Dame Maria Boulding OSB wrote out of deep scholarship, alert self-awareness, and perceptive compassion about human hopes and failings, and all this informed by a lifetime of obedience within a Benedictine community. I treasure her books. During Lent I've made my way slowly through her last book, written as she endured painful terminal illness, within the loving support of her community.
Gateway to Resurrection is a gentle reaffirmation of fundamental Christian beliefs centred on God's coming in Jesus, and the ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. As a world class scholar and translator of Augustine, and as one who has reflected and practised the Rule of Benedict for a lifetime, she offers us a rich weaving together of her own experience, Benedictine spirituality, the biblical riches of Augustine's Expositions of the Psalms and the psychological narrative of his Confessions. But this is spiritual writing that is humble yet assured, accessible but utterly unpatronising, full of faith without for a moment encouraging uncritical piety or unthinking assertion in the face of disturbing questions - doubt too, has its place in our journey to God.
She is spiritually shrewd on the vexed question of what we do with some of the cursing Psalms - for example, how does a Christian pray, 'O God break the teeth in their mouths'. (Mind you I guess some of us, some of the time, know perfectly well how to pray a line like that!). But to pray for the extermination of our enemies children, and to wish those we hate dead and their children orphans - hard to reconcile prayers like that with the Sermon on the Mount. Her answer is profoundly theological, based on taking the humanity and divinity of Jesus with equal and utmost seriousness:
When the Word of God, the Son of God, became man, he was not man in some abstract sense, but a man of a particular race, culture and time. What the instinctive Jewish response to injustice, cruelty or hatred were like, we hear in many of the cursing Psalms. Jesus was personally sinless, and his response sprang from love, but because he came in the loikeness of sinful flesh and to deal with sin (Rom 8.3), he took up all our passionate responses into the raw material of his prayer, as he also took the flesh of Israel as the raw material of his sacrifice. We may find it possible as we pray these psalms simply to be with Christ in his Passion, as he assumes all these shouts of rage and despair, all these raw demands for vengeance, and transforms them: 'Father forgive them, for they know not what they do'.
At least we can be sure of two things about these psalms: first, that the sweet singers of Israel were rithlessly honest before God, and never thought that anything that was important to them was unsuitable to mention in his presence; second, that there are pre-Christian and non-Christian elements in ourselves that may benefot from exposure to God in prayer.
Over the years I've read so many commentaries and theologies that wrestle with the imprecatory psalms. Here at last is a suggestion that is profoundly Christian because deeply rooted in a full and practised Christology. That our worst thoughts can become our most honest prayers, and be redeemed by being caught up into the Passion of God in Christ, and our darkest places flooded with resurrection light, and that these our most destructive responses are drawn into the eternal life-giving love of the Triune God - that's a thought worth pondering, and a way worth trying to walk, starting this Holy Week.