The Psalms on Jerusalem

King David, Westminster Psalter

King David, Westminster Psalter

“Lord, I love the dwelling place of your house.”

Last week we considered this cry of the Psalms generally, in relation to God’s revealing his name to us. But this week let us examine it specifically, in terms of the place the Psalm has in mind.

In the Psalms, everything leads up to Jerusalem. This might be the most important image the Psalms give us. For though the “Jerusalem which is now,” here below, in the Middle East, “is in bondage with her children, the Jerusalem which is above,” the heavenly city, “is free” (Gal 4:25-26).

The heavenly Jerusalem is, for the Christian, the place of all our desires. “You have come to mount Zion, and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem,” says the Letter to the Hebrews – and then it describes that city: its citizens, its God who dwells in it, and its worship: “and to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven, and God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, and to Jesus the mediator,” or high priest, “of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling, that speaks better things than that of Abel” (Heb 12:22-24. The new Jerusalem is based on the vision of the old Jerusalem, the Jerusalem of the Psalms.

This is at the culmination of the New Testament, in the final vision, in Revelation: “he carried me away in the spirit to a great and high mountain, and showed me that great city, the holy Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God” (Rev 21:10). The great reward, in the last chapter of the Bible, is “that they may approach the tree of life, and may enter in through the gates into the city” (22:14). The great threat is that “God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city” (22:19).

So we should pray with the Psalmist, “The LORD loves the gates of Zion more than all the dwellings of Jacob. . . . All my springs are in thee” (Psalm 87:2, 7). All my springs: the living water, the only water of life, flows from that city on high.

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Three key points the Psalms teach us about Jerusalem – the earthly Jerusalem, as image of the heavenly – are about worship, community, and election.

First, worship. Jerusalem is the place of the Temple. There seems to be some debate about how the words are used, but Mount Zion seems to refer to the hill – one of five, it seems – within Jerusalem where the Temple stood. (It’s possible it also refers to the greater mountain atop which all of Jerusalem is found.)

The people of Israel prayed in their towns, of course, in their houses and synagogues and everywhere else. But the Temple was the place of sacrifice, the place of true worship. To love Jerusalem is to love the Temple, to love true worship. In all our prayers here below we long to go up to that perfect place of prayer, God’s chosen place to meet with us.

Already we have an image of this in our churches, and the Mass, and even the Liturgy of the Hours. We long to join in the perfect worship, the song of the Angels, the song of the Body of Christ.

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Second, community. All Israel comes together in that city. “How good and pleasant it is for brothers to dwell in unity” (Ps 133:1). Of course it is good to have unity and love in our homes, and with our neighbors.

But the true unity is the unity of the whole Church. It is this unity that we long for. Our longing for Jerusalem, for the whole Church gathered around the throne of God, is what motivates our work for unity in our home, in our neighborhoods, and in our parishes. Think globally, act locally: love of Jerusalem motivates love of neighbor.

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Third: election. The people of Israel celebrate being part of God’s chosen people. To be part of that people is precisely not to think that you are the special one. It is sheer gift, God who has given you membership in his people, not us who have claimed it for ourselves.

He has shown us where he dwells. He has come to dwell in our midst: given us a holy city. Let our hearts be always there. Let love of that city motivate our every action and every word:

“If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand be cut off.

If I do not remember you, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth;

If I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy” (Ps 137:5-6).

Are there ways you find the heavenly city unappealing? How could you better set your heart on Jerusalem?

The Psalms on the Name of God

King David, Westminster Psalter

King David, Westminster Psalter

Having entered the Temple, and worshiped both through actions (washing his hands, going around the altar) and through words (speaking praise and telling God’s wondrous works), the Psalmist now speaks of pure love:

“Lord, I love the dwelling-place of your house

And the place of the tabernacle of your glory.”

In the Jerusalem Temple of old, and then in Jesus and his Blessed Sacrament, God has come to dwell with us. This week we will consider the importance of his making himself present, by focusing on God’s “name.” Next week we will consider the place of his dwelling.

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The Psalms refer to the name of the Lord over a hundred times. Just in the first ten Psalms, for example, we get

“Let them also who love your name be joyful in you” (5:11).

“I will sing praise to the name of the LORD most high” (7:17).

“O LORD, our Lord, how excellent is your name in all the earth” (8:1 and :9).

“I will sing praise to your name, O most High” (9:2).

“They who know your name will put their trust in you” (9:10).

