to be treated right because it is the right thing to do, and not because we can profit from them.


Consider the Church’s traditional teaching on usury.

I’ll spare you at the front and say I don’t think everything the banking industry does is usury, and my point is not to condemn any particular financial practice, but to bring out a more generally applicable principle.

Usury is defined as making money off of someone else’s desperation. You are so desperate for bread that you beg me for some money. I tell you I’ll help you out – but for a price: only if I can make money off of you.

Usury is defined by its difference from trade or partnership. In trade and partnership, both parties benefit. Normally, if you buy bread for me, I get money I need for other things, you get bread, and everyone benefits. The word “interest” is meant, at least in theory, to suggest that both parties are interested in the success of a venture: as if I lend you a ship, or money to buy a ship, so that you can take your products to market, and we both benefit from your success.

Usury, to the contrary, is defined by my making money off of a person without really helping them. It is like bribery: I don’t care about giving you justice, I just want profit. I don’t care about you, I care about money, and me.

It’s only a little over-simplifying to say that the heart of Catholic Social Thought is simply the condemnation of the theory (a standard one in the United States) that you can treat another human person as merely an opportunity for profit. No, says the Church, never. You must always treat another human person as a human person, whether they are your employee, your customer, a beggar, or whatever. Basic justice – treating other people right – can never be set aside in favor of self-interest.


Let us return from social thought to our spiritual lives more generally – Catholic social thought is really just an application of true Christian spirituality to the marketplace.

Our Psalm – and all the places the Psalms invoke poverty, orphans, widows, etc. – treats bribery as a kind of paradigm for all sin. It is not bribery to ask someone to do their fair share. Bribery means I don’t care what’s fair, I just care what benefits me.

The poor are those vulnerable to bribery. How often we come across people and situations where my material self-interest and the right thing to do come in conflict. As in economics, much of the time we can work together on an even keel. But when someone is wounded or impoverished, we have to treat them right even though they can’t repay us.

It is true with the beggar on the street, of course. But it is also true with the wounded coworker, with the needy child, or the exhausted spouse – who, but for us, would be left a widow. We must do the right thing, respect their human dignity, even when we have nothing to gain by it. And that is a challenge.

Think of someone in your life who is emotionally needy. Do you ever look for personal benefit instead of their human dignity?

The Psalms on Our Hands

King David, Westminster Psalter

King David, Westminster Psalter

“Do not abandon my soul with sinners

And my life with men of blood

In whose hands is crime . . . .”

Our Psalm 26 has considered the joy in God’s tabernacle, and now expresses the fear of sin. It walks a careful middle line: it is not clear whether we fear more what the men of blood will do to us, or that we will become one of them. Who is worse off, the violent man, or his victim?

Our line for today starts to examine the men of blood themselves: there is crime in (or on) their hands.


We are reminded of the famous scene from Macbeth:

“What hands are here? Ha! They pluck out mine eyes.

Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood

Clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather

The multitudinous seas incarnadine,

Making the green one red.”

All the oceans of the world cannot wash the blood from Macbeth’s hands. The world itself will be stained in blood before it can wash the murderer clean. And so the crime that has stained his hands plucks out his own eyes, destroys his whole ability to relate to the world.


The hand, said Aristotle, is the “tool of tools.” We use a hammer to drive nails and a screwdriver to drive screws – but we use our hand to drive the hammer and the screwdriver.

The hand is a sign of our interaction with the world. It is “exterior” to us, in that it is our main tool for interacting with other things, whether by touch or by manipulation. But it is also “interior,” in that the hands work intelligently, not dumbly kicking, but dexterously interacting.

Thus the hand is, for the Psalmist, a sign of the encounter between our interior and our exterior, between our soul and our actions.


To say our hands are “stained with blood,” or that “on their hands is crime,” is to say that our interaction with the world touches us. Macbeth can, in fact, wash the physical blood off of his hands.

What he cannot wash away (at least not by all the oceans of this world) is the stain of his free choices. Precisely the intelligence of the hands signals that what we have done with them is truly us.

