Tag Archives: Prayer

Psalm 39: An Individual Lament

13 Nov

In The Jerome Biblical Commentary, Roland E. Murphy identifies Psalm 39 as “an individual lament, in a highly original form” (1:582). I will describe in this paper how Psalm 39 exemplifies an individual lament, following an identification of the characteristic elements of this type of psalm. I will then discuss ways in which Psalm 39 is unique: How it diverges from the typical form of the individual lament, and what elements of the psalm of lament are emphasized to a greater degree in Psalm 39 than in the usual individual lament.

Claus Westermann specifies eight distinctive parts of the “Psalms of petition or lament of the individual” (Westermann 64). The first of these parts is the address. In Israelite psalms of lament, addresses are notably brief, especially in comparison to the frequently lengthy introductory addresses of ancient “Babylonian and Egyptian laments” (Kolarcik 15). The addresses of Israelite psalms of lament presume “proximity [to] and familiarity” (Ibid.) with their addressee, who is invariably God. The second component of a psalm of lament, according to Westermann, is the lament proper or the complaint, directed against God or against enemies of the psalmist, who are often depicted as a “powerful army,” deceitful accusers in a “court scene,” or animals, for example (Kolarcik 16). In the case of a penitential psalm, the psalmist’s complaint is self-directed, in lament of his own sin. Complaints may be aimed at more than one of God, an enemy, or the psalmist’s self, even within the same psalm. Laments also feature expressions of “hope and trust in God,” termed by Westermann as a “confession of trust” (64) and by Michael Kolarcik as a “review of past” (15, 17). The psalmist expresses trust in God based on a historical record of God’s intervention on behalf of Israel. The “review of past” may also adopt the form of a sapiential reflection.

“In light of the trust” in God that Kolarcik cites as “the foundation of the lament, the psalmist then makes known the specific petition” (17). Such petitions are imperatives; the psalmist demands that God respond to them.  Psalms of lament may also include a series of “additional motive[s]” for God to answer the psalmist’s plea: God, says the psalmist, “will benefit from intervention on the psalmist’s behalf” (Kolarcik 18).  Some psalms of lament feature a “double wish,” whereby in entreating God to act in the psalmist’s defence, the psalmist also calls for a divine curse or punishment upon his enemy. Notably, in no psalm does the psalmist ask for the ability or strength to crush an enemy, but the psalmist entrusts this action to God. A statement of “divine response,” which conveys “assurance that the lament and the petition have been heard” (Ibid.), is included in some psalms of lament. Lastly, most psalms of lament contain a “vow to praise” God (Ibid.) should God alleviate the causes of the lament.

Of Westermann’s eight elements of an individual lament, he names five of these as “constituent parts” of this type of psalm: the “address, lament, confession of trust…petition, [and] vow of praise” (Westermann 64). The order in which these parts appear in a particular lament are unimportant to Westermann (Ibid.): “This… basic scheme… never becomes stereotyped.” Psalm 39 contains four of five of Westermann’s essential parts of an individual lament, lacking entirely a vow to praise. This psalm incorporates none of the other three elements of individual laments: motives, a double wish formula, or a statement of divine response.

Psalm 39 does include a brief address to God that, not unusually with respect to psalms of lament, is linked closely with the core of the psalmist’s address: “Listen to my prayer, LORD, hear my cry” (New American Bible, Psalm 39:13). However, Psalm 39 is atypical in the placement of its address in its next-to-last verse. The address, Kolarcik observes, is designed to open “the dialogue to what is important for the psalmist”: that God answer the petition (15). As such, the address most frequently serves as an introduction to the remainder of the psalm of lament, and is therefore not placed near the end of such a psalm. Instead of beginning with an address to God, Psalm 39 opens with a lengthy review of the past relationship between God and the psalmist (vv 2-4).  This review of the past is followed by the psalmist’s petition: “LORD, let me know my end, the number of my days, that I may learn how frail I am” (v 5). The placement of this petition within Psalm 39 is not unusual for an individual lament. However, James L. Crenshaw writes that “a peculiar feature of laments within Psalms [is] a decisive transition from plea to confident trust that [the LORD] will act to rectify the situation” (Crenshaw 81-82). Such a transition is present in Psalm 39. However, the expression of trust  (vv 6-8) begins as a sapiential reflection that continues until verse seven– a true statement of trust occurs in verse eight, “You are my only hope”– but also, according to Murphy (1:582), as a complaint against God: “You have given my days a very short span” (v 6a).

