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The Psalms in Christian Prayer
Luis Alonso Schökel
Problem: The Psalms of Imprecation
The aim of the first part of this study is to propose a solution to the problem presented by the un-Christian sentiments of certain psalms. Such a solution would overcome similar difficulties throughout the psalter, for the person who can pray « By the waters of Babylon . . . » can pray all the psalms.
The problem is clearly one of prayer. Were it only a question of contemplating a work of art it would be easy to read these psalms from such a point of view, but they are my interior, intimate prayer, and the more authentic the prayer the better does it express my deepest and most personal emotions. It may be difficult to make one's own the sentiments expressed in the prayer of another age, but one can always approach them in peace. What disconcerts me is the thought that on the one hand I am trying to grow in the spirit of the Gospel so that love, charity, forgiveness and forbearance become the very substance of my spiritual life, and on the other hand I go to the chapel and, before the Blessed Sacrament, call down maledictions on others and consider this to be prayer. It is not unreasonable to stress this problem because we meet it frequently in the so-called psalms of imprecation. « By the waters of Babylon » (Psalm137), is an example, but we will confine ourselves to Psalm 58.
Gods you may be, but do you give the sentences
and dispense impartial justice to mankind?
On the contrary, in your hearts you meditate
with your hands you dole out tyranny on earth. Right from the womb these wicked men have
[gone astray, these double talkers have been in error since
[their birth; their poison is the poison of the snake,
they are deaf as the adder that blocks its ears so as not to hear the magician's music
and the clever snake-charmer's spells.
God, break their teeth in their mouths,
Lord, wrench out the fangs of these savage lions! May they drain away like water running to waste, may they wither like trodden grass,
like a slug that melts as it moves,
like an abortion, denied the light of day! Before they sprout thorns like the bramble, green or scorched, may the wrath whirl them
[away! What joy for the virtuous, seeing this vengeance,
bathing their feet in the blood of the wicked!
« So », people will say, « the virtuous do have
so there is a God who dispenses justice on
The Power of Evil
This psalm is concerned with a certain category of mankind; no geographical detail is given. Neither Assyria nor Babylon is mentioned. All the persons in it are anonymous: the powerful, the wicked, liars. This means that the psalmist is thinking not so much of a precise individual, although this is not excluded, as of a category of men, a human group. He refers to a type: the powerful who have received power for a good use and have put it to a bad one. « But », it could be objected, « they achieve good. » Certainly, but here I am concerned only with the category, and I can therefore call its members « the powerful », not just because they possess power but because they abuse and usurp it. I can call them evil, fundamentally liars; this does not mean simply that they lie but that they use lies as means to power and oppression.
This category is composed of persons of flesh and blood each one of whom is capable of conversion, of becoming a good Christian. There have been many such. Think for example of Saul the persecutor. Here, however, the people in question are enslaved by habit, hardened by evil. They would seem to have been born thus. Is this so or not? Is original sin involved here? It is not our concern. Right from their childhood, from their first actions, these people seem to have been caught in the network, in the system of evildoing, be it through their own fault, through that of another or through enticement. From their mother's womb they have been misled, perverted from birth.
It is obvious that the utterly perverted man, completely heartless, with no love at all, is not easy to find. At the beginning as at the end man is always the image of God. However, it is legitimate to believe in the existence of peoplewho are actually structured to cultivate crime and who organize themselves into groups for the purpose of committing and exploiting injustice. Such a human category, to which we could give historical identities were this not repugnant, constitutes a system of organized, structured evil the contents of whose murky depths rise to the surface and are, so to speak, dynamic.
Should we wish to name this unnatural deformation, would we call it poison? A snake? It does indeed seem as if a snake had bitten its victims, distilled its venom into them, the dynamism of its own life; wherever they slither they are infested with its slime. They inject with this poison everything into which they get their fangs, spreading it abroad. The poison is contagious not only because it kills the person injected, but also because it has the frightening power of contaminating hundreds of others through him.
We are in the presence of something terrible: the evil that is in man, not the evil of weakness but that of convinced inflexibility, and this presence is terrifying. If I do not feel it, I have no eyes, no understanding of what man is. When I reread recent history and consider a structure that can organize the massacre of five or six million people I am filled with horror. The perpetrators of this and similar hecatombs were men, our own flesh and blood. What happens? They are silent vipers out to deceive, bringing their poison like snakes; indeed they are worse, because senseless animals can be tamed, the evil they do can be averted. One can pipe to a snake as charmers do, and it begins to dance, to strut, and to look at the people about it without darting forward to sting, whereas these men confirmed in evil can be neither warded off nor charmed. The strength of the poison they bear in themselves is greater, more powerful, than all entreaties, all supplications, all appeals: natural feeling, the memory of father or mother, human and divine pleading — nothing has any value for them.
