A message from Father Nick 79

“A humbled, contrite heart you will not spurn”

Our rite of baptism includes an option called the “EPHPHATHA”, based on one of Jesus’ healing miracles. In a rather lovely addition to the ceremony, even quite tiny infants have their ears and mouth blessed in readiness for hearing and speaking – and singing – the word of God.

But Scripture is produced by human beings too. At one time it was believed that the first five books of the Hebrew Bible were written by Moses (although the book of Deuteronomy describes his death). Solomon was credited with writing the so-called Wisdom books. And David was thought to have composed the 150 psalms. (He might well have written some of them.)

In fact, the psalms are a neglected treasure, and they have an extra, musical, dimension. Even at mass, the responsorial psalm is not properly a “reading”. Like the Alleluia verse, it is meant to be sung – the very name, “psalm”, refers to a plucking of strings. When we share these ancient songs, we are offering our heart to God.

There are different kinds of psalm: psalms of praise and lament and thanksgiving; royal psalms, “wisdom” psalms, psalms of the community… They come from deep inside the singer and they express a whole range of emotions. This, more than anything, establishes their link with David.

David plays a kind of lyre, and dances in spiritual ecstasy. He is the original “messiah”: a shepherd-king completely unashamed about his love for God. His name is mentioned more than any other name in Scripture – Jesus himself is referred to as the “Son of David”.

Yet David is also a sinner, as his treatment of Bathsheba and Uriah makes painfully clear, and his name has been attached to a famous psalm of repentance. Psalm 51 is often called the “Miserere” from its opening word in Latin: “Have mercy…”  The psalmist is acknowledging his guilt, begging God to forgive him.
“Have mercy on me, God, in your kindness.
In your compassion blot out my offence.
O wash me more and more from my guilt
and cleanse me from my sin.”

So it continues, verse after verse, combining penitence with trust in God’s mercy. (It featured in the Yom Kippur service some of us attended last week).

And of course, as a psalm, the Miserere has a musical history too. It can be chanted like other psalms, but in 1638, a member of the Sistine Chapel choir, Gregorio Allegri, composed a new setting of it for Holy Week. Allegri’s composition was so beautiful that the pope forbade anyone to transcribe it, on pain of excommunication. The hope was to preserve its special mystery, and for over 100 years Allegri’s Miserere remained a “secret”.

In 1770, however, the fourteen-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart came to Rome with his father. After visiting the Sistine Chapel, he wrote down the whole piece from memory in a blaze of Mozartian genius. Later still, in 1831, Felix Mendelssohn made his own transcription from a version that was set much higher. Finally, in 1880, when Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians was being compiled, a small passage of Mendelssohn’s transcription was accidentally grafted onto the earlier version – giving us that ethereal and haunting top C sound we know so well today. Allegri’s Miserere has grown into a pinnacle of music – and of prayer.