And with Sweet Sleep Mine Eyelids Close – A Meditation on a Beautiful Hymn of the Night

Blog-07-25One of the great night prayer hymns, “All Praise to Thee My God This Night,” appears in numerous hymnals of the English tradition. Sadly, it is not in our current breviary, but I hope that the new one might feature it. It was written by Thomas Ken in 1709 and is most often sung to the beautiful tune of Tallis’ Ordinal, which you can hear in the video below.

Ideally, night prayer should include acts of thanksgiving and praise to God along with repentance for any sins committed. Night prayer is also a time to ponder death and ask God’s graces to be prepared for death and judgment.

This hymn does all of that and more. It is beautiful English poetry, edifying and wonderfully descriptive in just a few verses. It is worth printing out and keeping by your bedside.

Allow me to list its verses and then follow with a short commentary on its themes.

All praise to thee, my God, this night,
for all the blessings of the light:
keep me, O keep me, King of kings,
beneath thine own almighty wings.

Forgive me, Lord, for thy dear Son,
the ill that I this day have done;
that with the world, myself, and thee,
I, ere I sleep, at peace may be.

Teach me to live that I may dread
The grave as little as my bed;
Teach me to die so that I may
Rise glorious at the Judgment Day

O may my soul on thee repose,
and with sweet sleep mine eyelids close;
sleep that shall me more vigorous make
to serve my God when I awake.

When in the night I sleepless lie,
My soul with heavenly thoughts supply;
Let no ill dreams disturb my rest,
No powers of darkness me molest.

And when shall I, in endless day,
Forever chase dark sleep away;
And hymns divine with angels sing,
All praise to thee eternal king?

Praise God, from whom all blessings flow;
praise him, all creatures here below;
praise him above, ye heavenly host:
praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

Commentary:

As I often do, I have named the themes that are set forth in the hymn using alliteration.

PraiseAll praise to thee, my God, this night, for all the blessings of the light. For indeed, every good and perfect gift comes from above, comes from you, Lord, the Father lights (James 1:17). The verse bids me to praise you, God, for “all” the blessings. Some of your blessings come in strange packages, but as your Scripture says, all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose (Rom 8:28). Therefore, at night we ought to acknowledge that “all is gift.” Some gifts are obvious; others only show themselves as gifts later. Even our sufferings produce glory if we are in your Christ. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all (2 Cor 4:17). Thus I begin, O Lord, my night prayer, praising God for all your blessings of the day, the obvious and the not-so-obvious.

Preservation keep me, O keep me, King of kings, beneath thine own almighty wings. That you “keep” us, Lord, surely means that you guard and protect us. And surely we need your protection. Without you we are sitting ducks; we are low-hanging fruit for the evil one. And while this is true in our waking hours, it is even more so in our sleep, for while sleeping we have even less authority over our thoughts. Night is the time of dreams, not all of them good or pleasant. Night is a time when some of our defenses are down and we cannot make sense of every thought or dream. Protect us, Lord! Do not allow Satan, our flesh, or the vain remembrances of worldly things to overwhelm our sleeping minds! Speak your truth to us even as we sleep. Guard our hearts from fear and sinful inclinations!

PardonForgive me, Lord, for thy dear Son, the ill that I this day have done. Yes, even in the bright of day I have sinned. I need your mercy, Lord. Without it I do not stand a chance. My sin is a kind of sickness. So forgive me, but also heal me. Forgive me, Father, considering the death your Son endured for my salvation. Look beyond my fault and see my need. May my sins be nailed to the cross; may my soul be washed in the Blood of the Lamb!

Purifiedthat with the world, myself, and thee, I, ere I sleep, at peace may be. Of course there is no peace without the forgiveness of sin and the reconciliation with the Father. I need your peace, Lord, not the false peace of the world, which demands silence and compromise with sin in order to avoid conflict. I want to be at peace with the world, by your grace, so that I am no longer enamored by its false promises. I also seek peace within myself, so that with my sins forgiven I no longer am troubled by my conscience, which rightly condemns my unrepented sins. And most fully, I seek peace with you and know that it is my sins alone that separate me from your peace. Yes, Lord, I need your mercy; this alone brings true peace.

Pondering deathTeach me to live that I may dread, the grave as little as my bed. I know, Lord, that for me each night is a dress rehearsal for death. For indeed in a moment I shall lose consciousness and be dead, in a way, to this world. I shall lie in a bed not unlike the coffin in which I will one day rest. As I lie down may I ponder the sober reality that one day I shall lie down and never arise again in this world. Too easily, Lord, when I lie down at night I am assailed by thoughts of resentment, lust, vainglory, or the fear of men and worldly things. Help me, Lord, to ponder death. And may I ponder not only in fear but in longing. For it is death that will bring me out of this exile, this valley of tears, to you! May my fear of death be only of a sudden one for which I am unprepared. Spare me, O Lord, from dying while in serious sin. Preserve me in your grace and love!

Prepared for judgment Teach me to die so that I may rise glorious at the Judgment Day. Yes, Lord, keep me in your paths; order my steps in your word. Teach me to die daily to my pride and to all sin. Tonight I die to pride because I admit that I am weak and cannot carry on without rest; I am not so strong after all. If I must arise in the night, I stumble about in the darkness and fog of sleepiness. May I learn the lesson of the night and die to myself and to my pride. And through this humility may I thus be able to rise glorious on Judgment Day, trusting in your mercy and grace, for my own strength is inadequate.

