On Psalm 23

“The Nearness of God Transforms Reality, the Dark Valley Loses Its Danger”

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VATICAN CITY, OCT. 5, 2011 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of the Italian-language catechesis Benedict XVI gave today during the general audience held in St. Peter’s Square. The Pope continued his series of catecheses on prayer with a reflection on Psalm 23.

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Dear brothers and sisters,

Turning to Lord in prayer involves a radical act of trust, in the awareness that one is entrusting oneself to God who is good, “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6-7; Psalm 86:15; cf. Joel 2:13; Genesis 4:2; Psalm 103:8; 145:8; Nehemiah 9:17). For this reason, today I would like to reflect with you on a Psalm that is wholly imbued with trust, in which the psalmist expresses the serene certainty that he is guided and protected, and kept safe from every danger, because the Lord is his shepherd. It is Psalm 23 — according to the Graeco-Latin tradition [Psalm] 22 — it is a text familiar to all and much-beloved by all.

“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want”: thus begins this beautiful prayer, calling to mind the nomadic environment of sheep-rearing and the experience of a mutual knowledge that is established between the shepherd and the sheep that make up his little flock. The image evokes an atmosphere of confidence, intimacy and tenderness: the shepherd knows his young sheep one by one; he calls them by name and they follow him, because they know him and they trust him (cf. John 10:2-4). He cares for them; he guards them as precious possessions, ready to defend them, to assure their well-being, and to establish them in peace. Nothing can be lacking if the shepherd is with them. The psalmist makes reference to this experience, by calling God his shepherd and by allowing himself to be guided by Him towards safe pastures:

“He makes me lie down in green pastures.

He leads me beside still waters; He restores my soul.

He leads me in paths of righteousness

for His name’s sake” (verses 2-3).

The vision that opens before our eyes is one of green meadows and springs of limpid waters, a haven of peace towards which the shepherd accompanies the flock — symbols of the places in life towards which the Lord leads the psalmist, who feels like the sheep lying on the grass beside a spring, in restful repose — neither tense nor in a state of alarm, but trusting and still — for his place is secure, the water is fresh, and the shepherd is watching over them.

And let us not forget that the scene the psalmist here recalls is set in a largely desert land beaten by the burning sun, where the middle-eastern semi-nomadic shepherd lives with his flock in the arid steppes extending around the villages. But the shepherd knows where to find grass and fresh water, the essentials of life; he knows how to bring them to the oasis where the soul “is restored” and where it is possible to renew one’s strength and to gain new energy in order to continue on along the path.

As the psalmist says, God guides him towards “green pastures” and “still waters”, where everything is found in abundance, where all is copiously given. If the Lord is the shepherd, even in the desert — a place of absence and of death — his certainty in a radical presence of life is not lessened, so much so that he can say: “I shall not want”.

The shepherd in fact has the good of his flock at heart; he adjusts his own rhythms and his own needs to those of his sheep, he walks and lives with them, guiding them along “right” paths — that is, along paths suitable for them — attentive to their needs rather than to his own. The safety of his flock is his priority, and he is obedient to this in guiding them.

Dear brothers and sisters, we also like the psalmist, if we walk behind the “Good Shepherd” — however difficult, winding or long the paths of our life may appear, often taking us also through spiritually desert regions, waterless and with a sun of scorching rationalism — under the guidance of the Good Shepherd, Christ, we can be sure of travelling along “right” paths and [we can be sure] that the Lord guides us, that He is always close to us — and that we will want for nothing.

For this reason, the psalmist speaks of his stillness and security with neither uncertainty nor fear:

“Even though I walk through a dark valley,

I fear no evil, for thou art with me.

They rod and they staff,

They comfort me” (verse 4).

He who goes with the Lord even into the dark valleys of suffering, of uncertainty and of every human problem feels secure. You are with me: this is our certainty, this is what sustains us. The darkness of night frightens us with its moving shadows, with the difficulty it brings in distinguishing dangers, with its silence filled with indecipherable sounds. If the flock moves after sunset, when visibility is lessened, it is normal for the sheep to become restless, since there is a risk of stumbling or of going astray and becoming lost — and there is the added fear of possible aggressors, who conceal themselves under the cover of night.

