13 September 2011

Back to school, Pope style

Last week the Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI returned to the theme of prayer during his Wednesday General Audience, devoting his thoughts to Psalm 3.  The text of his address, via Zenit, follows, with my emphases:
Dear brothers and sisters,

Today we return to the audiences in St. Peter's square, and in the "school of prayer" that we are experiencing together in these Wednesday catecheses, I would like to begin to meditate on some of the psalms, which -- as I said last June -- form the "prayerbook" par excellence.
The first psalm I wish to consider is a psalm of lament and supplication imbued with profound trust, in which the certainty of God's presence forms the basis of a prayer arising from the condition of extreme difficulty in which the man praying finds himself. It is Psalm 3, attributed by the Hebrew tradition to David in the moment he fled from Absalom his son (cf. Verse 1): This is one of the most dramatic and anguished episodes in the king's life, when his son usurps his royal throne, forcing him to leave Jerusalem in order to save his life (cf. 2 Samuel 15ff). The perilous and anguished situation David experiences serves as the backdrop to this prayer, and it helps us to understand it, by presenting itself as the typical situation in which such a psalm might be recited. Every man can recognize in the psalmist's cry feelings of pain and bitterness together with a trust in God that -- according to the biblical account -- accompanied David as he fled the city.

The psalm begins with an invocation to the Lord:

"O Lord, how many are my foes!
Many are rising against me;
many are saying of me,
there is no help for him in God!" (Verses 1-2)

The prayer's description of his situation is marked by strongly dramatic tones. Three times he repeats the idea of the multitude -- "numerous," "many," "how many" -- which in the original text is said with the same Hebrew root, in order to underline even more the immensity of the danger in a repeated, almost relentless way. This insistence on the number and greatness of the foe serves to express the psalmist's perception of the absolute disproportion there is between himself and his persecutors -- a disproportion that justifies and forms the basis of the urgency of his request for help; the aggressors are many; they have the upper hand, while the man praying is alone and defenseless, at the mercy of his assailants.

And yet, the first word the psalmist pronounces is "Lord"; his cry begins with an invocation to God. A multitude looms over and arises against him, producing a fear that magnifies the threat, making it appear even greater and more terrifying; but the man praying does not allow himself to be conquered by this vision of death; he remains steadfast in his relationship with the God of life, and the first thing he does is turn to Him for help.

However, his enemies also attempt to break this bond with God and to destroy their victim's faith. They insinuate that the Lord cannot intervene; they maintain that not even God can save him. The assault, then, is not only physical but also touches the spiritual dimension: "The Lord cannot save him" -- they say -- even the core of the psalmist's soul is attacked.

This is the great temptation to which the believer is subjected -- the temptation to lose faith, to lose trust in the nearness of God. The just man overcomes this ultimate test; he remains steadfast in the faith, in the certainty of the truth and in full confidence in God, and it is precisely in this way that he finds life and truth. It seems to me that here the psalm touches us very personally; in so many problems we are tempted to think that perhaps not even God can save me, that He doesn't know me, that perhaps it is not possible for Him; the temptation against faith is the enemy's final assault, and this we must resist -- in so doing, we find God and we find life.
The man praying our psalm is therefore called to respond with faith to the attacks of the impious: The enemy -- as I said -- denies that God is able to save him; but he instead calls out to Him, he calls on His name, "Lord"; he then turns to Him with an emphatic "You" that expresses an unshakeable, solid relationship, and within himself he holds on to the certainty of a divine response:

"But thou, O Lord, art a shield about me,
my glory, and the lifter of my head.
I cry aloud to the Lord,
and he answers me from his holy mountain" (Verses 4-5).

The vision of the enemy now disappears; they have not defeated him because he who believes in God is certain that God is his friend: There remains only the "You" of God -- the "many" are contrasted now by one alone, who is far greater and more powerful than many adversaries. The Lord is help, defense, salvation; as a shield He protects the one who entrusts himself to Him, and He raises up his head in a gesture of triumph and of victory. The man is no longer alone, his enemies are not as invincible as they once seemed, because the Lord hears the cry of the oppressed and responds from the place of His presence, from His holy mount. The man cries out in anguish, in danger, and in pain; the man asks for help, and God responds.

