Pope John Paul II met with 11,000 pilgrims who gathered in St. Peter's Square for his general audience Nov. 12. The topic for his weekly catechesis was Psalm 142, a prayer in the midst of persecution and suffering, which St. Francis of Assisi prayed on his deathbed. Several weeks ago the Holy Father began a new series of teachings on the psalms and canticles found in the evening prayer of the Liturgy of the Hours.
The Pope noted that Psalm 142 is a very dramatic prayer of a man in distress, whose life has become a nightmare. “Faced with this nightmare, the psalmist sounds a cry of alarm so that God will see his situation and intervene,” John Paul said.
Nevertheless, the psalmist recognizes that God alone is the sure refuge of those who place their trust in him. “A cry reveals the hope that dwells in the heart of the psalmist,” the Holy Father said. “At this point, his only protection and his only effective source of company is God.” He pointed out that the Lord is the only foundation on which we can stand and is our supreme hope.
At the end of his teaching, the Pope quoted St. Hilary of Poitiers and noted that Christian tradition sees in this psalm a reference to the persecuted and suffering Christ, whose resurrection has become the foundation and goal of our hope, the gift of eternal life in the glory of God for eternity.
On the evening of Oct. 3, 1226, St. Francis of Assisi was dying. His last prayer was Psalm 142, which we have just heard. St. Bonaventure recalls that Francis “suddenly started the psalm, ‘With full voice I cry to the Lord, with full voice I beseech the Lord’ and recited it down to the last verse: ‘Then the just shall gather around me because you have been good to me’” (Leggenda Maggiore, XIV, 5, in Fonti Francescane, Padua-Assisi, 1980, p. 958).
The psalm is an intense prayer that includes a series of verbs that are pleas the psalmist addresses to the Lord: “I cry,” “I beseech the Lord,” “I pour out my complaint” and “lay bare my distress” (verses 2-3). The central part of the psalm is dominated by trust in God who does not remain indifferent to the suffering of the faithful (see verses 4-8). This is the attitude with which St. Francis faced death.
God is addressed with a familiar form of the pronoun “you” as a person who offers security: “You are my refuge” (verse 6) and “You know my path,” that is, the course of my life, a course that is marked by opting for justice. On that path, however, the wicked have set a trap (see verse 4). This is a typical image taken from a hunting scene that occurs frequently in the psalms of supplication in order to indicate the dangers and snares to which the just are exposed.
A Plea for Help
Faced with this nightmare, the psalmist sounds a cry of alarm so God will see his situation and intervene: “Look on my right and see” (verse 5). According to a custom in the East, at a person's right is where, in court, his defender or a witness on his behalf would stand, or, in war, his bodyguard. This faithful man, however, is alone and abandoned: “There is no one who recognizes me.” Because of this, he expresses an observation that causes him anguish: “There is no escape for me; no one cares for me” (verse 5).
Immediately afterward, a cry reveals the hope dwelling in the heart of the psalmist. At this point, his only protection and his only effective source of company is God: “You are my refuge, my portion in the land of the living” (verse 6). In biblical language, the “lot” or “portion” is the gift of the Promised Land, which is a sign of God's love for his people. Now, the Lord is the last and sole foundation on which he can stand, his only possibility for life and his supreme hope.
The psalmist cries out to him persistently, for he is “brought very low” (verse 7). He entreats him to intervene and break the chains of his prison (see verse 8) of solitude and hostility and to rescue him from the abyss of his trial.
As in other psalms of supplication, the closing expectation is one of thanksgiving, which the psalmist will offer to God after he is heard: “Lead me out of my prison, that I may give thanks to your name” (verse 8). When he is saved, this faithful man will go to give thanks to the Lord in the midst of the liturgical assembly (see verse 8). The just will gather around him and consider the salvation of their brother as a gift that has also been given to them.
This atmosphere should also pervade our Christian celebrations. The pain of each individual should find an echo in the hearts of all people; likewise the entire community in prayer should experience the joy of each person. Indeed, “How good it is, how pleasant, where the people dwell as one!” (Psalm 133:1) and, as the Lord Jesus said: “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20).
A Paschal Sign
Our Christian tradition has applied Psalm 142 to the persecuted and suffering Christ. According to this perspective, the obvious goal of the plea in this psalm is transfigured into a paschal sign, which is based on the glorious success of Christ's life and on our destiny of resurrection with him. St. Hilary of Poitiers, a famous Doctor of the Church from the fourth century, affirms this in his Treatise on the Psalms.
He comments on the Latin translation of the last verse in the psalm, which speaks about the reward that awaits the psalmist and for which the just are waiting: “Me expectant iusti, donec retribuas mihi.”[The just await me, until you reward me.] As St. Hilary explains: “The Apostle [Paul] teaches us the reward that the Father has given to Christ: ‘God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father’ (Philippians 2:9-11). This is the reward: the eternity of the Father's glory is given to the body that [the Son] took.
“This same apostle teaches us what the just can expect when he says: ‘But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we also await a savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will change our lowly body to conform with his glorified body’ (Philippians 3:20-21). Indeed, the just await him so that he will reward them, by conforming them to the glory of his body, which is blessed forever. Amen” (PL 9, 833-837).