M and I returned from the Annual Conference of the Society of Catholic Priests late last night. As always, we had a delightful time. Old friends were seen and caught up with; new friends were made.
As promised, I’m posting here my remarks. A few words about it: first, the overall focus of the conference was the Anglo-Catholic social witness. This was an interesting topic for me to tackle since typically one hears of opposition between catholic and “social justice” approaches in the church. As a result, I set myself the task of speaking directly to how the liturgy is an essential element of forming a catholic social conscience. I assumed that others might speak about and deal with what I consider to be the obvious direction—the connection between eucharistic devotion and social action captured so neatly by Bishop Frank Weston: “You cannot claim to worship Jesus in the Tabernacle, if you do not pity Jesus in the slum.” (Read his whole famous address here.) So—I went for the Office instead.
Second, like most of the presentations that I post here, it might read strangely because I wrote it specifically as an oral address. As such, it’s much more colloquial and familiar in tone than a piece of academic writing.
Alright—without further ado, here it is:
The 14th century devotional treatise The Mirror of our Lady recounts one particular edifying story. A Cistercian Abbot went into the choir one morning to sing the office of matins. As he stood singing his office, he saw a devil walking to and fro among his monks with a large bag tied around his neck. He seemed to be catching things coming from the monks’ mouths and stuffing them into his bag. When the devil came to the Abbot, the Abbot asked, “who are you?” The devil replied, “I am just a lowly Devil named Titivullus, and I must perform the office given to me.” “And what office is that?” asked the Abbot. The devil explained, “I must bring my master 1000 bags a day full of failings, unsaid or mis-said words that occur in reading or singing from your order or else I will be severely beaten!” From this point, the mirror goes on to talk about the importance of diligence in the office. However, I’m sure that at some point, some wise Cistercian teacher has pulled the moral out of the story in an easy and memorable form: “beat the Devil: be attentive!” This was probably accompanied with the helpful illustration—verbal or otherwise—of the poor demon Titivullus getting wailed on with a stick by a bigger and meaner demon because all of the Cistercians sang their offices well and he missed his quota again! “Beat the Devil: be attentive!”
If you don’t remember anything else that I say today, I want you to remember that: “beat the devil: be attentive.” Of course, these days, there’s no way that Titivullus could get the job done; I imagine instead whole sets of infernal landscaping crews with blowers and mowers gathering up the words and paragraphs and pages left unsaid, drifting like blizzards in the chancels and choirs of our churches today. And that is a shame.
When people think of Anglo-Catholics or Anglo-Catholicism or even Catholic Anglicans, they tend to think of vestments and smoke and sacraments, clusters of candles, and racks of rosaries; the daily office – not so much. And yet, the daily office is a central liturgical discipline that grounds so much of what we do. The Mass and the Office are not alternatives, they are complements. To cleave to the Catholic faith East and West is to give the daily office the honor and the attention – and the attentiveness – that it is due.
The two public rites of the church – the holy Eucharist and the daily office – have the same primary purpose: the worship and glorification of God. And that always has to be kept central. But the secondary purposes are different. The Eucharist is mystigogical and leads us into the heart of the mystery of Christ. The office is catechetical and instructs and forms us in the foundations of the faith. Now, you might be wondering… The dominant theme of our time together is the Anglo-Catholic social tradition. So why am I taking up time talking about the office? (Or, as I’ve heard some Episcopal clergy say, why are you spending your time talking about prayer when you should be talking about justice issues!) It’s because the Anglo-Catholic social conscience must be formed, it must be crafted, and the distinctive characteristic that differentiates a secular drive for a just society from one formed in the Catholic Anglican tradition is the process and method of its formation. The greatest tool that we have for molding a Christian social conscience is Scripture itself, and more particularly, the attentive practice of the daily office.
