Monday, August 2, 2021 (Day 58)
Katie Snipes Lancaster
Psalm 58 (from Robert Altar’s 2007 translation)
Do you O chieftains, indeed speak justice, in rightness judge humankind? In your heart you work misdeeds on earth, weight a case with outrage in your hands. The wicked backslide from the very womb, the lie-mongers go astray from birth. They have venom akin to the serpent’s venom, like the deaf viper that stops up its ears, so it hears not the soothsayers’ voice nor the cunning caster of spells. God smash their teeth in their mouth. The jaws of the lions shatter, O Lord. Like a snail that moves in its slime, a woman’s stillbirth that sees not the sun before their thorns ripen in bramble, still alive and in wrath rushed to ruin. The Just man rejoices when vengeance he sees, his feet he will bathe in the wicked one’s blood.
An Opening Word
My first instinct upon reading Psalm 58 was, “this is awful.” Or maybe more dramatically, “I think we should get rid of this one.” Trying to find something redeemable about this, I turned to Robert Alter’s commentary, and he suggests that even the act of translating this Psalm is challenging. What he renders “backslide” comes from a Hebrew word zoru which has only some possible/probable meanings but is disputed. What then of the “snail that moves in its slime”? Or other evocative and troubling images? Robert Alter says, “The English reader should be warned that the Hebrew text of this psalm… is badly mangled” and thus “conjectural” at best. Regardless I’m not a fan.
Come to find out that in Great Britain in July of 1917, the Church of England’s Canterbury Convocation was considering the removal of Psalm 58 from the Prayer Book, calling it imprecatory (or a Psalm of Curse). In the midst of war themselves, the British had reason to condemn and curse their enemies after a wave of bombardments from the Germans. Wouldn’t war-times be the right-times to indulge the theology of Psalm 58? No, “the Archbishop of Canterbury and many church leaders argued that one atrocity does not deserve another, and that reprisals would debase ‘the whole moral currency of international life.'” One person said Psalm 58 stops “little short of an insult to the divine Majesty.” (Those who opposed the Church of England’s recommendation to stop praying Psalm 58 however, called the priests “namby-pambies.” I love some good early 20th century British name-calling).
Today’s mystic, Elizabeth of the Trinity was born in 1880, living just a few years before all this Psalm 58 drama unfolded, and was so very immersed in the presence of God she might have scarcely noticed any controversy. About her, one person wrote “she saw everything in God and God in everything… and she was so absorbed in God that sometimes she got lost in the monastery.” Like many of her other mystic counterparts, she lost a parent at an early age: her dad died when she was seven. By her early teens, she was already convinced she would become part of the Discalced Carmelite Order (there was one just around the corner from her house), and she was influenced by reading Teresa of Avila’s “The Way of the Perfection” and Therese of Lisieux’ “Story of a Soul.”
Her mother wanted her to marry but she insisted on joining monastic life. Her mom gave her permission to join after she turned 21. She barely spent five years in the order before her untimely death in 1906. One of her biographers says about Elizabeth of the Trinity, “While we feel alienated and disconnected, she proclaims that there is ‘a Being who is Love’ who remains with us and that the Trinity is none other than our true home, the bosom where we are awaited with love.”
Prayer from the Mystics: Elizabeth of the Trinity (1880–1906)
O Jesus… how sweet it is to love You,
To be Yours,
To have You as my sole All…
Make my life a continual prayer,
One long act of love.
Let nothing distract me from You…
I would love to live with You in silence,
O my Maestro… I offer You the cell of my heart,
So that it can be Your little Bethany.
Come and rest.
I love you so much…Amen.