I pray the Divine Office only sporadically, but today I managed to get away to the Perpetual Adoration chapel long enough to "do" Prime and Lauds back-to-back. The D.O. always feels to me as if it'll be a chore to get through, right up until the moment that I finish arranging the bookmarks (or in today's case, a crumpled index card and a stubby pencil) to mark the day's pages and settle in to begin. Then I am always instantly glad, fed and watered when I didn't know my own hunger and thirst. I don't know why this experience has to keep repeating itself; you would think I would have learned by now; but that "chore" feeling comes back day after day, even though it is always followed by the "refreshment" feeling -- that is, when I do manage to trudge over to the chair and open the book. I don't always make the trudge. And every time I do, I wonder why on earth not.
Because of this conversation I keep having with myself, I typically experience the Invitatory Psalm (Ps. 95, the opening psalm for each day's prayer) the same way every time I pick up the breviary: sheepishly, like a kid who's been reminded for the umpteenth time about the same fault.
"Today, listen to the voice of the Lord: Do not grow stubborn, as your fathers did in the wilderness, when at Meriba and Massah they challenged me and provoked me, although they had seen all of my works."
Complain, complain, complain. That's me. And surprised every day to taste water in the desert.
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It's unusual that the Invitatory sparks a new thought, but it happened to me today, so I'll share. The Invitatory psalm contains this text, excerpted by me to highlight what jumped out at me today:
Today, listen to the voice of the Lord:
Do not grow stubborn, as your fathers did in the wilderness...
I said, "They are a people whose hearts go astray and they do not know my ways."
So I swore in my anger, "They shall not enter into my rest."
Today (Saturday, week IV) the antiphon repeated after each stanza is
Let us listen to the voice of God; let us enter into his rest.
I got to thinking about the cause and effect implied in these stanzas, and how we are to read them.
One of the problems of interpretation of the Old Testament is how frequently it explicitly depicts God changing his mind about things, reacting in response to some action or plea of human beings. So, for instance, we have God "repenting" or "regretting" that He had made man, in Genesis 6 (the story of the flood); and we have the book of Jonah, where it says God "relented" or "repented" of His threat to destroy Nineveh. Here is another one, where God is angered -- has a change of heart, so to speak -- in response to the stubbornness of the people.
It is not philosophically straightforward to deal with these images of a God who can change His mind, at least not when you take it as an article of faith -- as Christians do -- that God is eternal, perfect, unchanged and unchangeable. Christian philosophers can and do deal with it, but it is one of those mysteries that can be approached many different ways.
The antiphon "Let us listen to the voice of God; let us enter into his rest," which is, by the way, a prayerful response to Scripture rather than Scripture itself, is not just a response we can make with our voices; it's also a suggestion for a response we can make with our intellect to the "problem" of an eternal, perfect being who nonetheless responds and reacts to mortal, imperfect ones. The antiphon voices absolute confidence that, if we listen to the voice of God, then we will enter into His rest. The one follows the other naturally -- as day follows night -- well, maybe it is really "supernaturally," but what I want to get across is this idea: that the very nature of "listening to the voice of God" is that it forms you into a being who "will enter into His rest."
If that's so, then we can look at the Psalm and perhaps perceive the opposite side of the coin, the choice. The opposite of "listen to the voice of the Lord" is "grow stubborn" like the people in the wilderness, specifically as in the episode at Meriba and Massah (see Exodus 17 to delve more deeply into the allusion). A person who fails to listen, who grows stubborn in this way, who "challenges" and "provokes" God despite having seen His works, perhaps causes himself to become the sort of person whose heart goes astray, who doesn't come to know God's ways -- note that the people have "seen all of [his] works" but "do not know [his] ways," an intriguingly deliberate distinction.
It is because of the condition of their hearts and intellects that God is said to swear in His anger that they shall not enter into His rest.
And here I think maybe the "anger" of God is, from within a more primitive concept of God as changeable, anger-able, a way of expressing a consequence that is written right into the nature of human beings and therefore into the nature of the relationship between God and human beings (because that relationship is part of our nature). If we do not listen to the voice of God, if we grow stubborn and our hearts go astray, we will not enter into His rest -- we simply will not because we cannot, because listening to Him is a prerequisite for acquiring the capability.
That the writers of the story understood this as a face of God's "anger" may have been poetic. It may have reflected the limited way that they could conceive of a divine being. But it would be consistent with a belief that God was predictable and reliable. Remember Psalm 19, where the heavens declare the glory of God? Or in Psalm 50, where the heavens proclaim his justice, for God himself is the judge? The heavens are beautiful, vast, and the source of all our light -- but I think maybe the defining characteristic of "the heavens" for ancient peoples was their regularity: the rising of the sun and its setting, the swinging of the stars through the years: the reservoir of lodestars and timepieces; of constellations that appeared exactly where people looked for them, as long as anyone could remember. If the heavens declare the righteousness of God, then surely one aspect of this righteousness is reliability, predictability; each day has its night, and each failing has its consequence.
If this is one way of interpreting the manifestation of divine anger: as the consequence that is only to be expected; well, then what can mercy be but a miracle?