These men have power because power is real, it is a human necessity. Man as a social being, « political man » is an organizer; he possesses a God-given power for good and for justice, for the defence of the oppressed and the exploited. This was indeed the primary meaning of justice in ancient times, the times of Sumer and Babylon. The just man for Israel is the man who defends the oppressed; but these men use their power not to defend and protect but to crush and destroy. Instead of maintaining the equilibrium of good on the earth they tip the scales in favor of violence, and this exterior action, this dastardly touch that upsets the balance, is not a thoughtless act, a chance movement but a gesture corresponding to a premeditated plan. It is in their hearts that the plan of their evil deeds is fomented, and on earth that their hand tips the scales in favor of violence and injustice.
The psalmist is faced with a real situation, a situation that can well be found outside Israel; the powerful could be the Assyrian, Babylonian or Egyptian empire; or again, Manasseh, by the grace of God king of Jerusalem and heir of David; or again, a group of nobles such as those who imprisoned Jeremiah by throwing him into a dungeon to let him disappear in the mud and die of hunger and destitution. In this psalm the powerful are not named because they have a multitude of names.
Faced with this terrible and profound reality, what does the psalmist do? Can he remain indifferent and take refuge in the psalms of praise of God, of spiritual joy, of happiness, while this real situation exists in Israel and outside Israel, while so many of his brothers cannot come to the Temple to rejoice because they are oppressed and exploited? Why does the external AssyroBabylonian power exist, in this tragic human situation? Can the psalmist remain impervious to all this? Some would say that it doesn't matter, we meet to praise God, that is the important thing, other people don't matter.
We could imagine adaptation of the psalter, which we have devoutly received from the Church, to exclude these psalms. But there are people who are suffering! I am sorry; that is not my business; in the Temple I meet my Divine Master, the meek and gentle Jesus who speaks to my heart. Other people do not concern me; not only do they not concern me — they bother me! We are going to expurgate the psalter; it was badly composed. The Holy Spirit in a moment of distraction was tricked into including certain psalms. Those that are concerned with other people, the oppressed, the exploited are irrelevant; we shall keep only the good, the gentle, the agreeable psalms in which the sun shines, the flute plays and cymbals resound.
Those possessed of a true religious sense, a sense of the Bible and of the Old Testament, of the just God, that is to say the God who protects man, cannot go to the Temple unconcerned about the concrete contemporary situation. It would be blasphemous to cut out certain psalms and keep only those that please us. Man must react, and not only politically, against Manasseh, king by the grace of God and against the emperor of Assyria. He must react religiously by praying to God about this concrete problem; he cannot just pray about what is going well and praise God for the marvels of creation. We must not forget this.
The language of images
In face of this organized evil, tenacious, powerful, venomous, the psalmist revolts interiorly. To revolt interiorly is to feel in one's heart the burning shock of injustice. Justice is something real, authentic, something for which one can fight and pray. The burning shock of injustice reveals the existence of justice, puts in motion the whole being, all the feelings, and attains the point of authentic passion, passion for justice. This sense of justice springs up from the root of the spirit, deep, intense, and the expression it seeks is not benign and ordered but passionate, a true outburst, an explosion of passion against injustice and for what is just.
What is the language of passion? Is it not the vigorous language of images? We could use many kinds of image: the psalm « By the waters of Babylon » speaks of the sons of wicked Babylon whom the psalmist wishes to crush against the stones. Because I have found in Psalm 58 a revelation of the evil of the wicked under the images of poison, of the serpent, my passionate prayer against evil will continue to use these images. We shall therefore adopt the metaphor of imprecation against the serpent and make use of images appropriate to it, images that are expressive, picturesque, capable of transmitting an interior passion. It is not necessary to take them literally one after the other: we know already that there are no lions here and no snakes, but we are using the language of passion, a language that needs these strong images.
In fact, my imprecation against evil is not addressed to this snake who can not hear me but rather to God who can trample on its head, and thus I invoke God: « 0 God, shatter the teeth in their mouths. » This is the classical Hebrew image that illustrates hostility in man, the terrible mystery of selfishness, hatred and ferocity which has nothing to do with tame animals. It is the image of homo homini lupus, man a wolf to man. Enemies, those who hate, are wild beasts. I know already that it is an image, but it is the best image, the best description. Such people are lions, wild beasts. « 0 God, shatter the teeth in their heads » so that they can no longer bite; so that when they try to destroy they may not succeed, « Lord, rend the lions' jaws. »
May all that is stealthy like the slithering of the snake disintegrate completely; may the injected poison be like impotent dribble. May it disappear like water poured out to the dregs, fade like trampled grass; may it become like slugs melting away as they advance, « like an abortion, denied the light of day ». May fire consume them like stubble before they germinate, like thorns on a bush whose seed brings forth thorns.
