Monday, 17 July 2017

Retreat Address on the Psalms 1 - Prayer and the Praises of God (Psalm 65)

I want this week to reflect with you on the psalms. You don’t need me to tell you that the psalms are at the heart of the Opus Dei as St Benedict conceived it in his Rule. In the medieval cathedrals like Durham where I served until recently, we tried to be faithful to the way the Rule has influenced and shaped Anglican liturgy by reciting in full the monthly cycle of psalms in the Book of Common Prayer, said in the morning, sung in the evening. It was not a burden but a joy to do this. It's what I miss most in retirement. I used to tell choristers that as a matter of musicianship, if they could sing the psalms, they could sing anything. 

Well, if you can pray the psalms, you can pray anything, anytime, anywhere. The value to us at Durham was not only to restore the balance of the divine office by giving proper honour to the psalms. It also exposed us to their vast emotional and spiritual range, from despair to thankfulness, from sorrow to hope, and from resignation to acceptance, confidence and joy. And it incorporated us into the story of a faith community that has called on the God of Israel since he first called Abraham to make his journey of faith so that all the world might find blessing. 

What I intend to offer is a series of meditations on one of each day’s morning psalms in a way that I hope explores their potential to touch the experience of all of us. The morning psalm cycle of Week 3 includes representatives of most of the types of psalm that form critics have recognised. But my concern is not so much the study of the psalms as the way we pray them. And in this, I am not only thinking of the church’s prayer but the experience of communities and individuals more widely. And I also want to remind us from time to time that a very ancient way of construing them is to imagine them placed on the lips of Jesus as his own vade mecum in prayer, as I am sure we can confidently say they were throughout his life. 

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So let me begin with one of those set for today, Psalm 65. The theme is prayer and doxology, prayer and the praise of God. 

The psalm is a glowing song of harvest: the good earth and the fecundity of the land. It seems to belong to the annual festival that was probably celebrated in the autumn. It would have embraced the renewal of the seasonal cycle, the renewal of the covenant and the renewal of the people. All of Israel’s life is gathered up in psalms like this: life celebrated and offered, and the author of life worshiped and adored. 

This is why the psalm begins, not with the land and its harvest but with the temple. For it was seen as the focus of the people’s prayer for wellbeing.  Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the temple specifically mentions threats to the land’s fertility as one of the reasons why Israel would pray ‘towards this place’. In that prayer, threats such as famine, blight or the failure of the rains are seen as grounds for which the people should acknowledge their sin and seek forgiveness.  In the psalm, the themes of God’s goodness and a penitent people’s forgiveness are once again linked together: when deeds of iniquity overwhelm us, you forgive our transgressions …Happy are those whom you choose and bring near to live in your courts (3-4). Perhaps Solomon’s prayer is specifically being recalled here.  

The emphasis on Zion must not mislead us as to the true scope of this Psalm. Here, Zion is seen not only as the focus of the nation’s prayer, but as the symbolic centre of the whole world.  To you all flesh shall come (2).  Like the prophets of the exile and afterwards, this psalmist believes that Zion is where “the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together”.  This universal vision is carried through the next section where the addresses God as the hope of all the ends of the earth and of the farthest seas (5), for this is the Creator who established the world on its foundations and put the chaotic waters in their place (6-7).  So it is not only Israel but those who live at earth’s farthest bounds who are awed by your signs (8).  

All this prepares the way for the concluding section in which harvest is celebrated as the abundant proof of God’s everlasting care for the human race (9ff.).  The logic of this Psalm is simple: if God demonstrated his power and goodness by creating the world, the harvest demonstrates how his work of creation continues into the present.  Thou visitest the earth and blessest it; thou makest it very plenteous… Thou crownest the year with thy goodness: and thy clouds drop fatness (9, 11 BCP).  I’ve quoted the Prayer Book version because I have fond memories of singing those words as a chorister in the anthem by Maurice Green. And while there is no doubt a special blessing implied here for the Israelites who saw their land as a divinely given inheritance, the invitation to praise God is not limited to the covenant people.  Nothing less than the whole of creation is the recipient of God’s overflowing goodness, so much so that even the natural world finds itself joining in the psalmist’s song of praise: the valleys also stand so thick with corn that they shall laugh and sing (13 BCP).