PeacefulO may my soul on thee repose, and with sweet sleep mine eyelids close. Yes, Lord, holy dreams and peaceful slumber grant to me! But it shall only come to me if I sleep upon the support of your love and promises. Keep me stable on the firm foundation of your love. Hold me close with cords of kindness, with ties of love and be to me like a Father who lifts a little child to the cheek on a journey (Hosea 11:4).

Purposesleep that shall me more vigorous make to serve my God when I awake. I do not ask these gifts for me alone. I know that I must be strong and rested in order to be able to serve well. I humbly admit this and seek your blessing for my rest, that I may serve you and your people more vigorously, generously, and zealously. Help me, Lord. Without you I fail. Give me peaceful rest that I not fall in battle or under the weight of office.

Protection When in the night I sleepless lie, My soul with heavenly thoughts supply; Let no ill dreams disturb my rest, No powers of darkness me molest. Too easily, Lord, the evil one assails me while I sleep with thoughts of discouragement, fear, or sin. Please, Lord, surround me with your protection; fill my thoughts with heavenly things. My dreams are often distorted and confusing. Grant me the grace to ignore such disordered (and usually meaningless) rantings. Order my thoughts; give me the remedy of remembering holy things in the confused hours of early morning or in fitful sleep. Enable me to remember that such thoughts are of no import other than to remind me of my need for you and the goodness, beauty, and truth of your godly order and light. Soon enough morning will come and the haze of the dark hours will scatter. From the confusing hours of darkness, from the grip of disordered thoughts, rescue me, O Lord.

PiningAnd when shall I, in endless day, Forever chase dark sleep away; And hymns divine with angels sing, All praise to thee eternal king? Yes, Lord, when shall you give me wings to fly away and be at rest with you? I have a natural fear of dying, but my soul longs for you in the night, and daylight will still find me sighing for you. Some bight morning when this life is over, I’ll fly away to a home on your bight, celestial shore. May I die loving you and my neighbor. Meanwhile, Lord, keep me faithful until death and help me to remember that all my desires are really about you. I cannot wait to see you. With every day may I run faster to you, who are the desire of my heart and of the everlasting hills. Soon, Lord, soon may I sing forever to you in Heaven even as I now feebly sing this hymn of the night. May these nights usher in endless day.

Amen.

Humility in Prayer According to St. Teresa of Avila

I have written before on humility in prayer as St. Augustine sets it forth. In today’s post I look to the same topic, but this time as St. Teresa of Avila presents it in her treatise The Way of Perfection.

In setting forth her teaching, I have substantially reworked the order of her reflections. St. Teresa was able to see the “whole rose” of the topic, jumping from petal to petal without effort. I, being of a vastly inferior intellect and of far less purity of soul, must look to the individual petals in a certain order to understand. If you wish to read the passage in its original order, it is available here: St Teresa on Humility in Prayer.

Following is my presentation of her teaching as best I am able. In effect, St. Teresa summons us to trust in the Lord’s answer to our prayers rather than insisting on our own preferred outcomes and worldly measures of success.

Let’s look at her teaching in five stages. St. Teresa’s teaching is presented in italics while my remarks are shown in plain red text. The passages below are taken from the book The Way of Perfection by Saint Teresa of Avila, virgin (Obras de la gloriosa madre Sta Teresa de Jesus, Tomo 1, Madrid, 1752: 30:1-4 pp. 526-528).

The Prayer Plan Therefore, the good Jesus bids us repeat these words, this prayer for his kingdom to come in us: Hallowed be your name, your kingdom come. See how wise our Master is! Our good Jesus placed these two petitions side by side … But what do we mean when we pray for this kingdom? … It seems to me that this point deserves serious attention.

Many conceive of prayer as a time to tell God what we need. Intercessory prayer surely has its place, but it ought not to dominate. As St. Teresa reminds us and the Our Father teaches, we ought to acknowledge more consistently the holiness and wisdom of God and seek His kingdom and will in our lives.

Hence, prayer is seeking God’s will, not announcing our own. We all have our preferences in life. We would rather be healthy than ill, financially well off than destitute, in peace than at war. Our ultimate goal, though, is to trust that what God wills or allows is what is best.

Is God holy for us, or is he just a butler who should fetch what we want? Do we love the God of all consolation or merely the consolations of God? To pray, then, is to disclose our heart and seek to conform it to the Kingdom and to the will of God.

The Perfect PictureO Eternal Wisdom, between you and your Father that was enough; that was how you prayed in the garden. You expressed your desire and fear but surrendered yourself to his will.

St. Teresa points to Jesus Himself as the perfect picture. His human preference is for the cup of suffering to be taken away, but His deepest desire is to be conformed to His Father’s will:

And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will” (Matt 26:39).

We are saved by the human decision of a divine person. To be freed from suffering is appealing to Jesus, but not so appealing as to cause Him to violate His Father’s will. Nothing could do that.

