In early times, the daily Chapter was a traditional feature of the monastic timetable. The monks left church at the end of the office of Prime and processed to a room near by, where a portion, or "chapter," of the Rule was read and the abbot commented upon it. It was also the natural occasion for announcements to be made affecting the life of the community and for a blessing to be given upon the day's work. Soon the room itself came to be called "the Chapter Room, or House" or simply "Chapter." Even today some form of this practice exists in many monasteries, including our own. Each month this page will feature a chapter talk given to the Community, as well as news and features. We hope you will visit us regularly.


Plenteous Redemption –

St. Mary Magdalene and Psalm 129 

Years ago I gave a series of talks on selected Psalms, linking each one with a different saint. I associated Ps 129, the De Profundis with St. Mary Magdalene. In this year of mercy, I want to speak again tonight about this psalm and this saint.

                As you know, Ps 129 is the sixth of the traditional seven penitential psalms and the eleventh of the fifteen songs for the Ascents. The Jewish commentary makes the following general comments, placing the psalm in its historical context. “The songs of Ascent … were designed to raise men’s spirits. The message of hope is never more necessary when Israel suffers the degrading despair of exile and the bitter knowledge that these misfortunes were the result of its own sons. Yet even when the Gentiles deride and harm the Jews, Israel rises from sorrow on the wings of song and prayer. I put confidence in the Lord, Israel cries out, because I know that the exile is perpetuated only by my sins and that sins can surely be forgiven, once I repent. Every sincere repentance is useless, however, unless God accepts it favourably. Therefore, the Psalmist concludes with a declaration of complete faith in God’s desire to accept repentance.”

                Applying this standpoint to the Magdalen, in whom I have conflated all the ‘Marys’ of the gospel for the purpose of this talk, there is her despair and moral solitude – the equivalent of exile – at the loss of her Lord; her sorrow at the personal sin that had its part in his atoning death; her passionate attente for a sign of his continued presence; her hope and instinctive confidence that the covenant of love can be restored.

“Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.” (v1)

St. Hilary of Poitiers does not take the usual line of the meaning of “the depths”. A commentary on “The Psalms of Christian Lament”[1], remarks that St. Hilary sweeps aside Old Testament imagery of a watery chaos and replaces it with St. Paul’s hymn of praise in Romans 11: “O the depths of the riches of wisdom and knowledge of God.” Deep calls to deep; thus ---- calls from the most inward place of his heart towards the unsearchable heart of God, confident that God will reach out to the creature made in His image and likeness.

                It is a suggestive and beautiful idea, but the whole content of the psalm suggests a man drowning under a tidal wave of unspecified guilt and sin. It has been put forward that the Psalmist even chooses the plural form (“depths”) to emphasise that Israel is drowning in many sorrows – exile, poverty, disgrace. The depths, then, are Sheol or the mythical watery chaos, a metaphor for total misery and abandonment. The Magdalen at the tomb: alone, unembarrassed by her need, her poverty, displaying her anguish without inhibition. This is not without spiritual advantage. The depths can be plumbed only by the heart that is apertum, wide open, that does not seek to protect itself. Says Guardini: “Such a nature experiences the pain of transitoriness, the fact that the beloved object is taken away, that living beauty is always in a state of passing.” The experience of the Magdalen at the cross and at the tomb. And yet, precisely because of this deep angst in the face of transience, a conviction of the existence of the infinite, the eternal, the perfect is born or, rather, is revealed. Says Waltke: Suffering is set squarely, openly, passionately before God. It is acknowledged and expressed. It is described and lived,” and she adds in parenthesis, “If Israel had borne her distress in Egypt stoically, or with a false optimism or with denial or despair, she would still be in Egypt.” The prayer continues boldly:

“Lord, Hear my voice! Let thy ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications!” (v.2)

There is a suggestion of incoherence in the ‘voice’ or ‘sound’ of the supplications. The one praying asks that God will her the sound of his agitate voice, as if it were an eloquent plea. The Magdalen and the women of Jerusalem lament and wail for Christ; and this psalm endorses, as it were, their inarticulate grief. God’s ear are attentive to it. This is St. Augustine, in a passage which also refers to the depths of v.1:

It - the cry of the distressed – penetrated all things; it burst through all things; it reached the ears of God, since the ears of God were in the heart of him who prayed. But we also ought to understand from what depths we cry unto the Lord. For this mortal life is our deep. Whoever has understood himself to be in the depths cries out ... until he be delivered from the depths and comes unto Him Who sits above all the depths.

Such a prayer unites itself to the Holy Spirit who groans on our behalf to the ears of the Father.

“If thou, O Lord, should mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand?” (v.3)

The petition for mercy of the first two verses is based on the belief that God is forgiving (Pss.op.cit). Another translation runs: “if thou, O Lord, should keep a close watch on, keep track of iniquities who could stand?” i.e. withstand just punishment and endure? Question expecting the answer: no-one. God does not do arithmetic; he does not retain his wrath. He shows his power by pardoning the fragile and the sinful.

