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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Saturday, 22 July 2017

Retreat Address on the Psalms 6 - Prayer and Happiness (Psalm 32)

Our last psalm is a song of gladness. It begins with a repeated ashre’, the happy Hebrew word we met at the start of the week in Psalm 65, Happy are those whom you choose and bring near to live in your courts. It introduces the beatitude “happy” or “blessed” are those who... Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Happy are those to whom Yahweh imputes no iniquity and in whose spirit there is no deceit (1, 2). So our retreat has begun and ended on a note of happiness, which is good. 

It is not too much to suggest that happiness is one of the defining themes of the Psalter.  The opening utterance of the entire book is the first of 23 such ‘beatitudes’ that are found throughout the Psalms: ‘Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers; but their delight is in the law of the Lord’ (Psalm 1.1,2).  Psalm 1 is one of the latest in the Psalter.  We can safely assume that those who brought the Psalms together as a collection consciously placed Psalm 1 as a kind of introduction to the book by way of inviting readers to find in the Psalter a guide to happiness and contentment.  The message is: consider the Psalms, and discover in them the way of lived faith in Yahweh that is the safe path to blessing.  

Today’s psalm is in the same vein as that first psalm in the book, reflective in character, the fruits of the long experience of contemplating life and drawing lessons from its darker side.  Here it is sin and forgiveness that is the focus.  These are common themes in the wisdom literature where happiness is often spoken of as having a right assessment of human life, and in particular, recognizing where God is to be found in it. The New Testament takes up the idea of happiness sayings, like the makarioi, the Beatitudes with which Jesus begins the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven; blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God”. If we were to translate these sayings as “happy those who…” as the Jerusalem Bible does, we would see their Old Testament roots more clearly.

The happiness of the believer in Psalm 32 is that of the forgiven sinner.  It is the thanksgiving of an individual who not only knows he or she has done wrong, but whose wrongdoing has led to the consequence of some unidentified suffering. My body wasted away through my groaning all day long; for day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer (3,4). It sounds as though it is some kind of sickness or injury. Then again, it could be hostility or persecution, or even, highly metaphorically, exile from home, family and temple. Or it could be a vivid picture of the misery we feel when our consciences are burdened by our sins and wrongdoings, the kind of inward distress the psalmist pours out in Psalm 51 which we recited yesterday. We don’t know, only that it was painful and deeply troubling. 

What’s clear is that the experience has been chastening, brought the psalmist to his or her senses. Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity. I said ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord’. That is a very thorough confession indeed. The psalmist uses three of the most important Hebrew words for doing what is wrong. Sin literally means missing the mark as in Romans, “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God”. Transgression means crossing a boundary, not staying the right side of a line that defines right from wrong. It is a stronger, more conscious kind of word that represents deliberate rebellion against authority. Iniquity means that which is misshapen, twisted, deviates from what it should be. It’s the most inward of the three words. When you fall short or transgress, you are guilty. When you are distorted inwardly out of shape, you are more likely to feel shame. It’s worth noticing that these three words have already occurred in the psalm right at the beginning where the psalmist celebrated forgiveness and restoration with that double affirmation of happiness. 

The ‘naming’ of our wrongdoing is as characteristic of Hebrew faith as it is of Christianity.  I reminded us yesterday that Psalm 51 calls it “truth in the inward being”, that is, allowing our inner selves to be places of honesty and transparency rather than pretence.  We saw this when we looked at Psalm 106, that long psalm that rehearses Israel’s failure in history to live up to its covenant ideals. Integrity in the Bible is to accept our condition for what it is and allow God’s judgment and truth to do their purifying, healing work. And it’s this that led to God’s response. And you forgave the guilt of my sin. After the psalmist’s elaboration of sin in its many dimensions, the simplicity of that statement is striking. It’s like Nathan pronouncing to the penitent David, “the Lord has put away your sin”. It doesn’t take many words to describe a life-changing experience which this clearly was to the psalmist. But it takes a large and loving heart to be open to forgiveness, and to the transformation brought about by absolution. It’s a great reversal of the psalmist’s despair. Here is someone who thought they could never know release from the burden they were carrying. But now, all of a sudden, it’s lifted. The clouds have cleared. There is a deep and lasting gladness. For him or her, you sense that the words “go and sin no more” would have carried a lasting resonance.

The rest of the psalm reflects on this journey from sin to forgiveness. I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go. The poet is in wisdom mode now, determined never again to be found in that desperate and lonely place. What’s needed is to have understanding, not like a horse or mule that must constantly be restrained from blundering off the road. The only antidote to sin is to trust in the Lord. That way, not only will we avoid the torments of the wicked but we shall know the steadfast love of the Lord. The word is of course hesed, God’s tender mercy and loving kindness, the great covenant word that binds YHWH to his people and the to him. As another joyful psalm written out of the experience of forgiveness says, “the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, to those who keep his covenant and remember to do his commandments” (103). Our psalmist would have said amen to that. Which is why the psalm ends: be glad in the Lord and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart! When you are forgiven, you know a happiness like no other. For “whoever is forgiven much, loves much”. 


Which brings us to Mary Magdalen, whose festival it is today. Or rather, it doesn’t quite, because the sinful woman whom Jesus forgave and of whom he spoke those words is not named in the gospel. But there’s no doubt at all that Mary Magdalen could have told the same story as the psalmist. We know she was healed of “evil spirits and infirmities”, and we know she was one “from whom seven demons had gone out”. Hence Psalm 32 is one of those proper to today, and it makes a fine commentary on the colourful career of this woman who is so central in all four gospel accounts.

It’s moving to find this most passionate of our biblical saints honoured here at Mirfield in the beautiful glass screens that mark the Chapel of the Ascension. I too feel a personal involvement with Mary Magdalen owing to our frequent visits to the hilltop town of Vézelay in Burgundy. The marvellous Romanesque Basilica stands at the summit of the medieval town. It has for centuries been the focus of pilgrimages to honour her relics in their shrine in the crypt; and of course Vézelay is still one of the four traditional starting points of the Camino to Santiago da Compostela. Her relics were contested in the late Middle Ages, but her spirit still pervades the town, especially today when there will  festivities all over the hill and a great procession through the narrow streets. My second grandchild is called Madeleine, perhaps to commemorate family holidays in this beautiful part of France. 