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The Psalms give thanks for all that God has revealed to us – “Your Law is my delight!” (119:174). God has not left us to figure it all out by ourselves. He has shown us the way.

The Christian rejoices in the revelation of the Law even more than does the Jew. This is what Paul’s letter to the Romans is all about.

“The law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good,” says St. Paul (Rom 7:12). The problem is “the law is spiritual: but I am carnal, sold under sin” (7:14). “I delight in the law of God in the inward man; but I see another law in my members” (7:22-23). Thus he calls the Old Testament Law “the law of righteousness”; the problem is that the Old Testament people, without the grace of Christ, “had not attained to the law of righteousness” (9:31).

But now we have a new law, “the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus” (8:2). The Spirit is a “law written in their hearts” (2:15). He calls it the “law of faith” (3:27) and says “love,” the love of Jesus Christ, poured into our hearts by his Spirit, “is the fulfilling of the law” (13:10.

How good God is, to show us the way!

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But he has revealed even more than the way, the law. He has revealed himself, his “name.”

Last week we saw how we approach God through thanksgiving. Thanksgiving even gives us a kind of definition of God. What is God? God is the one who made the earth, who made the seas, who made the family, who made beauty, and the possibility of beauty. God is the one, too, who has given us all the help summed up under the titles “the Law” and “the word,” and who has died for us, and given us his sacraments. When we give thanks for all this, we get an idea of who God is.

But God is above all this, infinitely greater than all the gifts he gives. That’s what the Psalms point to when they talk about his “name.” He doesn’t just show us what he can do. He shows us who he is.

This is a mysterious thing. It isn’t contained in the un-pronounceable letters YHWH, though their mysteriousness points us both to the reasonable knowledge that he is above all our words and to the great wonder of faith that he chooses to reveal himself to us.

The Holy Spirit, the new law, takes us deeper into knowledge of him, beyond all words, as does the person of Jesus. Indeed, the “name” Jesus points precisely to him: he who comes to us, and he who wants not just to do things for us, but for us to know him, himself.

The name points us to reality of divine friendship: that, whatever friendship with God could possibly mean, he calls us into union with him.

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The name of God, it must be said, is not exclusive, it is inclusive.

That is, the purpose of revelation is not to create a club with a password. God’s name is not revealed as a way to keep people out: “if you don’t say the right name, we won’t let you in!”

No, God’s name stands for all the ways that God lets us in, calls us in to a divine closeness that would never be possible without his revelation and his Spirit.

O Lord, how excellent is your name!

Do we try too hard to reach God on our own? How could we better allow him to teach us to pray?

The Psalms on Thanksgiving

King David, Westminster Psalter

King David, Westminster Psalter

Last week we looked at the emphasis on worship in the Psalms. This week and next, we will look at the kind of worship. Last week we read

“I wash my hands in innocence

And go around your altar, Lord.”

But Psalm 26 then says,

“That I might openly proclaim praise

And recount all your wondrous deeds.”

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The first thing we learn here about praise is that it is connected with words: with proclamation, and recounting. Yes, worship involves the washing of hands (both morally and ritually) and processions around the altar. But it rises into proclamation – which is why the Psalms themselves are at the heart of Jewish and Christian worship, and why the heart of the Mass, the indispensable part, is words.

We proclaim what God has done, and that remembering is itself at the height of worship. It is through words that we announce causal connections (that God has done this, it hasn’t just happened), and that we outline what it is that is so great. Just as it is with words that we know “This is his body” and the Centurion proclaimed, “Truly this was the Son of God.”

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We might be stretching the verses in front of us a little, but we won’t be stretching the Psalms, if we point out that there are two things we praise God for: nature, and what God has done in nature. We could also say nature and grace, or Creation and Redemption, or the World and History. First God made the world. Then he entered into it. For both of these things we praise him.

The Liturgy of the Mass takes up the heart of this dynamic with the Sanctus (and its second half, sometimes called the Benedictus). “Heaven and earth are full of your glory”: first we say that the world itself, because God has made it, proclaims his praise. “Blessed is he who comes”: then we see praise him for entering that world, in the fullness of time.

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The Psalms were written before Jesus entered into time, but they too proclaim both God’s work in creating the world and his work in time. “Blessed is he who comes” itself comes from Psalm 118.

Frequently, for example, the Psalms speak of God’s work in nature, and then his speaking of his Law to Israel:

“He gives snow like wool: he scatters the frost like ashes.

He casts forth his ice like morsels: who can stand before his cold?

He sends out his word, and melts them: he causes his wind to blow, and the waters flow.”

