The Cursing Psalms

We are currently re-reading St Benedict’s chapters on the Divine office, often called the Liturgical Code, which may explain why I am keen to advocate having a good curse from time to time. I don’t mean profanity, but the praying of the so-called cursing psalms, e.g. Psalm 108 (109), which cheerfully asks the Lord to ensure that our adversary’s life should be short, his children wanderers and beggars and his wife a widow, or Psalm 57 (58) which has the splendid prayer, ‘O God, break the teeth in their mouths!’ Why, you may ask, should a normally mild-mannered nun be recommending that I pray such horribly vengeful prayers? It isn’t nice.

My answer is that we aren’t nice ourselves. We can kid ourselves that we are nicer than we are if we don’t own up to the darker, still unredeemed side that we harbour within until our dying breath. We pray the cursing psalms, but not against our enemy, real or imagined, but against all that is violent and troubled within us. We take the un-nice bits of ourselves to God, knowing that he alone can transform them by his grace. I think this is important, especially when we look at the violence convulsing Syria and other parts of the world. We know that for there to be peace outside, there must be peace inside; and we shall never attain that inner peace unless we first acknowledge, then renounce, everything that makes for war and violence in our own hearts. Praying the cursing psalms which, as Christians, we do in union with Christ, is a very good place to start. But there is more, for how could Christ pray those psalms save in union with us? Doesn’t that give pause for thought? Do we dare to be ‘nicer’ than he?

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True and False Humility

Saturday is a busy day, not one for thinking Deep Thoughts, is it? Unfortunately, today happens to be the one on which we read RB 7. 51 to 54, the so-called Seventh Step of Humility, which confronts us with the difference between true and false humility.

The seventh step of humility is not only to admit openly to being inferior and of less account than anyone else, but also to believe it in one’s inmost heart, humbling oneself and saying with the prophet, ‘I am indeed a worm and not a human being, a byword among men and laughing-stock of the people. I was exalted and have been humbled and brought to confusion;’ (cfr Pss 21[22].7 and 87[88].16) and further, ‘It was good for me that you have humbled me, that I may learn your commandments.’ (Ps 118[119].71, 73)

At first sight, St Benedict seems rather OTT, urging us to go around admitting our inferiority and comparing ourselves with worms. However, if we pay close attention to his opening words, the quotations from the psalms are given a different context, a much more challenging one. It is easy to say, ‘I’m no good’. It lets us off the hook. We can simultaneously excuse ourselves for any shortcoming and at the same time bask in our own abasement. That is false humility. What St Benedict actually says is rather different.

We are asked, first of all, to believe in our own unimportance. That is not quite the same as proclaiming our unworthiness. In fact, it is a much quieter business altogether, which is why most of us don’t like it. True humility doesn’t draw attention to itself. Secondly, we are given a context for our unimportance. Benedict quotes the Passion psalms, to remind us that our humility is grounded in Christ. We need to think about that. To recognize that we are not the centre of the universe yet are made in the image and likeness of God, endowed with a beauty and perfection which is truly God-given, is to see clearly both our infinite worth and our utter dependence upon God. There can be no room for pride in that because it is the vision of truth. In the same way, to realise that our littleness is taken up into Christ’s greatness, that our small disappointments and failures are transformed by the sacrifice of Calvary, is to understand that humility gives us a safe place on which to stand, indeed, the only safe place: in Christ.

This short paragraph of the Rule is a gem, worth mulling over as we go about our Saturday tasks.

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A Morning Walk

This morning the dog took us for a walk through the lambing fields and along the edge of a coppice before returning via the Hendred brook and under the trees. Nothing very remarkable in that, you may think, but oh, how wrong you’d be! It was one of those ‘anonymous’ mornings — not very sunny, but warm and bright, like a thousand other mornings. The grass was thick and high, the cow parsley jostling with buttercups and one or two lingering bluebells. Wrens and finches appeared in abundance, all going about their lawful occasions, while red kites wheeled overhead with their peculiar mewing cry. We glimpsed a hare and smelled where a fox had lain; the ewes called after their lambs and the lambs, very properly, ignored their mothers, save when a trip to the milk bar seemed in order. It was all very ordinary and all very extraordinary at the same time. The Psalmist understood this well when he wrote of the landscape of Israel with its rabbits and goats and doves and swallows. ‘Let everything that lives and that breathes give praise to the Lord.’ This morning, I rather think it did.

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