Jesus is the ideal picture of prayer. His heart is perfectly united to the Father and His lesser human desire to avoid suffering is subjugated to His ultimate desire: to do whatever the Father wants. It is for us to journey toward this perfect picture. As we grow in the grace and love of God, we increasingly want what He wants, even if it is challenging, even if it leads us to martyrdom.

The Persistent Problem But as for us, my Lord, you know that we are less submissive to the will of your Father …. You see, the gift our Lord intends for us may be by far the best, but if it is not what we wanted we are quite capable of flinging it back in his face. That is the kind of people we are; ready cash is the only wealth we understand.

Nothing plainer or more accurate could be said. It is normal to have certain preferred outcomes in life and in general it is not wrong to petition God for these things, but we are often very particular about what we want and so quick to become crestfallen and resentful if we do not get what we want, when we want it, and in just the manner. In addition, our desires are too easily worldly and vain.

So often our Lord must repeat what He said to James and John: “You do not know what you are asking” (Mt 20:22). St. Paul also reminds us, For we do not know how we ought to pray, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groans too deep for words. (Rom 8:26).

Thus, we must ask humbly, realizing that God knows what is best. He sees a more complete picture and understands that simply giving us what we want often leads to troublesome results. Despite our momentary disappointments, we often come to realize that some of God’s greatest gifts have been the times when he said no or gave us something other than what we sought. It is interesting, for example, that no matter how many times God warns about wealth in the Scriptures, most of us still want to be wealthy. Our desires can be obtuse and close us in on worldly and fleshly things.

Recall the words of Jesus to the crowds who wanted another free meal after He multiplied the loaves and fishes: Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you (Jn 6:27). Jesus was speaking of the Eucharist, His very self, but they just wanted ordinary bread. They were behaving like the ancient Jews, who tired of the miraculous manna, calling it wretched (Num 21:5), and pining for the melons and leeks of their slave years in Egypt (Num 11:5).

Yes, indeed, all we understand is “ready cash,” as St Teresa observes. How we must wear God out!

The Particular PetitionMy Lord, could you not have included all in one word by saying “Father, give us whatever is good for us?” After all, to one who understands everything so perfectly, what need is there to say more?

For our prayer to grow, and our desires to be purified, a simple and filial trust of the Father is the key:

Whatever you want, O Heavenly Father, I want it too. I know it will be best. Even if my first emotional response is less than happy, I know that my truest happiness will be in whatever you will for me.

While the Lord Jesus directs us to present our needs to Him and to persevere in our prayers, it does not follow that we should give God detailed instructions. Doing so would be controlling, not trusting. It is enough to say, “Here are my needs, my concerns. I know that you will do whatever is best. Whatever you want, Lord, I will be fine knowing that you have heard and answered in your own way.

Indeed, there is no safer or better place in the world than inside the will of God. St. Teresa reminds us that humility in prayer comes finally to this: “Father give us whatever is good for us.”

Of course, whatever is good for us is that which will best lead us to Heaven. Hence, St. Teresa concludes with a vision that should always be before us.

The Palliative PerceptionOf the many joys that are found in the kingdom of heaven, the greatest seems to me to be the sense of tranquility and well-being that we shall experience when we are free from all concern for earthly things …. Loving him is the soul’s one concern. Indeed it cannot help but love him, for it knows him. Here below our love must necessarily fall short of that perfection and constancy, but even so how different it would be, how much more like that of heaven, if we really knew our Lord!

I use the word palliative here to mean healing. We must look to Heaven to see our prayers and desires healed. There is an old saying, “The end is the beginning.” If we know our destination, then every other decision we make is directed toward that destination.

For example, if I am driving from Washington, D.C. to New York City, I can freely disregard signs for roads that lead south or west, knowing that they will not help me to get there. Even if I have to wait in heavy traffic, drive through heavy storms, or pay tolls, I am not overwhelmed because I know that every mile north and east gets me closer.

In our spiritual journey, we must meditate often on our destiny. Our goal is to be with the Lord forever. Our destination is Heaven, that beautiful place beyond description or imagination, where we are at peace in the presence of our God, lost in wonder and awe, and caught up into the great trinitarian dance of love. Looking into the beautiful face of God for which our soul yearns, all our lesser and often petty desires of this world will be gone.

As St. Teresa notes, however, all this doesn’t have to wait for Heaven. Even here in this world, as we grow to know the Lord more deeply our desires become purer and our prayer more humble. Increasingly, we come to be able to say what St. Thomas Aquinas did when asked by the Lord what he wanted: Nil nisi Te, Domine, nil nisi Te (nothing but You, O Lord, nothing but You). St. Teresa adds her hearty amen.

A Mysterious Word in the Lord’s Prayer

Pope Francis recently made news by indicating a preference for translating the phrase “lead us not into temptation” as “do not let us fall into temptation.” He did not say that the English rendering should be changed, only that He was supportive of a recent similar change made to the French translation. I have written on that issue here, but in this post I would like to explore another difficult element in the Our Father.

Within the Lord’s prayer is a mysterious word about which scholars (Greek and biblical) disagree. They don’t seem to have a common understanding of its precise meaning.  Most Christians who do not read Greek are unaware of the difficulties and debate surrounding the word; they simply accept the most common English translation of the Our Father as undisputed.