Macbeth’s hands didn’t kill Duncan, Macbeth himself did. But the hands, both for Shakespeare and for the Psalms, signal that our free, intelligent choices really bring our interior in contact with the exterior world. The hands are a sign that there is no deep divide between the outside world and our interior: we are our actions.


We should note that alongside the Psalms’ endless references to hands (about 150 times: our hands, the hands of the wicked, the hands of God), they speak often too of the lips (about 35 times), the tongue (another 35 times), and the mouth (almost 70 times).

Like the hands, the mouth is bodily and spiritual, a point of contact with the outside world but profoundly tied to our intelligence and free choice. What we do with our hands and what we say with our lips is truly us. These are profound signs of the reality of our word and deeds.


What is our real fear, then, with bloody men and sinners? What they do to us?

Truly the crime-stained hands are a reminder that sinners sin. Haters, the new expression says, are going to hate. If we entrust ourselves to the world, we should not be surprised if the world treats us the way the world is, with its crime stained hands.

Hollywood is not out to make you a better Christian. To say it is an instrument of the devil would be too strong – unless we mean that the world is in the power of sin.

Even our loved ones, even if they are good Christians, are still sinners. They are going to sin. We should love them, profoundly. But we should entrust ourselves to the One who will treat us well. We should not look for sinners to treat us with perfect mercy. We should not be surprised when the world hurts us.


But even deeper, when we pray, “Do not abandon my soul with sinners,” we pray not only that God will care for us among the sins of others. We beg even more deeply that he will rescue us from sin itself. Because the greatest punishment of sin is precisely the staining of our hands, the staining of our souls, the plucking out of our eyes by our own hands, when we give ourselves over to corruption.

Think of a little sin that you don’t take very seriously. How does it affect, not others, but you yourself?

The Psalms on the Poor

King David, Westminster Psalter

King David, Westminster Psalter

“Do not abandon my soul with sinners

And my life with men of blood.”

Our Psalm 26 leads us now to consider the violence of men against men – and so it encourages us to consider what Pope Francis says about a Church that is “poor and for the poor.”

The poor appear quite frequently in the Psalms: “the expectation of the poor shall not perish for ever” (9:18); “The wicked in his pride doth persecute the poor” (10:2); “he lies in wait to catch the poor: he catches the poor, when he draws him into his net. He crouches, and humbles himself, that the poor may fall by his strong ones” (10:9-10); “For the oppression of the poor, for the sighing of the needy, now will I arise, says the LORD” (12:5); “This poor man cried, and the LORD heard him, and saved him out of all his troubles” (34:6); etc.

The image of the poor man here is not primarily about money. It is about power. The poor is defined, not as lacking things, but as being vulnerable. This, indeed, is the deeper wound of poverty: not the frustration of materialism, but fear of oppression.

And this is the image put forth in our Psalm 26. “Don’t not abandon . . . my life with men of blood.” The imagery is of violence, of people who can hurt us, and want to hurt us. And we are vulnerable.


In considering this image, let us first consider the “men of blood.” Is it not true that people like to hurt one another? We can think of those who hurt us. When we are weak – when we are incompetent (as sometimes we are), when we are on the outside, when we are hurting, even when we are gentle and vulnerable with other people – how often does someone stick a knife in our belly? How often do people throw our sins and other failings in our face, rub our noses in them?

But so too, how often are we men of blood? In order to see this in its fullness, we need insight into the weakness of others. For me, I shudder to say, it stands out with my children. They are tired, they are hungry . . . and am I merciful? Sometimes. But sometimes we are not gentle at all; sometimes we are eager to tell the weak how weak they are, and how in the wrong.

It is hard to see that even the adults who oppress us are often lashing out from their own weakness. How do we respond? We can see, I hope, that we should be gentle with the tired child. But do we see it with the emotionally scarred coworker or relative? When they say something that hurts – but that, honestly, cannot truly injure us – do we see their weakness, or do we attack, eager to find a way to hit them back?


