John Paul II Reflects on Prayer in Times of Suffering
Address at the General Audience
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VATICAN CITY, SEPT. 19, 2001 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of John Paul II´s address at today´s general audience.
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1. It is a dark night, in which voracious wild beasts are perceived in the surroundings. The man of prayer is waiting for the coming of dawn, so that the light will dispel the darkness and fear. This is the background of Psalm 56 , proposed today for our reflection: a night song prepared by the man of prayer at the break of day, anxiously awaited, to be able to praise the Lord with joy (verses 9-12). In fact, the Psalm moves from a dramatic lament addressed to God to serene hope and joyful thanksgiving, the latter expressed with the words that, in turn, resound again in another Psalm (see Psalm 107: 2-6).
a. In reality, we are witnessing the passage from fear to joy, from night to day, from nightmare to serenity, from supplication to praise. It is an experience that is often described in the Psalter: ´You changed my mourning into dancing; you took off my sackcloth and clothed me with gladness. With my whole being I sing endless praise to you. O Lord, my God, forever will I give you thanks" (Psalm 29:12-13).
2. There are, therefore, two parts to Psalm 56, on which we are meditating. The first refers to the experience of fear before the assault of evil, which attempts to strike the just one (verses 2-7). At the center of the scene are lions poised to attack. In no time this picture is transformed into a symbol of war, depicted by spears, and arrows and swords. The man of prayer feels assaulted by a kind of death squadron. He is surrounded by a band of hunters, who set traps and dig pits to capture the prey. However, this tense atmosphere is suddenly dissipated. In fact, already at the beginning (verse 2) the protective symbol of the divine wings appears, which refer, specifically, to the Ark of the Covenant with winged cherubim, namely, the presence of God near the faithful in the holy temple of Zion.
3. The man of prayer asks God insistently to send his messengers from heaven, to whom he attributes the emblematic names of "Faithfulness" and "Grace" (verse 4), a quality proper to the saving love of God. Therefore, although he trembles before the terrible roaring of the wild beasts and the wickedness of his persecutors, the faithful one remains serene and confident within, like Daniel in the lions´ den (see Daniel 6:17-25).
The Lord´s presence does not delay in showing its efficacy, through the self-punishment of the adversaries: The latter fall into the pit they dug for the just one (verse 7). This confidence in divine justice, which is always expressed in the Psalter, impedes discouragement and surrender to the power of evil. Sooner or later, God comes to the aid of his faithful one, upsetting the maneuvers of the wicked, and making them stumble in their own evil plans.
4. So we come to the second part of the Psalm, that of thanksgiving (verses 8-12). There is a passage that shines because of its intensity and beauty:
"My heart is steadfast, O God, my heart is steadfast! I will sing and make melody! Awake, my soul! Awake, O harp and lyre! I will awake the dawn!" (verses 7-8). Now the darkness has been dispelled: The dawn of salvation has colored the song of the man of prayer.
Applying this image to himself, the Psalmist translates perhaps in the terms of biblical religiosity, rigorously monotheistic, the custom of the Egyptian and Phoenician priests who were in charge of "awakening the dawn," namely, of making the sun reappear, considered as a beneficent divinity. He also alludes to the custom of hanging and covering the musical instruments at a time of mourning and trial (see Psalm 136:2), and of "reawakening" them to a festive sound in times of liberation and joy. Hope, then, springs from the liturgy: it turns to God, asking him to come close to his people again, and to hear their supplication. In the Psalter, the dawn is often the moment of divine listening, after a night of prayer.
5. So the Psalm ends, with a song of praise to the Lord, who acts with his two great saving qualities, which already appeared with different terms in the first part of the supplication (verse 4). Now, virtually personified, divine Goodness and Faithfulness enter the scene. They inundate the heavens with their presence and are like the light that shines in the darkness of trials and persecutions (verse 11). For this reason, in the Christian tradition Psalm 56 has become a song of awakening to Easter light and joy, which shines in the faithful, removing the fear of death and opening the horizon of heavenly glory.
6. Gregory of Nyssa discovers in the words of this Psalm a sort of typical description of what happens in every human experience open to the recognition of the wisdom of God. "Indeed, he saved me -- he exclaims -- by shading me with the cloud of the Spirit, and those who had trampled on me were humiliated" ("On the Titles of Psalms" ["Sui Titoli dei Salmi"], Rome, 1994, p. 183).
Then, quoting the expressions at the end the Psalm, where it says: "Be exalted, O God, above the heavens! Let thy glory be over all the earth," he concludes: "To the degree that the glory of God is extended on earth, increased by the faith of those who are saved, the heavenly powers extol God, exulting over our salvation" (ibid., p. 184).
[Translation by ZENIT]
At the end of the audience, the Pope summarized his reflection in English as follows:
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Psalm 56 opens on a note of darkness, destruction and fear. The just man is threatened by the forces of evil, symbolized by lions ready to attack and hunters setting traps to capture their prey. Yet, he does not give in to despair but, instead, turns to God for protection. With serene confidence in God´s faithfulness and saving love, the just man is able to stand up to the evil powers, knowing that they will be overcome. In a spirit of thanksgiving, he sings God´s praises and looks forward to the dawn that will scatter the clouds of darkness, giving way to the bright light of day. As we pray this Psalm, we rejoice that God has overcome sin and death, filling our hearts with Easter light and joy.
I extend warm greetings to all the English-speaking pilgrims and visitors, especially those from England, Canada, Malta, Japan, Indonesia, and the United States of America. I invite you to pray in these days that Almighty God will guide the minds and hearts of world leaders so that the ways of justice and peace may prevail. Upon you and your families I invoke abundant divine blessings.