As is often the case, my heart is hard by the time Lent rolls around. I need help to soften and to turn it, so I can recognize my sin: the ways I’ve missed the mark or turned good to my own ends or put my own will before God’s. Or my needs before those others. Each of these acts or failures to act turns me another step away from the Lord who loves me and who is my life. But sin by nature blinds us, even to its presence. I need new spiritual “glasses” so the turning can begin.
Several years ago, I discovered the penitential psalms, and they have become for me a way to get my heart in order. Praying with these seven psalms has long been recommended as an aid to recognizing sinfulness, expressing sorrow, and asking for forgiveness. Back in the 14th century, Cardinal Pierre D’Ailly compared praying them as a group to climbing a spiritual ladder of seven virtues. That “ladder” leads from the recognition of sin and the fear of punishment, all the way to joy:
The “Spiritual Ladder” of the Penitential Psalms
- At the bottom of the ladder is the awareness of sin and fear of punishment (Psalm 6)
- Then Psalms 32 and 38 lead us to sorrow for sin and look to the hope of grace.
- With Psalms 51 and 102, we move to a love of purity and longing for heaven.
- From there, we climb in Psalm 130 to distrust of our own strength and confidence in divine mercy.
- And finally, in Psalm 143, we come to joy.
Stepping onto the ladder with Psalm 6
I determined to meditate on one of these a week during Lent, climbing D’Ailly’s ladder to the top by Easter. I’ve been reading Psalm 6 since Wednesday:
Prayer for Recovery from Grave Illness
To the choirmaster: with stringed instruments; according to The Sheminith. A Psalm of David.
1 O Lord, rebuke me not in thy anger,
nor chasten me in thy wrath.
2 Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am languishing;
O Lord, heal me, for my bones are troubled.
3 My soul also is sorely troubled.
But thou, O Lord—how long?
4 Turn, O Lord, save my life;
deliver me for the sake of thy steadfast love.
5 For in death there is no remembrance of thee;
in Sheol who can give thee praise?
6 I am weary with my moaning;
every night I flood my bed with tears;
I drench my couch with my weeping.
7 My eye wastes away because of grief,
it grows weak because of all my foes.
8 Depart from me, all you workers of evil;
for the Lord has heard the sound of my weeping.
9 The Lord has heard my supplication;
the Lord accepts my prayer.
10 All my enemies shall be ashamed and sorely troubled;
they shall turn back, and be put to shame in a moment.
I must admit, this psalm doesn’t resonate immediately in my life. I’m tempted to skip it. But this discipline of reading through these psalms makes me persistent. I read and re-read, praying and listening. What would the Lord like to say to me, through this psalm? I can pray it on behalf of others I know, and do—for one person in particular. But then a line stands out: verse 2 (or 3, depending on your translation):
Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am languishing.
I may not be racked with anguish and afraid of punishment like the psalmist, but languishing I can relate to. [Funny what a difference one “l” can make in a word!] A load of cares, of petty sins and grievances have smothered my spirit and made me sluggish. Heading into Lent, I hope to strip away the things that weigh me down. Psalm 6 reminds me that I’m not in it alone. Sure, the desert practices will help;
But thou, O Lord—how long?
Turn, O Lord, save my life;
Deliver me for the sake of thy steadfast love (vss. 3b, 4)
In the “death” of my languishing, I can’t give praise (see vs. 5). So I pray:
Hear my weeping!
Hear my supplication! (See vss. 8-9)
And the answer comes:
The Lord accepts my prayer. (vs. 9)
I’m starting, this week of Ash Wednesday, at the base of D’Ailly’s ladder, looking forward to Easter joy. Does anyone want to join me?
Join me on this journey through the Psalms for Lent
Here’s a simple “how-to” sheet for praying with these psalms, alone or with intentions related to the seven “deadly” sins.
Share your thoughts in the comments box below—or on my posts in coming weeks—or join the conversation on my facebook page (go to “Groups” in the left sidebar and ask to join one on the penitential psalms. It’s closed to all but members).
If you like to keep your thoughts and prayers together, my lenten lectio journal, Create in Me a Clean Heart, will guide you through the weeks of Lent, one penitential psalm at a time. It’s available here from Amazon.
Blessings on you as you read the Word this Lent!
© 2018 Sarah Christmyer. All rights reserved.
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The Revised Standard Version of the Bible: Catholic Edition, copyright © 1965, 1966 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.