In speaking of the “dark” valley, the psalmist uses a Hebrew expression that evokes the shadows of death. The valley to be crossed is therefore a place of anguish, of awful threat and of mortal danger. And yet the man who prays proceeds securely and without fear, for he knows that the Lord is with him. His “you are with me” is a proclamation of unwavering trust and sums up the experience of radical faith; the nearness of God transforms reality, the dark valley loses its danger — it is emptied of every threat. Now the flock can walk in peace, accompanied by the familiar sound of the staff hitting the ground — the sign of the reassuring presence of the Shepherd.

This comforting image concludes the first part of the Psalm, and gives way to a different scene. We are still in the desert where the shepherd lives with his flock, but now we are transported to his tent, which is opened in order to provide hospitality:

“Thou preparest a table before me

in the presence of my enemies;

Thou anointest my head with oil.

My cup overflows” (verse 5).

The Lord is now presented as He who welcomes the man who prays with signs of a hospitality that is generous and full of attention. The divine host prepares the food on the “table,” a word that in Hebrew signifies — in its primitive meaning — the animal skin that was laid out upon the ground, and upon which the dishes for a common meal were placed.  It is a gesture and an act of sharing not only food, but also life, in an offering of communion and friendship that creates bonds and expresses solidarity.

Then there is the bounteous gift of perfumed oil upon the head, which gives relief from the drying effects of the desert sun; which refreshes and soothes the skin and enlivens the spirit with its fragrance. Lastly, the overflowing chalice adds a note of festivity, with its exquisite wine shared with lavish generosity. Food, oil, wine: they are gifts that enliven and give joy, because they surpass what is strictly necessary and express the gratuity and the lavishness of love. Celebrating the Lord’s provident goodness, Psalm 104 proclaims: “Thou dost cause the grass to grow for the cattle, and plants for man to cultivate, that he may bring forth food from the earth, and wine to gladden the heart of man, oil to make his face shine, and bread to strengthen man’s heart” (verses 14-15).

The psalmist has been made the object of so many attentions; he therefore sees himself as a wayfarer who finds rest in a welcoming tent, while his enemies must stop and watch without being able to intervene, for he whom they looked upon as their prey has been placed in safety, has become an untouchable, sacred guest. And we are the psalmist if we are truly believers in communion with Christ. When God opens His tent to welcome us, nothing can harm us.

Once the wayfarer sets off again, the divine protection continues and accompanies him
on his journey: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life;

And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever” (verse 6).

The goodness and fidelity of God are the escort that accompanies the psalmist as he leaves the tent and returns to the road. However, it is a journey that acquires a new meaning and becomes a pilgrimage to the God’s Temple, the holy place where the man who prays wants “to dwell” forever and to which he wishes “to return.” The Hebrew word employed here has a sense of “return,” but, with a slight change in vowels, it can also be understood as “dwell” — and so it has been rendered in older versions as well as in the majority of modern translations. Both senses can be maintained: to return to the Temple and to dwell therein is every Israelite’s desire, and to dwell close to God in His nearness and goodness is the longing and nostalgia of ever believer: to be able truly to abide where God is, close to God.

The following of the Shepherd takes us to His home — it is the destination of every journey, the desired oasis in the desert, the tent of refuge in the flight from one’s enemies, the place of peace where one can experience God’s goodness and His faithful love, day after day, in the serene joy without end.

This Psalm’s imagery, with its richness and depth, has accompanied the whole history and religious experience of the people of Israel, and it accompanies Christians. The figure of the shepherd in particular recalls the beginnings of the Exodus, the long journey in the desert, like a flock under the guidance of the divine Shepherd (cf. Isaiah 63:11-14; Psalm 77:20-21; 78:52-54). And in the Promised Land, it was the king whose task it was to pasture the Lord’s flock, like David, the shepherd chosen by God and the figure of the Messiah (cf. 2 Samuel 5:1-2; 7:8; Psalm 78:70-72). Then, after the Babylonian exile, as though in a new Exodus (cf. Isaiah 40:3-5,9-11; 43:16-21), Israel was returned to their homeland like scattered sheep that were found and led back by the Lord to luxuriant pastures and to places of repose (cf. Exodus 34:11-16, 23-31).