Why am I telling you this? Because it has helped me to get to know the saint a little better and place myself under her patronage. I think understand something of how she was drawn to Jesus from a chaotic, wayward past in which her longings and loves had yet to find clear direction or focus. As I said earlier this week, St Augustine tells us that sin is not a failure of love but applying it to the wrong things. If ever this was true of anyone, it is Mary Magdalen. When I came to faith as a teenager, it was with a sense of relief I began to discover how to straighten out those idolatrous distortions, find purpose and meaning, aspire to purity of heart. I don’t want to dramatize it, but I can empathise with Mary when she came to the tomb in the half-light of an early morning and found it empty and something stirred within her and she knew that life had changed forever. 

So what can I offer you in my reflections as this week of retreat draws to an end and I say farewell? First, we need like Mary Magdalen to see ourselves as witnesses of the resurrection with an apostolic story to tell. This is one of those personal thanksgiving Psalms that chart a journey from desolation to consolation, from predicament to rescue, from the cry of distress to the shout of salvation. So it is full of the spirit of Easter. You are a hiding place for me; you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with glad cries of deliverance. Here are psalmists who have seen the great work of a God who brings hope out of despair, life out of death and light out of darkness. When God arises, earth’s morning breaks and shadows flee away. That was Mary’s experience in the garden on Easter Day. It’s the heart of Christianity because it is all founded upon the paschal mystery. We are an Easter people and alleluia is our song. Above all here in this Community of the Resurrection. Today is one of those festivals where the name of this community comes into its own, I think.

So secondly, like Mary, like the believer in Psalms 116 and 32, we need to tell and retell the story of personal transformation through divine power and love. This follows from being a witness to the resurrection and telling an apostolic story, for if we have glimpsed the risen Christ, encountered him in our own experience, then Easter is more than a story of the past, a lot more. It’s a story about the present, about how Christ has, in Gerard Manley Hopkins’ word, “eastered” in us. It’s a story about the future and how it is filled with the glorious hope for the creation and for ourselves that comes out of that encounter in a garden on the dawn of the first day of the week when the woman Mary, on behalf of all humanity, said to the man she had supposed to be the gardener, “Rabbouni”. 

The consequences of that dawn are nothing less than momentous for each of us as they were for Mary. For one thing, this transforming encounter, this life-changing experience gives birth to a profound sense of thankfulness, the gratitude that was the theme of our first address this week, Psalm 65, that celebrated the harvest and all God’s goodness to humanity and to the created world. Easter is at the heart of doxology and of the eucharistic life. For another, it brings home to us that we are witnesses of God’s continuing activity in human life, our own lives in particular. To bear witness and tell a story are the essence of evangelism. “Come and hear, all you who fear God” says another psalm, “and I will tell what he has done for me.” 

There is no substitute for faith-sharing in this personal way. It may seem naïve to reduce it to the revivalist chorus “this is my story, this is my song / praising my Saviour all the day long” but if we do not have a story to tell and a song to sing, we must ask ourselves how deeply our faith has imprinted itself on our character. If I learned anything in my distant evangelical past, it was that personal experience is what makes faith a living thing. Having your heart “strangely warmed” and telling a story about it to those who want to hear - the whole of mission is summed up in that. I have been young and now am old, but I hope to die professing the living, breathing faith that is to know and trust in God my light and life and love, that is to enter into the divine movement of incarnation, passion and resurrection, that is to have been forgiven much and therefore to love much.

Finally, we should cultivate truth in our inward being and renew our seriousness of purpose in our life together before God. Mary and the psalmist are mercilessly exposed in the texts. The flaws and ambiguities, the sins and offences are not hidden from us; and even if they were, they would not be hidden from God. That’s the fallacy of religious pretence because we know all along that God sees, and God knows, and it is only a matter of time before we shall be found out. We began with the ashre’, the makarios, the happiness of those who are forgiven, the blessings on those who are poor in spirit, pure in heart, who are merciful and who hunger for righteousness. These are the ones who will be filled, who will receive mercy, who will see God, who belong in the kingdom of heaven. And all because there is something transparent about these unrecognized, unsung nobodies, something that marks them as people of truth. Mary Magdalen is one of those happy ones.

I’m sure you agree that no other kind of Christianity is worth practising. In particular, you who have taken vows to live in this wonderful community did so because you were serious about following Jesus. Poverty, chastity and obedience, or as you now say, I think, stability, obedience and the conversion of life - those Sermon-on-the-Mount like virtues are signs that you are intentional about being Christians. For you, “truth in the inward parts” means there are no half-measures: all is given up for the sake of Christ. His yoke will no doubt not always feel easy, nor his burden light. But you believe in your hearts that this is to live according to the truth that is Christ himself, the truth to which you align yourselves in an ever deeper way hour by hour, day by day and year by year. This is what I call seriousness. Your witness is a treasure for all of us because it tells us that there is a more profound way of living than the superficial fantasies and illusions that crowd in upon us and seduce us, often against our better instincts, into dancing to their siren tunes.

And this retreat with its liturgy and lectio, its silence and its reflection is also a sign of wanting to embrace truth and always live in its light. The psalmist would tell us that while the light of scrutiny is not always comfortable because it searches us out and knows us, nevertheless it is at heart a kindly light that leads us on into truth and guides us in the paths of justice and mercy. So as people whom the psalm calls happy because we know we are reconciled and loved, we entrust ourselves to the Spirit of Truth to keep us faithful in the ways of God and to guide us in the imitation of Christ so that we find ourselves drawn ever closer into his wounded side where we find our rest and peace.

I am leaving you today, so I want to thank you for your welcome, your kindness, and your hospitality this week, and especially for the privilege of daily prayer with you in your marvellous church. You have been wonderful companions to live amongst these few days.  

As for your meditations as your retreat draws to a close, I think we should link where we have ended up with where we began, Psalms 65 and 32 and on this festival day focus on happiness, gratitude and joy. I mentioned the General Thanksgiving at the start of the week. If you can unearth the text in the Book of Common Prayer, why not find an opportunity to pray it today, in thankfulness “for our creation, preservation and all the blessings of this life, but above all for the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ, for the means of grace and for the hope of glory”. And why not ask that we may always have “that due sense of all thy mercies, that our hearts may be unfeignedly thankful, and that we shew forth thy praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up ourselves to thy service, and by walking before thee in holiness and righteousness all our days; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom with thee and the Holy Ghost be all honour and glory, world without end”. To which we all say, Amen!