The wellspring of the Western liturgical tradition and particularly the monastic practices that have nourished it is the concept that the liturgy provides an ordered and bordered encounter with Scripture. Again, the liturgy provides an ordered and bordered encounter with Scripture .This is true of the Eucharist, it’s even more true of the office. It was true of the Sarum offices that the reformers received, and the Anglican offices received an additional infusion from Cranmer’s own Protestant love of the Scriptures.
Alright, so what do I mean by ordered and bordered? When I say “Ordered”, I mean that the Scriptures are laid out in a sequential pattern that provides maximal coverage of their contents, and this pattern is repeated on a set basis. In his preface to the 1549 Book of Common Prayer, Cranmer explicitly refers to the 9th century monastic legislation stipulating that the whole Scriptures should be read every year during the Night Office. Anything that didn’t get read in the Night Office would be read to the monks at mealtimes to make sure it got done. Cranmer’s own scheme attempted to echo this earlier monastic goal. By having four readings a day—two at each office—and making each one a chapter in length, he set up a pattern where the New Testament with the exception of the Book of Revelation would be read through three times every year, and the Old Testament would be read through once (excepts for some sections of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, and Ezekiel. And a few other bits. Even when a Protestant says “All of Scripture” he doesn’t really mean it…!). These days, our prayer book lectionary uses shorter readings and only three of them so, when used faithfully, we’ll get through the majority of Scripture every two years. There are two main purposes for this ordering of Scripture. First, it gives you that foundational familiarity with the text. When you hear just a snippet at Mass, then you’ll recognize it, and know where it goes and have a sense of what all is happening around it. Second, it’s not enough to get this grounding once. Rather, it’s repeated year after year after year. It’s formational. We don’t just get to know the Scriptures, we get saturated in them. So—that’s what I mean when I say that the Scriptures are “ordered.”
Ok—so, what do I mean by “bordered?” By “bordered” I mean that we don’t get handed the Scriptures flatly. Instead, we are given—through the Offices—a set of interpretive lenses that direct our reading and hearing of these texts. The Church year is one of these lenses; the seasons bring their own perspectives on the Scriptures. But so are the texts that we place around them. In the Sarum days before Cranmer, a variety of antiphons used to help facilitate this goal. Lines brought in from other parts of Scripture—or repetition of a significant verse—would open a new perspective, slightly shift the way that you heard a familiar text. However, the Refromation did away with most of these in the name of simplification. The texts that we repeat the most are the ones that guide us in everything else. In both the classical structure of the Daily Offices and in our Anglican, and particularly Episcopal, adaptation of it, the most important lenses that direct and shape our encounter with the rest of Scripture are the psalms and the canticles. These Scriptural songs give us our main interpretive entre into everything else that we encounter in the Offices. Through their repetition, we are given the hermeneutical keys to unlock the rest of Scripture and, in turn, to form us into a catholic social conscience. The psalms and canticles give us borders that help guide our reading of everything else.
Remember when we were talking about “ordered” and I said that we go through the Scriptures in a pattern that’s measured in years? St Benedict’s Rule laid down for the Western Church the common monastic tradition of going through all 150 psalms every week and he allowed that as a concession to the weakness of his day because it was said that real monks used to go through all of them every day. In Cranmer’s adaptation, he scaled it back even further and put the psalms on a one-month cycle, and that’s what we have in our prayer book. Actually, the official Daily Office lectionary uses a seven-week cycle but the monthly version is found written into the body of the psalter itself. Different orders around the church do it different ways as well; while the Brotherhood of St Gregory and the Order of Julian of Norwich both use the monthly cycle, the Order of the Holy Cross go through it every two weeks like many of their Roman Catholic brethren. No matter if you’re on a one-week or seven-week cycle, that’s a lot of psalms and a lot of repetition of a lot of psalms and so their particular perspective on the Scriptures end up influencing (whether subtlety or obviously) everything else that we read.