The Psalms call us to know our own poverty – our own vulnerability and weakness – and cry out to God for help. Scripture never tells us to be strong. It tells us that he is strong, and he will save us. “Do not abandon me with men of blood!” is the cry, not of someone too strong to be hurt, but of someone who know his own weakness, and his need of a Savior.

The Memorare (a prayer written by medievals immersed in the Psalms) teaches us to entrust ourselves to Mary, to trust that she will bring God to our aid. It appeals to our “piety” – unfortunately, the standard English translation says “gracious,” but the root idea is that Mary cares for her family, for her little ones. So too the Our Father teaches us to beg God to protect us: from evil, even from the temptation to evil.

These are prayers of those who know their weakness, know the danger of falling in with men of blood, who turn us into men of blood.


But the Psalms call us, too, to be Good Samaritans. The Psalms give us a unique space to discover our weakness before God. But the more time we spend realizing that we are not strong enough to stand without God, the more we appreciate that this is true of others, too.

As God has had mercy on our weakness, has reached out to help us when we are helpless, let us reach out to others, even – especially – when they try to hurt us.

Where are you tempted to be a man of blood, violent to the weak? Who acts like a man of blood towards you? Can you see their weakness? Is there any way you can bind up their wounds, or at least not inflict any more?

The Psalms on the Battle

King David, Westminster Psalter

King David, Westminster Psalter

Our Psalm 26 now takes a key turn. We have been discussing the joy of God’s presence:

I love the dwelling place of your house, oh Lord

And the place of the tabernacle of your glory.

But now we begin to consider the struggle:

Do not abandon my soul with sinners

And my life with men of blood

This is an important juxtaposition; to get Christianity right, we have to see both sides, and their connection. The Christian life is not only a battle against sin. It is above all love of God, a desire to be with him. This is the only reason the battle is worth fighting. Hatred of sin without love of God . . . well, it would not even be true hatred of sin, since sin is truly only a negation, a loss of God. There’s no reason not to join the sinners unless we love God. Love must come first.

But battle inevitably follows. It is love which animates the battle, which makes us struggle for goodness. It is love that shows sin to be sin: that shows the horror of not loving. To know the glory, the beauty, of the presence of God is to learn to hate what can cover it up.


The “sinners” hold an interesting place here. The Psalms often speak of what crowd we want to be part of: we want to dwell with the righteous, not sinners. But let us understand rightly what is being said.

In the line we have before us, the Psalmist does not cry for the destruction of sinners. Nor does he even refuse to reach out to them. My students often raise concerns that the Psalms don’t allow us to evangelize. But that isn’t what it’s saying.

It isn’t saying that I will never associate with them, it’s saying that I don’t want to be associated with them. I do not want to be one of them.

Why put it this way? Our Psalm makes things very vivid. Just saying, “I don’t want to be a sinner” is good, but a little vague. The Psalm goes a step further, and says: see those sinners? See what sin looks like? See how people sin? That is what I don’t want.

It is important to be aware of the possibility of sin, of the “congregation of sinners.” We need to be aware of the radical possibility of life without God. People do it. Gazing into that abyss leads us to say, “help me, God! Let me not become like that!”

We discover there is a battle by discovering that things really can go horribly wrong. In fact – without condemning anyone, or presuming final judgment – we need to be aware that most people, most of the time, and even ourselves, much of the time, live as if God was not beautiful, as if they did not love to dwell with him. That is the struggle of the Christian life.


The battle belongs to the Lord. Part of our recognition of the possibility of sin – the reality that life without God is, for reasons it is hard to fathom, the ordinary way of man – is our further recognition of our own weakness.

There are many battles in the Psalm. But the Psalmist never says, “don’t worry, God, I’ll take care of this.”

To the contrary, one of the constant images of the Old Testament is of the tiny, helpless nation assailed by vastly more powerful enemies. Moses does not escape Pharaoh by trying really hard, or coming up with a clever plan. Moses escapes Pharaoh through the strong arm of the God of Israel.