— Thus far, he is Lord of nature. But then he speaks: —

“He shows his word to Jacob, his statutes and his judgments unto Israel.

He has not dealt thus with any other nation: and as for his judgments, they have not known them.

Praise the LORD.”

In fact, God’s action in history is all the more impressive because he is the Lord of nature. To hear an angel’s opinion would be impressive. But to be taught by the God who made everything is far greater. He both knows everything there is to know, and can give everything there is to give.

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Similarly, he is the God of Providence: the one who made the heavens, and the waters, and the sun and moon – and who also brought Israel out from Egypt. (See e.g. Psalm 136.)

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In all of this, praise is mingled with thanks. We are amazed at what he has done – but we are also grateful. We are more grateful because what he has done is amazing; and we are more amazed that the amazing things he does are for our favor.

We say that the Mass is thanksgiving (eucharistia) and also worship. Indeed, in the Preface we go from, “It is right and just, our duty and our salvation, to give you thanks,” to “therefore, with Angels and Archangels, with Thrones and Dominions, and with all the heavenly hosts, we sing a hymn to your glory.” Giving thanks leads us to say, “Holy, holy, holy.”

The Psalms just let us practice this dynamic, constantly recalling his works in nature and history, in order to rise up to him in praise and thanksgiving.

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This is a habit, of course, that we should practice in our own life: giving thanks for what we see, both of nature and of grace. But how great that we should be led as if by hand on a tour of God’s works, trained by the divine tutor in the practice of thanksgiving and praise.

How could we better practice gratitude for God’s works in the Bible?

The Psalms on Worship

King David, Westminster Psalter

King David, Westminster Psalter

Our Psalm 26 next turns us from moral concerns to worship – and thus takes us to the heart of the Psalms.

The move already began in the section we considered last week.

I do not sit with the fraudulent

I hate the coming together of those who do evil

And I do not sit with the impious.

In Hebrew, “those who do evil” is “those who spoil things,” whereas “the impious” is a rhyming but unrelated word that means those who are just plain wicked. The Greek of the Septuagint, however, translates that wickedness as “impiety”: to be just plain wicked, rather than a ruiner of things, points more deeply, to one’s relation with God. The deeper problem is not just what we do, and what we ruin, but who we are, and how we relate to the Ultimate.

***

The next strophe addresses worship more directly:

I wash my hands in innocency

And I circle round your altar, o Lord

This is the verse the priest used to begin with as he washed his hands before offering the Eucharist, though in the reformed Mass he says only a loose paraphrase. From a glance at several other ancient rites of the Mass, it looks like those who do not use this Psalm do not wash their hands at all. In other words, the priest washes his hands because it goes with this Psalm.

It’s a nice image. We want to be prepared for worship. Jesus gives a parallel image when he talks about wearing wedding garments at a wedding feast. It’s simply a matter of fittingness. It is only right that we come to the altar “clean,” prepared, made right.

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We could go a step deeper and say this kind of preparation is itself an essential part of our worship.

There is a parallel between the two verses we put above: “I wash my hands,” “I circle round your altar.” Worship is something we do. The “circling round” is itself worship, the person actively “entering in” (here, literally) to the praise of God.

Similarly, washing his hands is not just preparatory to worship. It’s part of worship, part of proclaiming who God is and how we stand in relation to him.

And we wash our hands “in innocency.” It is part of worship, to be sure, to include our bodies: to walk around, physically wash our hands, stand, kneel, turn to the altar, lift up our hands and voices, etc. Our bodies are part of us, and so they are part of our prayer.

But even more, our hearts are our inmost selves, and so as we lift up our hands and voices, we above all lift up our hearts. We truly lift up ourselves in praise of God.

And so we not only wash our hands in water, but in innocency. We offer our souls in worship. And central to offering our souls is our moral state.

The point of all this is that, in the Psalms, morality and worship are not two separate things. “I will wash my hands in innocency, and circle round your altar” means that my whole life enters into worship.

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The Psalms root us firmly in the imagery of the Temple in Jerusalem. Going “round the altar” bespeaks the pride of the people of Israel in the house of God. It was somewhere you went with joy, somewhere you longed for, “the glory of Jerusalem, the joy of Israel, the fairest honor of our race.” (The phrase will later go to Mary, but Mary and Jesus are prefigured in the Temple.)

Worship is joy. The only thing more wonderful than getting ready to go to the Temple (washing our hands) is going to the Temple itself (circling the altar). Or: washing their hands as they entered the Temple was a time of great joy.

