14 April 2009

Lord, Open My Lips and My Mouth Shall Declare Your Praise.

Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
and in the way of sinners does not stand,
and in the assembly of scoffers does not sit,
but in the law of the Lord is his will,
and on His law he meditates day and night. (Psalm 1:1-2)

The dictionary defines “meditate” as: to engage in thought or contemplation; reflect. The Nova Vulgata (New Vulgate) translation for this particular passage uses the word “meditatur” which you may have guessed translates as “meditates”. But meditatur can also mean to -- practice public speaking, rehearse, or say to oneself. In our modern day western world, meditation is a mental, interior exercise. But in the ancient east, meditation was a vocal exercise.

There are many stories that have made its way to our modern day about the early desert Fathers and their practice of taking a bible verse and saying or whispering it over and over throughout the day. Some examples of this are: “God come to my assistance; Lord make haste to help me” (Psalm 69 [70]:2) or “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us” (Luke 17:13). This is the ancient way of meditating. That is not to say that something interior wasn’t going on, but the exercise of meditation involved vocalization.

In the Hebrew text, the word used for this particular passage from Psalm 1 is hagah, which means to speak, utter, roar, groan, mutter or soliloquize. It also translates as “meditate” but in the ancient sense of the meaning. The word hagah appears in the Hebrew Scriptures mostly but not exclusively in the Book of Psalms, the songbook of the Jewish people. Songs are sung not silently read like a novel or newspaper.

Even if you’ve never been to the Holy Land, you probably still have seen images or film footage of rabbis lined up along the Western Wall holding their prayer books and constantly bowing while praying the words in their prayer books. Notice that they are speaking the words and not merely reading them.

Another place that hagah appears in the ancient texts is in the Book of Joshua (1:8): “Let not the book of this law depart from your mouth; but you shall meditate on it day and night.” Interesting that the verse says to not let the law depart from the “mouth”. Certainly the law would be on the heart and mind as well but the mouth takes precedence in the exercise of meditation.

Silent prayer or contemplation is really a mystical gaze. That is, in silence one hopes to experience the radiation of unconditional love, to be embraced by the Lord Who is Love. Sometimes that experience of perfect Love can cause a painful awareness of one’s own sinfulness. But these experiences are wordless. It is not meditation.

Eucharistic Adoration can often be wordless once one can pass beyond mental prayer. As one adorer once said to Saint Jean-Marie Vianney, “I look at Him and He looks at me.” Certainly one always hopes to look at our Eucharistic Lord with love; but nevertheless the adorer is guaranteed a return look of unconditional Love. No words are necessary!

The next time you pick up your bible to read the Sacred Writ, consider saying the words out loud. The Scriptures themselves encourage it. If you pray the Liturgy of the Hours privately, which is predominantly from Sacred Scripture, consider reciting out loud or even singing the words, since much of the Divine Office is from the Book of Psalms.

Plus, undertaking any holy exercise is bound to draw unwanted forces that will tempt us. Only God knows how great is the weapon and shield of His Holy Word vocalized.