Several alternations, in fact, from review of past (vv 2-4, 6-8, 12, 13b), much of which is contained in sapiential reflections (vv 6-7, 12, 13b), to petition (vv 5, 9, 11a, 13, 14), take place in Psalm 39. The first lament cited by Murphy (v 6) is contained within a sapiential reflection, but the first clear complaint, directed against God, is expressed well into Psalm 39: “You were the one who did this… I am ravaged by the touch of your hand” (vv 10, 11b). The lament here is split by the petition, “Take your plague away from me” (vv 11a). Psalm 39 then concludes with an unresolved petition: “Turn your gaze from me…” (v 14). As Murphy suggests, the “dark note” on which Psalm 39 ends nonetheless conveys the trust of the psalmist in God amid what is likely mortal illness. This verse may also serve as a reminder from Torah: “[God’s] face you cannot see, for no [one] sees [God] and still lives” (Exodus 33:20).

I have thus analyzed how, in its elements, structure, and emphasis, Psalm 39 exemplifies a psalm of individual lament, and I have highlighted differences in this psalm from the typical form of an individual lament.


Crenshaw, James L. The Psalms: An Introduction. Grand Rapids, MI/ Cambridge, UK: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001.

Kolarcik, Michael. “The Psalms of Lament,” in RGB2263H F Lecture Notes, 15-19. http://individual.utoronto.ca/mfkolarcik/PSALMS3_3Laments.PDF. Accessed 16 October 2011.

Murphy, Roland E. “Psalms.” In The Jerome Biblical Commentary, edited by Raymond E. Brown, Joseph A. Fitzmyer, and Roland E. Murphy, 2:569-602. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1968.

 New American Bible.

Westermann, Claus. Praise and Lament in the Psalms. Translated by Keith R. Crim and Richard N. Soulen. Atlanta, GA: John Knox Press, 1981.

This paper was submitted in November, 2011; MDiv Year III, Semester 1; for a course entitled “Psalms” (RGB 2263HF) at Regis College, Toronto, Canada. Hopefully this Christmas season is not causing  many to lament, but as I show, the purpose of the lament in the Psalms is to convey trust in God that is at the root of any good complaint!

Clothed with Humility- Reflection for Evening Prayer of August 31, 2011

31 Aug

Wednesday, August 31, 2011
Wednesday of the Twenty-second Week in Ordinary Time
Liturgy of the Hours: Wednesday, Week III
Reading for Evening Prayer: 1 Peter 5:5b-7

During a recent family reunion, I came across two icons of Christ, ruler of all– in Greek, Χριστος Παντοκράτωρ (Christos Pantokrator)– that belonged to two different relatives of mine. Since taking a course in New Testament Greek last year, I have become even more fascinated by icons, especially this one, Christos Pantokrator, than I had been previously.

What does the Christos Pantokrator icon have to do with the reading from 1 Peter from tonight’s Evening Prayer, though, and what does it have to do with our lives as religious, as Basilians, as priests or, in my case, as one in formation for ordained priesthood?

In the very first verse of the reading from tonight’s Vespers, the author of 1 Peter exhorts us: “Clothe yourselves with humility.”[1] When we look at the icon of Christos Pantokrator, and indeed of many icons of our Lord, he is clothed on the inside with a red garment, symbol of divinity. Overlaying the red, though, is an outer blue garment: Christ’s divinity has been clothed in our humanity. Therefore, by his Incarnation, Jesus Christ assumed our frail nature, of course without losing any of his divine nature. This is a valuable lesson in the virtue of humility. Not only does God show “kindness”[2] toward the humble, but God also shows us concretely the way of humility by becoming one like us, just as the ruler of all once created us in his image and likeness.[3]

Humility, I think, is one of the most difficult virtues for most people to practice. Perhaps this is because of the greatness of our human nature. One of my favourite Psalms, Psalm 8, praises God thus for the creation of human beings: “You have made them little less than a god.”[4] I know all too well by experience that this nearness to divine essence with which we have been created so easily leads to misplaced ambition and hubris. I am the last person who should be leading a reflection about humility!

When Jesus’ own Apostles let their pride get in the way of acceptance of the Cross– of giving everything they were in hope of the Kingdom of God– Jesus reminded them of their place in bringing about that Kingdom. Examples abound of Jesus reminding the Twelve– and us– of the humility with which he himself lived. The most striking instance of this to me is when he placed a child among his followers, who had been quarrelling over who among them was the greatest.[5]

As I was leaving the Vancouver airport to come home to Toronto just days ago, my two-year-old niece provided me with a reminder of humility clothed in godlike dignity. As I held her and said, “Bye, Molly, I love you,” she laid a big, sloppy kiss on my cheek that brought tears to my eyes. If Molly were to be represented in an icon, she would be wearing a blue inner garment draped in red which, of course, is how our humble Queen and Mother, Mary, is often depicted.