This is the heart of what we mean by salvation, and the necessity of Christ. We must be ever more aware of this. It is not that man is basically okay, and Christ adds a little something. It is not even that we can handle most of it, and Christ helps a little. When we discover the reality of sin, we discover too our radical need to depend on the Savior.


The words of the Psalm, then, go to what seems an extreme. They do not say, I will cling to you. They do not say, fight beside me. They say, “do not abandon me.”

Without Christ we are lost. Free will is an important theological concept. We do have free will. But the Psalms remind us, over and over again, that the most important act of will is not ours, but that of Christ who saves us. We cling to him above all by realizing that it is he who clings to us.

When have you been particularly aware of your need of a Savior?

The Psalms on the Glory of the Lord

King David, Westminster Psalter

King David, Westminster Psalter

We have been meditating on the Tabernacle (and later Temple) in this line from Psalm 26: “Lord, I love the dwelling place of your house, and the place of the tabernacle of your glory.” This week let us consider the Glory that abides there.

The Psalms often proclaim the glory of God, and even say that it is our glory. Let us consider what it means to meet this glory in the Temple.

(Let me acknowledge that I have before me notes from a lecture Saturday night by Fr. John Saward on poverty and liturgical beauty.)


First of all, as we have considered before, the Hebrew word for glory refers to weight, dignity, and Magnificence. To speak of God’s glory is to say that he is awesome, awe-inspiring.

At the heart of worship is wonder, admiration, adoration. To discover how amazing God is.

Our acknowledgement of his magnificence, including the magnificence of our worship, indicates the purity of our love. We acknowledge him as the greatest, the highest, the best, as needing nothing from us – and then we offer him our greatest, our highest, our best, as a way of saying that he is worth giving everything for.

And in our discovery of God’s wealth, we acknowledge that he is the source of our wealth. Everything good we have comes from him, and should return to him. But so too, everything good we have is worth nothing compared to him. We lift it all up in worship, and acknowledge him as the most high.


A second meaning of glory, perhaps more directly present in the Greek and Latin translations, but central to the greater theology of the Psalms, is Beauty.

It is important to add this element to our understanding of God’s magnificence. God is not just a big will, not just crass power. He is wealth, yes, and awesomeness, and power.

But even deeper, he is beauty. This is important when the Psalms say, “The heavens declare the glory of God” (Ps 19:1). The heavens – and the earth, and everything that is made – shows not only that God is powerful, but that he is wise, and good, and that he sets things in order. He has a plan, and not just a will.

I have commented before that “thy will be done” can run afoul if not connected to “thy kingdom come.” For God to be king is for God to make everything right – and beautiful.

And so too the worship offered in the Tabernacle and the Temple is not only awesome, but exquisite, lovely, well-ordered, beautiful.

And what God gives to his saints is not just power, but beauty, the radiance of being fully alive.


One way to understand that beauty is through a third word connected with “glory,” Light.

“In your light we shall see light” (Ps 36:9). This moves in two directions. God himself is the light, like the sun, shining with glory. He is dazzling. The sun itself bespeaks both magnificence and glory.

But to understand light, we have to turn downward, too, to that which light illumines. Light allows us to see truth. Darkness – such an important metaphor in the Bible, especially in the New Testament – is about hiding. Darkness is where you go when you don’t want the true nature of your actions to be shown.

(God, too, sometimes is hidden – but only as the sun dazzles our eyes by its brightness.)

Light is the place of revelation, where our actions are shown, and where the things we act upon are shown. To live relationships in the light is for ourselves to be seen, to see truly who our neighbor is, and to see truly what that relationship is meant to be. It is to see clearly, too, sin, and the way it mars reality.

To speak of God’s glory in this way is to speak of him as the truth itself. It calls us to rise back up and look at him, dazzling light itself, as the revealer.

This is what we do, for example, when we dwell on Scripture. (Fr. Saward said the melismata of chant buzz around the sacred word like bees, sucking the sweetness of God’s revelation. As does all true sacred art.) We discover the truth that it reveals, and we discover that God is Truth itself: the revealer, the maker of that which is revealed, the beautiful and magnificent artificer of beautiful and magnificent things.