And if that’s so for the psalms, it’s doubly true for the canticles. While our current book has multiplied our options, there’s a select set that from the time of Benedict in the fifth century have been prayed daily that has shaped our understand of what the Gospel message is all about: The song of Mary, the Song of Zechariah, the Song of Simeon, the Song of the Three Young Men, and the Te Deum sometimes called the Song of Augustine and Ambrose are key texts for us.
Thus: The Catholic Anglican tradition sees the Mass and Office in continuity with one another. The Mass is mystagogical, the Office is catechetical. The Office gives us an ordered and bordered encounter with Scripture. We go through most of it in two years and the chief interpretive lenses that the Office provides for directing our understanding of Scripture as a whole are the psalms and the canticles.
The reason the psalter was chosen for its constant repetition in the Office is because it has been recognized from the time of the Early Church as unique among the books of the Bible. One of the clearest expositions of this comes from Athanasius in his letter on the Psalms to Marcellinus where he pulls out two characteristics in particular. The first special characteristic of the psalms is that they are a microcosm of the rest of Scripture. Athanasius writes: “Each book of the Bible has, of course, its own particular message—[and he goes on to list what some of those are]— Each of these books, you see, is like a garden which grows one kind of special fruit; by contrast, the Psalter is a garden which, besides its special fruit, grows also some of those of all the rest. [And then he goes on to connect a wide variety of psalms to events in the historical books of the Old Testament.] You see then, that all the subjects mentioned in the historical books are mentioned also in one Psalm or another; but when we come to the matters of which the Prophets speak we find that these occur in almost all.” Here, of course, Athanasius is talking about witnesses to Christ, and he offers another long section where he connects the psalms up to a long list of items from the birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. Of course, these days we not only recognize that the psalms contain messianic passages that the Church properly associated with Jesus but also that the Evangelists themselves used both passages and themes from the psalms in their own constructions of the Gospel narratives. So the psalms really do act as a microcosm. They contain all of the major genres of Old Testament writing from histories, to wisdom, to legal material, to prophetic curses and destruction oracles, as well as promises of hope and salvation, and also both represent and prefigure a host of New Testament themes—recalling that the New Testament quotes more from the Psalms than any other book of the Old Testament.
Now, having said that, we need to recognize the necessary corollary; if the psalms are a microcosm of Scripture, if they represent a summary of Scripture, a condensation of Scripture, then they have to be profoundly interpretive. When you summarize something, it means that you’re pulling out the key points. There’s not space for everything so the central items get selected for summarizing. Thus, the psalms don’t just summarize things, they put their own particular spin on them, they infuse them with their own particular angle such that when we encounter these out in the wider Bible, our perspective has already been shaped by the approach that the psalms have taken in highlighting what’s of primary importance.
So, the first special characteristic of the psalms is that they are a microcosm of the rest of Scripture. The second special characteristic of the psalms is their focus on interiority—they speak to the inner life of the individual and the community more consistently than any other set of texts. Athanasius says it this way:
Among all the books, the Psalter has certainly a very special grace, a choiceness of quality well worthy to be pondered; for, besides the characteristics which it shares with others, it has this peculiar marvel of its own, that within it are represented and portrayed in all their great variety the movements of the human soul. It is like a picture, in which you see yourself portrayed and, seeing, may understand and consequently form yourself upon the pattern given. Elsewhere in the Bible you read only that the Law commands this or that be done, you listen to the prophets to learn about the Saviour’s coming or you turn to the historical books to learn the doings of the kings and holy men; but in the Psalter, besides all of these things, you learn about yourself.
You find depicted in it all the movements of your soul, all its changes, its ups and downs, its failures and recoveries. Moreover, whatever your particular need or trouble, from this same book you can select a form of words to fit it, so that you do not merely hear and then pass on, but learn the way to remedy your ill. Prohibitions of evil-doing are plentiful in Scripture, but only the Psalter tells you how to obey these orders and refrain from sin. Repentance, for example, is enjoined repeatedly; but to repent means to leave off sinning, and it is the Psalms that show you how to set about repenting and with what words your penitence may be expressed.
