Monday, June 30, 2014

The Monday Psalter

Happy are those
who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread,
or sit in the seat of scoffers;
but their delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law they meditate day and night.

They are like trees
planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they prosper.

The wicked are not so,
but are like chaff that the wind drives away.
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;

For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish.
Psalm 1

Reflection – It is time for a new running series on the blog, one that will likely run for as long as the blog itself runs. Welcome to the “Monday Psalter.” (UPDATE: This later became the 'weekly psalter', as its normal day of running changed from Monday to Friday).

I have felt for some time that the psalms get short shrift in our contemporary spiritual exercises. When is the last time you heard a sermon on the psalms, or were encouraged to pray the psalms daily? Ever? How often do you pray the psalms? Priests and religious are supposed to pray them every day, and perhaps most do, but we never seem to talk about it or encourage it or seem terribly enthused about them.

And yet the psalms are the very backbone of Christian worship and liturgy, and have been since the beginning. They were the prayers of Our Lord and Our Lady, the prayers of the Jewish people, and that alone makes them normative for Christians. The very words that God Incarnate used to address His Father are privileged words for our own efforts to speak to God.

And from the beginning of the Church, the psalms formed a solid core of our liturgical worship. The liturgy of the hours grew from a simple brief office prayed by all the faithful in the first cathedrals of the great cities of the Roman Empire to much more elaborate and lengthy offices prayed in the deserts of the monks, to its present form which has elements of both.

And so I want to read through the psalms each week, starting with Psalm 1 and getting (God willing) all the way through to Psalm 150. The blog is named Ten Thousand Places, and these are 150 of the places the Christian people have always sought and found the face of God in the world.

Psalm 1 is a favorite of mine. I know a little Biblical Hebrew, and I like to pray it in its original language, where it has a truly lovely poetic cadence. Ashrey ha-ish… happy is the man. The Hebrew word is derived from the word for footsteps, suggesting something like a path or a sequence of movements. To be ‘ashrey’ is to have one’s life proceed along the course that will lead to success. To have things unfold, step by step, in a good way.

And so we have the whole famous ‘two ways’ that are a dominant theme in the wisdom tradition of the Old Testament. There are only two ways in the world, ultimately. As C.S. Lewis put it, in the end there are only two kinds of people, those who say to God ‘Your will be done,’ and those to whom God says, sadly, ‘Your will be done.’ And that is a pretty accurate summary of this psalm.

Wicked means willful, headstrong, unwilling to be led, to be taught, to surrender to the will and law of God. The alternative is not some artificial and pompous path of moral rectitude, but to meditate, to ponder, to read the law of God day and night. There is an interiorization already happening here, a relationship, a sense of receptivity, of humility, of faith.

And in this comes this beautiful image, so beloved of the writers of Scripture, of the tree planted by the waters, leaves ever green, yielding its fruit, as opposed to the path of the willful and disobedient who are swept away like chaff. It bears noting that the wicked in this psalm, set in the life of Israel, have full access to the Law and could root their lives in it as well as anyone. It was their own choice to uproot themselves from the soil with the living water that nourishes the soul.

And it is so in our day as well. But this psalm is not to bring us to judge other people or look at the root system of others’ lives—no, it is about me and you and how deeply, how often, how seriously do we meditate on the law of Christ, ponder it day and night, and build our lives on it? This is the ‘ashrey’ of the Christian, the footsteps of Christ left on the soil of the world, and the blessedness of our life wholly depends on how we attend to those footsteps and walk in them each day.