“But there is forgiveness with thee, that thou mayest be feared.” (v.4)

God does not forsake his people, even after apostasy and disobedience. Although the people were guilty of great effrontery in making the molten calf, “in your great mercy, you did not forsake them in the desert.” (Neh 9:16) Hence the confidence of the repentant sinner. The psalms suggests that the experience of forgiveness causes an increase of reverence for God, who alone can forgive sin. The idea may be that consciousness of sin gratuitously pardoned makes the sinner feel grateful and contrite love. He is ‘contrito corde”; his former hard heart is broken up; he is literally ‘broken-hearted’. Tamed by his God who could have deservedly condemned him, he feels an increased loving respect and reverence towards him.

                Then again, it can be said, as in the Jewish commentary, that the sinner erects a barrier of dense darkness between himself and God “an obstruction that makes him less aware of God’s presence and diminishes his awe ... Thus, when God forgives the sinner, he does more than wipe away his guilt. Divine pardon means that the barriers which separated the sinner from God are removed. Then the penitent is blessed with new awareness of God, so that he can fear him with heightened intensity.” True sorrow is not experienced fully in relation to a law or an imperative, but only in relation to a person, a living being, to God.[2] True sorrow depends the relationship between God and the soul, increased knowledge of His goodness and wisdom and therefore intensifies reverence. “Here is a rebirth”, says Guardini, “a new coming into being. In it the faults and mistakes of the past are not undone, but they are overcome.” We read in the Gospel that St. Mary Magdalen had been freed from seven demons. She had crossed several thresholds, taking her ever deeper into the mystery of her Saviour, until, on Easter morning in the garden, she recognises him as Kyrios: Where have they laid my Lord? Her response to the calling of her name is “Rabboni”, revered Master or teacher, he himself places her on a new level of reality: Noli me tangere.

                We return to our psalmist, who now prays, confident of God’s ability and willingness to forgive. He waits expectantly, in hope, for God to redeem him from his guilt.

“I wait for the Lord, my soul [whole being] waits and in his word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord, more than watchmen for the morning, more than watchmen for the morning.” (vv 5-6)

Or, in another translation: “I yearn for my lord among those who long for the dawn.” “Dabar”, word, in Hebrew, means far more than the English word-within-a-statement. Thus, in this context, God’s ‘word’ signifies his covenant promise to redeem Israel. The term used for ‘wait’ means to be in a state of painful and intense expectation; while the repetition (“more than the watchmen”) perhaps emphasises the tedium of the wait through the long night for the first light of dawn. Robert Alter, in a rare show of religious emotion, writes: “The force of the image is evident; the watchman sitting through the last three watches of the night, piercing into the darkness for the first sight of dawn, cannot equal my intense expectancy for God’s redeeming word to come to me in my dark night of the soul.”[3]

                Mary Magdalen at the tomb. Impetuous by nature, now she waits. But she is not reconciled; she is distraught, incoherent, illogical. And St. Gregory tells us, in that famous passage, that her yearning is not lessened by delay, but, on the contrary, intensified. In the first instance, she seeks the restoration of her Lord and release from personal grief. Yet, as representative of her race at that moment, she awaits also the redemption of Israel, her own redemption.

“O Israel, hope in the Lord: For with the Lord there is steadfast love and with him is plenteous redemption. And he will redeem Israel from all his iniquities.” (vv 7-8)

The theme of waiting shades into that of hope. Israel hopes, because God’s love is unfailing and persists throughout all the variations of her history. If Israel waits on God, He, too, waits on Israel to turn back to Him. He longs to cover her sins. He has, says the Ps. commentary, “an inherent inclination to forgive, to keep his covenant promises.” The psalm is less dry. Copiosa apud eum redemptio. God’s Heart is always open; He does not do things sparingly, even if He sometimes does them gradually. Not one devil was cast out of the Magdalen but seven. She sinned much; she loved much; she was redeemed utterly. God will redeem repentant Israel from all her iniquities. The copious anointing for burial is rewarded by the lavish promise of perennial renown; her faithfulness to the end, to the foot of the Cross, by a personal Resurrection appearance and entrustment of the annunciation of his Ascension to the Apostles. Hence, she announces another anointing: that of the Son in sinu Patris after his work on earth. Finally, no doubt present in the cenacle at Pentecost, she receives, along with the Mother of the Lord and the other disciples, the copious outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

                The Magdalen is always being led on into the depths, not of despair any longer, but of the mystery of the triune God. Even the end which tradition assigns her reflects this. During a persecution by the Jews, the family of Bethany is said to have been put on a ship without sails or rudder and set adrift on the ocean. This could be an image of her life before conversion, but also, in a different sense, of her new life as redeemed sinner. The deep currents, unseen but felt, to which she must entrust herself, no longer threaten to overwhelm. She is no more morally and spiritually without moorings but harboured by a loving Providence; and if she appears to be at the mercy of exterior forces of wind and waves, she is held inwardly at the most profound level of her being.

                It is said, further, that after the ship landed miraculously on the shore of Provence, she ended her life in penance and contemplation in the solitude of the grotto of La Sainte Baumes. As in the psalm, the final note of her life is faith, hope and gratitude in contemplative waiting on God.

“Wait, O Israel, for the Lord, for with the Lord is steadfast kindness and great redemption is with Him.”[4]

[1] Waltke et al.

[2] Cf. Guardini, ‘Meaning of Melancholy’.

[3] Robert Alter, ‘The Psalms’.

[4] ibid.

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