So, here Athanasius is pointing to the personal and interior quality of the Psalms. No other book of Scripture—with the sole exception of Job—contains such intimate expressions of personal feeling. Not only intimate but uncensored as well in ways that sometimes both shock and offend us. Of course, as Athanasius reminds us, what shocks and offends may be a reflection of what we do not wish to see in ourselves.
That’s the second special characteristic of the psalms, the emphasis upon interiority. And indeed, this is one of the ways that the psalms place their own interpretive spin on the other biblical material. Sometimes the psalms give a flat account of something: In the beginning God created stuff. But far more often, the psalms embedded their summarization of other biblical events into personal or communal pleas: God, we’re having a really hard time right now. Hey—remember that time in creation, when you created all of that stuff? We could really use you to do something like that for us now. The psalms don’t just recall the mighty acts of God, they show us how, in prayer, we remind both ourselves and God himself of the mighty acts done on behalf of our ancestors and gives us the courage and the boldness to beseech God’s mercy for mighty acts here and now.
Thus—those are two reasons coming from the Early Church why the psalms get such a special place: they’re a microcosm of the rest of Scripture, and they also give us a particular view of the internal spiritual life of the people of God.
Alright—so, the forming of the catholic social conscience. Which is what we’re here to talk about… Through our attentive practice of the Daily Office, the psalms and canticles of the Office give us an interpretive lens through which we experience the rest of Scripture. There are three fundamental concepts within the psalter that are crucial and inescapable elements of the catholic social conscience. First, they show us the center—that is, they define a reality where all creation is oriented towards God and participates together in the mutual worship of God. Second, they emphasize the rule of law—that is, they emphasize that justice is a key attribute of God and that justice, righteousness, and equity must be central values for us because they flow directly from the identity of God himself. Third, they form us in the habit of empathy because they place in our mouths the words of the poor, the marginalized, the oppressed, and they invite us to see the world through those eyes, and to recognize the injustices seen through those eyes. I’ll unpack each of these in turn.
First, once again, they show us the center —that is, they define a reality where all creation is oriented towards God and participates together in the mutual worship of God. We see this most clearly in the lauds psalms—147 to 150—and in the Te Deum and the Song of the Three Young Men. The Song of the Three Young Men, the Benedicite, is a 2nd century BC or so expansion of Psalm 148 that calls sequentially upon all parts of the created order to praise God: “O all ye works of the Lord, bless ye the Lord; praise him and magnify him for ever.” Then we proceed from the Cosmic Order with the angels, the heavens, the sun, moon, showers and dews, frost and cold, nights and days to the Earth and its creatures with the mountains and hills, the whales and all that move in the waters, the fowls of the air, the beasts and cattle and finally proceed to the people of God, the priests of the Lord, the servants of the Lord, the spirits and souls of the righteous. This is nothing less than a doxological ontology: things have and persist in existence to the degree that they recognize and praise the Creator who created them. There is a center, there is a source, there is a stable point around which everything else that is anchored. And it is God. God himself has made us and not we ourselves.
This is a crucial point in establishing a social conscience of any kind. There is something greater. There is something beyond us and beyond our desires to which we are accountable. Our desires and appetites, the desires and appetites of those who currently hold political, economic, or social power, stand accountable to something greater, to something more permanent, more stable and more real than they are—than we are. It is from this place and in orientation to this reality that we are able to offer a critique of existing systems—even existing systems within which we find ourselves ensnared. We renew this orientation in our acts of worship and praise. As Evelyn Underhill reminds us, the heart of true worship is adoration: she writes, “For worship is an acknowledgement of Transcendence; that is to say, of a Reality independent of the worshipper, which is always more or less deeply coloured by mystery, and which is there first.” This adoration, this acknowledgement of Transcendence, this reality independent of ourselves of which Underhill speaks is the pure and unadulterated praise that we find ourselves called to in the psalms: “Kings of the earth and all peoples, princes and all rulers of the world; Young men and maidens, old and young together. Let them praise the Name of the Lord, for his name only is exalted, his splendor is over earth and heaven.” Notice that the political powers here get put on notice. But the psalms are happy to get even more explicit than that: “Praise the Lord, O my Soul! I will praise the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God while I have my being. Put not your trust in rulers, nor in any child of earth, for there is no help in them. When they breathe their last, they return to the earth, and in that day their thoughts perish. Happy are those who have the God of Jacob for their help! Whose hope is in the Lord their God; Who made heaven and earth, the seas, and all that is in them; who keeps his promise forever…” The very strong message here is that all—all—political powers and systems are transitory and ephemeral in the face of God and in the face of the reality that endures beyond even the full span of creation. There is a standard—and you ain’t it.