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Let me offer some reflections on the spirituality of this bright, cheerful psalm. 

First, there is the insight that all of life must be lived out of gratitude and praise. Earlier this month I was conducting the ordinands’ retreat in Lincoln Diocese. We reflected together on each of the five stanzas of Bishop John Cosin’s version of the medieval hymn Veni Creator Spiritus, “Come Holy Ghost, our souls inspire”. The fifth verse is the doxology: praise to thy eternal merit, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. So I gave an address on how we need to live doxologically in life and in ministry, how we need to construe our entire existence as the offering of praise to the Holy Trinity, how all of life is, in the most profound sense, eucharistic. 

Te decet hymnus, Praise is due to you, O God, in Zion. The key word is the first one, praise. In Hebrew it’s tehillah. I mention that because the entire book of psalms has that same word as its title in the Hebrew Canon where it is called the book of “Praises”, tehillim. That is highly significant when we consider that the majority of psalms are not hymns or praises so much as laments. Nevertheless, the canonists seem to be saying, in lament as in celebration, in longing as in thankfulness, praise must be the ground of our prayer. All of life, whether it is lived in a major or minor key or somewhere in between, must be doxology. “I will bless the Lord at all times.” 

And the praise of God is the source of good order in our lives as communities and as people. Happy are those whom you choose and bring near to live in your courts. We shall be satisfied with the goodness of your house, your holy temple. I want to come back to the “happiness” sayings in the Psalms later in the week. But here, we see how happiness is linked to being near the sanctuary, close to its rhythms of prayer, participating in its common discipline of life together. We shouldn’t imagine that the Jerusalem temple was altogether like this chapel of the Community of the Resurrection. But in terms of the golden spiritual thread that runs through our tradition from antiquity to modernity, I am sure we should make this link. 

What is worth noticing is how the psalm suddenly switches – lurches you could say - from the goodness of your house, your holy temple to the awesome acts of God. What is striking is how this central section is dominated by the images of power subduing a violent, chaotic universe. God established the mountains out of the tumultuous convulsions of rock and fire. He silenced the roaring of the seas, the roaring of the waves, that ancient symbol of demonic chaos that God needed to subdue at creation and constrain within their proper bounds. Even the tumult of the peoples “furiously raging together” as Psalm 2 puts it, is subject to God’s control. When he acts, the consequence is that order. Time is given back its proper shape. You make the gateways of the morning and evening shout for joy. 

I’m saying that when we praise God and learn to live doxologically, it orders our existence, gives shape to our wayward lives, creates disciplines and boundaries for the chaotic waters that represent our human chaos and disorder. In particular, this psalm, beginning and ending with praise and thanksgiving in such a way as to “contain” the confusion in between, illustrates how God’s praise needs to envelop life like a literary inclusio. Rightly to order our lives is not so much a matter of strenuous effort (which would be Pelagianism) but of giving ourselves up to the praise and worship of our Creator. The eucharistic life, I believe, is the well-shaped, properly-ordered life because it knows and acknowledges the ground of its own being. In a psalm later this week, I’m going to mention the sin of envy and how we should deal with it. My answer will be: by learning how to be thankful, how to praise God. Doxology is the only way. 

Who am I to tell you this as a community living the religious life? You of all people know how the daily rhythms of holy eucharist and divine office express your commitment to a rule that is designed to preserve good spiritual order and keeps chaos in its place. You recite the Gloria a score of times each day at the opening of each office and at the end of the psalms and canticles. The symbolism of this simple act speaks powerfully to me as a secular priest for whom the divine office has always been at the centre of my spiritual life as an adult. Pascal said: if we can only keep on walking, everything will be all right. Let me nuance that by saying “walking doxologically”, walking in the praise of God, walking eucharistically, walking for his glory. That is our vocation in both religious and secular life. And if we follow it as best we can, we are protected from spiritual chaos and harm, and everything will be all right. 

