Year of Mercy: Psalm 102(103)

Year of Mercy: Psalm 102(103)

“In the Psalms, we drink divine praise at its pure and stainless source, in all its primitive sincerity and perfection,” teaches Thomas Merton. I must confess that, whilst I’m sure Thomas Merton is right, I have had to learn to to love the Psalms. It certainly did not come automatically to me, although singing them together with the brothers helped me find a ‘technique’ for making their prayer my own. Over the years the Psalms collected in the Divine Office have become like old friends, ever fresh and ever new as they recur in their comforting cyclical regularity. In their familiarity—and despite their cyclical recurrence—they continue to surprise, comfort, console, and confront. It has been a gift and a delight to receive the obligation of praying them.

The source of the problem, I think, lay in the sheer panoply of human experience that the Psalms embody. The Psalms can read like a catalogue of extremes of emotion, much of it remote from where we might find ourselves: lurching from fear and trembling before the infinite God, to a righteous anger and rage at injustice, passing through the gratitude of an awe-struck vindicated people, taking stock of the hope-filled exaltation of a future divine reckoning, pausing for a moment to see the broken grief of a communal lament, before rounding the day off with the ritual hymnody of royal ceremony. This can be a day’s journey with the Psalms, drawing us beyond the individualism of our own emotional experience into the global Church that lies beyond, making our own the emotional world of others, giving liturgical voice to the experience of those who are absent (but is not such a daily ‘commute’ a most excellent preparation and support for priestly ministry?). There is a catharsis and a liturgical purification of our emotions in fidelity to praying the Psalms, as well as a deepening of our awareness of the Church’s global nature. “The words and thoughts of the Psalms spring not only from the inmost depths of God, but also from the inmost heart of the Church, the very expression of her deepest life.” (Merton again).

Few Psalms are as widely used in the Church’s liturgy as is Psalm 102 (103), King David’s praise of God for the merciful Love of his divine lordship over creation, words which will be as familiar to many of us from its regular appearance as the Responsorial Psalm at Mass as it is for being the scriptural basis for H.F. Lyte’s Praise, my Soul, the King of Heaven. The Psalm gives voice to the gratitude that is born of being recipients of the divine promise, the joyful gratitude made possible in the glorious freedom of the Children of God. There is here a sense of the immensity of the Lord’s perfection and the finitude of the human person, both the ‘exceeding sinfulness of sin’ and the ‘exceeding gratuity of grace’, held together in the confident awareness of God’s faithful Lordship over creation, the loving creative embrace of God that cannot be destroyed by human sin. 

But no matter how many times it is recited, the author’s exuberance cannot be extinguished. The Psalmist is not recounting merely historical deeds, but a life changing reality. There is a freshness to his awareness of God’s mercy, a joyfulness that is the product of a personal awareness of being a forgiven sinner (vv. 3-5), an ability to rejoice in human frailty as it becomes an opportunity for God’s love to be revealed. This is seen in the inner connection that the Psalmist makes between his own experience and the historical experience of God’s covenant faithfulness to his people, the Lord’s gracious action in history to bring salvation to those he has chosen as his own (vv. 6-13). The God who comes to us personally is the God that comes to us communally. Our thanksgiving for being personally forgiven is thus always interpolated into the Church’s prayer of thanksgiving (which reaches its zenith in the Holy Eucharist), for we are bound together precisely by being the people of the New Covenant, redeemed in grace and truth.

The heart of the mystery to which the Psalmist is attuned, then, is the paradox of God’s transcendent glory and immanent ‘involvement’ with the world. The same God who comes to us personally and collectively in covenantal mercy is the God who, in his own inner perfection and beatitude, has no need of anything (vv. 14-22): divine mercy is sheer gift, and thus gives glory to the God who has no need of our praise. We are beyond the laws of necessity or requisition, plunged into the mystery of gift. For whereas in our experience mercy is both affective and effective—an emotional response to the sufferings of others that overflows into something we do—for the transcendent God, loving mercy is identical with who He is. “God is Love” as St John writes, and so we can make our own the words of King David of old, “My soul, give thanks to the Lord!”.

fr. Oliver is Master of Students of the English Province, teaches dogmatic theology at Blackfriars, Oxford, and has recently been appointed Director of the Aquinas Institute.