Editor’s note: This is the third essay in a series on The Seven Penitential Psalms. A complete list of the essays is at the bottom of this essay.
1 O Lord, rebuke me not in thy anger,
nor chasten me in thy wrath!
2 For thy arrows have sunk into me,
and thy hand has come down on me.
3 There is no soundness in my flesh
because of thy indignation;
there is no health in my bones
because of my sin.
4 For my iniquities have gone over my head;
they weigh like a burden too heavy for me.
5 My wounds grow foul and fester
because of my foolishness,
6 I am utterly bowed down and prostrate;
all the day I go about mourning.
7 For my loins are filled with burning,
and there is no soundness in my flesh.
8 I am utterly spent and crushed;
I groan because of the tumult of my heart.
9 Lord, all my longing is known to thee,
my sighing is not hidden from thee.
10 My heart throbs, my strength fails me;
and the light of my eyes—it also has gone from me.
11 My friends and companions stand aloof from my plague,
and my kinsmen stand afar off.
12 Those who seek my life lay their snares,
those who seek my hurt speak of ruin,
and meditate treachery all the day long.
13 But I am like a deaf man, I do not hear,
like a dumb man who does not open his mouth.
14 Yea, I am like a man who does not hear,
and in whose mouth are no rebukes.
15 But for thee, O Lord, do I wait;
it is thou, O Lord my God, who wilt answer.
16 For I pray, “Only let them not rejoice over me,
who boast against me when my foot slips!”
17 For I am ready to fall,
and my pain is ever with me.
18 I confess my iniquity,
I am sorry for my sin.
19 Those who are my foes without cause are mighty,
and many are those who hate me wrongfully.
20 Those who render me evil for good
are my adversaries because I follow after good.
21 Do not forsake me, O Lord!
O my God, be not far from me!
22 Make haste to help me,
O Lord, my salvation! (Psalm 38)
Alienation, physical suffering, abandonment, psychological anguish, social distancing. One could imagine that this psalm was composed for our present situation. Of course, one would then have to recall that that is precisely how Holy Scripture interfaces with us: it is perennially relevant.
The psalmist declares his guilt before God and rehearses the results of that guilt in his own person. Once more, we see the holistic view of man, which is consistently put forth in the biblical texts: Body and soul in constant conversation and interaction. The sins I commit have a ripple effect: first, in my soul; then, in my body; finally, in the world around me. Isn’t that exactly what occurred with the commission of the original sin? Adam blamed Eve; Eve blamed the serpent; they both hid from God; they became dissatisfied with their natural state. These are the effects of guilt, pure and simple.
We should note, however, that there is good guilt and bad guilt. If I have just murdered someone and feel guilty, that is a good sign; if I don’t, I am a sociopath. The Gospels present us with both forms of guilt. Peter and Judas both betrayed Our Lord. Peter’s guilt launched him onto the royal road of repentance. Indeed, St. Luke tells us that when Peter’s glance met that of Christ, Peter wept bitterly (22:62); that encounter is memorialized on the Holy Door of St. Peter’s Basilica. St. John informs us that the Risen Lord gave Peter an opportunity to undo his triple denial with a triple affirmation of love (see 21:15-19). Good guilt. Judas also repented, but his repentance – rooted merely in himself – led him to despair. Bad guilt.
The sacred author’s sufferings are multiplied because he is forced to stand alone in his suffering; he discovers that he has only fair weather friends (and even such relatives). Worse still: Those same people actively turn against him. Conscious of his guilt, he suffers their reproaches in silence, knowing that he deserves their rebukes. The Christian, however, never suffers alone, for he belongs to the great Communion of Saints: Christ is with him in his time of trial; the company of the blessed in Heaven and the souls in Purgatory offer prayers in solidarity; the faithful on earth in their daily walk with Christ stand shoulder to shoulder with every beleaguered member of the Body of Christ. What consolation!
Those fair weather friends of our psalmist do not simply stand aloof from the besieged one; they actually become his enemies – because of his repentance, suggests the psalmist. Is that not often the case? How frequently do we discover that those with whom we had merrily sinned, perceive our repentance as a rebuke? Or, when we simply refuse to engage in sinful activity, our refusal is interpreted as a personal attack on those who think and do otherwise? How many of us have witnessed the silent, peaceful and prayerful protest outside an abortion clinic rouse the rage and fury of purveyors of death? This should not amaze us, though, for Our Lord predicted – in fact, warned us: “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you” (Jn 15:18).
In carefully surveying the responses of those around him to both his suffering and his repentance, the psalmist comes to the realization that he can appeal for help to God alone, the God of his salvation. In what does this salvation consist? It is wholeness, healing, right judgments and right relationships; it is human life in its fullness; it is participation in the life of God Himself; it is the very life that Christ came to bring: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (Jn 10:10). And is that not our plea in every Mass: “May we come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity”? Surely the good God will not be deaf to such a prayer.
As we approach the end of the psalm, we learn that he has developed new adversaries – because of his change of life, because he now pursues the good. A similar phenomenon afflicted Our Lord, causing him to ask: “I have shown you many good works from the Father; for which of these do you stone me?” (Jn 10:32). While it is true that good is diffusive of itself, so is evil, and the mysterium iniquitatis does not brook any opposition. So, forewarned is forearmed.
The alienation, physical suffering, abandonment, psychological anguish, social distancing we highlighted at the outset are resolved by the conclusion of our hymn. The psalmist has learned, by a long and painful route, what St. Paul would later sum up thus: “We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose” (Rom 8:28). This is not optimism, which is elusive and illusionary; this is Christian hope, inspired the awareness that “God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8).
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)
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