The mysterious word occurs as part of a phrase in the middle of the Lord’s prayer: τὸν ἄρτον ἡμῶν τὸν ἐπιούσιον (ton arton hēmōn ton epiousion). This phrase is typically rendered “give us this day our daily bread.”

The problematic word is epiousion. The difficulty is that it seems to exist nowhere else in ancient Greek; no one really knows what it means. Even the Greek Fathers, whose mother tongue was Greek, were unaware of its exact meaning. It occurs nowhere else in the Bible (with the exception of the parallel passage in Luke’s version of the Our Father (Luke 11:3)). It appears nowhere in wider Greek literature, Christian or Pagan. The early Church writer Origen, a most learned and well-read man, thought that Matthew and Luke or the early Church had “made up” or coined the term.

So, frankly, we are at a loss as to the exact, original meaning of this word! It’s actually pretty embarrassing when you think about it. Right there in the most memorable text of Christendom is a word whose meaning seems quite uncertain.

To be sure, over the centuries there have been many hypotheses as to its meaning.

  1. Supersubstantial – The Greek word seems to be a compound word from epi+ousios. Epi means over, above, beyond, in addition to, or some similar superlative. Ousious refers to the substance of something. Putting these words together gives us something amounting to supersubstantial, or “super-essential.”
  2. The Eucharist – Some of the Greek and Latin Fathers thought it clearly referred to the Eucharist and surely not to ordinary food or bread. Origen, for example, cited how Jesus rebuked the people in John 6 for seeking bread that perishes rather than the Bread that endures unto eternal life, which is Jesus’ flesh and which He will give us (cf Origen On Prayer 27.2). St. Cyprian, while admitting that “bread” can be understood simply, advanced the notion that the bread referred to here is more certainly Christ Himself in the Eucharist (cf. Treatise on the Lord’s Prayer, 18).
  3. Ordinary and daily bread – St. John Chrysostom, however, favored the idea that the bread for which we pray is only “bread for today.” Just enough for one day … Here Jesus condescends to the infirmity of our nature … [which] does not permit you to go without food … I require necessary food not a complete freedom from natural necessities … It is not for wastefulness or extravagant clothing that we pray, but only for bread and only for bread on a daily basis so as not to worry about tomorrow (Gospel of Matthew Homily, 19.5).
  4. Bread for tomorrow – St. Jerome said, The word used by the Hebrews to denote supersubstantial bread is maar. I found that it means “for tomorrow” so that the meaning here is “give us this day our bread for tomorrow” that is, for the future (Commentary on Matthew, 1.6.11). Many modern scholars favor this understanding as well.
  5. Supernatural bread – However, in the same commentary St. Jerome also wrote, We can also understand supersubstantial bread in another sense as bread that is above all substances and surpasses all creatures (ibid). In this sense, Jerome also seems to see it linked to the Eucharist. When he translated the text into Latin, as the Pope had asked him to do, he rendered it rather literally: panem nostrum supersubstantialem da nobis hodie (give us today our supersubstantial bread). If you look up the text of Matthew 6:11 in the Douay Rheims Bible, you will see the word “supersubstantial,” as in that Bible the Vulgate Latin is rendered into English quite literally.
  6. Every good thing necessary for subsistence – The Catechism of the Catholic Church adopts an inclusive approach: “Daily” (epiousios) occurs nowhere else in the New Testament. Taken in a temporal sense, this word is a pedagogical repetition of “this day,” to confirm us in trust “without reservation.” Taken in the qualitative sense, it signifies what is necessary for life, and more broadly every good thing sufficient for subsistence. Taken literally (epi-ousios: “super-essential”), it refers directly to the Bread of Life, the Body of Christ, the “medicine of immortality,” without which we have no life within us. Finally, in this connection, its heavenly meaning is evident: “this day” is the Day of the Lord, the day of the feast of the kingdom, anticipated in the Eucharist that is already the foretaste of the kingdom to come. For this reason, it is fitting for the Eucharistic liturgy to be celebrated each day (CCC # 2837). The Catechism thus attempts no resolution to the problem but simply indicates that several interpretations are possible and do not necessarily exclude one another.

Having a Greek word that is used nowhere else and having no agreement from the Fathers as to its meaning, we are surely left at a loss. It seems clear that we have something of a mystery.

Reverencing the Mystery – Perhaps the Lord intended that we should ponder this text and see multiple meanings. Surely it is right that we should pray for our worldly food. Likewise, we should pray for all that is needed for subsistence, whether just for today or for tomorrow as well. And surely we should ask for the Bread of Life, the Holy Eucharist, which is the necessary Bread that draws us to eternal life, and which (Who) is over and above all earthly substances.

So there it is, the mysterious word in the middle of the Our Father. My own preference is to see that “epiousion” (supersubstantial) as a reference to the Eucharist. Jesus, who “super-abounds” in all we could ask or want, said this: “I am the Bread of life.” In his Eucharistic presence, He is surely our Bread which “super-abounds.”

Most modern translations have settled on the word “daily.” For the record, the Latin Liturgy also uses the word daily (quotidianum). No one word can fully capture what is said here. The Lord has left us a mystery to ponder. I know that many of you who read my posts are learned in Greek, Latin, the Fathers, and scripture scholarship; I am most interested in your thoughts. This article has not covered every possible facet of the argument. I leave that you, all who wish to comment.