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The question is sometimes posed whether worship is “for God” or “for us.” When people say, “worship is for God, not for us,” I think they are trying to make the point that worship means nothing if it is not focused on God.

But worship is for us. It is good for us to look to the Lord. It is good for us to enter in, liturgically (through ritual washings) and morally (through washing in innocency). This is our highest fulfillment.

One of the greatest glories of the Psalms is making vivid for us the goodness of worship. Indeed, the Psalms themselves manifest the point: by talking of all of life, but in the context of praise.

Are there parts of our life that would make more sense by thinking of them as on the way to worship?

The Psalms on Guile

King David, Westminster Psalter

King David, Westminster Psalter

Our meditation on the Psalms, and on Psalm 26, has taken us through righteousness and trust in the Lord, to the depths of righteousness in the human heart (and kidneys!), and now into the reality of sin.

Psalm 26 presents a cry against sin:

“I do not sit with wicked men

Nor come together with deceivers

I have hated the coming together of those who do evil

And I do not sit with the impious.”

This long protestation is typical of the Psalms.  Notice that lines one and three speak of evil generically.  Line four speaks of evil specifically in relation to God, as if to summarize: the real heart of wickedness is the lack of love of God.

But the only specific sin listed is deception, or dissembling, or guile.  (There are a handful of Hebrew words around this topic, which the Vulgate gathers under the word “dolus,” or guile.)  I have written about this topic in the past, but here let us investigate it in the context of the Psalms.

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We all know sexual sin is a problem – but it is not the central sin that the Psalms have us focus on.  Instead, the Psalms urge us to think specifically about guile – and of guile as a model of all other sin.

Guile is the combination of violence and untruth.  It is untruth specifically used to injure someone else.  It thus neatly ties together sin toward neighbor and sin toward God.

And it neatly defines each.  Sin towards neighbor ultimately consists not just in the breaking of a commandment, but in doing harm, the opposite of benevolence and love.

But sin against God consists not in injury – we cannot hurt God – but in rejecting reality as he made it: rejecting the truth.  The importance of truth brings a realism to our love of God: love of God is not just a vague feeling, but an embrace of his plan, his kingdom, the world that he made.  We love God by loving the truth.

(Indeed, it is argued that truth is the best definition of natural law.)

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The Commandments – the Ten Commandments, and all the more specific moral teachings of the Church – mark out untruth and injury to neighbor, but they do not exhaust the ways we can fall short, nor do they exhaust the riches of true love of God and neighbor.

An “intrinsically evil act” is one that the Church, in her wisdom, has discerned always to be a kind of guile.  But the Psalms take us deeper, by helping us see the essence of sin.

Lust and sexual sin are a kind of guile.  They hurt our neighbor precisely by denying the truth of the person, the body, and sexuality.  And in so rejecting nature as God gives it, in so embracing untruth, they turn away from the God who created us.  They fail to love both neighbor and God.

But sexual sin is not the only kind of guile.  By focusing on guile, the Psalms teach us to see the essence of sin, and so to see both what’s wrong with the more obvious sins and, even more importantly, to see more clearly the less obvious sins.

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The deepest sins of all, for example, are envy and pride.

Envy rejects the goodness of our neighbor.  Jealousy, not quite the same thing, wants what our neighbor has.  But envy hates him for his excellence.  Envy wants to do injury, to diminish someone else’s accomplishments, merely because we want to be superior.

Envy is rooted in untruth.  First, the untruth that sees injury to ourselves in another person’s excellence.  I hear that someone else has done what I can’t, and I react with anger!  But second, untruth that cuts down that person’s accomplishment.  Rather than giving thanks to God for what he has created in that person, envy tries to dismantle the truth.

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Even more deeply, pride wants the world to revolve around us.  Pride is like envy towards God himself.  It does not want to receive, does not want to worship, but wants itself to be the center.

Pride is really the heart of sin: a straightforward failure to love God.  Pride wishes there was no God – like the “impiety” we saw in the Psalm above.

But pride is not easy to get at.  It’s not covered by the commandments.

Pride is not about injuring your neighbor, so it’s the one sin not directly covered by guile.  Yet by pushing us to think about the role of untruth in all of our other sins, the Psalms’ emphasis on guile helps us to see beyond the commandments, into the essence of sin, and of love.

Can you think of some ways guile attacks you, even when you aren’t breaking any rules?

The Psalms on Truth

King David, Westminster Psalter

King David, Westminster Psalter

The next line of our Psalm describes moral righteousness as, “And I walk in your truth.”

