February 26, 2010

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

The penitential psalms are suitable for Lent

John F. Fink(Third in a series of columns)

Two weeks ago, I wrote that St. Thomas More had a great love of the psalms and particular devotion to the seven penitential psalms. These are seven psalms that traditionally have been grouped together for both liturgical and private use. They are especially appropriate for Lent.

Five of the seven penitential psalms are attributed to King David, all except Psalms 102 and 130.

Psalm 6 is the prayer of a man in tremendous distress who asks God for pity because “my body is in terror; my soul, too, is utterly terrified.” He prays, “Every night I flood my bed with weeping; I drench my couch with my tears.”

Having prayed so earnestly, he is confident that God has heard him: “The Lord has heard my plea; the Lord has accepted my prayer.” We might not be in danger of death as David was, but there are times when we feel great distress.

Psalm 32 was one of St. Augustine’s favorites. It describes the happiness of one who has had his sins forgiven. The psalmist felt terrible for having sinned and at first did not confess his sin, but then, “I acknowledged my sin to you, my guilt I covered not … and you took away the guilt of my sin.”

Now that he has had his sin forgiven, the penitent exhorts others to be submissive to God’s will.

Psalm 38 is the prayer of an afflicted sinner. He feels miserable because he believes God is punishing him. He acknowledges his guilt and pleads, at the end of the psalm, “Forsake me not, O Lord; my God, be not far from me! Make haste to help me, O Lord my salvation!”

Psalm 51 is known as the Miserere, the most famous of the penitential psalms. The Church includes it in the Liturgy of the Hours’ morning prayer on Fridays. It is believed to have been written after Nathan went to David and told him that he knew about David’s adultery with Bathsheba followed by his sending her husband, Uriah the Hittite, to his death. We might not have such serious sins, but, like David, we can sincerely confess our sins and be restored to grace and purity.

Psalm 102 is another prayer in time of distress. The pray-er pours out his anguish before the Lord and asks him to hear his prayer. The last part of the psalm is a meditation on the brevity of human life compared to God’s unchanging eternity.

Psalm 130, which begins, “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord,” is known by its first two words in Latin, De Profundis. The Church uses it in the liturgy as a prayer for the faithful departed. The psalmist begs pardon for his sins as he trusts in God’s mercy.

Psalm 143 is still another prayer of a penitent in distress. He asks God not to judge him for his sins, but to rescue him from his enemies. And he asks, “Teach me to do your will.” †

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