The soul and the harp/23 - Psalm 109 is the earth we need in order to rise from the depths of the waters into which we have fallen
By Luigino Bruni
Published in Avvenire 06/09/2020
"But God understands. The desperate also have a right to pray. And I must make myself the voice of all creatures when I pray. Therefore pray also in the name of the most desperate in the world."
David Maria Turoldo, The Psalms
Swearing is also part of the Book. It is important to understand the reason, without being scandalized by the pain and despair of human beings.
The Bible is not a collection of good feelings; it is not a repertoire of uplifting stories for good people. It contains brutal gestures and terrible words, echoes of the gesture and words of Cain. The fathers and mothers of the chosen people and their best kings are presented to us as an interweaving mixture of both virtues and vices, capable of great love and sins, as well as of meanness and appalling crimes. At the centre of the genealogy of Jesus is Uriah the Hittite, a name that every Christmas repeats to us that that child of Bethlehem is also the bud of an encounter between an immaculate flower and the flower of evil. That morally imperfect genealogy speaks the only kind of perfection possible under the sun. For Logos to become a true man, there was no other road available to him than the dusty one we have been treading for millennia, where we met a Samaritan bending over a half-dead man near Jericho, where we saw a persecutor of Christians becoming their blessing in the direction of Damascus, and where we heard a traveller speak earthly words with the scent of heaven and bread near Emmaus.
We already knew this, we know all this. However, this somewhat abstract awareness of the imperfection of biblical "perfection" is not enough to avoid the shock of our encounter with Psalm 109. We knew that, in the Psalms, God is on man's side, he knows all our words and he uses them all to tell us about himself. We knew it, but we were not ready for this psalm yet. The text that contains the most powerful imprecation in the Psalter and in the whole Bible. Many have thought over the centuries to cancel those terrible verses 6-19, because they are convinced that the Bible should not host such bad words, because it is not possible to approach the words of God with human words that are so far from the nature of YHWH. Instead, those ancient scribes and teachers saved the twenty curses of Psalm 109, they were greater than their idea of God, they left that word free to intertwine and mingle with our words, with all our words, those of light and those of darkness, the good ones and the bad ones. Therefore, they gave us a great gift, they revealed man to us to a much greater extent, and they explained God to us to a much greater extent.
«They repay me evil for good, and hatred for my friendship. Appoint an evil man to oppose him; let an accuser stand at his right hand. When he is tried, let him be found guilty, and may his prayers condemn him. May his days be few; may another take his place of leadership. May his children be fatherless and his wife a widow. May his children be wandering beggars; may they be driven from their ruined homes. May a creditor seize all he has; may strangers plunder the fruits of his labour. May no one extend kindness to him or take pity on his fatherless children. May his descendants be cut off, their names blotted out from the next generation. May the iniquity of his fathers be remembered before the Lord; may the sin of his mother never be blotted out... He wore cursing as his garment; it entered into his body like water, into his bones like oil. May it be like a cloak wrapped about him, like a belt tied forever around him» (Psalm 109,5-19). It takes your breath away...
Many strategies have been attempted to save God and the Bible from these curses. Many believe that such a psalm should simply be excluded from the psalter, because the Bible must only ever offer us good words of peace, to improve our social relations. Other exegetes have tried to dampen the bewilderment by proposing to read that series of imprecations as a long quotation that the accused (the psalmist) makes of the words of his accusers; a strategy that turns out to be ineffective, because in verse twenty the psalmist himself explicitly invokes the law of retaliation for his accusers: «May this be the Lord's payment to my accusers, to those who speak evil of me». Guido Ceronetti, who gave us the most beautiful Italian translation of this psalm, comments on these verses: «We are so unnerved! So weak in the face of the horrible, the satanic! Those who know how to curse also know how to fight». (The Book of psalms/Il libro dei salmi).
