Editor’s Note:  Peter Hawkins, professor of religion and literature at Yale and a well-known Dante scholar, preached in Marquand Chapel on Jan. 26 on the unheralded power of the Psalms.  Following is the text of his sermon.

 

Delectasti

 

HawkinsAlthough the psalms regularly show up in most Christian worship services, my guess is that mostly they are taken for granted—treated like “background music” that may establish a mood, or set a tone, but otherwise has little grip on the imagination. Yes, we all have our favorites; and yes, there is the Twenty-third Psalm brought in for comfort at funerals. (People would miss the “green pastures” and “still waters” were they not invoked when the valley of the shadow of death is on the horizon.) But mostly selections from the Psalter provide a responsive reading that no one really attends to, or offer a transition between more important scriptures, the ones you are meant to take seriously. When did you last hear a sermon on a psalm?

This was not always the case. For most of the Christian era the Psalms were taken seriously enough to be preached and commented on regularly. They formed the core of liturgy, as well as the bedrock of prayer. Their regular recitation in monasteries—from Psalm 1 to 150, and then starting up all over again – meant that inevitably they were known by heart. Read any annotated page of the Confessions, for instance, and note how freely Augustine expresses his personal thoughts and feelings in the language of the Psalms. It is not a matter of deliberate quotation or proof-texting. Rather, he has so thoroughly internalized their words—has in effect been marinated in them—that they have become second nature, the way he speaks, almost a mother tongue. In this way he is very much like his Lord and Master who, faced with death, invoked the Psalms with his last breath.

I am always reminded of the power of the Psalter whenever I teach Dante’s Purgatorio, the second step of the Divine Comedy’s three-part journey through the afterlife. This portion of the poem is not only launched and concluded by Psalm citations but is peppered throughout with quotations, allusions, and echoes. In part this is Dante’s tribute to David as his own role model, the one he celebrates as God’s minstrel par excellence, “il sommo cantor del sommo duce” (Par. 25. 72), “the highest singer of the highest Lord.” In part it reflects Dante’s notion that living intimately with the psalms leads to being transformed by them. His purgatory becomes a kind of monastic choir where penitent sinners work out their salvation with fear and trembling precisely by praying the Psalter. What begins as an act of penance ends in praise.

Praise, in fact, is the mainstay of the Psalter. To be sure, lament has its say, and rightfully so. The Psalms, like the book of Job, license our complaint to the Almighty by using words of extraordinary daring. They do so, moreover, with the full blessing of synagogue and church, which, by treating even the angriest of them as holy writ, honor our outrage and our pain. “How long, O Lord, how long?” “Why have you forsaken me?”

Yet praise ultimately wins out, as it does in the psalm we’ve chanted this morning, Psalm 92. Again, this text is not only about exaltation: it is a song of thanksgiving that openly acknowledges that “the wicked sprout like grass” and that “evildoers flourish” (v.7). The Psalmist is no fantasist. He confronts the way things actually are, and while it may be true that in God’s courts the righteous grow “like cedars in Lebanon,” they are an endangered species everywhere else.

But what is apparently the case is not necessarily the final truth. The Psalmist, therefore, celebrates the bigger picture—the sheer miracle of creation itself. Just take in the spectacular daily round of morning and night; consider the fabulous horn of the wild ox; delight in the luxuriance of palm trees and cedars – the magnificent work of God’s hands. What can anyone do in the face of all this but offer up one’s utmost art of praise? Let the flourishing wicked be damned: it’s time to bring on lute and harp, “the melody of the lyre,” songs of joy, (v. 3-4)!

Dante considered Ps. 92 important enough to give it a particular role in the Comedy. At the top of the Mountain of Purgatory stands the Garden of Eden: it turns out, at least in his version of things, that the initial birthplace of humankind is where redeemed humanity is born again. After the long haul up the Mountain, the Garden becomes the reward of those who have worked through all seven of the deadly sins and been washed clean of their stain.

Once Dante enters the lush green precinct of Eden he sees a meadow thick with red and yellow flowers. And then he discovers her in the midst of it. Wending her way through this paradise is a beautiful young woman. He is separated from her by a crystal-clear stream, but nonetheless he can see enough to tell she is in love. Her eyes shine with the unmistakable gleam of the enamored; she walks as if in a dance; and, as she makes a bouquet from the profusion at her feet, she sings a song. What is she singing? It must be a love song. Who’s the lucky guy? Maybe her song reveals the beloved’s identity.

The woman understands Dante’s curiosity at a glance—he must be that obvious!—and graciously decides to satisfy it right away. Whom does she love? She does not say directly; instead, she gives a clue, only a word. The song that she is singing is something very like Delectasti, “you have made me glad.” For Dante (and his first audience) this would be enough to solve the puzzle. The key word Delectasti is all it would take to invoke Psalm 92 (or 91 in the Vulgate’s ordering): “quia delectasti me Domine in factura tua.”

            For you, O Lord, have made me glad by your work;
                        At the works of your hands I sing for joy.
                        How great are your works, O Lord!
                        Your thoughts are very deep!

With a single word she gives herself away: The lady is, in fact, in love, and her beloved is none other than the Maker of heaven and earth. She loves God’s wisdom, God’s handiwork, the marvel of grass and water and flowers. And her response to her lover’s bounty is to sing for the sheer joy of it: delectasti me Domine in factura tua.

The superscription to Ps. 92 calls it “A Song for the Sabbath Day.” No wonder, then, that the Saturday morning Shabbat service of the Jews, with its prolonged celebration of the Creator’s work, should make this text required singing every week. No wonder too that the church, by including it among the monastic hours, in the sunrise service of Lauds, should follow suit, so that each morning is, in effect, marked as a Sabbath to be set aside for rejoicing. In either case, for Jews and Christians, a day rightly begins by celebrating the work of God’s hands—by offering praise—and by doing so in the face of whatever else may also be sprouting, flourishing, or going wrong in the world. What better song is there to sing at dawn’s early light that this one, and not only in the courts of the Lord but anywhere else—say, walking across a meadow of flowers, or when enjoying the fragrant shade of a cedar tree; when you pass a wild ox, or even taking in the after storm radiance of a late January morning on the Quad?                   
           
For you, O Lord, have made me glad by your work;
                        At the works of your hands I sing for joy.
                        How great are your works, O Lord!
                        Your thoughts are very deep!

Amen.