[This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times 26 February 2009]
Miserere mei, Deus, secundum misericordiam tuam
et secundum multitudinem miserationum tuarum dele iniquitatem meam.
Amplius lava me ab iniquitate mea
et a peccato meo munda me.
Have mercy on me, God, in your kindness.
In your compassion blot out my offense. O wash me more and more from my guilt
And cleanse me from my sin. Ps 51:1-3
Psalm 51. The Miserere Mei. The classic penitential psalm.
I fell in love with this psalm early in my life. In the long, hot summer between high school and college, I pulled Rumer Goden’s novel In This House of Brede off my mother’s bookshelf. In it, Benedictine novice Phillipa Talbot is advised to recite the Miserere to time her weekly penance, with the admonition that it “may not be drawn out!”
What was the Miserere, I wondered. Not for long, as my mother promptly produced a Latin missal for me when I inquired. The words were like liquid, like the clear and cleansing waters of a spring. Lavabis me, et super nivem dealbabor. Wash me and I shall be whiter than snow.
This psalm threads its way through Lent, stringing together Ash Wednesday, all the Fridays, three weekdays, the fifth Sunday and the Easter Vigil like so many beads. During Lent we will pray this psalm more times than any of the other 149. This single psalm will draw us into Lenten penitence, give us hope through the long days of Lent and capture our yearning for the joy of our salvation in Christ in the last moments before we hear the Gospel of the resurrection proclaimed.
The Miserere without a doubt evokes a deep sense of our own sinfulness and longing for forgiveness. But Psalm 51 takes us beyond the straightforward desire to have a clean slate. It is what Lutheran pastor Walter Wangerin calls a “dangerous mirror of grace.” It is not enough to see our transgressions passively in this mirror, to have them always before us. In this psalm we pray for God to be active in the midst of our sinfulness. I risk having to see a very different self in the mirror, if I let God “in the secret of my heart teach me wisdom.”
This is a psalm that calls on us to actively respond to that “steadfast spirit” we beg God to place within us. We ask to be fervent disciples and effective teachers of the good news of God’s mercy and salvation. We promise to declare God’s praise openly. We vow to offer our humble and contrite selves as sacrifices. We are promising to see ourselves in the mirror of Christ’s life, passion and death. This is a dangerous mirror indeed.
During the Renaissance, the setting of the Miserere composed by Gregorio Allegri and Tommaso Bai was so exquisite that people traveled from all over Europe to hear it sung in the Sistine Chapel during Holy Week. Unlike the version the fictional Phillipa Talbot prayed, the psalm is drawn out and gloriously ornamented. When I hear the almost inhuman treble obbligato reach its top note, I am for a moment, suspended above purgatory, held up only by God’s grace.
This Lent, I will draw out Psalm 51 even further than Allegri. I will risk looking into that dangerous mirror of grace each day by praying it, listening to it sung and said, in English and in Latin; hoping to emerge on the brink of the celebration of the resurrection to see myself in its mirror as a pleasing sacrifice to God: humble, contrite and cleansed of my sins.
Listen to the Miserere:
Gregorio Allegri: Miserere mei, Deus - St. Johns College Choir, Cambridge
God of salvation, we stand before You on holy ground, for Your name is glorified and Your mercy revealed wherever Your mighty deeds are remembered. Since You are holy and forbearing, turn us from every rash and shallow judgment to seek the ways of repentance. We ask this through Christ, our deliverance and hope, Who lives and reigns with You in the unity of the Holy Spirit, holy and mighty God for ever and ever. Amen.