The other part of this is that as all creation persists and perdures in and through its ceaseless praise of God, all of creation stands as fellow witness with us to the creating Word. When we despoil and disdain the created order and fail in its stewardship with which we have been tasked, we presume to cease that which is not ours to silence. As we diminish creation, the universal song of praise to God is likewise diminished.
So—that’s the first concept in the psalms and canticles for the formation of a catholic social conscience: they show us the center—that is, they define a reality where all creation is oriented towards God and participates together in the mutual worship of God. We stand rightly within this order when we join in acknowledging God as the center and ground of all being and when we offer the respect due to our fellow witnesses to the glory of God.
The second fundamental concept in the psalms and canticles is that they emphasize the rule of law—that is, they emphasize that justice is a key attribute of God and that justice, righteousness, and equity must be central values for us because they flow directly from the identity of God himself. One of the things that’s so fascinating about this is how often we see it in direct relation to the first—the worship of God flows directly into praise for his justice: “Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness; let the whole earth stand in awe of him. For he cometh, for he cometh to judge the earth, and with righteousness to judge the world and the peoples with his truth.” For those of us who pray the Morning Office in Rite I we hear these words almost every morning. It’s composed of two snippets from Psalm 96 that have been grafted onto the end of Psalm 95. And that’s entirely appropriate because these two psalms form part of a block from 93 to 99 that celebrate God as king and that underscore this tight connection between the universal praise of God and the universal justice of God. Thus we get the end of 96: “Tell it out among the nations: The Lord is King! He has made the world so firm that it cannot be moved; he will judge the peoples with equity. Let the heavens rejoice and let the earth be glad; let the sea thunder and all that is in it; let the field be joyful and all that is therein. Then shall all the trees of the wood shout for joy before the Lord when he comes, when he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness and the peoples with his truth.”
The end of Psalm 98 resounds with the same theme: “Shout with joy to the Lord, all you lands; lift up your voice, rejoice, and sing. Sing to the Lord with the harp, with the harp and the voice of song. With trumpets and the sound of the horn shout with joy before the King, the Lord. Let the sea make a noise and all that is in it, the lands and those who dwell therein. Let the rivers clap their hands, and let the hills ring out with joy before the Lord, when he comes to judge the earth. In righteousness shall he judge the world and the peoples with equity.”
One word on this judgment language: We Christians can sometimes hear this with the wrong ears and take this the wrong way. In so many of our traditions, judgment is about sin and you’re always going to come out on the short end of the stick, and thus the judgment of God is something to be feared rather than rejoiced over. (Why are the trees so darned happy about this? Do they really hate me that much?) C. S. Lewis in his writings on the psalms gives us a very helpful frame of reference to better hear this as the good news that it is. He says that too often we hear judgment and think of it as a criminal proceeding where God is going to put us in the dock and find against us. The judgment here in the Psalter, however, is best thought of as a civil case—it’s a property matter. The world is not as it should be. Things are not the way that God intended. The resources of the land and seas, the bounty of the earth are not distributed as they ought. The good news here, the reason why the trees and woods and floods rejoice is that God is going to set things to right. The goods that God intends for us will be apportioned as he designed. This judgment is good news because of the justice and equity of God.
