Sunday, August 26, 2007

How to Pray the Psalms(7)

III. A Closer Look at Modern Stumbling Blocks
We have already touched on our, or at least my, propensity to opt for a personal interpretation of the Psalms. I would like to investigate these tendencies more closely, and this will require unraveling tightly intertwined modes of thought.
Differences in Israelite and modern American culture
Be that as it may, let us begin prodding at some of the differing assumptions in Israelite culture and ours. First of all, if Chronicles can be trusted at all (and I will admit that there are many who consider it total fiction), it is clear that Israel’s liturgy was very hierarchical, or, to use an anachronistic term with roughly the same thrust, her liturgy was highly clerical. We, meanwhile, are heirs to all kinds of cultural currents which are anti-clerical, anti-monarchical and democratic. In the arena of politics, we aspire to a Republic in which each man or woman has a vote, each individual voice counts. In religion, no less, we honor private belief and we are surrounded by pundits who rail against so-called ‘institutionalized’ religion. We instinctively question the authenticity of both the powerful priest who represents other people and prays, supposedly, on their behalf, and the authenticity of a crowd who complacently acquiesces to this arrangement and lets someone else pray on their behalf. We fund democratic rebellions around the world and penalize countries that desire to reward religious uniformity.
Likewise, we would like to read and pray the Psalms for ourselves, sincerely and authentically, without representation or mediation. But as we saw above, we quickly encounter various impasses.
Enemies and Curses
Number one: enemies.
Why do so many of the Psalms talk about enemies who intend to kill me? Why do so many speak of imminent violent death and physical peril? How can I sincerely pray, “Let those who seek my life go down to the depths of the earth?” How many of us normally live in the shadow of would-be assassins? The simple answer is: anyone with highly concentrated power! Why, for example, on September 11, were we not told immediately where the President and Vice President were or were going? Because the presumption was that the people who were attacking New York and Washington were literally seeking their lives.
At noon on the eleventh of September, we gathered as usual for the office of Sext. Psalm 3 in that particular office is one of the less interesting, but that day, it suddenly took on new, all-too-real, meaning:
How many are my foes, O Lord
How many are rising up against me!
How many are saying about me:
‘There is no help for him in God.’…
But you Lord are a shield about me…
I cry aloud to the Lord.

Now none of us monks had been personally attacked. But we all realized that an attack on Washington and New York was an attack on all citizens of the United States. That day, clearer than on any previous day of my life, I understood that I was part of a national community. It is no surprise, then, that our President is enjoying unprecedented support, since I believe that communal interconnectedness and respect for authority go hand-in-hand.


Anonymous said...

Actually, the president is setting historic lows in approval ratings. Currently he ranks lower than Nixon did during Watergate.

Perhaps you meant enjoyed, past tense?

Prior Peter, OSB said...

Dear TLB,
Actually, this is quite a funny accident. This article was written in November, 2001, hence the noted approval ratings. Please insert change that you suggested.


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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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