Such is the curse against evil, something like the curse of a gipsy, in language that is expressive, violent and passionate. Notice, however, that it is a prayer.
The justice of God revealed
The psalmist is not taking vengeance on his own account: he prays to God to use his transcendent power to destroy the transcendent power of evil.
We have said that the wicked reveal their perversity and that this perversity is profound and lasting. In the same way the passion for justice, this revelation that I feel in the depths of my being, reveals the just God. If I can feel this passion for justice there must be a just God; to experience the presence of a just God is at once a revelation, a prayer, a meditation.
This God is not the « just » God meaning a God who condemns. No, he is protector, defender, savior, the God who reveals to me the depths of his being. If I do not feel this passion, this thirst for justice, God has not revealed this aspect of himself to me. There is here a double revelation: in the wicked, the power of evil, and in my interior revolt, the power and reality of justice. Confronted with this serpent that has existed from the beginning, tortuous and ever-present, I call upon the power of God and God acts in the dialectic of history, bringing the plans of the wicked to nothing and turning them against their inventors.
God acts differently in persons and in groups, and when he does act we can, in biblical terms, call his justice "vengeance" in the broad sense of "vindictive justice". This is the justice that avenges crime. A criminal is condemned by an act of vindictive justice which avenges the crime and defends the innocent.
When God exercises the justice that defends the oppressed and the exploited, man rejoices because for a while his thirst for justice is slaked; God has finally intervened in history. The power of the oppressor has been broken; the innocent and the exploited can breathe again. This victory is expressed passionately in violent images, not as an objective reality but as a passionate expression of triumph: the just man bathes his feet in the blood of the wicked. In this vengeance men find a historical revelation of God, of the just God who intervenes in human history. God has given man power to defend the oppressed, but man has abused of this power. God then acts to re-establish order, to readjust the balance against the hand that had weighted it in favor of injustice. Before this fact I meditate on the past history of humanity and I see that there is a God who is already exercising justice now, on earth, in the course of history, and not only in an eschatological future.
This then is the meaning of the psalm on the human level. I recall one of my friends in Rome, a non-believer who on reading this psalm was impressed, not by any motive of faith, but simply because of the vehement desire for justice which it expresses.
Prayer and Contemplation
There is another problem which can be formulated thus: prayer and meditation; or, according to a very ancient formula, prayer and contemplation.
When a psalm has a dominant theme or a feeling that develops, reaches a climax and is resolved, it should be used when the person praying it is undergoing a similar religious experience. In a psalm of supplication, for example, or of sorrow and suffering, the burden of grief begins to be lifted and as we pray we gradually discover God in a hidden mysterious expression through which he gives the hope that what is being asked will be truly found. At this moment there is a kind of interior shock which brings about a change of attitude: we pass from anguish and oppression to a freedom which does not suppress the suffering but enables us to transcend it, and consolation comes forth from the very heart of the pain, the paraclesis as the epistle to the Romans calls it. At this moment the psalm changes with the change in the inner spirit, and it goes on to express a new emotion. Take, 2or example, the prayer of Psalm 116 which is one of the jewels of the psalter. In the last three verses all that is highest and simplest in the psalms meets and we witness the coexistence, the coextension of prayer and of spiritual and religious experience. At the beginning there is agitation and a desire, progressively transformed, that leads in prayer to illumination and ends in a movement of joy like the final movement of a .,ymphony.
Let us recall the third movement of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony: after the key of G minor, by means of a questioning crescendo, we reach the key of C major which will begin the fourth movement, the CEG chord of the final measure and the discovery of light and joy after a painful experience. Thus the work of art accompanies in time the interior process, and the interior process allows itself to be influenced by the work of art. We can experience this when we read Psalm 116 with prayerful recollection.
It is really difficult to say so much in such a short space. We have here an example of the fact that the development of the psalm does not produce a single emotion but rather presents a spiritual process; I surrender myself to its words and I relive the spiritual journey of my life, of the life of Christ, of the life of a member of my family, of the life of the Church, etc., led on the thread of the words from one sentiment to another.
Some psalms of course have a single tonality, a key of great joy; the last one, Psalm 150, is an example of this with full orchestra. Such psalms confront no particular problem; from beginning to end they simply develop sorrow or joy.