Friday, 21 July 2017

Retreat Address on the Psalms 5 - Prayer and Rage (Psalm 79)

In my second address, I began by mentioning the psalmists oppressed by wickedness and the utter wrongness of things who cry, “How long, O Lord?”. Here is one of those psalms that has turned up in our morning cycle. So let’s not tiptoe round the maelstrom but plunge into its centre in the hope of finding some still small voice amid the roar of wind and waves.
Primo Levi’s powerful memoir of Auschwitz, If This is a Man, offers an unflinching testimony to the minute particulars of cruelty and suffering. In one place, he writes about the wooden bowls each prisoner had. They were precious because without your bowl, you would not be able to eat, and once lost, it could be extremely hard to procure another. So prisoners would etch their name or camp number on the bottom of their bowl. But Levi came across a Frenchman who did not do this but etched instead the words Ne pas chercher à comprendre. For Auschwitz is a place beyond all understanding, a place that makes no-sense, where there is no answer to the question “why?” This is the world our psalm inhabits.
You’ll remember that in the week of The Queen’s Speech, a “day of rage” was organised in London in support of the Grenfell Tower victims and the social conditions that were exposed by that terrible fire. There was a lot of criticism about the demonstration, and a number of Christians posted messages on social media arguing that it was a day of prayer that was needed, not a day of rage. I can see both sides of this debate. But when I read psalms like 79, so full of anger in the aftermath of a fearful catastrophe, I find I have more sympathy with the protesters. Whatever else this psalm and others like it have to say, they seem to me to give us permission to rage. Not to protest at the injustice of it all seems to me to be a failure to feel with and for its victims who are our own flesh and blood.
But this is not a licence to rage blindly, or to rage hatefully at other people. The thing is, to rage in the presence of God. And that is the startling insight of these angry psalms, as it is of the Book of Job which we have been reading at the Church of England morning office in recent weeks. This is not sightless rage, but a far-seeing rage that sees that there is a God to be wrestled with and reckoned with, to whom all the great questions of life and death, suffering and distress need to be addressed. Why this? Why us? Why now? Why did you allow it? Where were you? How long, O Lord before you come to help us?
Like Psalm 106 which we looked at yesterday, disaster has struck Judah. They, the destroying nations, have defiled your holy temple; they have laid Jerusalem in ruins. This points again to the Babylonian invasion of the sixth century. By this time, the people are possibly in exile, or maybe still picking over the ruins of their holy and beautiful house in a post-traumatic state of shock, bewilderment and paralysis that is common after some awful catastrophe has befallen. And the opening verses leave us in no doubt about the terror they have endured. Human bodies lie unburied because there is no-one left to care for them; they are now carrion for wild animals and birds of prey. Blood has flowed in rivers around Jerusalem. The nations looking on, the pitiless goyyim as the psalm calls them, have no words of comfort, only derision and mockery. It is one of those unforgettable human landscapes depicted in the scriptures, and one of the most desolate and forlorn. Who would not weep in the face of such anguish?
The heart of this lament is the passionate prayer introduced by the words we began with, How long, O Lord? Will you be angry forever?  It’s hardly a comfortable psalm to recite when so much of it is dominated by the sense of divine judgment. But there is a logic here, and the way the argument works is important. It begins by recognising that the Lord’s anger with his people is justified. There is a reason for all the suffering they have endured: do not remember against us the iniquities of our ancestors…deliver us and forgive our sins. So we are back in the same experience of yesterday with Psalm 106 and how we tell the story of our own failure and sin. Here, it is the people who are doing this collectively. In the other psalm we recited this morning, Psalm 51, it is the individual penitent. Both these are different from the many laments where the sufferer does not understand why he or she is undergoing this punishment. Here, the people do not question God’s justice. They accept the premise that turning away from the will of a righteous God, violating his torah and transgressing his commandments is wilfully to break his covenant. And that in turn is to bring down on Israel the sanctions of a broken contract, the curses that are the other side of the blessings set before the people when the covenant was enacted in cloud and fire at the mountain of Horeb that you find in the Book Deuteronomy
The psalmist sees the nations as God’s unwitting agents in punishing Israel. Yet the prayer is that God will deliver Israel from the goyyim who have been the instruments of his justice. There seems to be the assumption that in the wholesale havoc they have wreaked, they have overreached themselves. So the prayer asks that God will turn his anger away from Israel and towards the goyyim. Pour out your anger on the nations that do not know you, and on the kingdoms that do not call upon your name. For they have devoured Jacob and laid waste his habitation. And all this because poor Jacob is left friendless without ally or champion – whether among the surrounding nations or in almighty God himself. 
It’s important not to misunderstand outbursts of anger like these which are very common in the psalms. It is not (or not primarily) that Israel wants vengeance for its own sake. Rather, it is the concern that God should be God, should vindicate himself before the world, publicly demonstrate that he cares about protecting his reputation, is moral as well as mighty. You could say that what exercises the psalmist is putting right and stabilising the moral order of the universe. It is unjust that the nations have punished Israel beyond what they deserved. And it is unjust that they continue to mock the people and blaspheme their God. Why should the nations say, “Where is their (that is, Israel’s) God?” Let the avenging of the outpoured blood of your servants be known among the nations before our eyes. 
The final section encapsulates these themes and adds an afterword. The psalmist returns to the plight of Judah’s victims and prays let the groans of the prisoners come before you; according to your great power preserve those doomed to die. But his fury is so close to the surface that it bursts out one last time. Return sevenfold into the bosom of our neighbours the taunts with which they taunted you, O Lord! A sevenfold punishment is exceptionally severe. But the psalm doesn’t end on that vengeful note. Instead, it looks forward to deliverance. There is a “certainty of hearing” as there is in so many laments, the confidence that God will act for his beleaguered nation and in due time they will have cause to be thankful. Then we your people, the flock of your pasture, will give thanks to you forever; from generation to generation we will recount your praise. So the first forever question is answered by a forever affirmation. Will you be angry forever? … We will give you thanks forever. It is in the Lord’s hands. Sorrow may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning.