Implicit in this judgment, however, is that there are those who are taking more than their appointed share. There are individuals and cliques and powers and systems that accrue benefits to themselves that were intended for others. Remember that psalm we mentioned a second ago, the one that said, “put not your trust in rulers, nor in any child of earth”? The first half of that psalm which I quoted is a call to the praise of God; the second half hammers this point home: “Happy are those who have the God of Jacob for their help! Whose hope is in the Lord their God; Who made heaven and earth, the seas and all that is in them; who keeps his promise forever; Who gives justice to the oppressed and food to those who hunger. The Lord sets the prisoners free, the Lord opens the eyes of the blind; the Lord lifts us those who are bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous; the Lord cares for the stranger; he sustains the orphan and widow, but frustrates the way of the wicked. The Lord shall reign for ever, your God, O Zion, throughout all generations. Hallelujah!”
From here, of course, it’s a clear and easy jump to the Song of Our Lady that has grounded Evening Prayer for lo these many centuries: “He hath showed strength with his arm; he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble and meek. He hath filled the hungry with good things and the rich he hath sent empty away .”
The justice and equity that stands as a primary characteristic of God must be a plumb-line for us as well. The justice and equity of God demand that we insist upon and advocate for the just rule of law. Rule of law is a very simple concept: it’s the notion that there is a system of standards that apply equally to everybody. The rules are the same for everybody. No matter your power or your prestige. That’s equity. Now, I’m a privileged 21st century American. This culture is all I know and every once in a while I need to be reminded that the way I live and the justice system that I take for granted is an anomaly within the long stretch of human history. This way of life is the exception—not the norm. When I taught preaching at Emory’s Candler School of Theology, one of the best sermons that I heard in my four years of teaching was from a Nigerian Anglican priest working through a passage from Deuteronomy—it was a celebration of and a stirring call for the rule of law. Which is tenuous at best in his homeland. It opened my eyes. I can assume it. We can assume it. And when we start assuming it is when we stop safeguarding it. The justice of God, the equity of God demands that we open our eyes to ensure that the rule of law is being carried out even in our remarkably well-run systems here in America and Canada. The psalms insist on God’s concern for the widow, the orphan, the stranger, the blind and disabled—in short, those who had no voice or power and thus no recourse to justice in the patriarchal and often capricious justice of the first millennium BC. Our own social conscience is formed and aligned with the Scriptural witness when we ensure that the poor and marginalized in our communities are receiving their just due under law. That the justice modeled by God is being practiced by our courts and systems. In the grand scheme of human history, it’s only fair to say that they’re doing a much better job than they could be and yet they still fall far short of God’s vision for justice.
The Scriptures speak of sin, and our own lives can attest to its reality and power. Thanks to the enduring power of sin we must be watchful lest those in positions of power and privilege use their prerogatives for oppression. Vested systems of power, whether that be in governments or corporations or the church itself, need to be held accountable to the rule of law and the demands of both justice and equity that it requires. This attention, this attentiveness, is part of the preferential option for the poor that has driven so much of Roman Catholic social teaching in the 20th century.
So—that’s my second point: the psalms and canticles emphasize the rule of law—that is, they emphasize that justice is a key attribute of God and that justice, righteousness, and equity must be central values for us because they flow directly from the identity of God himself.
The third key concept for a catholic social conscience from the psalms is that they form us in the habit of empathy because they place in our mouths the words of the poor, the marginalized, the oppressed, and they invite us to see the world through those eyes, and to recognize the injustices seen through those eyes.
