Scapulis suis obumbrabit tibi. “He will conceal you with his pinions and under his wings you will refuge” is the full text. I’ve heard the chanting of this Latin responsory like a Lenten earworm ever since I first heard it sung, which was when I spent my first proper monastic retreat at the Benedictine monastery of Prinknash when I was a university student.
Actually, more than an earworm, it’s a heartworm. That is, the sentiment, and not just the sound it made, keeps me replaying it. Both operated in expressing a kind of restrained joy which seemed striking amid what I had previously tended to think of as the gloom of Lent.
The words are from Psalm 91, the same psalm and sentiment that the Devil quotes at Jesus when he dares him to throw himself off the pinnacle of the temple to see if God will protect him. Don’t you claim, he asks, that “He will give his angels charge over you, lest you strike your foot against a stone”?
Like all the Devil’s wiles, it is very subtle. It plays on human nature’s fragility. But to throw oneself from the temple would not be faith. It would be something much more akin to a challenge, an attempt to manipulate. It would be the refusal to accept the status of humanity, dependent on God. It would be to expect faith to make one superhuman, and the whole lesson of Christ’s sufferings is that one cannot grasp at equality with God.
When we take up our Lenten battle with temptation we tend to think in terms of specifics: resisting the urge to give in and have a sneaky chocolate bar, or whatever. But this temptation, like the others the Devil uses on Jesus’s human will, is a sort of core temptation. It lies at the root of so much of our own behaviour. It is the temptation as to whether I believe God really does care about what happens to me, which is the same as whether he really loves me. I am responsible to a greater or lesser degree for the sin which makes me doubt that I am loveable. But there is another scandal to faith and it is when painful or difficult things happen to me, when God does not appear to be protecting me from harm.
How often my prayer is a kind of mental throwing myself off the pinnacle, saying, in effect, “Because I am praying hard or offering sacrifice, doing X or Y conscientiously, God will grant my wishes.” The unspoken conviction is that, since I worship Him, God owes me. Faith is not the belief that God will eventually capitulate to my prayers and do what I think he ought to. This would be faith as a kind of alchemy that pursues the truth of God as the philosopher’s stone which will turn all to gold. Christian faith is a supernatural gift which enables me to believe that God’s will to save is greater than the apparent power of what seems to be evil and destructive, and that when I feel the effects of what appears deathly and destructive I am invited to enter a mysterious and life-giving obedience of identification with God’s Son, the bloodied, crucified Jesus, in whom God is saving me.
How to continue reading…
This article appears in the Catholic Herald magazine - to read it in full subscribe to our digital edition from just 30p a week
The Catholic Herald is your essential weekly guide to the Catholic world; latest news, incisive opinion, expert analysis and spiritual reflection