I said this was not a comfortable psalm. I think it calls for spiritual self-awareness if we are going to pray it with integrity. I don't so much mean that we are all affected the church’s culture of niceness where negative feelings are not allowed. I am more thinking of the risk we face that we could be eaten up by this rage, so full of righteous (or unrighteousness) anger that we forget that we are taught to love not only our neighbour but our enemy as well. I want to come back later to how we read this psalm on Friday, the day of the Cross.
Here is what I find myself doing with psalms like these. First, I want to affirm the importance of truth-telling when it comes to calamity and devastation. What is refreshing in the psalm laments is the total absence of pretence. They are written out of the searing experience of disaster and agony, and this is what the psalmist intends to lay before God. This puts a question mark by our propensity always to find a formal, courteous register that we regard as fit to be used in the presence of God. I am all for getting the words of public worship right! But there are times when carefully honed rhythms and cadences do not quite do justice to the hardness and roughness of human experience. The laments tell us: we do not need to be afraid to come as we are into the divine presence. God asks us and wants us to be truthful about our condition, and if that means crying out in unadorned protest at the ordeals that others or we are suffering, then that is how we must pray. Indeed, it would be wrong to bend the ear of the divine on any other terms. And if we doubt the legitimacy of praying out of godforsakenness and despair, we have only to think of the agonised last words of Jesus on the cross in St Matthew and St Mark. “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabhachthani? “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”
Next, I want to ask us to take seriously the kind of God to whom this lament is addressed. When the text talks about his being angry forever, we tend to think of the affect, an outburst of emotion as likely as not wild and uncontrolled. I believe this is to misunderstand the psalm. In the Hebrew Bible, anger at its best, like love, is an act of the will. It's a decision. In the concrete imagery of the Old Testament, love is to turn your face towards someone else, while anger is to turn your face away. Which is to say that when we get behind our emotions, anger and love are two sides of the same coin, which is about honouring the integrity of a personal relationship. It’s in the nature of a holy God to love truth, integrity and justice, and to abhor what is false, wicked and wrong. So the psalm appeals to God’s character as a way of reckoning with the disaster that has happened. If God is responsible for events (as he must ultimately be), then it is only by laying over them the template of God’s character as we have learned to know him that we can hope to respond adequately, theologically and spiritually. So at its best, our human rage at the injustices that we see all around us is a way of aligning ourselves with the God who is angry about them too. I would not want to pray to a God who was not angry about the injustice and cruelty in the world, angry at how the poor and the voiceless and the meek and those in pain suffer, so often at the hands of both the tyrannical and the neglectful. 
And this brings me to a third reflection, that all our prayer and all our theology must be rooted in the experience of human beings. What has prompted this psalm is the destruction of a land and the suffering of its people. So it starts out with the victims and their plight. This is a feature of all the laments. Psalm 79 is specific about the pain being endured by a people who are crying out to be delivered. The first four verses are a vivid description of an ordeal that speaks for itself. Only after the psalmist has entered into that dreadful experience can he develop a way of praying in the light of it. I think there is an insight here of profound importance for our prayer, our proclamation and our mission. For if, as I said yesterday, religion has nothing to say about suffering, then it has nothing to say. We must be for the suffering people, as Albert Schweitzer said. And whatever we believe we are called to say in the aftermath of some terrible tragedy (and we shall of course choose our words with the greatest of care), the first message to convey is that we are trying to understand, to think ourselves into other people’s ordeals, to give ourselves in compassion, empathy and love. And if this is the way in which Christianity teaches us to serve, it is also the way it teaches us how to think, theologise and pray. 
My fourth thought is about the importance of keeping hope alive. That might not strike you as the message of the psalm. But I think it lies at its very core. For one thing, why pray to God at all if the psalmist didn’t believe that he or she would be heard? Or that God was capable of making a difference? Or that he cared? Prayer is the evidence that hope exists even when it looks as though all hope is lost. And the psalm’s conclusion leaves us in no doubt that this lament springs not only out of bitterness and anger, but also out of hope. There is this “certainty of hearing” that I have mentioned before. We your people, the flock of your pasture, will give you thanks forever. That phrase your people holds the clue. It’s an allusion to the covenant promise, “I will be your God and you shall be my people”. So the psalm ends by reminding God of his undertakings to the people he loves. It's a vital clue about the relationship between God and his people that makes this passionate prayer possible at all. We could easily miss the promise and hope enfolded in it. For us Christians, it makes us look beyond the immediate historical context of the psalm to the relationship of mercy and love God wants to have with all humanity. It was for this that he sent his Son as the everlasting sign of his face turned towards us, and which is symbolised in the gospel when Jesus is named Immanuel, God is with us. 
My final reflection is perhaps the most important of all. On this Friday as on every Friday, we commemorate the cross. So we must always read texts of suffering in the light of the Passion. For it is at Golgotha that human pain meets God’s pain, and the suffering of humanity is interpreted and given meaning by a crucified God himself. 
As we gaze on the cross with our hearts full because we love Jesus, we can perhaps share the anguish of this psalm. I mean that as we look on him as the innocent victim of human cruelty, it would be natural to rage against those who hate him so, who mock him and spit on him, who crown him with thorns and pierce his precious side. Some of the art and music of the crucifixion captures this sense of outrage, for instance the choruses in the Bach Passions that protest against what is being done to the divine Victim. But of course that sits side by side with another insight of Holy Week, that it is we ourselves who are doing this to Jesus. It is we who need to be reconciled, we for whom Jesus prays from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”. 
So before I take this psalm on my lips to express my anger, or God’s anger, towards others, I need to recite it against myself, so to speak, imagining myself as the oppressor of God’s people and therefore the oppressor of God. For I know, if I'm honest, that I have it in me to be the one who clamours “crucify him!” I wish I didn't. So I need to face the violence within myself that is capable of cruelty and harm, even if I don't act it out. And when I view the psalm from that turned-round perspective, it leads me straight to the cross and to the Reproaches of Good Friday, “O my people, what have I done to you? How have I offended you? Answer me!”  
I'm saying that while it may seem a long journey from the rage of our psalm to the forgiveness and healing of the Cross, it isn't really. When the psalmist draws on the image of the shepherd tending his flock, we know we are not far from Golgotha, the place where that same shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. In that act of redeeming love, all hatred, all wrath, all bitterness, all despair is gathered up and transformed. The cross makes all the difference because it is where, as I said earlier in the week, we see what glory means: self-emptying, love poured out. It turns lament into thanksgiving, defeat into victory, sorrow into joy, desperation into hope. The psalmist can glimpse a dawn because he knows that even as he passes through the valley of the shadow of death, he needs fear no evil “for thou art with me, thy rod and thy staff comfort me”. The possibility of living confidently out of hope while surrounded by terror and devastation is all that the psalmist needs to travel on. It is all we need as well. We can once again light candles in dark places and make the desert blossom. It may sound heroic in bleak circumstances. But experience tells us not to lose heart. It may feel like hoping against hope. But because of the cross, we know that our hope is not in vain. 


