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

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 na├»ve 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.

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