Note: the following commentary/meditation on Psalm 27 was delivered in two parts during the Pope’s Wednesday Audiences. The series of audiences in which they were delivered was dedicated to commenting on the Psalms and Canticles used in the Morning and Evening prayers of the Divine Office.
JOHN PAUL II
Wednesday, 21 April 2004
Psalm 27: 1-6
“The Lord is my light and my help!’
1. Today we continue on our journey through Vespers with Psalm 27, which the liturgy separates into two different passages. Let us now follow the first part of this poetical and spiritual diptych (vv. 1-6) whose background is the Temple of Zion, Israel’s place of worship. Indeed, the Psalmist speaks explicitly of the “house of the Lord”, his “temple” (v. 4) of “safety, a dwelling, a house” (cf. vv. 5-6). Indeed, in the original Hebrew, a more precise meaning of these terms is “tabernacle” and “tent”, that is, the inner sanctuary of the temple where the Lord reveals himself with his presence and his words. The “rock” of Zion (cf. v. 5) is also recalled, a place of safety and shelter, and an allusion is made to the celebration of thanksgiving sacrifices (cf. v. 6).
If, therefore, the liturgy is the spiritual atmosphere in which this Psalm is steeped, the guiding thread of prayer is trust in God, both on the day of rejoicing and in time of fear.
2. The first part of the Psalm we are now meditating upon is marked by a deep tranquillity, based on trust in God on the dark day of the evildoers’ assault. Two types of images are used to describe these adversaries, symbols of the evil that contaminates history. On the one hand, we seem to have the imagery of a ferocious hunt; the evildoers are like wild beasts stalking their prey to pounce on it and tear away its flesh, but they stumble and fall (cf. v. 2). On the other hand, there is the military symbol of an assault by a whole army: a raging battle is waged, sowing terror and death (cf. v. 3).
The believer’s life is often subjected to tension and disputes, sometimes also rejection and even persecution. The conduct of the righteous person is troubling, for it conveys tones of reproof to the arrogant and the perverse. The ungodly described in the Book of Wisdom recognize this without mincing their words: “He became to us a reproof of our thoughts; the very sight of him is a burden to us, because his manner of life is unlike that of others, and his ways are strange” (Wis 2: 14-15).
3. The faithful know that being consistent creates ostracism and even provokes contempt and hostility in a society that often chooses to live under the banner of personal prestige, ostentatious success, wealth, unbridled enjoyment. They are not alone, however, and preserve a surprising interior peace in their hearts because, as the marvellous “antiphon” that opens the Psalm says, “the Lord is light and salvation… the stronghold of life” (cf. Ps 27: 1) of the just. He continuously repeats: “Whom shall I fear?”, “Of whom shall I be afraid?”, “My heart shall not fear”, “Yet I will trust” (cf. vv. 1, 3).
It almost seems as though we were hearing the voice of St Paul proclaiming: “If God is for us, who is against us?” (Rom 8: 31). But inner calm, strength of soul and peace are gifts obtained by seeking shelter in the temple, that is, by recourse to personal and communal prayer.
4. Indeed, the person praying entrusts himself to God’s embrace, and another Psalm also expresses that person’s dream: “I shall dwell in the house of the Lord for ever” (cf. Ps 23: 6). There he will be able to “savour the sweetness of the Lord” (Ps 27: 4), to contemplate and admire the divine mystery, to take part in the sacrificial liturgy and sing praise to God who sets him free (cf. v. 6). The Lord creates around his faithful a horizon of peace that blocks out the clamour of evil. Communion with God is a source of serenity, joy and tranquillity; it is like reaching an oasis of light and love.
5. To conclude our reflection, let us now listen to the words of the Syrian monk Isaiah who lived in the Egyptian desert and died in Gaza around the year 491. In his Asceticon he applies our Psalm to prayer during temptation:
“If we see our foes surrounding us with their cunning, their spiritual sloth, weakening our souls with pleasure, or failing to contain our anger against our neighbour when he acts contrary to his duty, or tempting our eyes with concupiscence, or if they want to entice us to taste the pleasures of gluttony, if they make our neighbour’s words to us like poison, if they incite us to belittle what others say or if they induce us to distinguish between our brethren by saying: “This one is good, this one is bad’; therefore, even if all these things surround us, let us not lose heart but cry out bravely like David: “The Lord is the stronghold of my life!’ (Ps 27: 1)” (Recueil Ascétique, Bellefontaine, 1976, p. 211).