For meditation today, we might want to think about those on whose behalf we are angry, people treated unjustly, the victims of cruelty, those who are helpless in circumstances that overwhelm them. We could ask ourselves how we express our anger, how we turn it into prayer and good action that could make a difference to others. And on this Friday, we shall want to come back to the cross and give thanks for the redemption of the world and for our own forgiveness, and where we pray for the reconciliation of all people and all things in the Christ who loves us to the end.

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Retreat Address on the Psalms 4 - Prayer and the Memory of Failure (Psalm 106)

This psalm is the last of a sequence of long psalms which concludes Book IV of the Psalter. Psalm 102 is one of the penitential psalms which is answered by 103, a joyful song of forgiveness. 104 is a glowing hymn that celebrates the marvels of creation as God’s handiwork. Psalm 105 continues the theme of telling the story of God’s ‘wonderful works’ (105.2) by recalling how the Hebrews were delivered from Egypt, kept safe through the years of wilderness wandering and finally installed in their own land. Together, these four big Psalms encompass the whole of Hebrew faith in a God who has created the world and loves his people, who has redeemed Israel as his chosen and looks for a covenant relationship with them.  
Psalm 106 tells the same story as 105, but from a quite different perspective.  Its first few verses are deceptive.  The invitation to praise the Lord! O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures for ever’(1) is very like the start of 105.  We imagine that this joyful note of celebration will be continued through 106 as well.  But it is not to be. There are soon hints of a minor key: remember me, O Lord, when you show favour to your people; help me when you deliver them (4-5).  The sun may have risen in a clear sky, but it is not long before clouds begin to obscure it.  
The hues become rapidly more sombre.  Both we and our ancestors have sinned; we have committed iniquity, we have done wickedly (6).  This is not simply some general acknowledgment of human frailty but the psalmist’s recognition of a specific strain of rebelliousness on the part of the people.  What made their unbelief particularly culpable was that it went right back to the founding events of their story, and this in the face of the clear evidence of all that God was doing for his people.  Our ancestors, when they were in Egypt, did not consider your wonderful works; they did not remember the abundance of your steadfast love, but rebelled against the Most High at the Red Sea (7).  And this becomes the depressing theme of this long recital of Israel’s waywardness.  She had been redeemed from slavery, and set on the long march to freedom.  Yet inwardly there was no redemption and therefore no true liberation.  The message of the Psalm is that this people were as enslaved as ever in their hearts.  Freedom still lies in the future.  And the psalmist himself is part of this carefully crafted confession. both we and our ancestors have sinned.  
God however constantly acts in spite of the people’s unbelief and ingratitude. The “gets” and the “buts” of this psalm are striking. Yet he saved them for his name’s sake, so that he might make known his mighty power (8).  Faced with the signs and wonders of the Exodus, there is, to be sure, a period of obedience: Then they believed his words; they sang his praise (12).  But it doesn’t last long. They soon forgot his works (13).  Forgetfulness, or rather, the more blameworthy “not remembering” is the fundamental issue of this Psalm for which the people are both culpable and to be pitied.  To the psalmist this spiritual amnesia is not only hard to forgive but hard to understand, in stark contrast to how God himself does not forget his covenant but ‘remembers’ it, as the psalm goes on to say (45).  
This interplay of divine memory and human forgetting follows the way the stories are told in the Books of Exodus and Numbers.  The central section (13-33) is an indictment of the Hebrews for their failure of memory and their lack of faith in the desert.  A long sequence of episodes reinforces this bleak message.  No sooner have they crossed the sea than they ‘test’ God by demanding to be fed (14-15). Then envy sets in, represented by the rebellion of Dathan and Abiram (16-18) whose grumbling against Moses led to a spectacular display of judgment. I said yesterday when we looked at the wisdom psalm 49 that envy is so often the root cause of wrongdoing. So it is here. What follows is the episode of the golden calf (19-23) made by Aaron at the insistence of the people, an act of defiance not only of Moses’ leadership but of the covenant itself.  All this was tantamount to ‘despising’ what was promised (24) while they grumbled in their tents and did not obey the voice of the Lord (25). And then the wholesale collapse into idolatry, which is to give to a created thing the honour that is due only to God. 
However, God hesitates to treat the people as contemptuously as they have treated him.  Just as he saved them from the enemy despite their rebellion (8), so twice he restrains himself from executing the judgment that their behaviour merits.  On both occasions, this is at the behest of a human intercessor.  The first time it is Moses who after the incident of the golden calf stays God’s act of execution. Therefore he said he would destroy them – had not Moses, his chosen one, stood in the breach (23).  The prayer attributed to Moses in Exodus 32.1-14 movingly asks God to ‘remember’ his promises of old, and not to bring himself into disrepute by appearing to be fickle in his treatment of the Hebrews.  The second occasion (24-31) occurs when the Hebrews have fallen into idolatry by engaging in the worship of ‘Baal of Peor’ and in illicit sexual activity. Thousands of Hebrews perish in the plague that follows.  However Phinehas, a grandson of Aaron demonstrates such zeal in acting against one of the transgressors that he earns for himself an everlasting memory as God’s favoured priest: and that has been reckoned to him as righteousness from generation to generation forever (31).  
We would like all these events to be simply episodes in an otherwise blameless history.  We would understand it if the difficulties and challenges of extreme circumstances in the desert brought out the worst in the people. Surely things will get better when they arrive in a generous and fertile land!  Yet the final part of the story relentlessly drives home the lesson that nothing has changed when they cross the Jordan. Their desires remain as disordered as they always were.  When they should have purified the land of its pagan cults, instead they merely make its religious practices their own (34-39), its depravity symbolised by the practice of child-sacrifice (37-38), always in the Hebrew scriptures a mark of people who have sold out to the most corrupting behaviour imaginable.  In this way, he says, they not only pollute the land but themselves (38-39) in acts of apostasy that the psalmist, in common with prophets like Hosea, unsparingly calls acts of shameless ‘prostitution’.  
This is why the Israel finds herself in her current predicament.  Up to now, the psalmist has not mentioned the historical situation in which Israel finds herself.  But at the Psalm’s climax it becomes clear what this long recital is for.  It’s to assert that in a decisive act of history, God has finally done what he had intended to do all along: to punish the people for their unfaithfulness.  His prayer at the very end makes clear what this refers to: Save us, O Lord our God, and gather us from among the nations (47).  The people are overrun and in exile.  And this time there is no-one to intercede for them.  They are on their own before God.  Then the anger of the Lord was kindled against his people… he gave them into the hand of the nations, so that those who hated them ruled over them (40-41).  We are in the 6th century BCE when Israel is in the alien land of Babylon and crying out in despair, in the words of a more famous psalm, ‘how shall we sing the Lord’ song in a strange land?’ (Psalm 137:4).
Bleak though this landscape is, the psalmist is not without hope.  In a final act of remembering, he recalls how Yahweh heard his people when they were oppressed and saved them (43-46).  The cry for deliverance with which the Psalm ends is almost no more than a simple coda.  But how much poignancy and pain is compressed into the single verse in which the psalmist, taking up the mantle of Moses and Phineas on behalf of the people, beseeches the Lord to save his people (47).  There is no pretence that the story is other than it is, no pitiful excuses or self-justification.  There is simply the hope, reminiscent of Moses’ prayer, that a restored and grateful people will demonstrate God’s faithfulness to the world: gather us from among the nations, so that we may give thanks to your holy name and glory in your praise’. The last verse, a doxology of praise to mark the end of Book IV of the Psalter, also stands as the anticipated thanksgiving of a restored people who can once again say ‘amen’ to a final act of deliverance.

