Editor’s note:This is the first essay in a series on The Seven Penitential Psalms. A complete list of the essays is at the bottom of this essay.
The 150 psalms found in the Old Testament are collectively known as the Psalter, which has often been referred to as “the hymnal of Israel,” originating in the Temple and oriented to it. The Psalter is likewise the hymnal of the Church as it provides the “meat and potatoes” of the Liturgy of the Hours, as well as texts for the antiphons to accompany the entrance, offertory and communion processions of the Mass – as well as the responsorial psalm and gospel acclamation.
Some of these poem-hymns excel in their insight, grace and diction; others, less so. All of them, however, invite one who prays them to plumb the depths of human emotions, ranging from ecstatic joy to subhuman anger to humble contrition. The name of King David is associated with the psalms; he is surely the direct author of some of these works and the promoter of many more. Needless to say, the ultimate Author of the psalms (as of all Sacred Scripture) is the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, we must appreciate the humanitas, creativity and genius of the sacred authors whom Almighty God used. Further, if we adopt the worldview of these sacred authors, we can truly pray with them.
In St. Augustine’s commentary on Psalm 85, he teaches us that in the Psalter, the totus Christus prays, that is, the Church in her Head (Christ) and in us (her members). In his inimitable style, he says: “[Christ] prays for us as our priest, He prays in us as our head, He is the object of our prayers as our God.”
St. Jerome, the quintessential biblical scholar was asked by Laeta, one of the many women to whom he gave spiritual direction, where she should begin when embarking upon a prayerful reading of Holy Scripture; without a moment’s hesitation, Jerome pointed her to the Psalter, for therein, he said, she would not only study Scripture, but she would learn to pray. In truth, prayer is pure and perfect when we no longer realize we are praying. It is important to note at the outset that the Psalter is not a text in dogmatic or moral theology although such elements are clearly present. The Psalter is a collection of poems of unparalleled simplicity and – on that very score – universality; their meaning needs to be uncovered through prayerful reflection with the goal of shutting out all distractions, so as to fill our minds and hearts with the thoughts and sentiments of the psalmist, entering into his experience of our God.
Thus do we hear St. Augustine reflect in his Confessions: “If the psalm prays, you pray; if it laments, you lament; if it exults, you rejoice; if it hopes, you hope; if it fears, you fear. Everything written here is a mirror for us.” Not surprisingly, the Doctor of Grace preached on the psalms for twenty-six years, giving us the invaluable contribution of his Expositions on the Psalms.
Yet another powerful incentive to make these prayer-songs our own is the realization that they formed the heart of the prayer of Christ Himself, as well as that of the apostolic community, of which we have abundant evidence from the New Testament. Indeed, Our Lord’s final words from the pulpit of His Cross come from the psalms.
From our days in Catholic grammar school, we should recall the mnemonic device given to remember the four “ends” of prayer: ACTS – Adoration, Contrition, Thanksgiving, Supplication. We find all four of those ends in the Psalter. In this series, we intend to focus on that of contrition – sorrow for sin.
The Seven Penitential Psalms
While sorrow for sin is found in many of the psalms, the Church has traditionally highlighted seven of them which stand out in this regard (namely, Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, 143). The Church has had recourse to these seven to rouse the People of God to repentance and to rouse the mercy of God at all times and, in a particular way, at the hour of one’s death and in times of pestilence. The pattern of prayer is simple: acknowledgment of one’s sins and of the righteousness of divine punishment; expression of genuine repentance; the resolution to put an end to sin in one’s life; laying claim to divine mercy, thus giving birth to hope and joy.
Possidius, the friend and biographer of St. Augustine, informs us of the holy bishop’s attitude toward repentance, especially on one’s deathbed:
[Augustine] had been used to say, in his familiar conversation, that after receiving baptism, even approved Christians and priests ought not to depart from the body without a fitting and sufficient course of penance. Accordingly, in the last illness, of which he died, he set himself to write out the special penitential psalms of David, and to place them four by four against the wall, so that, as he lay in bed, in the days of his sickness, he could see them. And so he used to read and weep abundantly. And lest his attention should be distracted by any one, about ten days before his death, he begged us who were with him to hinder persons entering his room except at the times when his medical attendants came to see him, or his meals were brought to him. This was strictly attended to, and all his time given to prayer.
Very appropriately, the Seven Penitential Psalms have inspired some of the most moving music (after all, the psalms are hymns). Renaissance composers like Orlando de Lassus and Andrea Gabrieli have left us their stirring renditions (in Latin), as has William Byrd done in English. The reader may want to accompany the reading of this series with one of these musical settings in the background.
Psalm 6: Prayer for Recovery from Grave Illness
O Lord, rebuke me not in thy anger,
nor chasten me in thy wrath.
2 Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am languishing;
O Lord, heal me, for my bones are troubled.
3 My soul also is sorely troubled.
But thou, O Lord—how long?
4 Turn, O Lord, save my life;
deliver me for the sake of thy steadfast love.
5 For in death there is no remembrance of thee;
in Sheol who can give thee praise?
6 I am weary with my moaning;
every night I flood my bed with tears;
I drench my couch with my weeping.
7 My eye wastes away because of grief,
it grows weak because of all my foes.
