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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!

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