Meditation on Psalm 40(41)

Suffering Is Path to «Interior Freedom,» Says John Paul II

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VATICAN CITY, JUNE 2, 2004 ( Here is a translation of John Paul II’s address at today’s general audience, which he dedicated to reflect on Psalm 40(41).

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1. One of the reasons that leads us to understand and to love Psalm 40(41), which we just heard, is the fact that Jesus himself quoted it: «I am not speaking of all of you. I know those whom I have chosen. But so that the scripture might be fulfilled, ‘The one who ate my food has raised his heel against me'» (John 13:18).

It is the last night of his earthly life and Jesus, in the Cenacle, is about to offer the host’s delicacy to Judas, the traitor. His thoughts go to this phrase of the Psalm, which in reality is the supplication of a sick man abandoned by his friends. In that ancient prayer, Christ finds sentiments and words to express his profound sadness.

We will now try to follow and illuminate the whole theme of this Psalm, put on the lips of a person who is certainly suffering because of his sickness, but above all suffers because of the cruel irony of his «enemies» (see Psalm 40[41]:6-9) and even because of the betrayal of a «friend» (see verse 10).

2. Psalm 40(41) opens with a beatitude. It has as its recipient the true friend, «he who considers the poor»: He will be rewarded by the Lord in the day of his suffering, when it will be he who is «on his sickbed» (see verses 2-4).

However, the heart of the supplication is in the subsequent passage, where the sick man speaks (see verses 5-10). He begins his speech by asking God for forgiveness, according to the traditional Old Testament concept which attributed to every pain a corresponding fault: «Lord, have mercy on me; heal me, I have sinned against you» (verse 5; see Psalm 37[38]). For the ancient Jew, sickness was a call to the conscience to undertake a conversion.

Although it is a view exceeded by Christ, the definitive Revealer (see John 9:1-3), suffering in itself can conceal a secret value and become a path of purification, of interior freedom, of enrichment of the soul. It invites one to overcome superficiality, vanity, egoism, sin and to entrust oneself more intensely to God and to his salvific will.

3. But then the wicked enter the scene, those who have come to visit the sick man not to comfort him, but to attack him (see verses 6-9). Their words are harsh and strike the heart of the one praying, who experiences a malice that knows no mercy. The very same experience befalls many humbled poor, condemned to be alone and to feel themselves a burden to the very members of their family. And if, perhaps, they receive a word of consolation, they perceive immediately its false and hypocritical tone.

What is more, as we were saying, the one praying experiences the indifference and harshness even of his friends (see verse 10), who are transformed into hostile and hateful figures. The Psalmist applies their gesture of «lifting the heel,» the threatening act of the one who is about to strike the vanquished or the impulse of the horseman who excites his horse with his heel to make him strike his adversary.

The bitterness is profound, when the one who strikes is «the friend» whom one trusted, called literally in Hebrew «the man of peace.» Our thoughts go to the friends of Job who from being life companions were transformed into indifferent and hostile presences (see Job 19:1-6). In our praying man resounds the voice of a throng of people forgotten and humiliated in their infirmity and weakness, including by those who should have supported them.

4. The prayer of Psalm 40(41) does not end, however, on this gloomy note. The one praying is certain that God will appear on his horizon, revealing his love once again (see verses 11-14). He will offer him support and take the infirm in his arms, who will again «be in the presence» of his Lord (verse 13), that is — according to biblical language — will relive the experience of the liturgy in the temple.

The Psalm, marked by pain, finishes therefore in a ray of light and hope. In this perspective, one can understand how St. Ambrose, commenting on the initial beatitude (see verse 2) had seen in it prophetically an invitation to meditate on the salvific passion of Christ that leads to the resurrection. The Father of the Church recommends the reading of the Psalm: «Blessed is the one who thinks of the misery and poverty of Christ who, from being rich, made himself poor for us. Rich in his Kingdom, poor in the flesh, because he has taken on himself this flesh of the poor … [h]e did not suffer therefore in his richness, but in our poverty. And because of this, it was not the fullness of the divinity … but the flesh that suffered. Try therefore to penetrate the meaning of Christ’s poverty, if you wish to be rich! Try to penetrate the meaning of his weakness, if you wish to obtain salvation! Try to penetrate the meaning of his cross, if you do not want to be ashamed of it; the meaning of his wound, if you wish to heal yours; the meaning of his death, if you wish to attain eternal life; the meaning of his burial, if you wish to find resurrection» («Commento a Dodici Salmi» [Commentary on Twelve Psalms]: Saemo, VIII, Milan-Rome, 1980, pp. 39-41).

[Translation by ZENIT]

[At the end of the audience, the following summary was read by one of the Pope’s aides:]

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Our meditation today centers on Psalm 40, a prayer of a sick and lonely man. It is, in fact, a Psalm which Jesus cited at the Last Supper, about to be betrayed by one of his Apostles.

Despite the evident note of sadness in the Psalm, there is also an undercurrent of profound spiritual joy, recognizing that suffering can be a path to purification, to interior freedom and enrichment of soul.

This is, for example, how the great St. Ambrose interpreted the Psalm, as a prophetic ray of light and hope for us all, calling us to meditate on the passion of Our Lord who saves us from our sins and leads us to resurrection with him.

[The Holy Father then greeted pilgrims in several languages. In English, he said:]

I extend a special welcome to the English-speaking pilgrims here today, including members of the Australia Youth Choir and other groups from England, Sri Lanka, and the United States of America. Upon all of you I invoke the grace and peace of Our Lord, and I wish you a happy stay in Rome.

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