I’m an educated straight white male from the American middle class, meaning that I’m in the upper class globally, with a steady paying job and a house that my wonderful wife lets me live in. I’ve got it good. And that’s who I am. I can’t be anyone other than who I am. These combined conditions can create a perspective that assumes that everyone has had and will have the same advantages that I have. But how do I get a clearer picture of the world as it really is and as it is experienced by the millions and billions who have not had the advantages I have? So how do I transcend myself? How do I raise myself out of my cultural ghetto for a broader and more informed view of the realities of the world? Certainly, travel, seeking out the experiences of others, directly serving the poor and the homeless and addicted at the South Baltimore Station with my parish are all good things. But these experiences are magnified and aided by the daily reminders tucked into the psalms about life in a situation far, far different from mine.
Old Testament scholar John Day calls the individual lament psalms the “backbone of the Psalter.” Depending on how you classify them, almost one third of the psalms, 46 of them fall into this category. If you add in another thirteen or so communal laments we’re definitely at over a third and quite a lot of the individual and communal thanksgiving psalms start from a situation of need and desperation. When we pray these psalms, we take into our mouths the pleas, complaints, and cries of those who know oppression, who have experienced loss and injustice. Sometimes the laments are familiar to us. Sometimes they offer us comfort because we recognize in a voice almost three thousand years old a shared experience of betrayal or attack. At other times they imaginatively invite us into these experiences and challenge us to relate to them. They engage our empathy, then require us to exercise it, to stretch it, to understand the world in a different way, to see life through other sets of eyes, eyes that have seen things that many of us here have not seen and, honestly, that I earnestly pray we never see.
One of the hardest sets of psalms to wrestle with are those we refer to as the imprecatory psalms, the cursing psalms. And even bits that make us recoil pop up in some of the other, nicer, psalms. If you’re curious which ones these might be, all you have to do is take at the Daily Office lectionary in the back of your prayer book. They’re the psalms that are marked as optional; they’re the verses that have parenthesis around them to let you know that you don’t really have to read them. I want to take a look at one of these. I want to invite us to consider this psalm from an empathetic point of view.
Psalm 137 starts out so beautifully. In fact, the whole first section of it is a favorite of many people. Furthermore, my sources from the generation before me tell me that there was even a very popular folk song based off of it: “By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept, when we remembered you, O Zion. As for our harps we hung them up on the trees in the midst of that land. For those who led us away captive asked us for a song, and our oppressors called for mirth: “Sing us one of the songs of Zion.” How shall we sing the Lord’s song upon an alien soil? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill. Let me tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy.”
There you go—beautiful, plaintive, a true cry from the heart. Then we get these verses:
Remember the day of Jerusalem, O Lord, against the people of Edom, who said “Down with it! Down with it! Even to the ground!” O Daughter of Babylon doomed to destruction, happy the one who pays you back for what you have done to us! Happy shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!”
We’re shocked and offended by these verses. Is that seriously in the Bible? Certain atheists take joy at pointing out the horrible sentiment expressed here at the joy of baby killing and offer it up as an example of the warped mentalities of religion.
A little context is helpful here. This psalm dates shortly after 587 BC when the Babylonian armies sacked Jerusalem for a second time. They’d already been there ten years earlier when Judah rebelled against their Babylonian overlords. The first time, many of the leaders (including the prophet Ezekiel) were taken off into exile in Babylon as a warning against further revolts. The rulers of Judah didn’t listen and they didn’t learn. They revolted again and the second time the Babylonian retribution was unrelenting. The city was entirely leveled to the ground, the Temple was utterly destroyed. The vast majority of the population was put to the sword and those who survived were taken to Babylon in chains. The Babylonian client states in the region were welcome to whatever was left behind and Edom in particular savaged the refugees. The book of Lamentations gives a more sustained sense of the devastation and despair while the oft-overlooked book of Obadiah explains in detail Edom’s betrayal of Jerusalem and calls an oracle of wrath upon them for their actions.
