instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Friday, May 26, 2006

Beati immaculati

Rob's mention of Psalm 119 [118] got me thinking about how much I like that psalm.

If it's true that every human experience is contained in the Psalter, then the human experience contained by Psalm 119 is a writing assignment for a religious poetry class: "Write a poem consisting of 22 stanzas, each stanza comprising eight lines that all begin with the same letter, a different letter for each stanza, and include in each line a word meaning God's instruction to man."

Which makes it an odd psalm to like, and in fact I didn't think much of it when I first looked at it. There's not much movement to it -- or you could say there's far too much, each verse thrashing around in a tight little circle. With the loss of the acrostic key in English translation, the verses could be randomly composed without losing too much, e.g.:
Thy justifications I will never forget: for by them thou hast given me life.
O how have I loved thy law, O Lord! it is my meditation all the day.
They that persecute me have drawn nigh to iniquity; but they are gone far off from the law.
My eyes have failed for thy word, saying: When wilt thou comfort me?
Thou art my helper and my protector: and in thy word I have greatly hoped.
Let thy mercy also come upon me, O Lord: thy salvation according to thy word.
I have had understanding above ancients: because I have sought thy commandments.
I have gone astray like a sheep that is lost: seek thy servant, because I have not forgotten thy commandments.
(This page will randomly order the verse numbers for you.)

All this makes it a rather dull psalm to read.

But to proclaim it! Or chant it, or pray it! Then it becomes an entirely different thing, as different as a stained glass window seen from the outside on a gray afternoon and from the inside on a sunny morning.

To find yourself praying for the grace to know and love God's law, edicts, commands, precepts, words, utterances, ways, decrees, and teachings is a remarkable experience. It is to recognize, insist upon, and celebrate your creatureliness, your dependency on God. It is to say, "Lord, You have something I need to be happy, and You will give it to me, and I will use it, and I will be happy, and You will be happy with me."

Then the repetitions aren't so repetitive. They're variations, riffs on this most basic realization that God is He Who Is and this most astonishing revelation that He loves you who are not. His love takes the form of commandments, and in taking these commandments we find joy:
Your decrees are my heritage forever; they are the joy of my heart.
Easily said, easier read, but when we pray this psalm, the real truth of it can be, if not always grasped, at least sometimes sighted.