As we get towards Lent we should be thinking about what used to be called our ‘Lent Rule’; and as F. Harrison said this morning in his Homily at the Oratory, it shouldn’t only be about what we give up (in the sense of self-denial), but also about what we pick up (in the sense of what additional devotion or activity we take on) as part of our attempt to grow in holiness during Lent, in preparation for Easter.
Now, one possible aspect of that is choosing a ‘Lent Book’ to read and meditate upon during the Holy Season – perhaps by way of dessert after dinner, for example, instead of more carnal fare – and one can see from quite a number of blogs that there is plenty of choice.
I myself make a point of choosing catechetical works for Lent Reading, as a way of making sure that I get a ‘refresher’ every year in the fundamentals of the Faith, in order to prepare me better to explain them to people who ask me questions, and to allow me, also, to deal better with things which come up in conversation – because it’s surprising (and sometimes rather worrying) how often quite serious misconceptions arise in conversation with Catholics whom one would have assumed to be well instructed, but who – for whatever reason, perhaps just a lack of Lent Reading (!) – have lost track in some way of the Faith, and now have an inaccurate, and in some cases positively misleading, understanding of it.
I was recently discussing various aspects of the ‘Four Last Things’ with a friend; and it was something of a shock to me to discover just how little understanding of this topic – and, incidentally, of the nature of mortal sin, inextricably linked with Hell as it is – my friend, who is a well-educated cradle Catholic, actually had.
This shock had, not I think unexpectedly, led me to ponder this whole question; so I was entirely receptive to the relevance of today’s Responsorial Psalm : Psalm 1.
Psalm 1 : Beatus vir qui non abiit
1 Happy indeed is the man
who follows not the counsel of the wicked,
nor lingers in the way of sinners
nor sits in the company of scorners,
2but whose delight is the law of the Lord
and who ponders his law day and night.
3He is like a tree that is planted
beside the flowing waters,
that yields its fruit in due season
and whose leaves shall never fade;
and all that he does shall prosper.
4Not so are the wicked, not so!
For they like winnowed chaff
shall be driven away by the wind.
5When the wicked are judged they shall not stand,
nor find room among those who are just;
6for the Lord guards the way of the just
but the way of the wicked leads to doom.
Psalm 1 is placed at the beginning of the Book of Psalms for a good reason; because it summarises the whole content of the Psalms generally – and also, by the sort of device enjoyed by the classical Jewish mind, encompasses the possibilities of the Human condition.
‘Happy is the man . . .’ it begins; and the word ‘Happy’ begins with the Hebrew character Aleph; in other words, the beginning of the alphabet, and thus metaphorically of all things – and the psalm goes on to consider the state of the ‘Happy’ man, who enjoys life; who is blessed in the sight of God.
It ends up by saying ‘. . . the way of the wicked leads to doom’; or in the original, that it leads him ‘to perish’ – and the word ‘to perish’ begins with the Hebrew character Tav – the last letter in the Hebrew alphabet, and thus metaphorically of everything.
The six verses of the psalm, then, span the distance between the Happy man, who enjoys eternal life, and the Wicked man, who perishes – and between the first and last, the beginning and the end, of all things as represented by the characters Aleph and Tav.
Now, of course, this all sounds very well; but it is by no means realistic – after all, we are all only-too-well aware of the fact that the righteous don’t, on the whole, flourish; contemporary experience suggests that it tends to be the wicked who do well in life, and whose ways are ‘guarded’ by God, whilst it is the righteous who seem to draw the short straw, and to lose out, at almost every turn.
However, this is to misunderstand the scriptural understanding of righteousness, as set out in the first half of the psalm. The righteous man is not shown as being successful, rich, or comfortable – he is shown as delighting in the law of the lord, which he ‘ponders day and night’. He avoids the wicked, the sinners, and the scorners, and prefers the law of God to the things of men; and his reward is that ‘all that he does shall prosper’.
‘All that he does shall prosper’; but notice that he is not doing things which are wicked, or sinful; not scoffing at the law of God, but rather being observant of it, and attentive to it – and it is that attention and observance which shall prosper.
fr Gregory Murphy OP, in today’s Notice Sheet at S. Dominic’s in London, sums the lesson up beautifully :
‘The “happy” or “righteous” person, then, is anything but self-righteous. Rather, he or she is consistently open to God’s teaching and direction. Such openness is what for the psalm constitutes happiness, prosperity, life. Like trees planted by a stream as both the psalm and Jeremiah [in today’s first lesson] tell us, those who are open to God’s teaching are never without a resource to sustain their lives.
In contrast, the wicked have no such foundation : they are rootless. That the wicked perish, however, is not so much a punishment as it is the inevitable outcome of their own choice not to be related to God. They refuse to be connected to the source of life.’
Of course, this willingness to be open to God and His Word does not mean that the ‘righteous’ will be safe from trouble, persecution, and distress : nothing of the kind. Jesus promised that His followers would be ‘blessed’ (or ‘happy’, in the language of the psalm); not that they would be free from persecution or suffering. The happiness which Jesus offers us is not an assurance that we shall be free from these things in this life – indeed, very probably far otherwise – but that we shall be blessed with Him hereafter; because our openness to God means that He knows us, and offers us a refuge in Himself and His love whatever life can throw at us.
In other words, when we are called to ‘delight in the law of the Lord’, we are being called to ignore this world’s wisdom, and to consider what God wants. To quote fr Gregory again :
‘Things are not what they seem. Those who seem to be prospering just now may not be, in God’s sight. Those who seem to be suffering my be blessed, at least in God’s sight. Whatever our circumstances, we are called to open ourselves to God, to rise to the challenge of discipleship, even if it means our being fools by the standards of the rich, power, and successful of this world. Fools, yes; but fools for Christ’s sake.’