That’s the background of Psalm 137; that’s the experience of these singers who refusing to sing a song of joy in their captors’ land. In short, they are wishing against Edom and Babylon the horrors already visited upon their homes, their families, their children. So—is that an excuse, does that experience make these lines ok? No—of course not. If you’re offended by these lines, then congratulations: that means your moral sense is intact. But what these lines should cause us to do is not to question the morality of God or the psalmist but to try and wrap our heads around the kind of horrific experiences out of which this kind of plea makes sense. I’ve never experienced the brutal sack of my homeland, and I pray I never will. I don’t want to understand this psalm. And yet, the stark reality of the situation is that there are multitudes of people around the world, both victims and veterans—some of whom are in our congregations—who understand this only too well.
When I take these words into my mouth, I am forced to consider what kind of experience that must be, what depths of pain would cause otherwise rational and faithful people to make this kind of plea to God. I have never had this experience of oppression, but the Psalter places it before my eyes, my heart, and my imagination. In praying these alien lines, I am forced into an exercise of empathy that will broaden my soul. Likewise I can say: “Hear my prayer, O God; give ear to the words of my mouth. For the arrogant have risen up against me, the ruthless have sought my life, those who have no regard for God.” Or “My enemies are saying wicked things about me: When will he die, and his name perish?” Even if they come to see me, they speak empty words; their heart collects false rumors; they go outside and spread them. All my enemies whisper together about me and devise evil against me” or even “I am poor and needy, and my heart is wounded within me.” While I cannot honestly claim these words as my own, I can imaginatively extend my own experiences of betrayal and trouble to better understand them, and as resources in my conversations with those who know them far more intimately than I. And that’s important too: I’m not trying to suggest that the regular praying of the psalms in the Office is a substitute for actually engaging the people in your communities in these situations. What I do believe, though, is that your encounters with them may well be aided as a result of this sort of diligent—attentive—empathetic exercise.
So that’s the third fundamental concept from the psalms: they form us in the habit of empathy because they place in our mouths the words of the poor, the marginalized, the oppressed, and they invite us to see the world through those eyes, and to recognize the injustices seen through those eyes.
A catholic social conscience is formed in a number of ways. However, I will contend that it must start with the Scriptures. Yes, healthy devotion to the Eucharist will lead to care and concern for the poor as well, but the connection between the two is mediated by Scripture. And, indeed, there have been many times and places where the social conscience has lagged far behind the devotion for want of that critical mediating term. A regular discipline of praying the Daily Office nourishes the soul with the psalms and canticles that have the potential, have the opportunity, to shape these concerns with in us and see aid us in seeing them more clearly throughout the rest of Scripture. When we allow the psalms to speak their wisdom to us, they will form in us the conviction that God is the center and the source by which all other systems and powers are critiqued; that the justice, righteousness, and equity that characterize God himself must be reflected in our societies and systems; that we can transcend ourselves and situations by exercising our empathy and broadening our souls to the experiences of others. But it doesn’t happen on its own. Simply running through the words isn’t enough. All of the catechetical and formational potential of the Daily Office, all of the potential of the Psalter and the canticles, all of the potential of the Scriptures is for nought without the discipline of attentiveness. “Beat the devil: be attentive.”
Praying the Office just every once in a while isn’t enough. It has to become a discipline. That doesn’t mean that if you miss it once you’re lost or anything, but its power lies in the force of habits. Habits of mind, habits of devotion, habits of thought. That’s what transforms us—patterns of life.
Same with the psalms. The benefits that we’ve talked about only occur with attentiveness. If you are not being attentive, then you could just as well be reading the sports page. It is only while reading these words with our minds and our hearts engaged, with our souls open to the movements of the Spirit, that they can unleash their potential to melt our hearts of stone.
It is only when we bring these habits of devotion, the wisdom gained from these words, together into a hurting world that the circuit becomes complete. The spiritual wisdom from the psalms and from the Office must impact our actions and our advocacy. We must translate in our very limbs what God is calling us to do. Behold—he says—I am making all things new. Behold, now it breaks forth, do you not perceive it? Well, we will—but only if we’re attentive.