Sometimes we all need to have a heart-to-heart with God and own up to our shortcomings. Psalm 51 shows us how to do it.
"Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness; in the greatness of your compassion wipe out my offense.
Thoroughly wash me from my guilt and of my sin cleanse me.
For I acknowledge my offense, and my sin is before me always.
Against you only have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight.
Behold, you are pleased with sincerity of heart, and in my inmost being you teach me wisdom.
Cleanse me of sin with hyssop, that I may be purified; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Turn away your face from my sins, and blot out all my guilt.
A clean heart create for me, O God, and a steadfast spirit renew within me.
Cast me not out from your presence, and your holy spirit take not from me.
Give me back the joy of your salvation, and a willing spirit sustain in me.
I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners shall return to you.
O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth shall proclaim your praise."
—Psalm 51, edited
I must confess that out of all the psalms in the Bible, my favorite is Psalm 51, known as the Miserere, the psalm’s first word in its Latin translation, which means “to pity.” This psalm is often said to be the greatest of the seven “Penitential Psalms” (6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143), each of which expresses sorrow for sin. In fact, Pope John Paul II once wrote that “the Miserere is our most profound meditation on guilt and grace.” In the Catholic Church, some of the times we collectively pray the Miserere are on Good Friday, Ash Wednesday, at Masses for the deceased, and on Fridays during Morning Prayer.
Like many other psalms, the Miserere is attributed to King David. It is said to be David’s heartfelt response to a reprimand by the prophet Nathan when David sinned, not only by committing adultery with a married woman, Bathsheba, but also by having her husband, Uriah, murdered.
In my own spiritual life I pray the Miserere during my morning walk as a kind of walking meditation. While I like to think that my sins pale in comparison to David’s, nonetheless for me there is a spiritual catharsis in these timeless words from the Old Testament. I find that the recitation of the Miserere becomes almost a mini-Confession.
There are many things that I like about Psalm 51. One of the most endearing is that instead of talking with the priest as we do in Confession, in the Miserere our conversation is with God. In praying, “Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness,” we stand directly before God, face to face and heart to heart.
Also like Confession, the Miserere provides us a ready opportunity to examine our conscience. When we pray those powerful words, “For I acknowledge my offense,” we can, for one brief moment in our busy day, pause to open our hearts and reflect on the consequences of our thoughts and actions.
Praying this prayer over and over has also helped me to understand the meaning of mercy. Mercy can be defined in a number of different ways, such as “kindness in excess of what may be expected or demanded by fairness” or “a disposition to forgive, to pity, or to be kind.” I prefer the last one. We all like to envision our God as merciful, ready and willing to forgive our every transgression, and yet, more often than not, we humans are sorely lacking in mercy.
Although our society today glorifies violence and vengeance, the power of mercy resides within each of us. We can, if we so choose, be merciful. Whenever we are vengeful, I believe a part of our soul dies. Whenever we show mercy, our souls unite with all that is good in the universe.
In Psalm 51 David says, “My sin is before me always.” I think that, like David, each of us harbors somewhere in our hearts sin that may always be a part of our lives. Not being present when my mother died and my perpetual struggle to see the face of God in others are failings for which I continually ask for God’s mercy.
Our Catholic faith reassures us that through the sacrament of Confession all of our sins are forgiven, but I think that many of us take this automatic act of mercy for granted.
What I like about the Miserere is that the emphasis is not so much on forgiveness as it is on cleansing: “Cleanse me of sin with hyssop, that I may be purified.” We implore God to wash us: “Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.” We beg God for conversion: “A clean heart create for me, O God.”
Sometimes when I pray Psalm 51, I think about David and the terrible anguish he must have felt when he composed this prayer. I like to marvel at how these words, written some 3,000 years ago, have become such an integral part of my own spiritual life. I often wonder if David, or whoever actually wrote the psalm, had the faintest idea how many people over time would be moved to prayer by these words.
I suppose if I were to meet that ancient poet today I would share with him how the Miserere has brought me closer to God. I would express my gratitude for helping me to understand the meaning and importance of mercy. And I would thank him for the reassurance that God, despite our transgressions, can and does cleanse and renew our spirits.
Whether we realize it or not, we are all a part of that luminous and delicate cycle of sin and forgiveness, of guilt and mercy. As a Catholic, I believe that praying the Miserere will nurture my soul and keep me on the pathway to grace.
This article appeared in the February 2009 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 74, No. 2, pages 37-38).