This interweaving of the human cry and the divine response is the dialectic of prayer and the key to reading the whole of salvation history. The cry expresses the need for help and it appeals to the faithfulness of the other; to cry out means to express faith in the nearness of God and in His readiness to listen. Prayer expresses certainty in a divine presence already experienced and believed in, [a presence] manifested most fully by God's saving response. This is significant: that in our prayer the certainty of God's presence be important, that it be present. Thus, the psalmist, who feels himself besieged by death, confesses his faith in the God of life who as a shield wraps him with invulnerable protection; he who thought himself already lost can now lift up his head, for the Lord saves him; the man who prays -- threatened and scorned -- is in glory, because God is his glory.

The divine response that receives his prayer gives the psalmist complete assurance; fear is also gone, and his cry calms and quiets in peace, in a deep interior tranquility:

"I lie down and sleep;
I wake again, for the Lord sustains me.
I am not afraid of ten thousands of people
who have set themselves against me round about" (Verses 5-6).

The man praying, even amid danger and battle, can lie tranquilly in an unequivocal attitude of trustful surrender. His adversaries encamp around him, they beleaguer him, they are many, they rise up against him, they deride him and attempt to make him fall; but he instead lies down and sleeps in tranquil serenity, assured of the presence of God. And when he awakes, he finds God still beside him, as a guardian who will neither slumber nor sleep (cf. Psalm 121:3-4), who sustains him, who holds his hand, who never abandons him. The fear of death is conquered by the presence of the One who never dies. And the night, filled with ancestral fears, the painful night of solitude and of anguished waiting, is now transformed: What evokes death becomes the presence of the Eternal One.

The enemy's visible, massive, imposing attack is contrasted by the invisible presence of God, with all His invincible power. And it is to Him that the psalmist once more -- following his two expressions of trust -- addresses this prayer: "Arise, O Lord! Deliver me, O my God!" (Verse 8). The foes "rise up" (cf. Verse 2) against their victim, [but] he who will "rise up" is the Lord, in order to strike them down. God will save him by responding to his cry. For this reason, the psalmist can conclude with a vision of liberation from the danger that kills and from the temptation that can make him perish.

After turning to the Lord and asking Him to rise up and save him, the man praying describes the divine victory: The foes -- who with their unjust and cruel oppression, are symbolic of all that is opposed to God and to His plan for salvation -- are defeated. Struck in the mouth, they can no longer attack with their destructive violence, nor can they insinuate the evil of doubt in the presence and action of God: Their senseless and blasphemous talk is definitively denied and reduced to silence by the Lord's saving intervention (cf. Verse 7bc). Thus may the psalmist conclude his prayer with a phrase with liturgical connotations, which celebrates, in gratitude and in praise, the Lord of life: "Deliverance belongs to the Lord; thy blessing be upon thy people!" (Verse 8).

Dear brothers and sisters, Psalm 3 presents us with a prayer full of trust and consolation. In praying this psalm, we can make the psalmist's sentiments our own -- [the psalmist] who is a figure of the just man who is persecuted, and who finds his fulfillment in Jesus. In suffering, in danger, in the bitterness of misunderstanding and offense, the psalmist's words open our hearts to the comforting certainty of faith. God is always near -- even in difficulties, in problems, in the darkness of life -- He listens, He responds and He saves according to His ways. But we need to know how to recognize His presence and to accept His ways, like David in his crushing escape from Absalom his son; like the just man who is persecuted in the Book of Wisdom; and finally and fully, like the Lord Jesus on Golgotha. And, when to the eyes of the impious, God seems not to intervene and the Son dies, precisely then are true glory and salvation's definitive realization manifested to all who believe. May the Lord grant us faith; may He come to the help of our weakness; and may He enable us to believe and to pray in every anxiety, in the painful nights of doubt and in the long days of suffering, by trustfully abandoning ourselves to Him who is our "shield" and our "glory." Thank you.

No comments:

Post a Comment