But it is in the Lord Jesus that all the evocative power of our Psalm attains completeness and finds its fulfillment: Jesus is the “Good Shepherd” who goes in search of His lost sheep, who knows His sheep and gives His life for them (cf. Matthew 18:12-14; Luke 15:4-7; John 10:2-4,11-18). He is the way, the right path that leads us to life (cf. John 14:6); the light that illumines the dark valley and conquers our every fear (cf. John 1:9; 8:12; 9:5; 12:46). He is the generous host who welcomes us and saves us from our enemies, preparing for us the table of His body and His blood (cf. Matthew 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:19-20), and that definitive table in Heaven’s messianic banquet (cf. Luke 14:15ff; Revelation 3:20; 19:9). He is the regal Shepherd, the King of meekness and of pardon, enthroned on the glorious wood of the Cross (cf. John 3:13-15; 12:32; 17:4-5).

Dear brothers and sisters, Psalm 23 invites us to renew our trust in God, by abandoning ourselves totally into His hands. With faith, let us therefore ask the Lord to grant us — along the difficult roads of our times as well — to walk always on His paths as a docile and obedient flock. [Let us ask] that He welcome us into His home, to His table, and that He lead us to “still waters”, so that in receiving the gift of His Spirit, we may drink from His springs, from the fount of that living water “welling up to eternal life” (John 4:14; cf. 7:37-39). Thank you.

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

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Continuing our catechesis on Christian prayer, we now turn to Psalm 23: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want”. With its exquisite pastoral imagery this much-beloved Psalm speaks of the radical trust in God’s loving care which is an essential aspect of prayer. The Psalmist begins by presenting God as a good shepherd who guides him to green pastures, standing at his side and protecting him from every danger. “He leads me beside still waters; he refreshes my soul” (vv. 2-3). The scene then passes to the shepherd’s tent, where the Lord welcomes him as a guest, gracing him with the gifts of food, oil and wine. “You prepare a table before me … you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows” (v. 5). God’s protection continues to accompany the Psalmist with goodness and mercy along his way, a way which leads to length of days in the Lord’s Temple (v. 6). The powerful image of God as the Shepherd of Israel accompanied the whole religious history of the Chosen People, from the Exodus to the return to the Promised Land. It finds its ultimate expression and fulfilment in the coming of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, who gave his life for his sheep, preparing for us the table of his Body and Blood as a foretaste of the definitive messianic banquet which awaits us in heaven.

I welcome all the English-speaking pilgrims and visitors present at today’s Audience, especially those from England, Scotland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Nigeria, Singapore, the Philippines and the United States. My special greeting goes to the alumni and friends celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the Pontifical Filipino College. I also greet the new students from the Pontifical Beda College, and I offer prayerful good wishes to the deacon class of the Pontifical North American College and their families. Upon all of you I invoke God’s blessings of joy and peace.

In a special way, I would like to greet the Delegation of the Theology Faculty of the University of Thessaloniki, who have wished to confer upon me the Apostle Jason of Thessaloniki Gold Medal. I am deeply honoured by this gracious gesture, which is an eloquent sign of the growing understanding and dialogue between Catholic and Orthodox Christians. I pray that it will be a harbinger of ever greater progress in our efforts to respond in fidelity, truth and charity to the Lord’s summons to unity. I thank the Delegation most cordially, and I offer my prayerful good wishes for their teaching and research. God bless you all!

© Copyright 2011 – Libreria Editrice Vaticana

[In Italian, he said:]

Lastly, I address young people, the ill and newlyweds. May St. Francis of Assisi whose liturgical feast we celebrated yesterday, help each of you to live the Gospel in charity and joy. To all, my Blessing.

[The Pope concluded with the following appeal]

Dramatic news continues to arrive concerning the famine which has struck the Horn of Africa. I greet Cardinal Robert Sarah, president of the Pontifical Council Cor Unum, and Bishop Giorgio Bertin O.F.M., apostolic administrator of Mogadishu, who are present at this audience with a number of representatives of Catholic charity organizations. They will meet to analyze initiatives aimed at resolving this humanitarian emergency; and their meeting will also be attended by a representative of the Archbishop of Canterbury, who has likewise made a plea in support of the people affected. I renew my heartfelt appeal to the international community to continue its commitment to these people. At the same time I invite everyone to offer prayers and concrete support to so many sorely tried brothers and sisters, particularly to the children of the region who are dying every day.

[Translation by Diane Montagna]
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