Papal Address at General Audience on Psalm 41-42(42-43)

Search for God Is Never-Ending, John Paul II Says

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VATICAN CITY, JAN. 16, 2002 ( Here is a translation of John Paul II´s address at today´s general audience, in Paul VI Hall. He gave the address in Italian.

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1. A thirsty deer, with a parched throat, cries out its lament in an arid desert, longing for the fresh waters of a stream. Psalm 41[42], which was sung a short while ago, begins with this well-known image. In it, we can virtually see the symbol of the profound spirituality of this composition, veritable jewel of faith and poetry. In fact, according to scholars of the Psalter, our Psalm must be closely related to the next one, 42[43], from which it was divided when the Psalms were put in order to form the prayer book of the People of God. Indeed, in addition to being united in subject and development, the two Psalms are suffused with the same antiphon: “Why are you downcast, my soul; why do you groan within me? Wait for God, whom I shall praise again, my savior and God” (Psalm 41[42]:6,12; 42[43]: 5). This appeal, repeated twice in our Psalm, and a third time in the subsequent Psalm, is an invitation the Psalmist directs to himself in the hope of overcoming his melancholy through confidence in God, who will certainly manifests himself again as Savior.

2. However, let us return to the image at the beginning of the Psalm, which it would be pleasing to meditate with the musical background of Gregorian chant or of that polyphonic masterpiece, the “Sicut cervus” of Pierluigi da Palestrina. The thirsty deer is, in fact, the symbol of the man at prayer who tends with his whole being, body and spirit, toward the Lord, who seems far away but at the same time is needed: “My being thirsts for God, the living God” (Psalm 41[42]:3). One word in Hebrew, “nefesh,” indicates the “soul” and “throat” simultaneously. So, we could say that the soul and body of the man at prayer are involved in a primary, spontaneous and essential desire for God (see Psalm 62[63]:2). It is not accidental that a long tradition describes prayer as “breath”: as something original, necessary, fundamental, vital breath.

Origen, the great Christian author of the third century, explained that man´s search for God is never-ending, because progress is always possible and necessary. In one of his homilies on the Book of Numbers he wrote: “Those who journey on the way to find God´s wisdom do not build stable houses, but portable tents, because they live in constant movement, always going forward, and the more they advance, the more the road opens before them, presenting a horizon that is lost in the immensity” (Homily XVII, In Numeros, GCS VII, 159-160).

3. Let us try now to intuit the theme of this supplication, as if it was divided into three acts, two of which are part of our Psalm, while the last unfolds in the subsequent Psalm, 42[43], which we will consider subsequently. The first scene (see Psalm 41[42]:2-6) expresses the profound nostalgia inspired by the memory of a joyful past of beautiful liturgical celebrations, now inaccessible: “Those times I recall as I pour out my soul, when I went in procession with the crowd, I went with them to the house of God, amid loud cries of thanksgiving, with the multitude keeping festival” (verse 5).

“The house of God” with its liturgy is that temple of Jerusalem that the faithful one once frequented, but it is also the place of intimacy with God, “source of living waters,” as Jeremiah sings (2:13). Now the only water that springs from his pupil is that of tears (Psalm 41[42]:4), because of the absence of the fountain of life. The once festive prayer, raised to the Lord during worship in the temple, is now replaced by weeping, lament and supplication.

4. Unfortunately, a sad present is contrasted to that joyful and serene past. The Psalmist now finds himself far from Zion: The horizon that surrounds him is that of Galilee, the northern region of the Holy Land, as the mention of the sources of the Jordan suggests, and of the summit of Hermon, from which this river flows, and of Mizar, another mountain unknown to us (see verse 7). Therefore, we are, more or less, in the area in which the cataracts of the Jordan are found, the cascades that direct the course of this river, which crosses the whole of the Promised Land. However, these waters are not refreshing as those of Zion. To the Psalmist´s eyes they are, rather, similar to the chaotic waters of the deluge that destroy everything. He feels them fall upon him like an impetuous torrent that annihilates life: “all your waves and breakers sweep over me” (verse 8). In fact, in the Bible chaos and evil, and divine judgment itself, are described as a deluge that generates destruction and death (Genesis 6:5-8; Psalm 68[69]:2-3).

5. This irruption is subsequently defined in its symbolic value: It is the perverse, the adversaries of the Psalmist, perhaps the pagans who live in this remote region where the faithful one is relegated. They have contempt for the righteous and deride his faith, asking him ironically: “Where is your God?” (verse 11; see verse 4). And he addresses his anguished question to God: “Why do you forget me?” (verse 10). The “why?” addressed to the Lord, who seems absent in the day of trial, is typical of biblical supplications.

Will God be able to be silent in face of these parched lips that cry out, this tormented soul, this face that is about to be submerged in a sea of mire? Certainly not! Hence, once again, the man at prayer is encouraged to hope (see verses 6, 12). The third act, found in the next Psalm, 42[43], is a confident invocation addressed to God (Psalm 42[43]:1.2a.,3a.,4b), using joyful and grateful expressions: “That I may come to the altar of God, to God, my joy, my delight.”

[Translation by ZENIT]

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[At the end of the audience, John Paul II summarized his address in English as follows:]

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Psalm 41 opens with the image of a deer longing for running streams of water in a parched land, symbolizing the Psalmist´s longing for the presence of God. The desire for God is at the heart of all prayer; it is a longing which will never be fully satisfied until at last we see the face of God. Origen compares the life of prayer to a journey in the desert: each day we must strike our tents in order to move on towards new horizons in our efforts to know God and to live in his presence.

The Psalmist´s longing for God is expressed in terms of nostalgia for the Temple of the Lord in Jerusalem. Living far from the Temple, he recalls the splendour of its liturgies and yearns for the Lord´s presence in his hour of need. His thirst for the calm and refreshing waters of God´s grace is contrasted with his present troubles and the derision of the godless, which are described as a torrent of raging waters threatening to overwhelm him. In the midst of his anguish, the Psalmist reaffirms his faith in God, who remains ever faithful to his promises: “Hope in God; I will praise him still, my Saviour and my God” (Ps 42:12).

I welcome all the English-speaking pilgrims and visitors present at today´s Audience, especially the many student groups from the United States. My warm greeting also goes to the students of Saint Joseph School in Ringsted, Denmark. I thank the Choir from Jackson for their praise of God in song. Upon all of you and your families I cordially invoke the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ.

[text released by Vatican Press Office]

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