This long catalogue of perversity and its punishment does not exactly lift the spirits. So what should we do with texts like this? 
Here are three reflections. First, the psalm reminds us that while there are times, many of them, when we need to tell our story in order to celebrate it, at other times we need to tell the same story as an act of contrition and lament.  I don’t think we are good at doing this, either as nations and communities, or as individual men and women. What this psalm makes us face up to is our propensity to deceive ourselves as to our true state before God and one another. “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” So it comes down to spiritual candour, making sure that when we hold up the mirror to ourselves, it tells us the truth. “Faking it”, as we might say, “play acting” as Jesus calls it in the Sermon on the Mount, inevitably leads in the end to disclosure and downfall. What we are in ourselves will always become plain to see in time, like the picture of Dorian Grey. Our desires always give us away in the end because they make it plain what we truly value. 
And, says the story, it all happens because of our neglect of God. St Augustine says that sin is to be “bent back into yourself”, that is, giving way to desire that is misshapen, distorted because its focus is on yourself, not on God. He says that it's therefore a failure of love, not so much a lack of love but applying love in a self-serving way.  This psalm gives us an anatomy of disordered desire, how we can and do give ourselves up to the wrong things which can never be ends in themselves. In the opening chapters of the Letter to the Romans St Paul takes up words and images from this Psalm and universalises them. He says in effect, this story of Psalm 106, of forgetfulness, envy and idolatry is us, all of us, at least in terms of our unreserved propensity. ‘All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God’ (Romans 3.20). St John urges us to keep ourselves from idols. You could say that “good” religion comes down to this, freeing ourselves from idolatry and acknowledging and worshipping the one true God. And this is the possibility held out to us in the gospel.
And that brings us on to my next reflection, which is about transformation. There lies in this psalm a profound impetus for change, for a new direction in the future. In one of his essays Thomas Merton says that “the Christian’s vision of the world ought, by its very nature, to have in it something of poetic inspiration”. He means by this seeing “beyond the surface of things and events”, glimpsing “something of the inner and ‘sacred’ meaning of the cosmos which, in all its movements and all its aspects, sings the praises of its Creator and Redeemer. And if this is true of how we contemplate the created world, it's also true of how we tell the story of God’s mighty works. In that story, we need to learn like the psalmist how to discern not only our human frailty but the sacred and redemptive too, not only nature but grace.
This sacramental vision of life may sound altogether too rarified for the cut and thrust of life. But for Merton, it’s precisely in “ordinary time” that we most need to cultivate this contemplative, poetic attitude that glimpses possibilities in the banal, the dispiriting, the tragic stories of human life. He goes on: “There is no revolution without a voice. The passion of the oppressed must first of all make itself heard at least among themselves, in spite of the insistence of the privileged oppressor that such needs cannot be real, or just, or urgent. The more the cry of the oppressed is ignored, the more it strengthens itself with a mysterious power that is to be gained from myth, symbol and prophecy. There is no revolution without poets who are also seers. There is no revolution without prophetic songs.” Merton is thinking about human oppressors, but in the psalm it is corruption and vice that are the oppressing enemy from whose iron fist we cry out to be saved. St Paul describes this conflicted experience in Romans chapter 7 where he agonises about the good he wants to do but can't, and the evil he wants to shun but instead finds himself committing. Merton and St Paul tell me that the oppressor does not have the last word. And believing this is the motivation I need to act for change, or at least to pray for it. 
Finally we should notice the key role in this psalm that belongs to Moses and Phinehas. To “stand in the breach” and make intercession for others is one of the greatest gifts we can offer anybody in their times of testing and trial. The nation’s ordeals did not in the end get the better of them, though it looked as though they would. The psalm rightly credits these two men with performing nothing less than a rescue through acting as brave intercessors. It was an act of love on their part: intercession always is. So here is a direct message to you as a religious community. Among the many things you offer to the world and the church is your intercession. Maybe we secular Christians don’t recognise enough the contribution you make through your faithful prayers day in, day out, standing in the breach on behalf of so many people both within the church and beyond it. So I want to thank you for this “work” that you do as part of your celebration of the opus dei, for the love you show to the human race by your constant involvement in the prayer of the church. It's a reflection of how our Great High Priest bears humanity before the Father, interceding for us in our brokenness and exile and pain. 
Our hope, our conviction, must always be that the covenant has not failed. The psalm reassures us that it hasn't. Its concluding words turn this long text back from lament to praise and gratitude. Nevertheless he regarded their distress when he heard their cry. For their sake he remembered his covenant and showed compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love. God’s wish, God’s only purpose is to mend humanity, put us back together again, apply balm to heal the grievous wounds that afflict our race, rescue us from the distorted desires that drive us into idolatry and remake us in his image as people of grace and mercy, truth and peace. This is how we prodigals find our way home again and are welcomed back by a loving Father. We are forgiven, reconciled, embraced. At the end of this psalm’s long and gloomy day, the sun comes out once more.  

For reflection today, we may want to imitate this psalm and look back over the story of our lives. When and why have our desires become misshapen, when and why have we fallen prey to envy and idolatry? Are there patterns we can discern? And then, having faced the truth about that story, how can we retell it as a story of grace, mercy and forgiveness so that we end up where the psalm ends up, on a note of thankfulness? As part of this, can we identify and give thanks for those who stood in the breach and interceded for us? How does that memory help us in our own intercession for other people today?

