Psalm 51: A Contrite Spirit

Tuesday of the Eleventh Week in Ordinary Time

June 16, 2020

Today, in God’s Lavish Mercy, we pray with Psalm 51, the Miserere. Perhaps the most recognized of the penitential psalms, it is said to have been written by David after his adulterous affair with Bathsheba. ( although it more likely was written separately and applied to David’s situation later.)

This psalm is so rich in deep spiritual psychology that it would be a shame to dismiss it simply as a “confessional”. The psalm truly teaches us how our soul’s vigor and wholeness may be restored in an environment of sin where we are often both consciously and unconsciously complicit.


Let me give an example of how I see this. Last night in my city, a group of protesters gathered around a statue of Christopher Columbus, supposedly, “to protect it” from dismantling by “them”. Many in the group carried clubs and bats; a few carried military-style weapons. All of the “defenders” were white, angry, and mostly men.

I ask myself what were they really there to do. What did they really feel they had to defend? Did their violent public intimidation scream out, “We love Christopher Columbus!”? Or did it shout, “We refuse to acknowledge that our heritage is laced with racism and sinful domination!”?


For me, this is the kind of sinful circumstance which Psalm 51 can help us redeem. We may not act out our culpable ignorance, violence, defensiveness, or racism like last night’s threatening mob. But we must examine what we retain of these sins in our choices, attitudes, speech, and complicit silence.

How does Psalm 51 guide us to that kind of redemption?

First, there is a broken-hearted recognition of failure in holding up our end of relationship with God. Because, as David acknowledges, it is God whom we ultimately offend in our crassness toward one another. It’s not about only one sinful act, like the list we made before our grade school confessions. It’s about a fissure in love, honesty, and loyalty to the One who gives us all life.


Second, there is confession – saying out loud the failure that has replaced love. My favorite Biblical scholar, Walter Brueggemann, describes it as Truth-telling:

Psalm 51 makes available the truth of our life before God. On the one hand, it resists arrogant autonomy that imagines (with David) that we can live without accountability or dependence on the will and purpose of God. On the other hand, it contradicts the practice of denial that is so seductive in a society that has no time, patience, or energy for the nurture of an interior life. It turns out that truth-telling before God is an indispensable condition for joyous existence. Such emancipation makes for exuberant singing and glad generosity. (Walter Brueggemann: From Whom No Secrets are Hid)

Third, and most important because it is woven through and sustains the other two, is the immovable confidence in God’s mercy and God’s desire to give it.

For you do not desire sacrifice or I would give it;
a burnt offering you would not accept.

My sacrifice, O God, is a contrite spirit;
a contrite, humbled heart, O God, you will not scorn.

Psalm 51 is a big one. If you have time, read the whole thing reflectively. It’s good medicine once we have the courage to swallow it.


Poetry: To Live in the Mercy of God – Denise Levertov

To lie back under the tallest
oldest trees. How far the stems
rise, rise
               before ribs of shelter
                                           open!

To live in the mercy of God. The complete
sentence too adequate, has no give.
Awe, not comfort. Stone, elbows of
stony wood beneath lenient
moss bed.

And awe suddenly
passing beyond itself. Becomes
a form of comfort.
                      Becomes the steady
air you glide on, arms
stretched like the wings of flying foxes.
To hear the multiple silence
of trees, the rainy
forest depths of their listening.

To float, upheld,
                as salt water
                would hold you,
                                        once you dared.

 To live in the mercy of God.

To feel vibrate the enraptured
waterfall flinging itself
unabating down and down
                              to clenched fists of rock.

Swiftness of plunge,
hour after year after century,
                                                   O or Ah
uninterrupted, voice
many-stranded.
                              To breathe
spray. The smoke of it.
                              Arcs
of steelwhite foam, glissades
of fugitive jade barely perceptible. Such passion—
rage or joy?

                              Thus, not mild, not temperate,
God’s love for the world. Vast
flood of mercy
                      flung on resistance.

Music: Miserere Mei Deus – Gregorio Allegri 

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