Memorial of Saint Philip Neri, Priest

May 26, 2021

Today, in God’s Lavish Mercy, we pray with Psalm 79, one of the “Sad Songs of Zion”. While many of the Psalms are celebratory in nature, offering praise and thanksgiving, about a third of the Psalter is lament.

These mournful songs remind us that life is indeed full of both joys and sorrows. Faith calls us to live through these modulations within the presence of God.

The psalmist of 79 cries out from imprisonment and deathly fear, but is not without hope for a better future:

Let the prisoners’ sighing come before you;
    with your great power free those doomed to death.
Then we, your people and the sheep of your pasture,
    will give thanks to you forever;
    through all generations we will declare your praise.

Psalm 79: 11-13

This is the kind of resilient prayer we can learn from the Psalms. At times, we find ourselves “imprisoned” – locked away from what we most want in our lives – love, peace, security, health, freedom. To deny such suffering only buries us deeper in it. 


As we see in our Gospel today, Jesus calls us to face our truth and to seek God’s Presence within it. Doing so will allow us, as it did the disciples, to move beyond self-centered expectation to God-centered courageous hope.

Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee,
came to Jesus and said to him,
‘Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”
He replied, ‘What do you wish me to do for you?”
They answered him,
“Grant that in your glory
we may sit one at your right and the other at your left.”
Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking.
Can you drink the chalice that I drink
or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?”
They said to him, ‘We can.”
Jesus said to them, “The chalice that I drink, you will drink,
and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized;
but to sit at my right or at my left is not mine to give
but is for those for whom it has been prepared.”


As we look at our world, and perhaps our own lives, we see much suffering. How can God come to us from the midst of such pain? Psalm 79 tells us to keep inviting God and to be vigilant and attentive for God’s appearance. Just as in our Gospel, it will not look as we had expected it to look.

Remember us
Show us
Help us
Deliver us
Free us
Then we will give thanks and praise your Name

The Basic Prayer of Psalm 79

Poetry: A Blessing by Elizabeth Eiland Figueroa 

May the God of Surprises delight you, 
inviting you to accept gifts not yet imagined.
May the God of Transformation call you, 
opening you to continual renewal.
May the God of Justice confront you, 
daring you to see the world through God’s eyes.
May the God of Abundance affirm you, 
nudging you towards deeper trust.
May the God of Embrace hold you, 
encircling you in the hearth of God’s home.
May the God of Hopefulness bless you, 
encouraging you with the fruits of faith.
May the God of Welcoming invite you, 
drawing you nearer to the fullness of God’s expression in you.
May God Who is Present be with you, 
awakening you to God in all things, all people, and all moments.
May God be with you.
Amen.

Music: The Joys and Sorrows of Life – Johannes Bornlöff

Psalm 79: Prisoners

Monday of the Second Week in Lent

March 1, 2021


Today, in God’s Lavish Mercy, we pray with Psalm 79, marked in some translations as “A Prayer for Jerusalem”. The psalm is also considered one of the “Sad Songs of Zion” which lament the destruction of the Temple and the ensuing Babylonian Captivity.

We might compare the context for Psalm 79 to what Americans felt on 9/11 or Pearl Harbor. All serenity, confidence, and trust were shattered. The world was broken and we didn’t know if it could be mended.


Praying Psalm 79, I think of the experience of prisoners – prisoners of all kinds. I think of those whose bodies are in jail, and of those whose minds, hearts and souls are similarly confined. Their worlds have been broken, as has their victim’s, even if the victim was themselves.

Let the prisoners’ sighing come before you;
    with your great power free those doomed to death.

Psalm 79:11

I think how our crimes, or addictions, or hateful prejudices – or whatever shape our sinfulness takes – eventually incarcerate us.

And I think of James.


I remember being presented with the “opportunity”. I was about 12 years old and I hero-worshipped my 7th grade teacher, Sister Helen Carmel, SSJ. But I wasn’t so sure about what she was inviting us to do.

Sister had a list of prisoners in Eastern State Penitentiary. She painted a picture of them as lonely and often abandoned people who needed prayers and kindness. She wondered if some of us might like to take a prisoner as a pen pal.