Truth is a central, and surprisingly mystical, concept in the Psalms, appearing over forty times. We are to speak truth in our hearts, we ask God to lead us in his truth, and we long to declare the truth.

But more often then these practical uses of the word, the Psalms speak of the “God of truth.” “All his works are done in truth.” We ask him, “send out thy light and thy truth,” which is clear enough, but we also say he “keeps truth” and even “cuts off” the wicked “in thy truth.”

At least nine times the Psalms put truth together with mercy, or lovingkindness (chesed). “All the paths of the Lord are mercy and truth.” “I have not concealed thy lovingkindness and thy truth.” Modern minds probably don’t naturally make this connection, but it is continually on the lips of the Psalmist.

Finally, of the Messiah we pray, “in thy majesty ride prosperously because of truth and meekness and righteousness”: truth describes his goodness. And we look forward to the days when “truth shall spring out of the earth.”

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So (as someone asked) what is truth? On the most basic level, truth is conformity to reality: when what we say or think matches the way things are, then our thoughts or words are true.

The Hebrew word for truth is rooted in the idea of stability. There is a “way things are,” a real world out there that our thoughts and words do not change. Truth is a kind of stability in us, as we conform to that stability “out there,” as we move from being pushed around by our feelings to standing on the firm ground of reality.

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But in theology, there is another side of truth. The way things are is not the source of its own stability. Reality comes forth from God; conforming to the reality of creation also means conforming to the Creator.

Devotion to truth points deeper, into devotion to the wisdom of God which makes the world. John’s Gospel (and, in their own way, Paul’s letters) tells us all things were made through God’s eternal Word, his intelligence, which itself becomes flesh to save us.

It does not seem natural for moderns to think of Jesus as the eternal wisdom, or Creation as rooted in an eternal plan. We tend to focus more on power and sheer will. But Scripture, from Genesis to the wisdom literature and the Psalms, through to John and Paul, finds a deeper mysticism in this vision of wisdom.

When we speak of God’s truth, we mean not God’s conformity to reality, but reality’s conformity to God.

To love the truth, to conform to the reality of creation, is to love the wisdom, the truth, that made it.

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We can think of this in two ways. One is to pursue Wisdom – divine Wisdom, who is God himself, and especially Christ, “the wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1:24) and the logos of Creation, through whom all things were made (John 1:3). In conforming to reality as it truly is, we conform to him. In loving the truth, we love his wisdom, and so see his goodness.

Another way to think of it is as love seeping into all our lives. We want to love God. But how can we love God except in the details of our life? That love takes flesh when we embrace the details of reality as he made them, by embracing the truth.

To love God and to contemplate his wisdom: that is the meaning of truth.

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This is the heart, too, of the love of the Law, which runs even more pervasively throughout the Psalms. “The law of the LORD is perfect, converting the soul” says Psalm 19, after beginning with the theme of Creation: “the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple. The statutes of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart: the commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes.”

And the longest Psalm, 119, has 176 verses, every one of which proclaims the goodness of God’s law: “O how I love thy law! it is my meditation all the day. Through your commandments you have made me wiser than my enemies.”

This is the heart of morality: the love of God’s truth, the love of his wisdom, conformity to the goodness of reality as he made it, because he made it that way.

Are there areas of life where you prefer your imaginings to reality?

Click here for the entire series on praying with the Psalms.

Happiness in the Psalms

King David, Westminster Psalter

King David, Westminster Psalter

The next line of our Psalm proclaims, “Your goodness is before my eyes.” This goodness is the key to everything else.

It is what we must above all keep before our eyes. Thus the longer line is, “Examine me, Lord, and test me; explore my kidneys and my heart, for your goodness is before my eyes.” What we are ultimately “tested” on is our correspondence to God’s goodness.

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God is, of course, good, supremely good. To say that he is the source of all that is good is true, but falls short, because every other good shares only an infinitely tiny share in his goodness. Whatever it is that makes those things good, he possesses infinitely more.

This truth points two directions. On the one hand, it means God is far better. There is some truth in thinking of our life as a kind of competition between God and other goods, a constant temptation to let other goods replace his supreme goodness.

But on the other hand, by itself, that formulation misses what it means to call God the ultimate good; it does not keep his goodness before our eyes. God’s goodness doesn’t conquer other goodnesses, doesn’t take them away, or make us hate them. God’s goodness fulfills all of those other goods, and so ultimately affirms them. God’s goodness is before our eyes precisely in the goodness of everything else we experience.