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Retreat Address on the Psalms 3 - Prayer and Mortality (Psalm 49)

After two Psalms of celebration, we come to a trio of more downbeat psalms. Perhaps I should remind you that I am being led by your own matins psalm cycle in these reflections. Tomorrow’s (106) dwells on the historical memory of a people’s failure and shortcomings, and draws out lessons to be learned. Friday’s (79) is a cry of rage in the face of disaster, a lament that asks the familiar question, “how long?”  And so that you have the road map in mind, on Saturday, for the feast of Mary Magdalen, we are back to thankfulness again with a song of gladness (32) on the part of someone who knows what it is to be ransomed, healed, restored and forgiven.

Today’s Psalm 49 is a wisdom psalm, one of a small number in the Psalter that reflect on human experience in the light of faith. Psalms like these stretch the boundaries of Israel’s faith community, because the experiences they describe are not specific to the covenant community but are common to our whole race. You find this kind of writing in many ancient near eastern texts: Egyptian, Sumerian, Babylonian. They have a lot in common with the wisdom books of the Hebrew Bible such as Job and Ecclesiastes that explore the problems of suffering and meaninglessness in human life. Some of the wisdom psalms such as 37 and 73 take up these familiar themes, why evil goes unchecked, why goodness is not honoured or rewarded, why the wicked prosper at the expense of the righteous. The common thread seems to be how to negotiate life’s perplexities with equanimity, insight and understanding, how not to be thrown into turmoil by the contradictions and unfairness of the human condition but to keep calm and carry on. 

This psalm focuses on the specific matter of our mortality. Memento mori it says to its readers, remember you must die. “Unresting death, one whole day nearer now” wrote Philip Larkin in “Aubade”, one of the darkest but most unflinching of his poems. This psalm is less appalled: it has seen too much of death to be frightened by it. But it does insist that death is a fact of life we need to meet thoughtfully and in a well-prepared spiritual state. Denial is no use: it needs coming to terms with. What does it mean to know that your life is limited, that one day you must go to the place of shadows the Hebrews called Sheol? That is both a fact and a mystery, for we can both know that it happens without at all knowing what it will mean for us. But the urgency of this psalm is driven by a set of existential questions that have not gone away in all of human history. How do we rise above being just another in the endless crocodile of the beasts that perish? How do I even make friends with it? What difference does death make to the way we live now? 

This question haunted everyone in the Middle Ages. Thanks to the visitations of war, famine and plague, death was never far away from people's thoughts. In Hexham Abbey near where we live, there is a series of four medieval paintings, part of a series depicting the “dance of death”. A lurid skeletal figure dances in turn with a king, an emperor, a pope and a cardinal. Maybe the lost panels showed more ordinary men and women as well as those in high office, not forgetting the young, the beautiful, the wise, for this is a dance no one can sit out. 

Like Job and Ecclesiastes, the psalm doesn’t probe the metaphysics or engage in conjecture. Hebrew spirituality, as we find it expressed in the psalms, is always realistic and practical. What it seeks to do is to suggest ways of living with realities that are too big to grasp. Here, the pressing question has to do with one that’s familiar in the Psalter: why are the powerful, the famous, the successful and the wealthy untouched by the misfortunes of life? What about the poor, the powerless, the voiceless and the wronged? Where is their reward?

The personal laments in the Psalter insist that God is on the side of these forgotten in Israel. He stands with them and will vindicate them in the day when he acts. But in this psalm the argument is different. Its answer is: however powerful you are, however successful, however wealthy, however wise, however well-spoken of and admired, it will all count for nothing in the face of death.  Everyone, low and high, rich and poor together, good and bad, intelligent and foolish, is equal when it comes to the grave.  No-one is advantaged: we can take nothing with us and our reputations will not save us.  Twice the bleak refrain returns: man, being in honour, hath no understanding: but is compared unto the beasts that perish (12, 20 BCP).  Death is the great leveller, unpitying, untiring. He shepherds his victims without mercy down to Sheol the shadowy place of the dead.  Why waste your energy on being envious? It isn’t worth it: it simply eats you up until it destroys you. Why should I fear in times of trouble, when the iniquity of my perecutors surrounds me, those who trust in their wealth and boast in the abundance of their riches? Here’s how to respond. Do not be afraid when some become rich, when the wealth of their houses increases.  For when they die they will carry nothing away… Though in their lifetime they count themselves happy…. they will go to the company of their ancestors who will never again see the light (16-19).  

So the psalm offers this crumb of reassurance to those at the bottom of the pile, the forgotten, the disappeared, the poor, the victim, the nobody: whatever our condition in this life, our ultimate destiny is the same.   

If this is comforting, it’s a peculiarly tough kind of comfort.  Or it would be, were it not for the glimmer of hope that for a moment penetrates the shadows. But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, for he will receive me (15).  This is one of those rare moments in the psalms when belief in an enduring life with God beyond the grave seems to surface.  This narrow, precarious shaft of light pierces the gloom for just an instant before being shut off again.  But it is enough.  For it recognises that a relationship with God is forever, not simply for the brief span of life in this world.  It’s not yet a Christian theology of resurrection: there is still a long path to climb before the Old Testament reaches that point.  But it is, indisputably, the belief in and hope of something beyond this life, however tentative. We meet it again in psalm 73, the Psalter’s equivalent to Job’s triumphant confession of faith in the midst of his terrible ordeals. Where Job says, ‘I know that my redeemer liveth… and though… worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God’ (Job 19.25-27 AV), the psalm says: “nevertheless I am continually with you; you hold my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will receive me to glory”.  


Let me offer three reflections. First, we need to read this psalm in the broader context of the Psalter as a whole, and indeed of the entirety of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. The measured, even resigned, tone of this meditation on life and death is very different from the confidence of the two we have already looked at this week. On its own, Psalm 49 might lead us into nihilism and despair.  Within the context of the
Psalter, and read in the light of psalms like 65 and 76 that celebrate God’s enthronement over all of life, it feels different.  For while it recognises the deep mystery of what it is to be a human being, and to stand on the edge of the abyss and ponder the enigmas of life and death, it understands how our existence is given meaning in the light of God and his everlasting reign. 