I hereby propose a different way. We must simply welcome the bewilderment and discomfort that arise in our souls in front of this different prayer. Make room for them, even when they last for a long time, for some forever even. Until, one day, you find yourself with a murdered son, with a niece, the apple of your eyes, raped, or with a brother deceived and ruined forever, until one day; you meet a real victim and a real executioner in the flesh. Until the time comes for despair over pain caused to an innocent, perhaps to an innocent you love very much - the victims told by others and those known personally are very different, when that innocent person is you, a dear friend, your wife, your father. On that day and at that time, if you knew and did not understood him in times of joy and easy faith, you will remember that inside the Bible, kept within the shrine of the psalter, there is a different psalm. You now have a new desire to find it again. So you pick up that Bible abandoned for months, for years on a shelf, you shake off the dust, and you try to remember where the exact psalms are. You find them after Job, and you finally understand when scrolling through the pages of the psalter, you meet the many psalms of joy, praise, thanksgiving, the greatness of God ... but they do not tell you anything, they merely annoy you. You overcome the discomfort, you continue to leaf through the pages in search of something else, and finally you reach Psalm 109. Moreover, in reading it you feel that it was written just for you, and specifically for that terrible day. It was waiting for you, and you did not know it. You start reading that awful series of curses. You hear them as if they were your own words. Word after word, the tears begin to flow. You feel that something begins to move inside, that hardened heart frozen by anger begins to thaw, that knot that was hitherto reducing the breath in your lungs and the breath in your soul begins to ease up. You understand that maybe you had been praying the Psalms your entire life so that in the greatest tragedy you could remember that one prayer with the only words now possible for you. The Bible is capable of doing this too. Its God understanding us.
If those ancient scribes who wanted to cancel Psalm 109 had won, you would not have had access to the only words needed to start living again, to relearn how to pray. To pray, yes, because if that reading is sincere, while you read those curses you understand that those words, even though you feel as if they are your own and true, cannot be the last: they are in fact only penultimate. However, in order to understand that they are really only penultimate you must have that experience of feeling them as if they were the very last ones and utterly true. And so the prayer can end with the words with which the Psalm ends: «They may curse, but you will bless; when they attack they will be put to shame, but your servant will rejoice!» (Psalm 109, 28). In that moment you will find yourself back in Golgotha, and you will finally really see a crucified son, and perhaps you will be able to repeat «Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing». Before this encounter with Psalm 109, however, perhaps you would not have been able to pronounce them. There is a fellowship connecting the words of the Bible. You are only able to understand some of them when you discover that they were there only to allow you to say others in turn. In order to be able to ask God that the curses you have uttered should become blessings, first you have to go through this very special hell of despair in the company of the Bible and God. Without Psalm 109, the Bible would have lost the necessary words to reach the most peripheral and precious areas of humanity. Those faraway corners, hiding silent words and strangled prayers, which would have remained silent and unvoiced without the courage of those ancient masters who understood that there are no human words that God cannot reach. The Bible is truly immense, extraordinary.
The first "merciful father" of the Bible is the Bible itself, the New and Old Testament together. He sees his son coming back from a distance, and hugs him when he still does not know and cannot speak. He throws his arms around his neck and puts the ring on his finger, while being criticised by the many older brothers who would like the agape to stop on that door to the pigpen and on the doorsteps of the whorehouses. The merciful embrace of the Bible is in its words, which see us, look at us, accompany us as we move between heaven and the underworld, and resurrect us while accompanying us in our misfortunes. Accompanying us until we reach rock bottom: Psalm 109 is that soil at the bottom of the deep waters into which we have fallen, on which we can rest our feet and push ourselves towards an ascent again. We, on the other hand, do not understand the Bible, just as we do not understand great literature. We think that the words of resurrection are those that begin after the sins, after the betrayals, after the wickedness, after the curses. We read these great texts in search of the words of Job whose sons and goods are restored, of David who wins over Saul, of the end of the Babylonian exile, the empty tomb. And by doing so, we miss all the other resurrections hidden in the dung heap, in the defeat of Saul, in the beginning of exile, in the cry of Golgotha. Because the Bible saves and redeems the victims while it sees them, as it bends over them, accompanying them in their own personal dramas. Victor Hugo redeems Jean Valjean as he joins him in his misfortune, Israel Joshua Singer saves Reb Abraham Hirsch's wife Ashkenazi while describing her miserable life to us: «And look at them he loved them», perhaps the divine breath of great literature is all in these eyes capable of resurrection.
We, on the other hand, are busy looking for "happy endings", we do not like Holy Saturdays and skip directly from Friday to Sunday instead. We discard the biblical words of curse and despair, and we lose touch with all the men and women who are now living those words in their own flesh. Our prayer becomes small, tiny and unable to touch the soul of the world and the heart of God. Psalm 109 (verse 8) also entered the New Testament. The Acts of the Apostles used it to speak of the death of Judas: «'For', said Peter, 'it is written in the Book of Psalms: ''May his place be deserted; let there be no one to dwell in it', and, ''May another take his place of leadership''». Peter also found the words to express a scandalous and mute kind of pain in that Psalm 109 - we must not forget that Judas had been a close friend of the apostles and of Jesus: «He was of our number» (Acts 1,17). We can always think and hope that not even Judas was excluded from the merciful embrace of the Bible and its God.
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