Editor’s note: This is the sixth essay in a series on The Seven Penitential Psalms.
1 Out of the depths I cry to thee, O Lord!
2 Lord, hear my voice!
Let thy ears be attentive
to the voice of my supplications!
3 If thou, O Lord, shouldst mark iniquities,
Lord, who could stand?
4 But there is forgiveness with thee,
that thou mayest be feared.
5 I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
and in his word I hope;
6 my soul waits for the Lord
more than watchmen for the morning,
more than watchmen for the morning.
7 O Israel, hope in the Lord!
For with the Lord there is steadfast love,
and with him is plenteous redemption.
8 And he will redeem Israel
from all his iniquities. (Psalm 130)
The initial words of this psalm in Latin give the name of De profundis to the text given now for our reflection; it is the quintessential hymn to trustful waiting for the Lord to act. We can also see here how the individual psalmist is a kind of corporate person, representing the whole People; he is like the Everyman of medieval drama.
Very realistically and humbly, the sacred author admits that if God kept a strict scoreboard, no one could be saved. Thankfully, when God forgives, He forgets. And so, the confident waiting will not be in vain.
Waiting is not a hallmark of modernity. We are most impatient; just think of how people are restlessly awaiting the end of “sheltering in place.” To hear some talk, one would think this situation has been going on for months or years, rather than a mere couple of weeks. How many of us are like the little kid five minutes into a cross-country family jaunt, who asks and asks non-stop for the duration: “Are we there yet?”
In the previous meditation, I mentioned the philosophy of existentialism, characterized by hopelessness, futility and arrogance. The futility of life is brought to light in the play, Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett, in which two characters wait for the arrival of someone named Godot who never arrives. Of course, we are to understand that “Godot” is a stand-in for “God.” The point is that anyone who waits for God – or any god – is engaged in a totally useless exercise. He will never come because He does not exist. Many philosophers and sociologists of religion have remarked that the modern era is unique in human history in its promotion of atheism as a way of life.
We can smirk at the hundreds of little gods in the ancient Pantheon, but at least their devotees had a transcendental horizon: Man was not the measure of all reality. So, it should come as no surprise that human life is flattened out and thus becomes not only boring but eventually insufferable. It is no accident that so many of the proponents of existentialism either advocated suicide or succumbed to it. Nor is it an accident that suicide has become so prevalent in our contemporary culture, especially among youth. And while it is fashionable in some circles to declaim on how “organized religion” has caused untold harm over the centuries, it would also be good to recall how many millions of human beings lost their lives to the godless regimes of Nazism and Communism, as well as the French Revolution, the Mexican Revolution, and the Spanish Civil War.
Beyond that, by a strange turn of events, the emptiness of a life without God gives birth to an incredible arrogance as we witness the birth of the Übermensch (Superman) of Nietzsche. The “Great I” becomes the sole determinant in all things. Dostoevsky foresaw this when he declared: “Without God everything is permitted.” And haven’t we seen that in spades! Jacques Maritain, in The Angelic Doctor, describes the anti-culture we endure in the grimmest of terms, but who could disagree with the description?
. . . what strikes us in the contemporary world, in the world ravaged by capitalism and positivism, in the world dominated by an anti-theological and anti-metaphysical civilization, is that pitiful product which goes by the name of the modern man, a being cut off from his ontological roots and transcendental objects, who, because he sought to find his center in himself, has become, in Hermann Hess’ phrase, merely “a wolf howling in despair towards eternity.” But that very fact also shows us that the world has made and finished with the experiment of positivism, pseudo-scientific skepticism, and subjectivist idealism, and that the experiment has been sufficiently demonstrative. Such things are dead: though they may still encumber us for a long time, like cadaverous products, they are finished.
On the contrary, a belief in God – the one, true God of Divine Revelation – gives birth to the virtue of humility, so evident in the words and attitude of this psalmist. He knows, instinctively, that “God is God, and I am not!” “Humility” comes from the Latin word humus, the dust of the earth. We come from the dust of the earth, and are destined to return to the same. While humility recognizes the omnipotence of God, it does not cause one to become self-loathing. Fulton Sheen once defined humility as “recognizing one’s greatness in the sight of God.” So, yes, compared to God, my greatness is not all that great; on the other hand, humility enables one to echo the rhapsodic words of Psalm 8: “. . . what is man that thou art mindful of him, and the son of man that thou dost care for him?” From an acknowledgment sprung from true humility, he goes on: “Yet thou hast made him little less than God, and dost crown him with glory and honor. Thou hast given him dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet” (4-6).
That delicate interplay enables the psalmist, in spite of his past sins and those of his people, to conclude that God “will redeem Israel.” There is no doubt in his mind on this score. This same conviction would inspire St. Paul to assure his son in the priesthood: “I know whom I have believed” (2 Tim 1:12). Firm faith leads to firm hope and, we are taught that “hope does not disappoint” (Rom 5:5).
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