Monday, May 01, 2006

Thoughts on the Miserere

We use the Grail Psalter in the Divine Office at the monastery. As translations of the Psalms go, this one is probably my favorite. But it is not without its faults (can any translation be?).

We read, in verse 19:
"My sacrifice, a contrite sprit/a humbled, contrite heart you will not spurn."

More literally (from the Hebrew), the word rendered here twice as 'contrite' should be translated as 'broken'. So the Greek Septuagint reads suntetrimmenen (broken).

The Latin Vulgate, which oftens strongly influences the Grail translation, reads two different words in parallel: contribulatus, distressed or even oppressed; and contritus, crushed or worn down. Clearly, the Grail follows the idea of contrition. Here is where changes in English meaning obscure the original idea, as I will attempt to demonstrate.

The modern meaning of 'contrite' is 'grieving and penitent for sin or shortcoming'. In practice, we think of contrition as something we ought to feel after having sinned--a moral duty. Indeed, as a confessor, I am required to ascertain whether a penitent is contrite. In the absence of contrition, there can be no valid absolution. We see here that the sense of the word 'contrite' has moved into the sphere of the voluntary: we must actively will to make the best effort to avoid sin in the future. In the sacrament of penance, this is good and just, especially as we may often not recognize the burden that sin places on us.

The older, root form does not suggest voluntariness but mere circumstance. My heart and spirit may be 'crushed' or 'oppressed' by all sorts of situations, which may or may not involve my having sinned actively. In the case of this particular Psalm, sin is involved. But even here, I would like to suggest that God can sometimes lead us by a mysterious route to a place of real spiritual desolation which will prove to be more healing than the contrition that we generate ourselves. This willed contrition is not therefore unnecessary, but we may go wrong if we expect that by our willing contrition we can overcome sin. This can easily be misunderstood as a 'technique' for moral self-improvement. Rather, Jesus Christ will overcome sin in us, if we consent by our contrition, but also if we consent to carry the Cross, that is, to be crushed and worn out. This latter is of a different order than merely feeling bad for having sinned: it is a mystical participation in the death and exaltation of Christ and it is our true calling.

My trusty assistant was unable to post all of the work I had intended last week. Perhaps that will make it to the blog this week instead. I wish you all peace in the Risen and Triumphant Lord Jesus Christ.


Anonymous said...

I like "De profundis" along the lines of being "worn out"...

Slangwhanger-in-Chief said...

I have never seen a better explanation of the 1st and 7th steps of Alcoholics Anonymous than your penultimate paragraph. I came to your blog looking for "psalm 116 grail translation" and you hooked me into reading all the way down to this entry, which then crowneth all to my mind. Bless you, Father, for your good work. It helped a stranger far away.


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may the whole Church, in unanimous resolve, cut me, its right hand, off, and
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