Praying for Those Who Have Died Is a Work of Mercy

What is the value of one prayer? I suspect it is far greater than any of us imagine. Prayer changes things, sometimes in obvious ways, but more often in subtle and even paradoxical ways. But prayer is surely important, even when we don’t experience its immediate effects. Perhaps this is why Jesus taught us to pray always and never to lose heart (cf. Luke 18:1). St. Paul echoed this with the simple exhortation, “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thess 5:17). St. James also warned, “You have not because you ask not” (James 4:2).

Praying for the living is a great and wondrous spiritual work of mercy; its value is beyond that of gold or pearls. What is the value of one prayer? The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man is powerful in in its effects (James 5:16). Prayer can avert war, bring healing, cause conversion, bestow peace and serenity, and call down mercy—sweet, necessary, and beautiful mercy. Prayer is a treasure of inestimable value.

Perhaps one of the greatest joys of Heaven will be seeing how much of a difference our prayers made, even the distracted and perfunctory ones. Maybe our simple utterance at the end of a decade of the rosary to “Save us from the fires of Hell” and to “Lead all souls to Heaven” will reach the heart of one lost soul, prompting him to answer the gentle call of God to return. Imagine that in Heaven that very sinner comes up to you and says, “Though we never met, your prayer reached me and God applied His power to me.” Imagine the joy of many such meetings in Heaven. Imagine, too, whom you will joyfully thank for their prayers, people you know and some you never met. But they prayed and the power of their prayers reached you.

While the value of praying for the living is not widely disputed, praying for the dead is a spiritual work of mercy that has suffered in recent decades. Too many Catholics today “miss a step” when a loved one dies. There are often immediate declarations that the deceased is “in Heaven” or “in a better place.” But Scripture doesn’t say that we go right to Heaven when we die. No, indeed. First, there is a brief stopover at the judgment seat of Christ.

The Letter to the Hebrews says, It is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment (Heb 9:27). St. Paul writes, For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad (2 Cor 5:10).

Our deceased loved ones go to the judgment seat of Christ, and that is worth praying about!

What is the judgment for those who lived faithful lives? In such cases, the judgment is not merely about the ultimate destination of Heaven or Hell. The judgment would seem to be “Is My work in you complete?”

Indeed, the Lord has made all of us a promise: You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Mat 5:48). Such a beautiful promise! Yet most of us know that we are not in such a state now. If we were to die today it is clear that much work would still be required. Thus when we send our faithful loved ones to judgment, although we send them with hope, we are aware that finishing work may be necessary. Purgation and purification are necessary before entering Heaven, of which scripture says, Nothing impure will ever enter it (Rev 21:27).

Again, this is worth praying about. It is a great work of mercy we can extend to our deceased loved ones, to remember them with love and to pray, in the words of St. Paul, May God who has begun a good work in you bring it to completion (Phil 1:6). Pray often for the souls in Purgatory. Surely there are joys there for them, knowing that they are on their way to Heaven, but there are also sufferings that purgation must cause. St. Paul says of Purgatory, Each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire (1 Cor 3:13-15). Yes, there is fire, but thank God it is a healing fire. There are tears, too, for Scripture says (regarding the dead) that Jesus will wipe every tear from their eyes (Rev 21:4).

How consoling and merciful our prayers must seem to our beloved who have died! Our prayers must seem like a gentle wind that speeds them along, onward and upward toward Heaven!

Praying for the dead, then, is the last and greatest spiritual work of mercy. By the grace of it, and through its help, souls attain the glory God has prepared for them from the foundation of the world.

Meanwhile We Pray – In Humility, Always in Humility

We are often quite certain that we know what is best for us. Therefore, we pray, asking God for good health, prosperity, or victory in some cause. But what if it is better for us to be unhealthy, to be poor, or to lose? Can we really say we know what is best and confidently set before God our agenda?

James and John sought honors and exaltation, but Jesus responded, You do not know what you are asking (Mark 10:38). Paul prayed three times to be delivered from some physical malady, but the Lord said no and taught him that the affliction was necessary to keep him from being too elated by the blessings he had seen. Weakness was necessary to keep Paul humble and able to realize that it was God’s strength and not his that accomplished anything good or lasting.

Scripture says, We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans (Rom 8:26). Meditating on this passage, St. Augustine wrote,

We do not know what it is right to pray for; yet, because it is difficult, troublesome and against the grain for us, weak as we are, we do what every human would do, we pray that it may be taken away from us. We owe, however, at least this much in our duty to God: if he does not take it away, we must not imagine that we are being forgotten by him but because of our loving endurance of evil, must await greater blessings in its place. In this way, power shines forth more perfectly in weakness.

These words are written to prevent us from having too great an opinion of ourselves if our prayer is granted, and when we are impatient in asking for something that it would be better not to receive; and to prevent us from being dejected, and distrustful of God’s mercy toward us, if our prayer is not granted, [For, indeed] … we [may] ask for something that would bring us greater affliction, or completely ruin us through the corrupting influence of prosperity.

In these cases, we do not know what is right to ask for in prayer.

Therefore, if something happens that we did not pray for, we must have no doubt at all that what God wants is more expedient than what we wanted ourselves. Our great Mediator gave us an example of this. After he had said: Father, if it is possible, let this cup be taken away from me, he immediately added, Yet not what I will, but what you will, Father (Letter to Proba, Ep. 130, 25-26).