 The Psalmist finds this glory both in nature and in the liturgy. We discover God’s beauty in all his works, and we turn to express it, in (the list is Fr. Saward’s) our chant, our ceremonial, our iconography, and our architecture.

Where could we better express the beauty of Jesus and his kingdom?

The Symbolism of Animals in the Psalms

King David, Westminster Psalter

King David, Westminster Psalter

We have been commenting on Psalm 26 as an opportunity to see central themes that appear throughout the Psalms. Our main purpose is to pray the Psalms better – but also to learn from the Psalms to enrich other aspects of our spiritual life.

Psalm 26 has no animals in it. But let us pause, following last week’s consideration of worship in the Tabernacle and the Temple, to consider the rich use of animal symbolism in the Psalms. Much of this animal symbolism appears in the sacrificial worship of the Temple: all Temple sacrifices used goats, sheep, cattle, or birds, along with inanimate objects like oil, wheat, and salt.


Jesus speaks of separating the sheep and the goats. The contrast is arresting.

It is often said that sheep are stupid animals, but that’s not quite right. As Jesus points out, sheep recognize the voice of their master. They are one of the few kinds of animals that come when called, and that follow, instead of having to be driven with a stick. Consider the difference between a cowboy, who chases the cows with a whip, and a shepherd, who calls them to follow.

Sheep go astray, to be sure, but what distinguishes them is precisely the intelligence that allows them to recognize who cares for them and follow him. Goats are the extreme opposite: utterly unruly and unrulable. For this reason, the Law of the Temple uses goats as a symbol of sin: of failing to listen, failing to know that our Shepherd cares for us, failing to follow.

Sheep, too, are herd animals, part of the flock. Goats are individualists. The Lord calls us into his sheepfold, his Church.

Finally, sheep are discerning: they eat what is clean and pure. Goats are undiscerning. Those more familiar with goats than I am say that goats are the same way in their sexual habits: gross and undiscerning. We are called to stay in the pastures of the Lord, and to eat what really nourishes.

Finally, among the sheeps are rams: a sign of regal authority. Just as the sheep follow their Good Shepherd, so also among them some are set out for leadership and special respect.


The Psalms also use the symbolism of cattle. We think of cattle mostly in terms of milk and meat, but that is not what distinguishes them in the Psalms. Indeed, it is interesting to note that all the animals used in sacrifice are healthy animals: the kind that give nourishing meat and clean milk. Partly for this reason, some cultures worship the dairy animals (sheep, goats, and cows). We are called not to worship them, but to subordinate them to our own good: to use them well.

What distinguishes cattle from the other dairy animals, however – especially in an earlier kind of agriculture – was their strength. Cow are not only farm animals, but beasts of burden. We are meant to identify with them, too: they stay together, work hard, and keep their heads down.

Meanwhile, the Psalms also call us to identify with birds, especially simple doves. Although, like cattle, we should work hard and keep our heads down, like doves, we should not be earthbound, but should stretch to heaven. Doves are a symbol of contemplation.

But also a sign of simplicity. We are not to be like hawks and eagles, who prey on lesser birds, but like doves, who are friendly, gentle, and simple. That is the way to true contemplation.


Finally, let us consider some animals in the Psalms that are not used in sacrifice.

The lion is, in Scripture, a sign of Satan. He is a killer, too strong for us. And, interestingly, he both roars, striking fear in our hearts, and stalks quietly in the darkness, where we will not see him. Beware the lion!

The deer, meanwhile, like doves, are barely tied to the ground. With their nimble feet, they are able to climb to the heights – and to flee from the predator. They show that the way to reach the good and flee the evil is through lightness, not brute strength.


All of these animals take us into the wonderful world of symbolism. God gave us an imagination to use. He speaks in symbols for at least two reasons. First, because faith is for the simple – especially for the simple – and not just those who can understand fancy philosophy.