Now, I’ll be honest, the last thing I wanted was a prisoner pen pal! I was becoming a teenager! I wanted new ice skates, an A on my math test, and Jimmy Danvers to hold my hand and treat me to pizza some Friday night.

But because I loved Sister Helen Carmel like a second mother, I got a pen pal. And, maybe because she loved me like a daughter, she gave me a doozie: James, who was on death row.

James and I corresponded occasionally for about three years until he wrote to say there would be no more letters. He didn’t say why, but I knew his time had come either for release or execution. I never learned which. I didn’t want to.


Around the time that James and I corresponded, a teenage girl was brutally raped and murdered, her ravaged body left in the mud of Fairmount Park. 

She went to Catholic high school like I did! She was a teenager like I was! She liked movies and friends and Friday nights like I did! I realized that what had happened to her could have happened to me! Her name, Mary Anne, was perpetually sealed in my mind. When her killer was apprehended and eventually sentenced to death, I was glad. 

But because of James, my gladness was conflicted. These two men have fought a tug of war in my soul ever since. 

Does a human being ever really forfeit the right to life because of their heinous actions? Does society ever have the right to take a life in retribution for crime? I still struggle with the feelings these questions generate. I have spent decades trying to learn how to change my heart from a retributive to a restorative model of justice.

It doesn’t just happen. It takes prayer, education, and right choices. It has taken me the help of more enlightened spirits like St. Joseph Sister Helen Prejean  and Mercy Sister Mary Healy.


Today we state clearly that ‘the death penalty is inadmissible’ and the Church is firmly committed
to calling for its abolition worldwide.

Pope Francis

The Pope has revised the Catechism
of the Roman Catholic Church to state that, 
“The death penalty is an attack
on the inviolability and dignity of the person
that is inadmissible in all cases.”

As we pray with Psalm 79 today, may we have the charity and courage to pray for condemned prisoners, their victim’s beloveds, and for a society that can create effective reform to heal the root causes of major crime.

Help us, O God our savior,
    because of the glory of your name;
Deliver us and pardon our sins
  for your name’s sake.

Psalm 79:9

No poem today. Some music though: The Prisoners’ Chorus from Beethoven’s opera “Fidelio”

Psalm 79: Song Sung Blue

Thursday of the Twelfth Week in Ordinary Time

June 25, 2020

Today, in God’s Lavish Mercy, we pray with Psalm 79, a Lament Psalm so sorrowful that Brueggemann calls it one of the ”Sad Songs of Zion”.

So what’s going on in Psalm 79? 

Israel is heartbroken. They had thought they were uniquely special to God, that preference being symbolized by their magnificent Temple in Jerusalem. When the Temple was ravaged, as described in today’s first reading from Kings, the community is bereft.

The psalm demonstrates the prayer’s transformation from initial angry sadness to restored faith in God. Israel has allowed its perception of God to become institutionalized in a symbol, a building. But faithful reflection moves them to realize that God is beyond institutionalization. Through their lament, they return their hearts to the true Name of God – “I am Who am”.

Help us, O God our savior,
because of the glory of your name;
Deliver us and pardon our sins
for your name’s sake.


I think we, too, try to domesticate God into bricks and mortar, customs, national symbols, people, rules, and all kinds of other potential idols. When those things crack or crumble, as all things might, we experience a devastation like that found in Psalm 79.

  • Some of us felt that way when the clerical sex abuse scandal was revealed.
  • Some of us felt that way on 9/11, or because of the pandemic
  • Some of us experience this lament when systems we trusted turn corrupt: law enforcement, medicine, religion, government.

Because we can’t see God face-to-face, we often paint that face on representations of power in our lives. That’s what Israel did with the Temple.

When those symbols prove untrustworthy, we might use it as an excuse to stop seeking God’s true and loving Face. Let’s learn from the Psalms how to persist in faith until we finally do see God face-to-face.


Early 17th century poet George Herbert captures the idea, I think.

Music: Shackles – by the group Mary, Mary – the song is kind of a modern Psalm 79, a movement from lament, through painful experience, to praise. Suggestion: Get up and move with it!