Pope Benedict VXI traveled to Rome from his summer residence in Castel Gandolfo for his Aug. 10 general audience. He met with 6,000 people in Paul VI Hall, including a number of young people on their way to World Youth Day in Cologne, Germany.
The Holy Father offered his reflections on Psalm 131, which presents the familiar theme of spiritual childhood. At the center of the psalm is the image of a young child resting peacefully in its mother's arms, a scene that is in marked contrast to the arrogant attitude depicted at the beginning of the psalm.
“The psalmist clearly rejects this temptation of the proud man to be like God, the judge of what is good and what is bad, and chooses instead to trust humbly and spontaneously in the one and only Lord,“ Pope Benedict XVI pointed out. “This is the perfect parable for true ‘childhood’ of the spirit, where abandonment to God is not blind or automatic, but peaceful and mature.“
The Holy Father noted that the psalmist invites all Israel to hope in the Lord, and quoted several psalms inspired by this same theme of trust in God. He encouraged the faithful to heed the words of St. John Cassian (ca. 360-435) to guard against conceit because it destroys all virtue, and especially afflicts the powerful.
We have the few words that make up Psalm 131 — only 30 in the original Hebrew version. Yet, they are powerful words that develop the theme of spiritual childhood that is highly esteemed in all religious literature.
Immediately our thoughts turn to St. Thérèse of Lisieux, her “little way,“ and “remaining little“ in order to “be in Jesus’ arms“ (see Manoscritto C; Opere complete, Vatican City, 1977).
In fact, the image of a mother with her child is at the heart of this psalm, a sign of God's tender and maternal love that the prophet Hosea had already expressed: “When Israel was a child I loved him. … I drew them with human cords, with bands of love; I fostered them like one who raises an infant to his cheeks. … I stooped to feed my child“ (Hosea 11:1,4).
The Perils of Pride
The psalm begins with a description of an attitude that is in marked contrast to the attitude of a child, who is conscious of his own fragile nature but trusting in the help of others. Instead, the focus in the psalm is on a prideful heart, haughty eyes, as well as “great matters“ and “things too sublime“ (see Psalm 131:1). It portrays the proud person, who is described using Hebrew words that indicate “haughtiness“ and “exaltation,“ the arrogant attitude of someone who looks upon others with a sense of superiority and considers others inferior.
The psalmist clearly rejects this temptation of the proud man to be like God, the judge of what is good and what is bad (see Genesis 3:5), and chooses instead to trust humbly and spontaneously in the one and only Lord.
Abandonment to God
It then moves on to that memorable image of a mother with her child. The original Hebrew text does not speak of a newborn child, but rather of a “weaned child“ (Psalm 131:2). It is worth noting that in the ancient Near East, children were officially weaned around the age of 3, and the event was celebrated with a feast (see Genesis 21:8; 1 Samuel 1:20-23; 2 Maccabees 7:27).
The child to whom the psalmist refers is united to his mother in a relationship that is, at this point, more personal and intimate, and not merely dependent on the physical contact and the need for food. It is a bond that is now more conscious, even if it is still immediate and spontaneous.
This is the ideal parable of true “childhood“ of the spirit, where abandonment to God is not blind or automatic, but peaceful and mature.
At this point, the psalmist's profession of faith is extended to the entire community: “Israel, hope in the Lord, now and forever“ (Psalm 131:3). Hope now blossoms amid the entire nation that receives security, life and peace from God, which extends from the present through the future, “now and forever.“
It is easy to continue this prayer by echoing other words from the Book of Psalms inspired by this same trust in God: “Upon you I was thrust from the womb, since birth you are my God“ (Psalm 22:11). “Even if my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will take me in (Psalm 27:10). “You are my hope, Lord; my trust, God, from my youth. On you I depend since birth; from my mother's womb you are my strength“ (Psalm 71:5-6).
Trust in the Lord
Clearly the opposite of trust is pride. A Christian writer from the end of the fourth and beginning of the fifth century, St. John Cassian, admonishes the faithful of the seriousness of this vice, which “destroys all virtue in its totality and that does not take aim merely at the mediocre and the weak, but mainly at those who, through their own efforts, place themselves on the fringe.“
He goes on to say: “This is the reason why blessed David took great care in his heart to venture to proclaim before the one from whom the secrets of his conscience were not hidden, ‘Lord, my heart is not proud; nor are my eyes haughty. I do not busy myself with great matters, with things too sublime for me.’ Yet, well aware of how difficult such care is for those who are perfect, he does not presume to rely only on his own capabilities but begs the Lord in prayer to help him to succeed avoiding the arrows of the enemy so he would not be wounded: ‘Do not let the foot of the proud overtake me’ (Psalm 36:12)“ (Le istituzioni cenobitiche, XII, 6, Abbey of Praglia, Bresseo di Teolo — Padua, 1989, page 289).
In this same vein, an anonymous elder from among the Desert Fathers handed down the following words to us that echo the words of Psalm 131: “I have never overstepped my rank for a higher rank, nor has being humiliated disturbed me, since my only thought was to ask the Lord to strip me of the old man“ (I Padri del deserto. Detti, Rome, 1980, page 287).