In Times of Distress, Prayer Restores a Zest for Life
Psalm 143, which we just heard, is the last of the so-called “penitential Psalms,” which are seven psalms of petition that are spread throughout the Book of Psalms (see Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, 143). They are used in our Christian tradition to ask the Lord to forgive us our sins. The text that we wish to examine more closely today is one that St. Paul, who perceived the radical sinfulness of every human being, was particularly fond of: “Before you no living being can be just” (verse 2). This phrase formed the basis of the apostle's teaching on sin and grace (see Galatians 2:16; Romans 3:20).
Morning prayer of the Liturgy of the Hours proposes this petition to us as a profession of our faithfulness and a plea for God's help at the beginning of the day. In fact, as we pray the psalm, we say to God: “At dawn let me hear of your kindness, for in you I trust” (Psalm 143:8).
A Plea for Help
The psalm begins with an intense and insistent cry to God, who is faithful to the promise of salvation that he has made to his people (see verse 1). The psalmist acknowledges that he has no merits of his own that would make him worthy; therefore, he humbly asks God not to assume the attitude of a judge (see verse 2).
He then portrays the dramatic situation, which is like a deadly nightmare, with which he is struggling. The enemy, who represents the evil in history and in the world, has led him to the threshold of death. In fact, we see him prostrate in the earth's dust, which is already an image of the tomb; we see the darkness, which is the negation of the light that is God's sign of life; finally, we see “those long dead” (see verse 3), among whom he already seems to be banished.
The psalmist's life itself has been devastated. At this point he cannot breathe and his heart seems like a piece of ice that is unable to keep on beating (see verse 4). Only the hands of this faithful man, who has been knocked down and trampled upon, remain free, and he raises them up to heaven in a gesture that is both a plea for help and a pursuit for support (see verse 6). Indeed, his thoughts turn to the past, when God worked wonders (see verse 5).
Hope Amid Darkness
This spark of hope melts the frozen stream of suffering and trial in which the psalmist feels like he has been immersed and about to be swept away (see verse 7). Nevertheless, the tension is still strong, but a ray of light seems to emerge on the horizon. At this point, we move on to the second part of the psalm (see verses 7-11).
This part begins with a new and urgent appeal. The faithful man, feeling as though his life is slipping away, cries out to God: “Hasten to answer me, Lord; for my spirit fails me” (see verse 7). Moreover, he fears that God has hidden his face and distanced himself from him, abandoning his creature and leaving him to his own devices.
The disappearance of God's face causes the man to fall prey to despair, indeed, to death itself, since the Lord is the source of life. It is precisely at this extreme that his trust in God, who does not abandon us, flourishes. The psalmist multiplies his pleas and backs them up with declarations of trust in the Lord. “For in you I trust … for to you I entrust my life … for in you I hope … for you are my God …” He asks to be delivered from his enemies (see verses 8-12) and freed from anguish (see verse 11), but he also repeatedly makes a request that manifests a profound spiritual aspiration: “Teach me to do your will, for you are my God” (verse 10a; see verses 8b, 10b). We must make this very admirable request our own. We must understand that the best thing for us is the union of our will with the will of our heavenly Father, because only in this way can we receive all his love, which brings salvation and the fullness of life. If it is not accompanied by a strong desire to be docile to God, our trust in him is not genuine.
Source of Life
The psalmist is aware of this and therefore expresses this desire. He professes a faith that is genuine and fitting to God his savior, who rescues him from distress and gives him a zest for life, in the name of his “justice,” which is his loving and saving faithfulness (see verse 11). When it arises from a situation that is particularly distressing, prayer leads to hope, joy and light, thanks to sincerely following God and his will, which is a will of love. This is the power of prayer, which generates life and salvation.
Fixing his gaze on the morning light of grace (see verse 8), St. Gregory the Great, in his commentary on the seven penitential Psalms, describes the dawn of hope and joy in this way: “It is the day illuminated by that true sun that knows no setting, clouds that do not darken and fog that cannot obscure … When Christ, our life, appears, and we begin to see God with his face uncovered, it is then that every shade of darkness will disappear, the smoke of ignorance will vanish, and the mist of temptation will dissipate … It will be the most luminous and splendid day, prepared for all the elect by the one who has snatched us from the power of darkness and has transferred us to the Kingdom of his beloved Son.
“The morning of that day is the future resurrection … In that morning the happiness of the righteous will shine forth, glory will appear and exultation will be seen, when God will wipe away every tear from the eyes of the saints, when death, at last, will be destroyed, when the righteous will shine like the sun in the Kingdom of the Father.
“That morning, the Lord will make his mercy felt … saying: ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father’ (Matthew 25:34). Then the mercy of God will be manifested, which the human mind cannot conceive in the present life. In fact, the Lord has prepared for those who love him, that which no eye has seen, no ear has heard and that has not entered into the heart of man” (LF 79, coll. 649-650).
- July 20-26, 2003