And second, because even those of us who study fancier stuff do better sometimes to realize that the spiritual life is richer than our explanations. Sometimes, rather than trying to puzzle out why we are working, we do better just to put our head down and think about oxen.

How could animal symbolism nourish your spiritual life?

Liturgy in the Psalms

King David, Westminster Psalter

King David, Westminster Psalter

“I love the house of your dwelling, O Lord

And the place of the tabernacle of your glory.”

As we enter into the symbols of the Psalms, this week let us take a few minutes to discover the “tabernacle” they are discussing, the heart of the prayer world of the Old Testament, and the ultimate symbol of the prayer world of the New.

“Tabernacle,” of course, is the word for “tent.” But it is specifically used for the tent, described beginning in Exodus, that would be the principle place of Israel’s worship.

We now use tabernacle to describe where the Eucharist is kept, but that usage is relatively recent. As late as the sixteenth century, it was more typically called the “sacrarium.” It is interesting, then, to see the Tradition so intentionally in embracing the language of the Old Testament: it is supposed to be an explicit reference to the Psalms.


God dictated the construction and liturgy of the Tabernacle in the second half of Exodus (also Leviticus). When Solomon built the Temple in Jerusalem, it was to the same specifications as the previous Tabernacle; all that changed was that it was no longer moveable, and thus no longer built of moveable materials.

Both the Tabernacle and the Temple had the congregation and priests facing west. Ratzinger’s liturgical writings have brought a renewed discussion of ad orientem worship, the Christian practice of facing the rising sun. But the Old Testament worship faced the setting sun.

This is more dramatic considering that the Temple was in the northeastern part of Jerusalem. It would be more practical for people to approach from the West – but it was important to them to have the worshippers face west.

It is dramatic to imagine that experience of orientation: of standing outside, with the sun rising at their back, and then looking into the evening. Worship in the Temple was dramatic. Sometimes to moderns it seems obscure to talk about the relationship between the sun and our worship. But for the Israelites, natural symbols like this were a vivid part of worship.

In this environment how could you not think of the sun as a symbol? How could you not think that Israel’s worship was bound up with the passing away of the world, as you looked into the sunset?


Outside the central building of the Temple, in the courtyard to the east, was a great altar, on which sacrifices were burned. There were three principle forms of sacrifice.

A holocaust, or burnt offering, was entirely consumed in the flame: a sign that God alone is to be worshipped. The animals sacrificed were all animals worshipped by neighboring religions. Here they were offered in the fire, as a sign that God alone is to be worshipped. Imagine the drama!

A second kind of sacrifice was the thank offering, or free will offering. These were freely chosen, something given to God as a sign of gratitude. Because this was a celebratory offering, some was kept for a picnic for the worshippers. Other parts were given to the priests, as a sign of worship being offered in union with the temple. The central parts, the fat and the blood, were offered in the fire.

And the third kind of sacrifice was the sin offering. An animal was offered as a sign of a sin committed: a vivid experience of our sin being consumed by worship. Here, some was burned and some was offered to the priests, as a reminder that we are reconciled through our participation in the Temple. But none was taken for the worshippers to eat: we do not celebrate our sin.

Finally, there were special provisions made for the poor, so that those who could not afford to offer precious animals could still bring a sacrifice to the Temple. They offered wheat or pigeons: because pigeons were very easy to come by.


This is a very minimal introduction to Temple worship. Let it simply introduce us to the way of worship of the Old Testament.

It was intensely communal: true worship binds us together into the people of worship. The truest image of the Church is found in the people of Israel coming together to worship in the Temple.

It was intensely symbolic – and human. True worship does not leave our humanity behind, but draws it in. The symbols were meant to make worship more real – just as, in the sacraments, we come to God not through vague disembodied aspirations, but through our physical, human gestures.

The worship of Israel ended with Jesus, in whom it was fulfilled. But it is a reminder of how intensely human, and how intensely God-focused, our worship is meant to be. Let us love God’s holy Tabernacle!

How could your prayer better draw in your humanity?