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.
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
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.
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”, 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
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:
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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.”