God Protects Us From Evil
Pope John Paul II met with 20,000 pilgrims in St. Peter's Square for his general audience Nov. 5. Speaking in a frail voice, the Holy Father gave his first teaching on one of the psalms from evening prayer of the Liturgy of the Hours — a series he began a few weeks ago after completing a long series of teachings on the Church's morning prayer.
His catechesis centered on Psalm 141 in which the psalmist calls upon the Lord in a time of danger as he faces a difficult moral choice. “The psalmist asks the Lord to not let his lips or the feelings of his heart be attracted and lured by evil, thereby leading him to yield to sin,” the Holy Father noted. “Words and deeds are, in fact, the expression of a person's moral choice.
“It is easy for evil to be so attractive that it drives even the faithful to taste the ‘fine food’ that sinners can offer if the faithful sit down at their table and take part in their perverse actions.”
The psalm is, John Paul noted, “a hymn of faith, gratitude and joy, with a certainty that the faithful man will not be engulfed by the hatred that the perverse reserve for him or fall into the trap they set for him.”
The faithful man, he said, expresses “in a concrete and even picturesque way hostility to evil, choosing good and the certainty that God intervenes in history with his judgment, severely condemning injustice.”
The Holy Father skipped some of the paragraphs of the address he had prepared and ended his talk with a request: “Pray for me.”
Nonetheless, afterward he spent 50 minutes greeting the faithful and posing for group photographs.
In our previous catecheses we examined the overall structure and meaning of the liturgy of vespers, the most important prayer of the Church in the evening. Now we will proceed to a closer examination. It will be like going on a pilgrimage to a sort of “holy land” that the psalms and canticles comprise. Every now and then we will reflect on one of these poetic prayers, which God has sealed with his inspiration. They are prayers that the Lord himself wants us to address to him. He loves to listen to them, for he hears in them the heartbeats of his beloved children.
We will begin with Psalm 141, which is the opening prayer for evening prayer on Sunday of the first of the four weeks according to which the Church's evening prayer was structured after the Council.
A Sacrifice of Prayer
“Let my prayer be incense before you; my uplifted hands an evening sacrifice.” Verse 2 of this psalm can be considered as the mark that distinguishes this whole song and the obvious reason for the fact that it is included in evening prayer of the Liturgy of the Hours. The idea that it expresses reflects the spirit of prophetic theology, which intimately unites worship with life and prayer with existence.
This very prayer, when prayed with a pure and sincere heart, becomes a sacrifice that is offered to God. The whole being of the person who is praying it becomes a sacrificial act, thereby foreshadowing everything St. Paul suggests when he invites Christians to offer their bodies as a living sacrifice that is holy and pleasing to God: This is the spiritual sacrifice that God accepts (see Romans 12:1).
The hands raised in prayer are a bridge for communicating with God, as is the smoke that rises as sweet fragrance from the victim during the evening's sacrificial rite.
As the psalm continues, it takes on the overtones of a plea, which has been passed down to us in a text that presents several interpretative difficulties and obscurities in the Hebrew original (especially verses 4-7).
Protection From Evil
Nonetheless, we can identify the general meaning of the psalm and transform it into a meditation and a prayer. Above all, the psalmist asks the Lord not to let his lips (see verse 3) or the feelings of his heart be attracted and lured by evil, thereby leading him into “sin” (see verse 4). Words and deeds are, in fact, the expression of a person's moral choice. It is easy for evil to be so attractive that it drives even the faithful to taste the “fine food” that sinners can offer if the faithful sit down at their table and take part in their perverse actions.
The psalm almost takes on the flavor of an examination of conscience, which is followed by a commitment to always choose God's ways.
At this point, however, the psalmist has a shocking realization that causes him to launch out in a passionate speech where he rejects any complicity with evildoers: In no way does he wish to be a guest of the wicked or allow the perfumed oil they reserve for their guests of honor (see Psalm 23:5) be a sign of his connivance with evildoers (see Psalm 141:5). In order to express more vehemently his radical dissociation from the wicked, the psalmist then proclaims his scornful condemnation of them, which is expressed by his use of colorful images of angry judgment.
This is typical of curses found in the Book of Psalms (see Psalm 58 and 109), whose purpose is to affirm in a concrete and even picturesque way hostility to evil, choosing good and the certainty that God intervenes in history with his judgment that severely condemns injustice (see verses 6-7).
A Hymn of Faith
The psalm closes with one final confident appeal (see verses 8-9): It is a hymn of faith, gratitude and joy, with a certainty that the faithful man (after having noted his decisive choice for good) will not be engulfed by the hatred that the perverse reserve for him or fall into the trap they set for him. Thus, the just man will be able to escape unharmed from every deceit, as another psalm says: “We escaped with our lives from the fowler's snare; the snare was broken and we escaped” (Psalm 124:7).
Let us conclude our reading of Psalm 141 by returning to the image at the beginning of an evening prayer that is a sacrifice pleasing to God. John Cassian, a great spiritual master who lived between the fourth and fifth centuries and who came from the East and spent the last part of his life in southern Gaul, read those words in a Christ-centered light: “In them, in fact, we can understand more spiritually an allusion to our Lord and Savior's evening sacrifice during his Last Supper, which he entrusted to the apostles when he sanctioned the beginning of the holy mysteries of the Church, or (we can perceive an allusion) to that same sacrifice that he himself offered the following day in the evening, by raising his own hands, a sacrifice that will continue until the end of time for the salvation of the whole world” (Le istituzioni cenobitiche, Abbazia di Praglia, Padua, 1989, p. 92).