Out of the mouth of this babe, to paraphrase Psalm 8 again, came a defence “to silence the enemy”[6] that is pride, which deludes us into thinking that we do not need God.

Lastly, humility does not mean that we ought not to have dreams, cares, and ambitions. Such dreams, cares, and ambitions are normal and should be encouraged, as long as they draw us closer, especially as Basilian religious, to the dignity given to all of us by God. 1 Peter says, “Cast all your cares on [God], because he cares for you.”[7] After all, our God is a God who has clothed us “mere mortals”[8] in his image. As the Psalmist says, we are thus “crowned with glory and honour.”[9]

“O LORD, our Lord, how awesome is your name through all the earth!”[10]

This reflection was originally given during Evening Prayer (Vespers) of August 31, 2011, during a retreat of the Basilian Fathers’ Scholasticate in which I am currently living.

[1] 1 Peter 5:5

[2] Ibid.

[3] Genesis 1:27

[4] Psalm 8:6

[5] Mark 9:33-37, Luke 9:46-48

[6] Psalm 8:3

[7] 1 Peter 5:7

[8] Psalm 8:5

[9] v 6

[10] vv 2, 10

Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi: We Believe as We Pray– Reflection for Mass of April 1, 2011

1 Apr

Friday, April 1, 2011
Ferial– Friday of the Third Week of Lent
Readings: Hosea 14:1-9; Psalm 81: 5c-10ab, 13+16 (R: 10+8a); Mark 12:28b-34

Shema Yisrael, Adonai eloheynu Adonai echad– Hear, O Israel! The LORD our God is one LORD.”[1] This greatest of ancient Jewish prayers is a case of the principle Christians would later call lex orandi, lex credendi: the law that is prayed comes to be the law that is believed.[2] Indeed, Jews still pray the Shema twice daily as the LORD commanded them in the Book of Deuteronomy: “Take to heart these words which I enjoin on you today. Drill them into your children. Speak of them at home and abroad, whether you are busy or at rest. Bind them at your wrist as a sign and let them be as a pendant on your forehead. Write them on the doorposts of your houses and on your gates.”[3]

These words of the LORD clearly were assigned a place of prominence; they were to be fixed as the primary focus on the hearts, on the homes, on the heads, and on the bodies, specifically the wrists, of the faithful. Similarly, Jesus affirms for us in today`s Gospel that this prayer leads us to a deepened faith, again illustrating for us the notion of lex orandi, lex credendi. That faith gives rise to a love of God that becomes affixed in our hearts, in our innermost homes that are our souls, in our minds, and in our bodies wherein lay our strength.[4]

Out of six hundred thirteen Mitzvot, or religious statutes, in the Torah,[5] Jesus cites only two as the Commandments than which there are none greater. The first is the Shema of Deuteronomy, while the second is from Leviticus: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”[6]

In its original context in Leviticus, the scope of this second of the greatest Commandments is restricted to the Israelites’ “fellow countrymen,”[7] those bound to the covenant between the LORD and Israel. However, Jesus challenges us to broaden our horizon of who our neighbour is. Of course, we need not to walk too far through downtown Toronto to have our concept of neighbour challenged: near to here we find the poor, the mentally ill, the addicts, the newcomers and refugees. Jesus reminds us that these, too, are our neighbours. One cannot be said to love God without loving these people, often the least valued and most forgotten of our preoccupied, capital-oriented society.

I have increasingly been taking note in my reading of the Gospels of late how many pericopes end in silence. Today’s Gospel reading is another example of this; the scribe who had asked Jesus which is the greatest Commandment, and indeed all the other religious leaders with him, did not dare “to ask [Jesus] any question.”[8] I doubt that these religious leaders fell silent because they were wholly satisfied with Jesus’ answer. They knew how correct and how wise Jesus had been in expanding their sense of neighbour and, with it, their sense of God. They knew all too well, as we know all too well, the rectitude of Jesus’ teaching and how difficult this teaching is to live out. If our love of neighbour does not extend to those who evoke the most disgust in us, then even our worship, our “burnt offerings and sacrifices,”[9] become not an act of love of God but an act of proud idolatry, of saying “‘Our god’ to the work of our hands.”[10]

Even amid our pride and our failure at times to see the least among us as our neighbour, though, Jesus still tells us comfortingly, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”[11] How, then, do we make up this distance from God’s kingdom? On our own, entrance into God’s kingdom is impossible. Only in relationship with God, through consistent prayer, will our weakness, our divided hearts, and our distance from God be overcome, and will we come to see our neighbour, and God, for who they truly are.

