Lent 2012: a series on Psalm 119 to clean my “messy house”

When I was considering what to do as a series of posts for Lent I had considered the Psalms. Today I came across someone who had suggested writing in regards to the longest psalm, Number 119, and all of its 176 verses. Overwhelming to be sure, but when I did some research and learned that the psalm could be divided into twenty-two sections of eight verses each, I thought it a great idea. Then tonight I came across this story by Kathleen Norris from the book Bread And Wine: Readings for Lent and Easter:

When I’m working as an artist-in-residence at parochial schools, I like to read the psalms out loud to inspire the students, who are usually not aware that the snippets they sing at Mass are among the greatest poems in the world. But I have found that when I have asked children to write their own psalms, their poems often have an emotional directness that is similar to that of the biblical psalter. They know what it’s like to be small in a world designed for big people, to feel lost and abandoned. Children are frequently astonished to discover that the psalmists so freely express the more unacceptable emotions, sadness and even anger, even anger at God, and that all of this is in the Bible that they hear read in church on Sunday morning.

Children who are picked on by their big brothers and sisters can be remarkably adept when it comes to writing cursing psalms, and I believe that the writing process offers them a safe haven in which to work through their desires for vengeance in a healthy way. Once a little boy wrote a poem called “The Monster Who Was Sorry.” He began by admitting that he hates it when his father yells at him: his response in the poem is to throw his sister down the stairs, and then to wreck his room, and finally to wreck the whole town. The poem concludes: “Then I sit in my messy house and say to myself, ‘I shouldn’t have done all that.”

“My messy house” says it all: with more honesty than most adults could have mustered, the boy made a metaphor for himself that admitted the depth of his rage and also gave him a way out. If that boy had been a novice in the fourth-century monastic desert, his elders might have told him that he was well on the way toward repentance, not such a monster after all, but only human. If the house is messy, they might have said, why not clean it up, why not make it into a place where God might wish to dwell?

*****

And that little story sealed the deal. Because I love the Psalms. I didn’t always, but after spending a lot of time with them while praying the Liturgy of the Hours with the Church I have developed a real appreciation for these beautiful poems from Holy Scripture. And so for twenty-two of the forty days of Lent I will be doing an exercise of which I hope you’ll find useful. I’m going to look at the Psalm in its twenty-two parts and, using a few books and commentaries I own, do a verse-by-verse commentary of the Psalm. Most utilized will be Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (Old Testament, Vol. 8: Psalms 51-150) from InterVarsity Press and Haydock’s Catholic Bible Commentary, 1859 edition.

As Kate writes at Australia Incognita, Psalm 119

is an extended meditation on the importance of God’s law. It is a psalm above all about the path to happiness, as its first line makes clear:

“Blessed are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the LORD!”

The first eight verses of this psalm in the original Hebrew begin with Aleph, which is the name of the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The second eight verses begin with Beth, the name of the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet; and so to the end of the whole alphabet, in all twenty-two letters, each letter having eight verses. The poem is an acrostic; its twenty-two stanzas are in the order of the Hebrew alphabet. Each of the eight verses within a stanza begins with the same letter. Each verse contains one word for “instruction. There are nine words for “instruction,” not eight, so the principle of a different word for “instruction” in each verse cannot be maintained with perfect consistency. The nine words for “instruction” in the translation are: law, statute, commandment, precept, testimony, word, judgment, way, and promise.

There is a tradition that King David used this psalm to teach his young son Solomon the alphabet—but not just the alphabet for writing letters: the alphabet of the spiritual life. Others believe that he composed it while he himself was young, and persecuted by Saul. It seems very probable, that David wrote it for the consolation of the captives.

The Israelites might recite this psalm on their journey, three times a-year, to the temple, as Psalm 119 comes immediately before the fifteen gradual canticles that follow. These are associated literally with the pilgrimage to Jerusalem for major Jewish feasts and the climb up the steps of the Temple, and spiritually with the Ascent to heaven. This psalm is letting us know that as a preparation for the celebration of the Resurrection at Easter it is necessary to reflect on the Law of God.

Like the child who wrote “The Monster Who Was Sorry” that Ms. Norris referred to in her story, I must confess that my house is messy. There are things I really shouldn’t have done. I’ve sat in the middle of the mess for too long and it’s time to throw open the windows to my soul and give my heart a good spring cleaning. I hope that you’ll join me on this journey as tomorrow we begin by taking a look at verses 1 through 8.

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