To say God is good is to say that he fulfills our real desires.

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This is the framework for thinking about happiness. God is our happiness. All other happiness finds its fulfillment in God.

That sounds a little frivolous; there are some Christian authors who vigorously oppose talk about happiness, because it sounds too light. There is truth in what they say. The happiness that God gives us – you can call it “joy,” if it makes you feel better – is so infinitely deeper than all other happiness that it seems frivolous to compare them.

And to attain that happiness, indeed, requires setting aside lesser happinesses. To say that God is happiness doesn’t mean you can just watch cartoons all morning. To the contrary, it means God is so good that he’s worth dying on the cross for.

Nonetheless, to give up on the idea of God making us happy would mean giving up, too, on God’s goodness. To say he is good doesn’t mean that he replaces the good. It means he fulfills it. It means that whatever it is that makes cartoons (or steaks, or beautiful summer days, or friendship) so wonderful is precisely what he gives us.

We must keep this goodness before our eyes. We must recognize that all those goodnesses are precisely what God is – but he is infinitely more.

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I heard a kind of riddle recently. A devout man said, “God made T-bone steaks for Christians. To enjoy them truly is to enjoy them the way a Christian enjoys them.”

To say he made them for Christians does not mean we can set our faith aside in enjoying them. It means – somehow: this is a kind of riddle! – we can only truly enjoy them by seeing how our love of God illuminates that enjoyment.

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The happiness that God brings is the ultimate backdrop against which we must understand everything else in the Psalms.

Why do we do battle? Truly, for nothing but happiness. The good king is not a tyrant, who makes us do what is good for him but not good for us. The good king rules us for our own good. He calls us to battle to achieve not his happiness, but ours.

God is supremely happy. Nothing can hurt him. But much can hurt us. That’s why we have to struggle: to achieve the true good, to reach that which alone can satisfy the high dignity of the human person.

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Happiness is the reason we care about justice. Justice is no more nor less than seeing the goodness of things as God made them: neither undervaluing nor overvaluing the things of this world, but keeping God’s goodness before our eyes in all things.

Justice is a realism that takes us out of ourselves and into the world that God gives us. It is simply treating things right.

But the reason for justice is to discover God’s goodness behind the goodness of this world.

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And our happiness in God’s goodness is what makes our kidneys (and heart) important: because ultimately, all that matters is to have our whole being focused on his goodness, to find our happiness in him.

Think of a couple areas in your life in which you fail to see God as good.

Click here for the rest of the series on praying with the Psalms.

The Heart – and Kidneys – of the Psalms

King David, Westminster Psalter

King David, Westminster Psalter

Our Psalm 26 continues, “Probe me, Lord, and test me. Prove my kidneys and my heart.”

We move to a different level of intimacy. So far the Psalm has been talking about justice and innocence, which would seem to be judged by deeds. But the Psalmist pushes deeper – literally: right into our guts! – and asks not just about what is in our actions, but what is in our hearts.

In fact, this gets us to the “heart” of why deeds matter. Ultimately, God does not care about our deeds at all. Our deeds can do absolutely nothing for him – God who made us can do anything we can do. What God cares about is us. It’s not the deed that he wants, but the doer.

But our Psalm’s previous words, “justice” and “innocence” turn out to be richer than we thought. Both these words, and indeed all words about virtue, point in two directions. They point outward, to what we do. You can not be just only in your heart: justice is about what you do.

But they also point inwards, to our hearts. To be just is not only to do the right thing, but to become the kind of person who does the right thing. We can be innocent of this or that, but to be truly innocent, innocent people, is a matter of who we are, what we are – in our heart.

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This is the real Catholic response to the old debate about salvation by works. We are not judged by our works! But we are judged by our hearts – or rather, our hearts themselves judge us. There is no substitute for love of God. We either love him – in our hearts – or we do not.

Heaven would be meaningless for someone who did not love God. Indeed, it would be Hell, just as (though infinitely more so) going to Mass is torture for someone who doesn’t love God, or being with the sick or poor is torture for someone who does not love the poor person.

God does not judge our deeds. But heaven does hinge on our hearts; it has no meaning for us apart from our hearts. We ask God to probe our heart because we want our hearts to become heavenly. We want to become lovers, who will enjoy his eternal presence instead of being tortured by it.

That is the heart of justice, innocence, and every other virtue. The outward deed both expresses and shapes the heart of the person. And the heart is everything.

