The homilies we hear at Mass rarely touch on the psalms. I don’t think this is because there is not enough to say about them, but rather because there is too much. Once you become immersed in the poetry and rich imagery of the psalms, you would easily fill the time allocated for the homily . . . and then some. But perhaps this is not the only reason? Perhaps it’s because our thoughts on the psalms are as intensely personal as those of the psalmist and we feel we’d be over-sharing, or making the homily or reflection too much about us. Perhaps also it’s because the way a particular psalm affects us varies so much with our mood and relationship with God that it seems hard to say something general about the psalm without being reductionist or just doing exegesis.
All of this is part of the beauty of the psalms to me. I can sing the deepest emotion I feel without a hint of self-consciousness in choir each day – and remember I’m English, this sort of thing does not come naturally to me – surrounded by the brethren with whom I share my life, seeking to grow closer to God and to bring others to His saving grace. What’s more the psalms express our very human emotions in divinely inspired words.
We are commencing our series on the Psalms by looking at those which are often grouped together under the heading of the Penitential Psalms. Psalm 6 is the first of the these in the Psalter and opens with David imploring the Lord’s mercy, and continues with David describing the pitiable state he finds himself in each night, ‘flooding his bed with tears’, and ‘drenching his couch with weeping’. Yet, it ends with a defiant expression of faith, and David confident that the Lord, having heard his supplications, will drive away his enemies.
It seems to me that part of God’s mercy is that the Lord makes us suffer for our sins. The anguish we feel at having turned from Him who loves us most is often the start of our conversion and repentance. We can see that things are not as they ought to be in our lives and make the connection with our sinfulness. As Aquinas points out, in his commentary on this psalm, ‘Mankind wishes to be freed from a wound, or a weakness in human nature. Thus praying, one declares: "Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am languishing; O Lord, heal me, for my bones are troubled."’ We wish to become what we ought to be, but we know that the power to do this lies outside of us, hence our supplication to God.
David speaks of his enemies in the Psalms, and it seems to me that these are obviously both physical and spiritual. It is the latter that ought to worry us most. Not just because for those of us in England the life of a Catholic is physically safer than most places in the world, but also because it’s our spiritual enemies alone that can stop us becoming the saints that God wills for us to be. It is my sinfulness that ultimately I ask God to drive away – this is my true enemy - and the most sure way is through prayer and mortification. It seems almost too obvious to say, but the fruits of trust in the Lord are only borne out of trust in the Lord. The Lord will heal our ‘troubled soul’ if only we will let Him into our lives completely.