Humility in prayer, humility.

I have shared this story here before, but it is worth repeating. It teaches on the often-ambiguous qualities of events and problems and how we are often in no position to distinguish a blessing from a burden:

There was a man who was a farmer. One day the wind blew the gate of his field open and his valued and only horse escaped and was not to be found. His friends came to commiserate with him about this loss, but he only said to them, “We’ll see.”

Several days later, the horse returned with a wild stallion and a mare. His friends came to rejoice with him in his good fortune, but he only said to them, “We’ll see.”

Several days later, his son was breaking in the new horses and was cast from the back of the wild stallion and suffered a broken arm and leg. The farmer’s friends came and commiserated with him about his son’s injuries, but he only said to them, “We’ll see.”

Several days later, troops of the emperor came to the area to draft the young men of the village into his army. But the farmer’s son was exempted due to his injuries. And the farmer’s friends came to rejoice with him that his son was not taken away, but he only said to them, “We’ll see.”

Yes, in so many events of life we lack the comprehensive view to sit in judgment on their full meaning. We ought to pray, but in great humility. God knows what we are really asking and what will really bless us. He asks us to pray. He wants to engage us, but the answer must be His; what is His is always best. Blessings are not always as they seem; neither are burdens. Sometimes the best we can do is to say, “We’ll see.” Meanwhile we pray—in humility, always in humility.

On the Power of Liturgy and Prayer

There is a text from the Acts of the Apostles (read last week at Mass) that sets forth quite well some of the qualities of the Sacred Liturgy. Although the “liturgy” cited in this passage is not a Mass, the description should apply to all our liturgies; from the Liturgy of the Hours to baptism, from a penance service to a full sung Mass. Let’s look at the passage and learn from it the power of liturgy to deliver, instruct, and transform us and the world.

About midnight, while Paul and Silas were praying
and singing hymns to God as the prisoners listened,
there was suddenly such a severe earthquake
that the foundations of the jail shook;
all the doors flew open, and the chains of all were pulled loose.
When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open,
he drew his sword and was about to kill himself,
thinking that the prisoners had escaped.
But Paul shouted out in a loud voice,
“Do no harm to yourself; we are all here.”
He asked for a light and rushed in and,
trembling with fear, he fell down before Paul and Silas.
Then he brought them out and said,
“Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”
And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus
and you and your household will be saved.”
And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house.
And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds;
and he was baptized at once, he and all his family (Acts 15:25-33).

DeterminationAbout midnight, while Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God as the prisoners listened … Here they are in an awful place, a deep dungeon with rats and filth all about, and yet they are singing.

An old hymn reminds us to persevere in praise: “Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say, ‘It is well with my soul, it is well.’” Yes, happiness is an inside job. There may be times when we don’t feel emotionally ready to praise God, but we have to command our soul. In the words of the psalm, I will bless the Lord at all times. His praise shall continually be in my mouth (Psalm 34:1).

Note that this is communal not personal prayer, and thus it is a kind of liturgy. They are singing hymns, a form of communal and liturgical prayer. More literally, the Greek text says that they were singing praises (humneo) to God. “Hymn” comes from humneo. Perhaps they were singing psalms or perhaps they were singing newly composed hymns such as we see in Philippians 2:5-11, Ephesians 1:3-14, or Colossians 1:15-19. But note their determination to praise the Lord anyway. Such praises will bring blessings, for when praises go up, blessings come down.

The Church must always be determined to celebrate the liturgy. The last thing we should ever consider stopping is the Mass! Recall how many priests and bishops locked up in prisons were earnest to obtain even the slightest scraps of bread or drops of wine in order to celebrate the Mass. Recall the many martyred priests during troubled times in England who risked everything to celebrate the Holy Mass. We must always be determined to pray, and whenever possible, to celebrate the Sacred Liturgy, even at great risk.

Disturbance… suddenly such a severe earthquake that the foundations of the jail shook … Does our worship rock this world to its foundations? It should. The world ought to know and experience that we are at prayer! We should rock this world with our refusal to be discouraged at what it dishes out.

Further, good prayer, preaching, and the simple presence of the Church ought to shake things up a bit. It is said that a good preacher will comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Each of us has a little of both within us.

Note that the early Christians were often arrested for being “disturbers of the peace.” They said politically dangerous things like “Jesus is Lord” rather than “Caesar is Lord.” Religiously, they upset the order by announcing that many of the old rites were now fulfilled. Temple worship was over. Jesus was the true temple and Lord, and the Eucharist now supplanted the lucrative temple rites. Morally, the Church shook things up by demanding love of one’s enemies and that people no longer live as did the pagans, in the futility of their minds. These things and more tended to disturb the political, social, and religious order. Liturgically, we gather to celebrate and learn many earthshaking truths and to be liberated from the hold of the world, the flesh, and the devil.

Yes, the presence of the early Church was a kind of earthquake. When the Church is strong she not only consoles; she disturbs and even rocks things to their foundations by the simple declaration, “Thus says the Lord” and by our praise of Him who is true Lord and Sovereign King, far outranking all other kings and those who demand our loyalty and conformity.