That regularity in prayer is the point of the Shema. By praying the Law enjoined on us, we will gradually come to believe in that which we pray: lex orandi, lex credendi. Then, that in which, or better yet in whom, we come to believe, God through an expanded notion of neighbour, we will come more fully to love.


[1] The Shema– Hear, O Israel! http://www.hebrew4christians.com/Scripture/Torah/The_Shema/the_shema. html. Accessed 30 March 2011. See also Deuteronomy 6:4.

[2] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1124. http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p2s1c1a2.htm. Accessed 30 March 2011. This section of the Catechism of the Catholic Church reads: “The Church’s faith precedes the faith of the believer who is invited to adhere to it. When the Church celebrates the sacraments, she confesses the faith received from the apostles – whence the ancient saying: lex orandi, lex credendi The law of prayer is the law of faith: the Church believes as she prays. Liturgy is a constitutive element of the holy and living Tradition.”

[3] Deuteronomy 6:6-9.

[4] See Mark 12:30.

[5] Judaism 101: A List of the 613 Mitzvot (Commandments). http://www.jewfaq.org/613.htm. Accessed 30 March 2011.

[6] Leviticus 19:18; Mark 12:31.

[7] Leviticus 19:18.

[8] Mark 12:34.

[9] Mark 12:33.

[10] Hosea 14:4.

[11] Mark 12:34.

The Spirit of Prayer- Reflection for Mass of October 8, 2009

8 Oct

Thursday, October 8, 2009
Thursday of the Twenty-seventh Week in Ordinary Time
Readings: Malachi 3:13-20; Psalm 1:1-4, 6; Luke 11:5-13

Much discussion about how Christians pray is centered upon the methods of prayer. People I have talked with have asked the question of me as to whether formal or rote prayer is better than spontaneous dialogue with God, or whether silence is better yet. I believe all these are necessary and helpful. We have formulas like the Lord’s Prayer, from yesterday’s Gospel reading (1), and prolonged prayer sets like the Liturgy of the Hours or even the Mass. Some find contemplative methods to be most effective, while others prefer trustful spontaneity, as in a conversation with their best friend.

No one of these is better than another- the Spirit must be allowed to move each of us differently and as He wills. When I went to Cali, I began to spend a short time in front of the Blessed Sacrament each day praying only that I would be able to learn a new culture and language and to better serve the people of our parish and school. I do not consider myself a spontaneous person, but my time in Colombia increased my appreciation of short and informal prayer.

Today’s readings, from the prophet Malachi and from the Gospel of Luke, also present us with differing ways to pray, contrasting one way that is displeasing and one that is pleasing to God.

How often we Christians fall into the pattern decried by Malachi. It is easy to see the evil in the world and, as those referred to in the first reading, to complain bitterly that those who commit such evil are not held accountable by God, but even seem to thrive. (2) How could a just God allow that to continue unabated?

In today’s follow-up to the Lucan version of the Our Father, Jesus teaches us about “persistence” in prayer (3), but He goes a step farther: If a friend needs to be persuaded toward hospitality when bothered at an inopportune time (4), and even if many among us would give almost anything to a fellow person in need- I met several of this kind of people in Colombia- God is even more generous in answering our prayer. (5) We have been sealed with the ultimate answer to our entreaty, the gift of the Holy Spirit. (6) Therefore, no longer is the core of Jesus’ message about persistence in prayer, but about unceasing prayer amid our everyday activities in a spirit of thanksgiving and of joy.


Prayer and Reconciliation- Reflection for Mass of March 6, 2009

7 Mar

Friday, March 6, 2009

Friday of the First Week of Lent

World Day of Prayer

Readings: Ezekiel 18:21-28, Psalm 130: 1-6, Gospel of Matthew 5:20-26

The French philosopher Gabriel Marcel once wrote that “to love someone is to say, ‘you at least will not die.’” (1) Those words encompass much of the meaning of Lent, a season during which we celebrate the absolute mercy of God. On Ash Wednesday, we were enjoined to repent from our sin and to believe in the Gospel. Lent is truly, then, a celebration filled with faith and hope in that good news of God’s love for us.