***

The Psalms use the word “heart” about 135 times; in a literal translation, “kidneys” appears about five times – though even a pretty literal translation like the RSV typically just substitutes “heart.” (The King James Version is wonderful not only because of its splendid English, but also because it is vastly more literal than any of the modern translations. It uses the older English word “reins,” which used to mean, not just something on a horse, but something in your guts.) In fact, we can understand the “heart” better if we dig into this fantastic image of the kidneys.

Think about your body. These days, we associate the “mind” with the brain: just the neck and up. The physical heart is maybe a third of the way down your torso. But your kidneys are in your lower back, just above your hips. They are “all the way down.”

In fact, it seems that people more familiar with butchering thought of the kidneys as the “innermost parts” (another modern translation) of the animal, because as you carve it up, this is the last thing you find. All the way down.

We are meant to love God and our neighbor not just with our heads, from the neck up; not even just a third of the way down our torso; but with our guts, our deepest, innermost parts, all the way down: with our kidneys.

***

That doesn’t mean, of course, that we should be led by our groin, that we should just follow our passions. This is the grain of truth in a certain Stoicism in many parts of modern Catholicism, that says it doesn’t matter how you feel. That is very true.

But the Psalms recognize, not only in their use of the word “kidneys,” but in all their gory emotionalism, that true love of God cannot leave our “lower half” behind. The Psalms, and the saints, love God, and his poor, with passion. Anything less is just going through the motions.

Do you work to engage your passions in your prayer?

Click here for the entire series on praying with the Psalms.

The Psalms and the Demons

King David, Westminster Psalter

King David, Westminster Psalter

The third line of our Psalm 26 says, “trusting in God, I have not slid.”  But why do we need to trust in God?  Why do we slide?

The Psalms talk often about “the wicked,” and use a lot of military imagery.  (Also, as here, there is courtroom imagery: grant me justice!)   This adversarial language is for many people one of the greatest obstacles to falling in love with the Psalms.

But there is much to be gained from this warfare spirituality.  Today, let’s take some time to think about our spiritual enemies, the demons.

***

We face, first of all, metaphorical demons.  Think, for example, about the “seven deadly sins.”  (I did a series on these last fall.)  “Deadly sins” sounds like “mortal sin,” so we might be tempted to think the point is that these are the things you go to hell for – and then wonder how gluttony could possibly be on that list.

But the older language is “capital sins,” from the Latin word for “head.” These are the “principal”or “leading”sins, or also, the “headings” under which you can consider other sins.  The point is that gluttony, lust, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride are the root causes of other sins: not just sins themselves but also things that lead us to sin.  The danger of gluttony, for example, is that it nurtures a sense of self-indulgence, of giving in to whatever feels good at the moment – and forgetting the spiritual battle.

The even older language (especially in Cassian) is “the spirits” of sin.  Now we are close to the metaphorical idea of “demons.”  Gluttony (wrath, sloth, etc.) are metaphorical “demons” that oppress us.  These “spirits” are not looking for what’s good for us; in fact, since they drive us without reference to our true happiness, they are our enemies.  Desire itself is not an enemy, but this tendency to run out of control is a real danger.

***

It is very helpful in our spiritual life to “objectify” these enemies, to name them, take them seriously, and go to war against them.  To realize that they will destroy us if we don’t destroy them.  This is war.

One thing that is helpful about this objectification of our metaphorical demons is that it helps us to distinguish ourselves from them.  I am not gluttony.  That isn’t me!  In fact, that’s . . . something else, some other power, that’s trying to hurt me!  The Psalms’ insistence on talking about enemies helps me to think this way, to separate myself from my sin.

And of course, in the Psalms, the metaphors always emphasize that our enemies are too strong for us, but God comes to our help.  It is always the helpless nation of Israel calling out to the Lord to come to the rescue – “trusting in God, I have not slid.”  Thus the way the Psalms discuss spiritual warfare also helps us to focus on grace.

***

But though we can think of the “spirits” of sin as metaphorical demons, we also need to be reminded that there are real demons, fallen angels.

How should we think about the demons?  The cartoon image of a good angel on one shoulder and a bad angel on the other actually isn’t too far off.  It is far better, anyway, than more “muscular” images of demons who throw physical objects or make heads spin (though these things are real too).

The angels are immaterial creatures.  They cannot control our free will, but they can make suggestions to us.  Good angels can point out to us things that we ought to notice.  Bad angels, demons, can plant bad ideas.  It is awfully helpful, when our minds start running to negative thinking, when all we can think of are other people’s faults, for example, or ill wishes, to realize that there do exist spiritual forces who are cleverer than us and who wish us ill.