Deliverance… all the doors flew open, and the chains of all were pulled loose. The liturgy of praise and worship of God should effect an ongoing deliverance. The prayer of the Church in her liturgy should set people free: prison doors swing open, chains fall loose, and increasing freedom is granted to faithful.

I am a witness to this and I pray that you are as well. I have attended and celebrated Mass every day for more than thirty years now. In that time, through praise, hearing God’s Word, being instructed in God’s Word, receiving the Word Made Flesh in Holy Communion, and deep abiding fellowship with believers, I am a changed man. Many shackles have come loose. A new mind and heart have been given to me and the prison cells of anxiety are no longer. Deliverance is what happened to us when the Lord took us out of the kingdom of darkness and into the Kingdom of Light. Through the liturgy, that deliverance becomes deeper, richer, broader, and higher.

DignityWhen the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, thinking that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted out in a loud voice, “Do no harm to yourself; we are all here.” The liturgy we celebrate is that of the Catholic Church. The term Catholic refers to the universality of the Church’s mission. All are to be called.

One effect of the liturgy on us should be that we neither hate nor exclude anyone. Paul and Silas do not gloat over the misfortune of their jailer. Knowing his dignity, they call out to him, even at the risk of their lives.

The Church, too, seeks the welfare and salvation of even our most bitter opponents. Our liturgy is celebrated not only for our friends but for the whole world.

The Church is Catholic; all are called. Painting a picture of the Church, Scripture says, I [John] looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands (Rev 7:9). I realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right. Everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name (Acts 10: 34-35, 43).

Discipleship[The jailer] asked for a light and rushed in and, trembling with fear, he fell down before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you and your household will be saved.” And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds; and he was baptized at once, he and all his family.

Making disciples (not just members) is the primary job of the Church. To be a disciple is to be a follower of the Lord, but the word “disciple” also comes from the same Latin root (discere) as the word “learning.” Thus, the Church in her liturgy not only worships the Lord, she instructs the faithful and supplies the sacraments.

Note that the jailer asks for light. Do not think of this as merely a practical request. Asking for light is asking for the enlightenment that comes from Faith and Baptism. The Church in her liturgy and by her witness supplies light and acclimates the faithful to that light.

The jailer, having asked for the light, been instructed, and become accustomed to the light, is baptized.

Here, then, are some goals of and a description of true liturgy, one that rocks the world and yet delivers the faith, forming the people in the beauty of God’s grace. Do you and your fellow parishioners see the liturgy this way or do you see it as distant, even boring? See what this Scripture passage teaches about the truest goals and nature of every liturgy, great or small, in the Church.

The Universal Prayer

To my mind, one of the most remarkable prayers ever written was one attributed to Clement XI, who was pope from 1700-1721. Many have never heard it. The prayer is called “universal” because of its sweeping themes. Upon completing it one might well ask if anything at all was left out!

If you are looking for a prayer to set on your night stand, this is surely a good one. I often pray this when my mind is dull. I admire its beauty and style; it is deeply personal and humble. It is not trite but neither is it stuffy. One of my favorite sections is this one:

Let me love you, my Lord and my God,
And see myself as I really am:
A pilgrim in this world,
A Christian called to respect and love
All whose lives I touch,
Those under my authority,
My friends and my enemies
.

As beautiful and helpful as the Universal Prayer is, it is nearly unknown. It is a bit long to reproduce in its entirety, but is available for viewing and download here: The Universal Prayer.

Here is a video in which the prayer is recited. Now off to prayer with you!

Is It Time to Restore the Full Psalter to the Liturgy of the Hours?

liturgy-of-hoursOne of the great gifts of reading the Liturgy of the Hours (also called the Breviary) faithfully over the years faithfully is that the Scriptures become deeply impressed upon the mind, heart, memory, and imagination. This is especially true of the psalms that are repeated every four weeks, all year long, every year.

But there are significant omissions in the modern Breviary. This is true not merely because of the loss of the texts themselves, but that of the reflections on them. The verses eliminated are labeled by many as imprecatory because they call for a curse or wish calamity to descend upon others.

Here are a couple of examples of these psalms:

Pour out O Lord your anger upon them; let your burning fury overtake them. … Charge them with guilt upon guilt; let them have no share in your justice (Ps 69:25, 28).

Shame and terror be theirs forever. Let them be disgraced; let them perish (Ps 83:18).

Prior to the publication of the Liturgy of the Hours, Pope Paul VI decreed that the imprecatory psalms be omitted. As a result, approximately 120 verses (three entire psalms (58[57], 83[82], and 109[108]) and additional verses from 19 others) were removed. The introduction to the Liturgy of the Hours cites the reason for their removal as a certain “psychological difficulty” caused by these passages. This is despite the fact that some of these psalms of imprecation are used as prayer in the New Testament (e.g., Rev 6:10) and in no sense to encourage the use of curses (General Instruction # 131). Six of the Old Testament Canticles and one of the New Testament Canticles contain verses that were eliminated for the same reason.

Many (including me) believe that the removal of these verses is problematic. In the first place, it does not really solve the problem of imprecation in the Psalter because many of the remaining psalms contain such notions. Even in the popular 23rd Psalm, delight is expressed as our enemies look on hungrily while we eat our fill (Ps 23:5). Here is another example from one of the remaining psalms: Nations in their greatness he struck, for his mercy endures forever. Kings in their splendor he slew, for his mercy endures forever (Ps 136:10, 17-18). Removing the “worst” verses does not remove the “problem.”

