My first encounter with the Latin version of Psalm 51, the Miserere, was in in Rumer Goden's In This House of Brede. Novice Phillipa is advised to use its recitation to keep the time for her weekly penance, with the admonition that it "may not be drawn out!" Earlier this week Kathryn of Good in Parts exulted in this ancient setting of the Miserere. Allegri's version of the classic psalm of penitence is not only drawn out, but quite thoroughly embellished!
Have mercy on me, God, in your kindness; In your compassion, blot out my offense.This psalm certainly evokes a deep sense of our own sinfulness, and longing for forgiveness. It is a "dangerous mirror of grace,"
for my offenses truly I know them, and my sin is always before meYet for years I have found profound healing and great hope in this psalm. The day after my first husband's death was Good Friday, and I begged my mother to let me go into my office at the college, with the unspoken hope that my breviary - which had been in the briefcase I'd abandoned in the initial chaos two nights before would be there. It was, and I opened it to let the Miserere give voice to my plea for healing, that the bones you have crushed may revive.
This setting is truly a capella ("in the chapel"), it dates to the early 1500s, when it was used at Matins of Holy Week in the Sistine Chapel. Eventually it was forbidden under pain of excommunication to release the score (an early attempt at stemming music piracy?). Apparently, the music's beauty was enough to tempt many to help it escape Vatican confines. A teen-aged Mozart, visiting Rome during Holy Week, transcribed the piece and brought it back to Vienna, and not long thereafter it was widely available. The original 1514 composition is lost to time, but Allegri's ornamented version from 1638 still draws us into the mystery of God's compassion.
May you be sustained this week against all temptations...
Restore my joy in your salvation; sustain in me a willing spirit.
Read more about mirrors of sin and grace in Walter Wangerin's "In Mirrors" in the March RGBP book selection, Bread and Wine.
In two weeks I will be leading a discussion on RGBP's February's book - An Infinity of Little Hours - and DVD - Into Great Silence . What do the attempts of five young men to live the difficult life of Carthusian monks - a life of utter simplicity, steeped in medieval traditions - have to teach us, women and men, living in the noise and plenty of the modern world? What can we hear in their silence? Watch the movie or read the book and join us on February 25 as we weave words around silence.