Scripture tells us that God, who breathed life into our earthly and earthbound bodies, “so loved the world that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him…might have eternal life.” (2) By means of rhetorical questions, the prophet Ezekiel communicates a similar message to that of John the Evangelist: God is not pleased with “the death of the wicked,” (3) nor does He keep a tally of our sins in an effort to condemn us, but instead God goes to great lengths to persuade us to turn freely toward Him and away from evil. Our Father sent us Jesus, His Son who, after His baptism in the Jordan, spent forty Spirit-filled days fasting in the wilderness. Jesus encountered and rebuffed the deception of grandeur offered by Satan- of power that is impossible in the absence of a relationship with God.

Christ so loved us that He went on to live as one of us, to teach us, to pray for us, and to die and to rise for us. During Lent, we journey with Jesus in the desert from His baptism to His death. Our lives naturally follow the same path as the life of Christ, with the same Divine call to welcome the mystery and promise of the Resurrection. A God who calls us together to accept such a wondrous gift is not limited by any human notion of justice. Therefore, Ezekiel reminds a people still in exile that it is not the Lord’s way but the way of the house of Israel that is not fair. (4) God is more than just fair to His people; He waits for us to repent and to respond in kind to His loving mercy. Both Ezekiel, in today’s first reading, and Jesus, in the Gospel of Matthew, emphasize that it is never too late to break from the course that leads to our ruin.

In addition, Jesus challenges us to act in God-like justice and not only in legalistic fairness toward our neighbour. As with God forgiveness is boundless, our reconciliation with each other is never too late if we are to gain Heaven. Jesus contends that it can be achieved even at the last minute- “on the way to court.” (5) If, on the contrary, we spout insults and put-downs, or persist in harbouring deep anger and resentment, we gradually destroy life, thus Jesus warns that we are in breach of the commandment not to kill and will be liable to human and to Divine judgement, and ultimately to Gehenna, the “hell of fire.” (6)

Deror Avi, Valley of Hinnom, October 19, 2007.

Deror Avi, Valley of Hinnom, October 19, 2007.

Jesus speaks of Gehenna, the Jewish equivalent to hell, in reference to the Valley of Hinnom, situated outside the southwest gate of Jerusalem, also called the Dung Gate. Gehenna conjured up mental pictures of horrors that actually took place in the Valley of Hinnom- it was Jerusalem’s garbage dump in Jesus’ time. Unclean animals and waste were burned there, and lepers scavenged the refuse. Gehenna had been the site of pagan human sacrifice and the final resting place of the bodies of executed criminals. (7) Not surprisingly, Gehenna evoked fear when Jesus mentioned it. The Valley of Hinnom brought two images to my mind: the bus route past the piles of garbage burning along the freeways in Cali and frequent walks through Windsor’s Malden Park, affectionately known as “the dump.” Just as the Valley of Hinnom today is no longer the vile rubbish heap it once was, as some efforts were being taken to clean up Cali while I was there, and as Windsor’s former landfill has become a pleasant place for a walk, so God wills to bring us to reconciliation- to transform our sinful waste into something beautiful and life-giving.

View from Malden Park, Windsor, ON

View from Malden Park, Windsor, ON

Reconciliation- the restoration and building of relationship with God and with humankind- requires us to pray for one another. Today we mark the World Day of Prayer, observed by several Christian traditions on the first Friday in March, (8) to bring to mind our need to pray for an end to divisions between baptized followers of Jesus. The section on prayer in our Catechism opens with a striking definition of prayer from St. Thérèse of Lisieux.

In her autobiography, St. Thérèse wrote: “…Prayer is a surge of the heart; it is a simple look turned toward heaven, it is a cry of recognition and of love, embracing both trial and joy.” (9)

“Prayer is a surge of the heart…” When we pray, we recall with tremendous gratitude that, as we enter the Lord’s house to celebrate the Eucharist, God has already resolved to forgive us our sin.

“It is a simple look toward heaven…” We then acknowledge the Father’s presence and, to begin the Communion Rite, we appeal to “Our Father, who art in Heaven”, whose Kingdom we petition “to come”, and whose “will” we pray “will be done, on earth as in Heaven.”

At the climax of the Mass, we receive Jesus as a community of believers, the Body of Christ, and respond with our “cry of recognition and of love,” “Amen!”

Our prayer, our Communion, our Lent, our Mass, in a spirit of reconciliation, are greater than any infirmity or spiritual darkness. Thus we come, “embracing both trial and joy.”

We come together to celebrate before a God who is greater than sin, division, and even death itself. Our God spoke through the prophet Ezekiel to the repentant soul, “He shall surely live…” (10) So we ought to pray this for one another, that we all might come to everlasting life. For “to love someone is to say, ‘you at least will not die.’”