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.

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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.

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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.

eric.m.johnston

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