Another essential element already mentioned above is meditation or, if one prefers, contemplation: the psalms are not for recitation only, they are also for meditation. The practice of reciting the breviary in common has its value as a more or less social form of prayer, but this value is limited. How is it possible to finish Psalm 116, which ends so beautifully, with the idea of tacking another psalm onto it? Some prayers call for an interior space in which to echo - silence.
Guardini has put this very well: « Silence is something more than the absence of speech »; it is the interior space which I provide for the Word of God so that it can re-echo, and by re -echoing fill me, and by filling me, make me pray.
We cannot allow ourselves to lose this precious gift of Christian contemplation, we cannot sacrifice contemplation and meditation to pure activism: we must find balance. In prayer recited in common at a fixed tempo, I can be struck by a meaningful expression, but if I linger on it the objection can be raised: « Yes, meaningful, certainly, but keep time, we are singing together ». Although this phrase appeals to me very much I must sing it as it is written. What can I do? I shall use it for meditation and contemplation during the time at my disposal for this purpose. I meet God by thus deepening my understanding; I shall take this psalm and repeat it calmly until I am penetrated by it. It shapes me from within; it shapes my spirituality and becomes the expression of my life. Today this is called in technical terms the hermeneutical dialogue, the dialogue of man with the Word. We not only hear the Word but we allow it to challenge us, to shape us, and when it has accomplished this interior formation the expression of its interiority will be the Word of God.
If we fail to do this the breviary will be an instrument of division: spiritually my life will take one road, that of devotions for example, and the breviary will take another. This is because my spirituality has not been shaped by the Word of God and consequently when I accept this Word there is no possibility of fusion. I may have recited Psalm 116 a hundred, two hundred, three hundred times, and then decide not to use it any more because it is not the kind of prayer for me. It is mere recitation, the sound of words, and I know from within that it is not what I am seeking and that it is hypocritical to continue to use it. The essential thing is to find out if what the psalm says is a Word of God that challenges me, that confronts my egoism, my bourgeois self-satisfaction. This confrontation puts me up against the wall and begins to change me from within, to make me acknowledge that I do in fact live in an unreal world, a nice soft little world, and that I must change « my » spirituality by allowing myself to be gripped by this terrible psalm (Psalm 137, for example). Thus I yield ground little by little until I reach the point where it becomes part of me. « For me », a friend said, « one of the best psalms is certainly the one about the waters of Babylon. » Why? Because in it he found the expression of his own interiority.
The psalms will always be a repertoire. This means that we have a series from which to choose according to the needs of persons, groups and occasions. Some psalms « for old people » would be better left aside in certain circumstances and communities, perhaps because a catechesis or preparation has not been given. There are half a dozen psalms or fragments of psalms « for children ». We must free ourselves from the fetish of having to recite the whole psalter every week. On the other hand, however, in the context of a life of intense renewal we must aim at a spirituality so open, total and pluralistic that it embraces all the divers aspects of the psalms. We cannot mutilate it or fabricate one that lacks a vital organ, or is lame because it lacks a limb — thirst after justice, for example.
We want our spirituality to be complete and for this the psalter can be a precious instrument not only to fulfil a prescription but truly to transform us.
I must say that this collection of 150 psalms is something extraordinary in religious literature. They say that there are thirty academic psalms. Yes. That some have a poetic rhythm. True.
And yet, in spite of these limitations, when we read anything else in prayer we always return to the psalter and say: « Nowhere else does such a book exist. Its humanity is so deep and intense. All the dimensions of man, of the family, of history, of the word, of society, are to be found in it in a way that they are found nowhere else.
Finally, it is clear that the book of psalms is not enough: it is a starting-point, a bridge-head. What we want to do is to conquer not only the Gospels, the New Testament, but also the Old Testament. Let it suffice to point out that without the Old Testament we risk two things: 1) Having such a spiritualized religion that it is up in the clouds, unaware of life, of the fact that there is a land of the living and a neighbor living in it. We can so spiritualize the Holy Spirit that he no longer says anything to us, we lose contactwith reality; and it is only in reality that justice and charity can be practised. 2) Without the Old Testament how can St. Paul, for example, be understood? He takes the themes of the Old Testament and elaborates them in the light of Christ.
Let us face the problem seriously, that is to say, honestly; let us be straight with ourselves even if we do not dare to be so with others. « With ourselves » means in our relations with the group or groups to which we belong; how do we behave in these groups? Do we try to elude, to balance, to compromise? Or have we considered reform, change? If so, let us ask ourselves what is the place of spirituality in the hierarchy of values. In our life of prayer, I believe that the Word of God should hold the key position.
This article is composed of extracts from two lectures on the Divine Office given in Madrid in 1969.