Still more is this true when we as Christian worshippers conclude this psalm with the doxology to the Sacred Trinity. That little glimpse of light that breaks through in the fifteenth verse, God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, we mustn’t lean too heavily on that by itself. But when we read this psalm back through the lens of our Christian experience of death and resurrection, it makes all the difference. Good
Friday and Easter do not take away the mysteries of inequality, evil and suffering. The valley of the shadow of death will not cease to be the dark place it always was. But the paschal mystery of Christ crucified and risen proclaims that God has himself entered into these abiding realities of our human condition. So death is no longer the great leveler where we are like the beasts that perish. Rather, it is the threshold of a new life where Christ has already gone before us. And as we sing in the Easter hymn, “death’s mightiest powers have done their worst”.

Second, this psalm is an important antidote to naïve upbeat religion that is unaware of the profound questions all thinking human beings ask about life.  It is fatally easy to clap our hands and sway to cheerful choruses oblivious to the wicked who go on relentlessly wrecking the lives of the weak, and the powerful abuse the poor and the downtrodden who have no voice of their own unless it is to cry out to God.  Nothing is so damaging to the integrity and reputation of religion as a faith that oversimplifies the complexities of things, that is practised in (often wilful) ignorance of what the world is really like.  This psalm makes us pause before we come out with the easy speeches that comfort cruel men and discredit religion in the eyes of its detractors. It helps us to ground our faith in the lived experience of all human beings, and in our bafflement that the complexities of life are not susceptible to being reduced to simple formulae.

The spiritual challenge, I think, is how to recognize and embrace mystery, yet celebrate at the same time. To pledge our loyalty to our enthroned, exalted Lord, yet not to run away from the inescapable riddles of being human, that is wisdom indeed. In particular, we should not be afraid as Christian believers to make friends with the prospect of death as I suggested earlier. Previous generations, more familiar with the thousands of ways death was a familiar visitant in less defended times, found this much easier to do than we. To read Jeremy Taylor’s Holy Living and Holy Dying was a natural thing to do. His belief that we can only live a holy life if we are ready to die a holy death was nothing remarkable in his century, though the depth and insight he brought to the question was. Or as his contemporary Bishop Ken says in the great evening hymn we sang at my retirement (a kind of dying, or at least a clear threshold) and will again at my funeral, 

Teach me to live that I may dread
The grave as little as my bed;
Teach me to die, that so I may
Rise glorious at the aweful day. 

Third, this psalm helps us to address the problem of envy. It’s interesting that this is the spiritual and moral issue at the heart of three of the most important wisdom psalms – this morning’s, together with 37 and 73. For what it is worth, my view is (pace most theologians) that envy is the worst of the seven deadly sins, worse even than pride. My reason is that if you examine it as a moral failure, and if you examine your own experience of it, envy is not simply an attitude, a longing to possess what others have. If it is allowed to feed off that longing, it begins to cultivate an active wish to destroy what the other has, and even destroy the other person. Which of course inevitably ends up by destroying yourself, devouring your own soul on a feeding-frenzy of obsession, like a black hole pulling in everything within its gravitational field. So envy leads not only to avarice but also to hatred and all that follows. You can make a case for reading the Genesis story of the Fall as humanity’s envy of God for being God, being wise and powerful and the source of life. 

The classic study of envy is the psychoanalyst Melanie Klein’s great book Envy and Gratitude. And that tells you what the theological and spiritual answer to it is. “I have been young and now am old” says the world-weary sage in that psalm of envy, Psalm 37. I used to eat meals three times a day underneath those words (in Latin) in the dining hall of my college in Oxford. What that psalmist says is that he “never saw the righteous forsaken, nor their seed begging their bread”. Even as a student, I wondered if he needed to get out more, for he wouldn’t have had to walk far to notice the destitute and poor who are always with us. But a better reading might be to infer that he is simply learning to be content in old age. His own experience has led him to see how God’s generosity, his care, his provision and our constant gratitude for it are the central fact of all life. So the psalmist concludes that mature wisdom equates to acknowledging the source of all that is lovely and good in life, and learning, if not full-bodied thankfulness, at least contentment. 

And this, I think, lies at the heart of Psalm 49. The logic seems to be: we see the rich and powerful and are tempted to envy them. Don’t succumb. For they, like us, must face the grave and gate of death. So do not be afraid when some become rich, when the wealth of their houses increases. Not to be afraid is not far from equanimity and contentment. So let our common mortality teach us how to cultivate a contemplative view of life that helps us be content with who we are and what we have to enjoy now. I know that is to go beyond what the text itself says explicitly. But it seems implicit. And it links back to the first morning when we looked at Psalm 65 and saw how thankfulness, the eucharistic life, is the secret of happiness and the antidote to envy. 

In conclusion, I find this noble psalm to be an important indicator of “good religion”. I am not simply thinking of how it stops us from falling into the trap of simple binaries which, pushed to extremes, get expressed as triumphalism or despair. I mean the sense of wholesomeness that runs through this psalm, a wisdom that is grounded in the tough realities of having lived a while and seen something of life. This psalmist is among the most theologically literate of the Psalter. He knows how disconcerting it is not only to watch people fall for the illusions of power and wealth, success and reputation as if they were the only goals worth craving, but worse, to envy them for it. Perhaps he was one of them himself once, who nearly sold his soul for the sake of being a “somebody” until he realized that being a “nobody”, one of God’s humble poor, is far better in God’s sight. Or maybe he was one of the envious who paradoxically mirror the envied in that they too are at risk of selling their souls through being devoured by this most destructive of the seven deadly sins. 

Whichever it is, the psalmist’s reflections have stabilized him. They have taught him wisdom. They have shown him where true value lies, yes, and his own happiness and reward as well. When he looked with a steady eye at the sculpted statues and marble tombs erected to the “somebodies” of this world, he saw through these whited sepulchres to the reality. Which is this: before God, we are all the same. Dives or Lazarus, we must all face our Maker and give account to him. When this mortal must put on immortality, we must all come to terms with our judgment and learn to receive his forgiveness. And if, like Gerontius in John Henry Newman’s poem and Edward Elgar’s oratorio, when we are face to face with the living God, and hear ourselves crying out “take me away!”, it is only so that we may gently be immersed in that healing, cleansing sea where sins are taken away and we are made ready to inherit the mansions in our Father’s House where the risen Christ has gone to prepare a place for us. 


For meditation today, we might want to think about our mortality and how it focuses our minds and wills on the tasks of living well. We might want to reflect on our propensity for envy, and on its antidote, all that we need to be more thankful for. And in the light of this meditation on death, just what it means for us to be members of this Community of the Resurrection.