And then, reverence for God must inevitably be connected to reverence for life. The connection between the sanctuary and the world is fundamental to authentic spirituality. We’ve seen how the psalm moves seamlessly between the temple and the earth, between the sacred space of the cult and the sacred space of all creation. There is a beautiful spiritual transparency in this psalm, how it progresses from the praise that is offered in the holy place to the memory of God’s mighty acts in creating the heavens and the earth; and then to his sustaining of the created world into the present experience of the worshipper. In other words, as he was in the beginning, so he is now, abundantly demonstrated in a good harvest: the watered earth, the fields and meadows dancing with joy, the year crowned with God’s bounty.

This is to say, that when worship and life are connected as doxology, they will also be connected as ecology. There is an ecology of the spirit, an ecology of human society, and an ecology of nature. The Hebrew and Christian scriptures have always had a healthy understanding of the sacred-and-secular distinction: not that it is wrong in itself (as some claim rather too hastily) but that it is provisional. It must always be understood in the larger context of affirming that “the earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it” as the opening verse of Psalm 24 puts it, a rite of entry into the sanctuary that makes the same connection as today’s psalm between liturgy and the created order. 

So whether the psalm is meant as an affirmation or a prayer, we are meant to grasp the complete commitment God has to the welfare and flourishing of the world he has made. You visit the earth and water it, you greatly enrich it. His involvement with the earth is no less than humanity’s: the harvest is both God’s and ours. There is therefore a deep collaboration implied in these concluding verses, a divine and human synergy that enables the land to realise its potential and give of its best, not just so that living things can enjoy them but as an end in itself, realising the purpose for which it was made, to be both “beautiful and useful” as William Morris might have said. 

Jewish and Christian spirituality have always emphasised the goodness of creation. But in our own times this has become not only an honouring of the Creator but an urgent imperative to this generation and those who follow us. As we know, the natural world and the human family as part of it are more fragile than our predecessors had imagined. The threats we ourselves pose to our planet are more obvious today than ever before as we are beginning to see how climate change will inevitably have far-reaching consequences for the delicate ecology of our island home. The imperative is both to live more ethically and to conserve what we have inherited so that our children and grandchildren can enjoy the fruits of the earth as well as us.

I confess to being pessimistic about our ability as nations and peoples to turn round our selfish propensity to exploit nature while there is still time. I read a report in the paper last week that drew attention to how many environmental activists are murdered in Latin America because they get in the way of making lucrative gains out of rivers and rainforests. It's not just the environment but human life itself that is written off as cheap or of no value. And I fear for a future when the habitable world contracts to the point where major conflict becomes almost inevitable. Here is where we people of faith need to see the world in the context of what is even larger, God’s creative love and providential care. Our psalm ought to provoke us into getting our perspectives adjusted so that we see clearly not only how precious our world is, but how much it is at risk, how we must urgently change our ways and encourage others to change theirs so that we place at the heart of our human ecology a true and lasting reverence for life.

For us as disciples, that would be to put hope and imagination back into the centre of our prayer in such a way as to banish despair by committing us to act for the good of the planet and the glory of God. I imagine Jesus would have had psalms of blessing like this on his lips each day, for in him, we might say, we see doxology made flesh, articulating with and on behalf of the world its instinct to be true to itself and respond to God’s goodness. So like him, in the spirit of our psalm, we want to align ourselves with God’s wise and loving purposes for the creation. We do this, says the psalm, by keeping alive in ourselves our capacity to be thankful for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life, but above all (Christians go on to say) for the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ.

So in our meditations today, I invite us to reflect on living eucharistically to the praise of God, and on how doxology at the centre of life transforms our prayer, our living, and our endeavours to work for a more just, more sustainable, more Christ-like world.

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