Tuesday, August 21, 2007

How to Pray the Psalms(2)

In the next line:
For your love is better than life
we have a classic difficulty in translation from Hebrew. The term here translated as ‘love’ is, in fact, hesed. Hebrew, like many languages has more than one word for the English term ‘love’. In fact, there is a word for desirous love: ahav. Hosea makes good use of this word to describe the relationship of God and Israel. But this word hesed is notoriously difficult to translate. Some acceptable versions are ‘covenant love’ ‘merciful love’ or ‘steadfast love’. The general idea is that God has made a covenant with the people of Israel and is faithful to his word because he has hesed. This is a stable, unchanging, forgiving attitude of God toward his chosen people.
Now before I entered the cloister, this was without a doubt my favorite Psalm. And this is the best line: your love is better than life. But let’s be realistic about what we think of when we hear ‘love’ used in this context. If you are like me, you think of God’s affection for an individual, namely, myself! But what a difference we have made in the process of translation, from a quasi-legal pact between two parties, one being an entire nation, to a private, mutual feeling between paramours. Again, I do not deny the possibility of using a spiritual sense of this Psalm to affirm God’s love for each individual, but I hope that you can see a pattern of opting for a personal, private religion over a communal one. I hope that you can also appreciate the danger we are courting.
When I entered the cloister, I stopped praying the Roman office and began the monastic office. The difference for praying this Psalm is momentous. For the entire last stanza is omitted from the Roman office, and when, to my great dismay, I first read it, I understood why:
Those who seek to destroy my life
shall go down to the depths of the earth.
They shall be put into the power of the sword
and left as the prey of the jackals.
But the king shall rejoice in God
(all that swear by him shall be blessed)
for the mouth of liars shall be silenced.

One can immediately sense why we want to might gloss over this part—it risks ruining a perfectly good love song to God! Surely the Psalmist is going a bit overboard here—perhaps he could have used politer words to describe these people who don’t like him. And then there is the odd reference to ‘the king’—what did the king have to do with it. Again, this is easy enough to make work if we just say that Christ is the King, and he is, but are we not perhaps losing something of what it means to affirm that Christ is King, if we can’t figure out why a king enters into such a Psalm in the first place? In other words, if we have been, to this point, interpreting this Psalm personally, as a reflection of our great love for God and his love for us, something goes drastically wrong in this stanza and we have to get rid of it.
On the other hand, it is rather more easily understood if we had started reading the Psalm as a prayer spoken by the king himself, or perhaps by a priest in his name, in other words, if we had understood it liturgically, as a communal event, even an event of the state. Then the reference to the covenant is perfectly clear; enemies who would plot against the life of the king are no longer a tasteless poetic exaggeration, but a legitimate communal peril, and the appearance of the king at the end is no longer unexpected. He has been there all along. Indeed, it makes perfect sense why all manuscripts link this Psalm with King David himself.

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If I, who seem to be your right hand and am called Presbyter and seem to
preach the Word of God, If I do something against the discipline of the Church
and the Rule of the Gospel so that I become a scandal to you, The Church, then
may the whole Church, in unanimous resolve, cut me, its right hand, off, and
throw me away.

Origen of Alexandria
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