Why would they want to hurt us?  Because they want to be in charge.  They want to be the smartest guys in the room.  (Sound familiar?  They aren’t so different from us.)

***

The warfare imagery of the Psalms reminds us that there are bad influences in our spiritual life, both metaphorical and real demons.

The Psalms have a magical way of shifting our focus: we may begin by thinking that other people are our enemies, but soon we see that our real enemies are spiritual.

Watch for a time today when you need to distance yourself from your demons.

Violence and Non-Violence in the Psalms

Greetings from the Outer Banks of North Carolina, where I am on vacation with extended family.  And apologies for getting this post up late.  Living a bit too much in the moment!

King David, Westminster Psalter

King David, Westminster Psalter

The next verse of our Psalm says, “I have walked in my innocency.”  The word is often translated as “integrity”; the Hebrew is something about being “complete.”  But the Septuagint, the old Greek translation, is a nice double negative, “not evil.”  The Latin word innocentia has the same kind of roots: noxia has to do with harm (hence ob-noxious), and innocent just means, “not harmful.”

In any case, it’s an opportunity to discuss violence and non-violence in the Psalms.  Alongside the first line, our beginning is, “grant me justice, Lord, for I have walked in my innocence.”  We talked last week about the claim to be just.  But this week we can see another common theme in the Psalms.  The Psalmist asks God to take action on his behalf.

He says, in effect, the world treats me unfairly.   I will respond simply by doing the right thing – and ask God to take action.  Here the demand for action is less vigorous than some places in the Psalms, but this is the dynamic.

***

This dynamic reaches its pinnacle (or nadir) in what are called the “imprecatory” Psalms.  One Protestant source lists these as Psalms 35, 69, 109, 137, and the end of 139.  An old Catholic source adds 18 and 52.  One can debate what fits the list, but the basic theme is pretty clear.

For example, the beloved Psalm 139 (“You have searched me, O Lord, and known me”) ends,

“Do I not hate them, O LORD, that hate you? and am I not grieved with those that rise up against you?

I hate them with perfect hatred: I count them mine enemies.”

 

Psalm 137, one of my favorites, ends,

“O daughter of Babylon, who are to be destroyed;

happy shall he be, that rewards you as you have served us.

Happy shall he be, that takes and dashes thy little ones against the stones.”

 

***

What are we to make of this?  The revision of the Liturgy of the Hours after Vatican II simply removed it: in the four-week cycle, you say all the Psalms, except the imprecatory Psalms, and imprecatory verses in other Psalms.  Better to learn to love the Psalms without this, was the reasoning.  The Psalms are not primarily about dashing little ones against the stones.

But these Psalms too are part of our divinely revealed traditional prayer book, and they are richer than they at first appear.  A few quick points:

***

1. The Psalms endorse emotion.  We are not called to be Stoics.  It is fabulous to imagine, for example, Our Lady praying these Psalms – or any of the extremely emotional passages in the Psalms.  (And that’s one thing we know: this was her prayer book, as it was that of almost all the saints.)  There is a place for anger – real anger.

Indeed, we have seen Our Lord throwing over the tables of the tax collectors.

***

2. But the Psalms never tell us to take things into our hands.  They count on God to avenge us.  This is a radical transformation of our anger.  Its proper place is only in turning to God, asking him to make things right.

Cursing our enemies might not seem Christian.  But we find that where it is right to be angry, our anger should find its outlet only in prayer. “Vengeance is mine, I will repay – says the Lord” (Romans 12:19).

***

3. As with our meditation last week, see that this is gutsy, dangerous.  God doesn’t take our side.  He takes the side of the righteous.  To ask God to strike down the unrighteous – or even the enemies of his people – is to say that we’d better be on the right side.

It is, in fact, an acknowledgement that sin has consequences, one of the most central themes of our faith.  But it is to see it vividly: it is a very bad thing to be against God.  Praying these Psalms with any self-awareness at all, we end up more focused on doing the right thing than on hoping our enemies will be destroyed.

***

4. The true enemy is sin.  We should be angry about it.  All the ways we hurt other people, all the ways we treat God as less than Father, should make us say, “I hate it, I hate it, I hate it.”  “I hate it with perfect hatred!” (Ps 139:22).  That’s where these Psalms really take us: not to hatred of people, but hatred of sin, in ourselves and in the other people it hurts.

That’s the real enemy we beg God to destroy.

Are we as emotional about the spiritual life as we ought to be?