JOHN PAUL II
Wednesday, 28 April 2004
Confidence in God in times of tribulation
1. The Liturgy of Vespers has divided Psalm 27 into two parts, following the text’s structure which is similar to a diptych. We have just proclaimed the second part of this hymn of trust that is raised to the Lord on the dark day of the assault of evil. Verses 7 to 14 of the Psalm open with a cry directed to the Lord: “Have mercy [on me] and answer” (v. 7), and then express an anxious search for the Lord with the heart-rending fear of being abandoned by him (cf. vv. 8-9). Lastly, a moving horizon unfolds before our eyes, where family affections themselves fail (cf. v. 10) as “enemies” (v. 11), “adversaries” and “false witnesses” (cf. v. 12) advance.
However, even now, as in the first part of the Psalm, the decisive element is the trust of the person of prayer in the Lord, who saves in time of trial and is a refuge during the storm. Very beautiful, in this respect, is the appeal the Psalmist addresses to himself at the end: “Hope in him, hold firm and take heart. Hope in the Lord!” (v. 14; cf. Ps 42: 6, 12; 43: 5).
In other Psalms too, there was living certainty that one obtains strength and hope from the Lord: “He guards his faithful, but the Lord will repay to the full those who act with pride. Be strong, let your heart take courage, all who hope in the Lord” (Ps 31: 24-25). The prophet Hosea also exhorts Israel in this way: “Remain loyal and do right and always hope in your God” (Hos 12: 7).
2. We will limit ourselves now to highlighting three symbolic elements of great spiritual intensity. The first, a negative one, is the nightmare of enemies (cf. Ps 27: 12), looked upon as wild animals who “eagerly await” their prey and then, in a more direct way, as “false witnesses” who seem to blow violence from their nostrils, just like wild beasts before their victims.
Therefore, there is an aggressive evil in the world which is led and inspired by Satan, as St Peter reminds us: “Your opponent the devil is prowling like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (I Pt 5: 8).
3. The second image illustrates clearly the serene trust of the faithful one, despite being abandoned even by his parents. “Though father and mother forsake me, the Lord will receive me” (Ps 27: 10).
Even in solitude and the loss of the closest ties of affection, the person of prayer is never completely alone since the merciful God is bending over him. Our thought goes to a well-known passage from the prophet Isaiah, who attributes to God sentiments of compassion and tenderness that are more than maternal: “Can a mother forget her infant, be without tenderness for the child of her womb? Even should she forget, I will never forget you” (Is 49: 15).
Let us remind all elderly persons, the sick, those neglected by everyone, to whom no one will ever show tenderness, of these words of the Psalmist and the prophet, so that they may feel the fatherly and motherly hand of the Lord silently and lovingly touch their suffering faces, perhaps furrowed with tears.
4. And so we come to the third and final symbol, repeated more than once in the Psalm: “”Seek his face’. It is your face, O Lord, that I seek; hide not your face [from me]” (vv. 8-9). Therefore, God’s face is the point of arrival on the spiritual quest of the person of prayer. At the end an unspoken certainty surfaces: that of being able to “contemplate the Lord’s goodness” (cf. v. 13).
In the language of the Psalms, to “seek the face of the Lord” is often synonymous with entering into the temple to celebrate and experience communion with the God of Zion. However, the expression also includes the mystical need of divine intimacy through prayer. In the liturgy, then, and in personal prayer we are given the grace to look upon that face which we could otherwise never see directly during our earthly life (cf. Ex 33: 20). But Christ has revealed the divine face to us in an accessible way and has promised that in the final encounter of eternity, as St John reminds us, “We shall see him as he is” (I Jn 3: 2). And St Paul adds: “Then we shall see face to face” (I Cor 13: 12).
5. Commenting on this Psalm, Origen, the great Christian writer of the third century, noted: “If a man seeks the face of the Lord, he will see the glory of the Lord unveiled and, having been made similar to the angels, he will continually behold the face of the Father who is in heaven” (PG, 12, 1281). St Augustine, in his commentary on the Psalms, continues in this way the prayer of the Psalmist: “I have not asked from you some sort of prize outside of you, but your face. “Your face, O Lord, I seek’. I shall persevere in this quest; indeed, I do not seek something of little worth, but your face, O Lord, to love you freely, since I find nothing else of greater worth…. “Do not turn away, angry with your servant’, so that in my seeking you, I am taken up with something else. What can be a greater sorrow than this for one who loves and seeks the truth of your face?” (Expositions on the Psalms, 26, 1, 8-9, Rome, 1967, pp. 355, 357). (Source: Part 1; Part 2)