This week is one of the deep fasts of Lent for me. Last week we had the Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas to celebrate, and next week the calendar is replete with feasts– St. Joseph, St. Benedict, and the great Feast of the Annunciation. Following that week is Passiontide, and the fast intensifies. This third week of Lent is therefore a particularly difficult one for me. Going from non-penitential to penitential and back again strikes right at my lack of self-discipline. Going totally without some thing or other I can do. Overindulging is easy. Moderation is a constant struggle.
In this light I see the unfortunate reality of my pride. It does have an enduring vitality, and even in fasting and abstinence pride can intrude. It does intrude. I can go all Lent only drinking water, as I did sometimes in the past? Big woo. After Lent it is so easy to give over to all the indulgences I so proudly give up in Lent. It is so easy to see that improvement of soul is either illusory or temporary and weak. Early in my “tradversion”, I recall one Lent–ONE– where I could sense consolation, offer up suffering, and see improvement in the spiritual life. I perceived I was being given spiritual insights and I was aware that God was giving them. That of course was a great gift of God, but I understand that even Lents where I sense no such things are also great gifts of God. The point of my example is that even that year, when it seemed like I turned a corner, it was squandered over the last several years of disappointment. Not enough disappointment to change anything, mind you. The slide of mediocrity continues.
In Septuagesimatide and on into Lent, so many of the scripture readings warn against worldly attachments. With the world plunging down a hole, no Catholic can fail to understand that the attachment to worldly things is a disappointment now and death in the world to come. So in the midst of this struggle of Lent I was struck by the pairing of psalms in Lauds today. I usually don’t pray Lauds but rather some other hour of the breviary. Today I simply wanted to forget about my various concerns and just give Him praise and thanks. As usual, Christ operates in the Liturgy and I got a lesson in praise through His Mercy and the cost of it.
The first psalm is perhaps the greatest of the penitential psalms, Psalm 50. This is the psalm of David after his mortal sins with Bethsabee. Every sinner can relate to the depths of his misery and his sincere pleading for forgiveness:
6 To thee only have I sinned, and have done evil before thee: that thou mayst be justified in thy words and mayst overcome when thou art judged. 7 For behold I was conceived in iniquities; and in sins did my mother conceive me. 8 For behold thou hast loved truth: the uncertain and hidden things of thy wisdom thou hast made manifest to me. 9 Thou shalt sprinkle me with hyssop, and I shall be cleansed: thou shalt wash me, and I shall be made whiter than snow. 10 To my hearing thou shalt give joy and gladness: and the bones that have been humbled shall rejoice.
I was surprised to see this psalm chosen for Lauds, even in Lent. Lauds is the hour of praise, right? It isn’t even a Friday. Well, the lament and pleading continue in this psalm, a fairly long one at that. But in praying it I was struck by the confidence of David as he begs mercy; that confidence is not in himself, but in Him Whom he has offended. That confidence was and is rewarded, and at last he gives praise in that confidence:
17 O Lord, thou wilt open my lips: and my mouth shall declare thy praise. 18 For if thou hadst desired sacrifice, I would indeed have given it: with burnt offerings thou wilt not be delighted. 19 A sacrifice to God is an afflicted spirit: a contrite and humbled heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.
Right after Psalm 50, the Church gives Psalm 42, so familiar to those who assist at the ancient Mass. Its words comprise the prayers at the foot of the altar recited by the priest as he prepares to climb the the hill of Calvary to offer the Sacrifice. The words, if applied to us, sound like hubris. Applied to Christ, the High Priest and Victim, they call God to witness the justice of His cause and His Innocence:
Judge me, O God, and distinguish my cause from the nation that is not holy: deliver me from the unjust and deceitful man. 2 For thou art God my strength: why hast thou cast me off? and why do I go sorrowful whilst the enemy afflicteth me? 3 Send forth thy light and thy truth: they have conducted me, and brought me unto thy holy hill, and into thy tabernacles. 4 And I will go in to the altar of God: to God who giveth joy to my youth. 5 To thee, O God my God, I will give praise upon the harp: why art thou sad, O my soul? and why dost thou disquiet me?
6 Hope in God, for I will still give praise to him: the salvation of my countenance, and my God.
This psalm is also a psalm of David. This is the same David who, when in the depths of regret and misery, begged the Lord for forgiveness. Now he calls on God to judge him and to distinguish his cause from those who do evil. It would be easy to think he’s got a lot of nerve, right? Of course, the Messias is David’s Son, and this psalm most appropriately refers to Our Lord. He has every right to claim the just cause.
But back to David. Reading this psalm in light of Psalm 50, David describes, wittingly or unwittingly, the cost of the forgiveness he sought there. He describes what it cost Christ, and what it will cost him, not to mention us. He is sorrowful and the enemy afflicteth him. But when God sends forth His light and His truth, he will be conducted unto God’s holy hill– he will go in to the altar of God. To God Who giveth joy to his youth.
And so again, he gives praise. This praise of Lauds–unexpected– struck me this Lenten Feria. He is sorry. He needs forgiveness. He asks sincerely and confidently. He receives it, and climbs the holy hill to Calvary, wherein lies his salvation, and the perfect imitation of Christ’s love for us. Remember, David said in Psalm 50, that if God wanted sacrifice he would indeed give it! And this gives him joy, joy to his youth— vitality, strength, life eternal. A very good lesson for today, I think.
And so, hope in God, for I will still give praise to him: the salvation of my countenance, and my God.