8 Depart from me, all you workers of evil;
for the Lord has heard the sound of my weeping.
9 The Lord has heard my supplication;
the Lord accepts my prayer.
10 All my enemies shall be ashamed and sorely troubled;
they shall turn back, and be put to shame in a moment.
In this psalm, we see expressed the linkage between the experience of sickness or other misfortune with the commission of sin. That notion does not sit very well with modern man, who is wont to say, “My God would never do that!” The God of the Bible, however, was not loathe to do that. Indeed, repeatedly we read of God’s punishments of individuals and whole peoples, precisely as the divine response to sin. While the Jews of old kept repeating the same mistakes, they did at least perceive the justice of the punishments visited on them.
Such punishments, however, were not meted out by a vengeful Deity; they were intended to serve as “wake-up” calls from an eminently loving and very patient God. Jesus suggests the connection between sin and illness in his final warning to the paralytic: “Afterward, Jesus found him in the temple, and said to him, ‘See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse befall you’” (Jn 5:14). That warning was not taken well by the ingrate, who then hied himself off to the religious authorities to identify Christ as his healer.
Now, not all sickness results from sin. Jesus makes clear, for instance, that the affliction of the man born blind was not connected to a sin of either the man himself or his parents (see Jn 9); similarly, the death of Lazarus is explained by Our Lord as an opportunity for the glory of God to be revealed (see Jn 11). The death of Jesus embodies both messages: Christ, in taking upon Himself the sins of the world, dies as a result of sin; at the same time, His sacrificial love, which underlies His self-offering, shows forth the glory of God.
As our present pandemic engulfs us in sickness and death, it might be good to see in it a two-fold divine message: yes, one would not be wrong to consider how the sins of the modern world are deeds crying to God for vengeance, so as to stir the minds and hearts of whole nations to repentance, indeed, even to but a basic awareness of the existence of God. Repent, “that nothing worse befall you!” This worldwide crisis also shows forth the glory of God, not simply in His power as the ultimate source of life and death but also in the responses of courage and self-sacrifice as reflections of God’s goodness and mercy.
The psalmist moves on to plead for relief of both body and soul. Philosophers like Aristotle and Aquinas would stress that the human person is a body-soul unity; what happens in one sphere of our being affects the other. Medical science tells us that a person who is healthy of soul heals more readily, just as a person of faith tends to live longer than one without a transcendental horizon. This awareness causes the Church as a loving Mother and, as Pope Paul VI called her, “expert in humanity,” to offer her children the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick, whose primary purpose is the restoration of spiritual health, along with the prayer for physical healing, should God so will.
The Christian reader might be perplexed by verse 5, which declares that “in death there is no remembrance of thee.” We do not encounter a firm and clear understanding of an afterlife in Judaism until the Wisdom Literature – very late additions to the Old Testament canon. Actually, acceptance of the idea of the resurrection of the body was a hotly contested matter in the time of Christ as Pharisees held to that doctrine, while the Sadducees roundly rejected it. To this day, Judaism is divided on that point. Even in the face of unbearable suffering and death, Christians can – and must – take consolation in the bold proclamation of their Lord: “I am the resurrection and the life!” (Jn 11:25).
Somewhat of an accommodation of the troublesome verse could bring one to conclude that “in death there is no remembrance” can be a salutary reminder that “you can’t take it with you,” or “shrouds have no pockets”! Or, death is the great leveler of social distinctions.
The following verse allows us to hear the repentant psalmist express the very depths of human sorrow for one’s sins as he pours out tears of repentance. How many of us could make such an assertion? If we have been praying the Stations of the Cross with St. Alphonsus Liguori this Lent, we have told the Christ of the Via Crucis:
My Jesus, laden with sorrows, I weep for the offences that I have committed against Thee, because of the pains which they have deserved, and still more because of the displeasure which they have caused Thee, Who hast loved me so much. It is Thy love, more than the fear of Hell, which causes me to weep for my sins. My Jesus, I love Thee more than myself; I repent of ever having offended Thee. Never permit me to offend Thee again. Grant that I may love Thee always; and then do with me what Thou wilt.
It is to be hoped that we have grown in the virtue of compunction, which has enabled us to say those words in total honesty.
The sinner’s rehabilitation is full as he then eschews his former companions in crime; he is resolved, in the words of our Act of Contrition, “to avoid the near occasions of sin.”
The psalm ends on a note of complete confidence that the repentant sinner has been heard; he has been forgiven. This causes a negative reaction among his former allies, who are distressed by his reform of life. The final message of the psalm: Doers of sin and evil are not ultimately victorious: They are “put to shame in a moment.”
Essays on the Seven Penitential Psalms:
• The Seven Penitential Psalms in time of pandemic/Psalm 6 (April 4, 2020)
• Psalm 32: The Joy of Forgiveness (April 5, 2020)
• Psalm 38: A Penitent Sufferer’s Plea for Healing (April 6, 2020)
• Psalm 51: Prayer for Cleansing and Pardon (April 7, 2020)
• Psalm 102: Prayer to the Eternal King for Help (April 8, 2020)
• Psalm 130: Waiting for Divine Redemption (April 9, 2020)
• Psalm 143: Prayer for Deliverance from Enemies (April 9, 2020)
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!