A second issue is that it is troubling to propose that the inspired text of Scripture should be consigned to the realm of “psychological difficulty.” Critics assert that it should be our task to seek to understand such texts in the wider context of God’s love and justice. Some of the most teachable moments come in the difficult and “dark” passages. Whatever “psychological difficulty” or spiritual unease these texts cause, all the more reason that we should wonder as to the purpose of such verses. Why would God permit such utterances in a sacred text? What does He want us to learn or understand? Does our New Testament perspective add insight?

While some want to explain them away as the utterances of a primitive, unrefined, or ungraced people and time, this seems unwise and too general a dismissal. So easily does this view permit us to label almost anything we find objectionable or even unfashionable as coming from a “more primitive” time. While it is true that certain customs, practices, punishments, and norms (e.g., kosher) fall away within the biblical period or in the apostolic age, unless this is proposed to us by the sacred texts or the Magisterium, we should regard the sacred text as being of perennial value. Texts, even if not taken literally, should be taken seriously and pondered for their deeper and lasting meaning.

St. Thomas Aquinas succinctly taught that an imprecatory verse can be understood in three ways:

First, as a prediction rather than a wish that the sinner be damned. Unrepentant sinners will indeed be punished and possibly forever excluded from the Kingdom of the Righteous.

Second, as a reference to the justice of punishment rather than as gloating over the destruction of one’s enemies. It is right and proper that unrepented sins and acts of injustice be punished; it is not wrong to rejoice that justice is served.

Third, as an allegory of the removal of sin and the destruction of its power. We who are sinners should rejoice to see all sinful drives within us removed. In these verses, our sinful drives are often personified as our enemy or opponent.

So, as St. Thomas taught, even troubling, imprecatory verses can impart important things. They remind us that sin, injustice, and all evil are serious and that we are engaged in a kind of war until such things (and those who cling to them) are put away. (For St. Thomas’ fuller reflections, see the Summa Theologica, II-IIae, q. 25, a. 6, ad 3. You can also read a thoughtful essay by Gabriel Torretta, O.P., which served as a basis for my reflections.)

To all of this I would like to add a further reflection on the value and role of imprecation in the Psalter (including the omitted verses).

Because the general instruction speaks to “psychological difficulty” in regard to imprecation, I think it is good to recall that the overall context of prayer modeled in the Scriptures is one of frank disclosure to God of all of our emotions and thoughts, even the darkest ones. Moses bitterly laments the weight of office and even asks God to kill him at one point (Num 11:15). Jonah, Jeremiah (15:16), and other prophets make similar laments. David and other psalm writers cry out at God’s delay and are resentful that sinners thrive while the just suffer. At times they even take up the language of a lawsuit. Frequently the cry goes up in the psalms, “How much longer, O Lord” in the psalms. Even in the New Testament, the martyrs ask God to avenge their blood (Rev 6:10). Jesus is later described as slaying the wicked with the sword (of his word) that comes from his mouth. Yes, anger, vengeance, despair, doubt, and indignation are all taken up in the language of prayer in the Scripture. It is an earthy, honest sort of prayer.

It is as if God is saying,

I want you to speak to me and pray out of your true dispositions, even if they are dark and seemingly disrespectful. I want you to make them the subject of your prayer. I do not want phony prayers and pretense. I will listen to your darkest utterances. I will meet you there and, having heard you, will not simply give you what you ask but will certainly listen. At times, I will point to my final justice and call you to patience and warn you not to avenge yourself (Rom 12:19). At other times, I will speak as I did to Job (38-41) and rebuke your perspective in order to instruct you. Or I will warn you of the sin that underlies your anger and show you a way out, as I did with Cain (Gen 4:7) and Jonah (4:11). At still other times I will just listen quietly, realizing that your storm passes as you speak to me honestly. But I am your Father. I love you and I want you to pray to me in your anger, sorrow, and indignation. I will not leave you uninstructed and thereby uncounseled.

It is not obvious to me that speaking of these all-too-common feelings is a cause of psychological distress. Rather, it is the concealing and suppressing of such things that causes psychological distress.

As a priest, I encounter too many people who think that they cannot bring their dark and negative emotions to God. This is not healthy. It leads to simmering anger and increasing depression. Facing our negative emotions—neither demonizing them nor sanctifying them—and bringing them to God as Scripture models is the surer way to avoid “psychological distress.” God is our healer, and just as we must learn to speak honestly to a doctor, even more so to the Lord. Properly understood (viz. St. Thomas), the imprecatory verses and other Scriptures model a way to pray in this manner.

Discussions of this sort should surely continue in the Church. The imprecatory verses may one day be restored. For now, the Church has chosen to omit the most severe of the imprecations. I think we should reconsider this. The complete Psalter given my God the Holy Spirit is the best Psalter.

Listen to this reading of one of the omitted psalms (109 [108]) and note its strong language. But recall St. Thomas’ reflections and remember that such verses, tough though they are, become teaching moments. Finally, recall that these psalms were prayed in the Church until 1970.